Little Zoos In America That Are Extremely Underrated, According To Visitors

Some of the zoos in the United States have earned worldwide acclaim. Who doesn't go to San Diego without stopping at the zoological park? Or, when in Southwestern Ohio, take time for a sojourn to the Cincinnati Zoo? The extensive, carefully designed facilities pull in crowds year-round — the San Diego Zoo regularly welcomes more than four million visitors per annum — wowing audiences with a wide array of animals. However, some of the bigger zoos, despite their stature and following, can overwhelm guests.


Families visiting with young kinds may find large zoos especially difficult to navigate. With toddlers in tow, getting around a huge animal park can create a logistical nightmare and a recipe for disaster. It's also a lot to ask of a small child, expecting them to walk for miles and keep their focus and attention rapt for hours on end. Little zoos are much more manageable places to spend a few hours and see some animals. They're also often more affordable. Luckily for travelers, many of the hundreds of zoos around the country span less than 50 acres. We've found some of the best and most underrated options based on reviews from actual visitors.

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo - Gulf Shores, Alabama

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, a small non-profit enterprise surprisingly big on exhibits, spreads across 25 acres of the town of Gulf Shores. While the town has a reputation as a beach getaway, the zoo sits a few miles inland. It feels like a world away from coastal life, with peacocks and monkeys taking guests to distant lands. A visitor, posting on Google, wrote, "We loved our visit! Such an affordable option for a zoo. Plenty of animals to see. Loved how close you get to all of them. Very clean and tidy."


You'll find around 200 species of animals, eight of them endangered, at Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Animal encounters, during which visitors can get close to the resident kangaroos, lemurs, sloths, and giraffes, number among the highlights of any visit. Creatures run the gamut from small to large, ranging from multi-colored parrots and soft rabbits to furry llamas and scaly lizards. Guests can also see alligators, a locally native creature — alligator-infested waters travelers should avoid are scattered across Alabama. Endangered and vulnerable species at visitors can view include Bengal tigers, tortoises, and black-headed spider monkeys.

Alaska Zoo - Anchorage, Alaska

Writing on Google, an Alaska Zoo visitor said, "What a cute zoo. It's so little yet so much! I didn't count on seeing many animals due to all the snow but we ended up being able to visit many and they were awake and alert! The polar bear was a dream and the sea lion was putting on his own show." The zoo is located in Anchorage, the largest city in America's most northern state, and a territory that has the perfect destination for wilderness lovers. A non-profit, the zoo opened in 1969 and fills 28 acres of forest in the Chugach Mountains.


Guests can indeed see a polar bear in the state they call home at Alaska Zoo. Moreover, they can have a closer encounter with these creatures by signing up for a VIP tour — an option for those who want to take their experience up a notch. Other choices include the opportunity to feed animals face-to-face or a special tour behind the scenes to get a handle on the inner workings of the zoo. During the summer, when the sun barely sets, the zoo stays open until 8 p.m. The site has a natural feel to it, with gravel paths weaving through the forest to connect different exhibits. Expect to spot wolverines, moose, snow leopards, brown bears, caribou, and harbor seals.

Big Bear Alpine Zoo at Moonridge - Big Bear Lake, California

Opened in 1959, Big Bear Alpine Zoo at Moonridge moved into new premises in 2020. Set up to help rescued and orphaned animals, the zoo cares for the creatures before returning them to the wild. The non-profit business can trace its origins to a wildfire in the San Bernardino National Forest more than 60 years ago, when it began caring for injured animals, starting with bobcats and a black bear. These days, travelers can see a wide range of animals at the facility, some of which are iconic fixtures of American culture. For another iconic experience in California, add one of the most unique beaches in the country to your itinerary.


Visitors can wander the zoo and see bald eagles, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and coyotes. They'll also find other, cuter critters on view, from tiny hedgehogs to snowy owls. One guest, commenting on Tripadvisor, opined, "A fabulous way to spend an hour or two in Big Bear. Well maintained zoo. You can observe the animals up close, and it's lovely to learn about their stories. They are rescued animals and it's great to see them being so well cared for."

Buttonwood Park Zoo - Bedford, Massachusetts

Despite being a tiny zoo, only 7 acres, Buttonwood Park Zoo has a reach far beyond its borders. It features a live cam where visitors can watch red pandas going about their daily routine, making it great for guests to keep up with the animals after a visit. The array of animals runs the gamut of sizes and species. Wander around, and you can encounter poison dart frogs, an animal you wouldn't want to see in the Amazon rainforest but can comfortably watch here.


