Kids with reptile at Minnesota Zoo

Connect With Wildlife at These Minnesota Zoos

Scroll to Read
Image Caption
Get up close and personal with reptiles and other animals at the Minnesota Zoo / Minnesota Zoo

Connect With Wildlife at These Minnesota Zoos

By Greta Alms

Feed an otter, ride a camel, take a selfie with a llama! However you like to explore, the animals and experiences you’ll discover at these Minnesota zoos will surprise and delight your whole family.

From mammoth-sized zoos in the Twin Cities to more intimate offerings in greater Minnesota, here are five fun and educational zoos ideal for your next family outing.

Como Zoo gorilla

Gorilla, Como Zoo / Robert Ferdinandt

Como Park Zoo, St. Paul

One of the last free zoos in the United States, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is a must-stop destination for families visiting the Twin Cities. In fact, it’s the most-visited attraction in St. Paul! You can easily spend an entire day exploring this combination zoo, conservatory and amusement park.

Como Zoo is home to a wide array of indoor and outdoor exhibits, featuring animals like reindeer, lions, bison and more. The cold-weather habitats are particularly popular for their beautiful artic foxes, snow leopards and twin polar bears, Buzz and Neil.

Exterior of Como Conservatory and the Centennial Garden

The Como Conservatory's Centennial Garden is a stylized nod to traditional European landscape gardens / Visit Saint Paul

After you’re done exploring the zoo, head next door to the adjacent Marjorie McNeely Conservatory to bask in the Twin Cities’ foremost botanical garden. This stunning, indoor-outdoor conservatory houses thousands of beautiful plants across a variety of themed gardens. The Tropical Encounters exhibit is particularly noteworthy, as it combines the plant and animal worlds into one fully immersive experience.

Finally, be sure to check out the family-friendly amusement park, Como Town, before calling it a day. The park is designed for kids ages 2-12 and features more than 18 rides including a zip line, splash zone, tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars and more.

Hemker Zoo, Freeport

Founded as a humble game farm near St. Cloud by Mark and Joan Hemker in 1977, these days Hemker Park and Zoo is home to over 50 species and 200 animals from across the globe.

In addition to its standard visit, Hemker also offers a variety of interactive “close encounters” for an additional fee. You can feed a giraffe, otter or rhino; cuddle up with Cookie the boa constrictor; meet a 2-foot American alligator; or even pet Ruby the penguin!

Bring your own food and end the day with a picnic on the park grounds, or head down to Freeport for a meal at Charlie’s Cafe and dessert from Oak Station Coffee & Cone.

Lake Superior Zoo, Duluth

Northeast Minnesota is home to some of the state’s most renowned wilderness areas, but the region’s wildest place to explore may actually be the Lake Superior Zoo. Home to over 400 animals and 200 different species including North American gray wolves, Flemish giant rabbit and brown bears, the zoo prides itself on providing close-up animal experiences in a naturally picturesque location.

Meet wallabies, kangaroos, reptiles and exotic birds from down under while wandering the Australia and Oceania exhibit. Or check out the Asian Caravan exhibit for a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard, Amur tiger and other endangered species native to the continent’s dense forests and mountains.

Lake Superior Zoo also offers behind-the-scenes tours for visitors seeking an even more intimate experience. Standout tours include the Carnivore Training Tour, which gets you up close and personal with some of the zoo’s big cats, and the Primate or Owl Painting Tour, which lets you watch a tamarin, monkey or owl create a unique piece of iPad art (and take a copy home for yourself!). 

Minnesota Zoo, Apple Valley

Home to over 500 species and nearly 5,000 animals, Minnesota Zoo is the largest and most immersive zoo in the state. But don't worry; navigating the massive, 485-acre campus is easy thanks to the zoo’s nine distinct walking trails and indoor exhibits. Each trail/exhibit focuses on a different landscape, featured biome and collection of critters.

Examples include the wintery Northern Trail, which focuses on animals most at home in snow-covered climates such as American bison, moose and plenty of woodland caribou; the lush Tropics Trail where you can meet playful lemurs, red pandas and other rainforest creatures; and Russia’s Grizzly Coast, where you can meet the zoo’s three resident brown bears, Sadie, Haines and Kenai.

Minnesota Zoo is also an essential part of the state’s ongoing animal conservation efforts, with special programs dedicated to saving Minnesota’s prairie butterflies, restoring the American plains bison population and conserving our freshwater turtles.

Zollman Zoo, Byron

As one of the smallest zoos in Minnesota, what Zollman Zoo lacks in size it makes up in heart: Nearly all of the zoo’s animals are unfit for release into the wild due to injuries, but Zollman gives them a loving home where they can mend up while providing fun learning opportunities to visitors.

While other zoos focus on exotic animals from all over the world, the Zollman Zoo focuses on animals native to Minnesota. Its indigenous collection spans over 30 species including eagles, badgers, foxes and a variety of reptiles. Across the road from the zoo’s main exhibit, the Gordon Yeager Memorial Area houses large hoofed animals such as bison, elk and white-tailed deer.

And if you’ve ever dreamed of sleeping at the zoo, you’ll be happy to learn the adjoining Oxbow Park is home to 30 campgrounds available on a first-come, first-served basis. The park is also home to over 10 miles of natural hiking trails that traverse rolling prairie and wooded hills. 

More Minnesota Zoos & Aquariums

From reptile-specific discovery centers to a full-blown aquarium at Mall of America, you can get up close and personal with wildlife in nearly every corner of Minnesota. Browse through all of Minnesota's zoos and aquariums and start planning your visit today.

Greta Alms

Greta Alms is a  pickle-eating, travel-loving, Spanish-speaking, Foodie, and mama of 2 plus the best fur baby traveler ever. Lover of slow travel and stopping to smell the roses (or pick morel mushrooms). Sustainable travel, leave no trace and buying used whenever possible are her life goals. Nothing beats a full spread, good afternoon tea after a morning's adventure!