The birds at the zoo range from cuckoos and Peruvian pigeons to Australian wood ducks and Brazilian teals. Guests will also be able to see spotted garden eels, large hissing cockroaches from Madagascar, the Asian elephant, turtles and tortoises, and tiny monkeys. Writing on Google, a visitor mentioned, "Beautifully landscaped, well taken care of animals, loved the environment here, no crowds too. The animals were adorable, the nature park was a really cool place to play with the kids."

Central Park Zoo - New York, New. York

Also 7 acres in size, Central Park Zoo is an unknown gem in one of the most famous parks in the country. The park is also the most filmed location in the world. A visitor wrote on Google, "An incredibly tiny zoom but historic and such a treat to have in the park. If you have little ones bring them to the children's zoom which is included in the price of admission to the main zoo." The zoo has quite some history, opening its doors to visitors in this location in 1861, making it one of the earliest zoos in the United States. 


It went through a renovation in the 1980s and is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Kids and adults might enjoy the penguins and daily feedings of sea lions or the chance to pet a goat at the children's zoo. Other highlights for the whole family include the penguins at the Polar Circle exhibit and the snow leopard, a cat that only lives in nature in certain parts of Asia.

Chattanooga Zoo - Chattanooga, Tennessee

Dating to the first half of the 1900s, the Chattanooga Zoo sits on 12 acres following an upgrade at the beginning of the 21st century. Its early days featured simple exhibits with monkeys, though now the zoo features a large habitat for red pandas. Other animals that visitors can marvel over include snow leopards, cougars, pied tamarins, and giant anteaters. In the summer of 2024, a new enclosure opened featuring African Cape porcupines, warthogs, and servals from Africa. There are about 200 species of animal here.


A guest wrote on Google, "Excellent zoo with a unique variety of animals and reptiles to view. There were some neat birds as well. It was well maintained, all the animals had good enclosures and seemed content." But animal spotting isn't the only attraction of the zoo. For visitors who want to take a break from the creatures, there is a choo-choo train ride that runs through the zoo, and also a carousel that's open whatever the weather.

Cosley Zoo - Wheaton, Illinois

What stands out most, perhaps, about Cosley Zoo, around an hour's drive west of Chicago, is its Lilliputian size. It's a tiny zoo, only 5 acres in size, but it has some longevity, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024. This isn't a park where you'll find grand facilities or exotic species, but it's a fine spot for anyone looking to encounter some animal interaction. A commenter on Tripadvisor noted that it's good for children of all ages. "I went with teenagers who enjoyed it as well but I think it's great for little kids who have a short expiration time!"


There is one main entrance and exit, and it leads right from the parking lot into the zoo. A cafe and play area anchor the exhibits, located in the center of the animals. Around them, visitors will be able to see a barn area with sheep, cows, horses, and donkeys. There are also llamas on display. Other wildlife includes ducks, chickens, raccoons, deer, and lynxes, and there is a garden where bees flutter and pollinate plants.

Erie Zoo - Erie, Pennsylvania

A few miles from the shores of Lake Erie and Presque Island State Park, Erie Zoo spreads across 15 acres of the city of Erie. It's only open for nine months of the year, from March through November, and entry is a very affordable $12 for adults. The layout pleased a recent visitor who posted on Tripadvisor, "This zoo is so easy to walk through. Great selection of animals and well arranged. No problem if you're pushing a wheelchair around, you can still see everything."


The animals are separated by locations, with creatures clumped together based on geography among the methods of organizing the divisions. Wild Asia, for instance, is where guests will be able to see the Bornean orangutan, the red pandas, and the green tree pythons. In the Children's Adventure area, youngsters and their parents can wander around exhibits on African black-footed penguins, American alligators, and beautifully bright rainbow lorikeets.

Orange County Zoo - Orange, California

For families in search of a West Coast destination that won't break the bank, Orange County Zoo fits the bill. It's only 8 acres in size and sits within Irvine Regional Park, but the clincher might be the entry fee of only $2. Writing on Yelp, a visitor declared, "It has such a great amount of animals, a sheep petting area and reptiles section and most animals you get to get real close to them. It is not huge so easy for kids to walk and see."


Set among towering sycamore and oak trees, the zoo has a range of animals on show, but it promises a particular focus on plants from the American Southwest. In terms of wildlife, travelers will be able to see mountain lions, bald eagles, hawks, vultures, coyotes, and black bears, as well as animals native to this part of the country. Younger kids will get a kick out of the barnyard/petting zoo section, where sheep, pigs, and goats can be touched through fences. Some of the animals can even be fed.

Philadelphia Zoo - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Fans of M. Night Shyamalan films might recognize Philadelphia Zoo — it was a location that featured in his 2016 movie "Split." Sitting on 42 acres right in the heart of the City of Brotherly Love, it's not only a place to see animals, but also has fine landscaping. The design recalls a garden from the Victorian era, where paths are flanked and shaded by trees, and sculptures of animals remind visitors of the setting. The country house of William Penn's grandson also sits within the grounds.


Philadelphia Zoo has been described as the first zoo in the country, and visitors today will find more than 1,000 animals within its realm. A Tripadvisor contributor wrote, "From the majestic big cats to the playful primates, there's an incredible variety of animals to see. The zoo's dedication to conservation and education is evident at every turn, and the chance to get up close to some animals is a real treat, especially for kids." You can look forward to seeing rhinos at African Plains, lions at Big Cat Falls, flamingos at Bird Valley, and large tortoises from the Galápagos — an island chain with many unique animals — at the Reptile and Amphibian House.

Prospect Park Zoo - Brooklyn, New York

Part of one of Brooklyn's largest parks, and across the road from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park Zoo is a great spot to while away a couple of hours. It reopened in the middle of 2024 following a huge flood in September 2023 that ravaged its boilers and HVAC systems. On Tripadvisor, a reviewer noted, "Whereas most zoos create an atmosphere of a little bubble in its own world, Prospect Park Zoo felt like...well, Prospect Park! It was as though my friend and I (both 18 years old, by the way) had just by chance seen seals during our stroll through the park! I got to be very close to the animals-great, one-on-one feel!" 


Prospect Park Zoo extends across 14 acres of the park, first opening there in 1935. Tourists can come to see about 150 species of animals, ranging from red pandas and dingoes to sea lions that have viewable training sessions during the day throughout the year. The Barn and Garden area recreates the experience of being on a farm.

Reid Park Zoo - Tucson, Arizona

Visit Reid Park Zoo during June and July, when the mercury tends to rise in Arizona, and tickets on Tuesdays are only $3 for adults. Even outside the reasonably priced window, the Tucson zoo makes for a good adventure. A guest wrote on Tripadvisor, "We visited one morning in April, and had a blast seeing all of the animals. It's not a huge zoo, but it has nice wide walking paths, very clean, plus all of the cool animals. Lion, jaguar, bears, elephants, and so much more!"


The variety of animals that live there is certainly impressive. Guests can peer at sloths with their simple, gentle faces or squirrel monkeys that have yellow fur on their forearms. Visitors who prefer to see larger, more intimidating creatures won't lack for choice. The zoo is home to grizzly bears, African elephants, giraffes, and strong, stocky rhinos. For a special treat, travelers can opt to feed a giraffe, have a personal encounter with a lizard or snake, or even get married here.

Roosevelt Park Zoo - Minot, North Dakota

A reviewer commenting on Google sums up the experience of visiting Roosevelt Park Zoo in the middle section of North Dakota. "It is a small zoo, but you can easily burn 2 hours looking at all the amazing animals and birds. The park was well kept and staff were friendly ... Definitely family friendly and worth the visit." Roosevelt Park Zoo unfurls across 22 acres of Minot and features animals from six continents. Warthogs and penguins from Africa are a short walk away from lions and zebras.


Elsewhere, visitors will be able to wander around and find alpacas from South America, tigers from Asia, kangaroos from Australia, cattle from the highlands of Europe, and wolves from North America. Perhaps one of the less familiar animals here is the Japanese serow, a herbivore that resembles a goat and lives on the rocky slopes of mountains. The bright blue feathers of the Blue Bellied Roller, which is native to Central Africa, are quite a sight.

How we chose the underrated small zoos

While it's hard to come up with the exact number of zoos in the United States, there are certainly a few hundred. For those mentioned here, we zeroed in on any 50 acres or less in size. While not everyone will agree with the practice of keeping animals in zoos — a valid viewpoint — those who like to visit these places will want to have a pleasurable experience. That's why we only included zoos that scored 80% or higher in overall reviews, whether on Yelp, Tripadvisor, or Google. We also opted to exclude drive-through safaris or zoos since these often lack the intimacy or personal touch that a small zoo can offer.