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California Animal Tour: 10 Best CA Zoos, Aquariums & More

| Updated May 31, 2023

California is known for its beaches and amusement parks, but it’s also home to fantastic animal experiences. I’m going to take you on a California animal tour beyond the San Diego Zoo, from the best CA zoos to wild experiences…

The San Diego Zoo is a world-renown zoo that, along with the SD Wild Animal Park, deserves the recognition it receives. However, it only scratches the surface of the variety of animals you can see in California, both in conservation parks and in the wild.

So, I’m going to assume you already know that the San Diego Zoo is worth visiting. Instead, I’ll focus on the lesser-known places in California where you can see and learn about animals.

Let’s jump right in because there’s plenty to cover!

The Best CA Zoos, Aquariums & More!

I know us RVers enjoy seeing animals in the wild more than anything. But the beautiful wilds of our country are only home to so many species. Many of which you’ll rarely (if ever) see. 

Sometimes, it’s nice to see more animals up close and learn about the conservation efforts working to protect them. I have a deep respect for the animal ambassadors in zoos, aquariums, and preserves that are spreading awareness for their wild brethren. 

I am also very grateful for the huge ethical strides that the best CA zoos and aquariums are making to provide their animal ambassadors with the best life possible. There’s still a ways to go, but the continuous improvements are very apparent. That’s why every destination on this list is known for its compassion for animals.

1. Fresno Chaffee Zoo

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo is a perfect example of creating habitats for their animals, not cages. For over a decade now, the zoo has been continuously upgrading its small park in BIG ways. Even though it's much smaller than the San Diego zoo, it's undoubtedly one of the best CA zoos.

Their biggest accomplishment thus far is the African Adventure. This 13-acre expansion features African elephants, lions, cheetahs, white rhinos, giraffes, and ostriches. The open habitat makes it appear that the animals are mixed together, but clever architectural and landscape designs separate them.

Sea Lion Cove is also an impressive improvement. Less than 20 years ago, these sea lions were confined to a small round-about pool. Now, they have a deep, expansive pool to swim and play in. Visitors get to watch them frolic from several viewpoints, including an underwater viewing area.

Fresno Chafee Zoo is opening their long-awaited Kingdoms of Asia in early 2023 with expansive enclosures for their primates, sloth bears, and some new species.

This relatively small zoo is a hidden gem not far from Yosemite National Park. Anyone who visits Yosemite should make a point to go to this zoo.

PSST! While you're in Fresno, be sure to check out the unique Underground Gardens.

2. Project Survival Cat Haven

Speaking of Yosemite, there is another animal destination that is worth visiting while you’re in the area. Project Survival Cat Haven was founded in 1993 to help protect some of the rarest cats in the world. 

It’s not a large park (you can walk through in 1.5 hours) but you can meet 25 cats up close. The preserve also offers daily tours to further introduce you to their cats and conservation efforts.

It’s located on 93 acres just west of King’s Canyon National Park, known for its giant sequoia redwood trees.  So you can see big cats and big trees all in one day.

3. Safari West

Located in wine country, this wild animal park is known as “The Sonoma Serengeti.” Like Cat Haven, this park opened in 1993. Since then, it has pursued its “three critical goals: conservation, education, and exploration.”

Visitors can go on a safari in a day or stay overnight in safari glamping. Falling asleep to the sounds of the African wilds is as good a reason as any to leave your RV for the night. 

Plus, they offer an incredible dining experience inspired by a South African tradition called braii.

Mike and Jennifer's Summer T-Shirts for your next adventure

California Animal Tour: 10 Best CA Zoos, Aquariums & More 1
Your Adventure Awaits! New colors and designs are waiting for you.

4. The West Coast Falconry

Bird-lovers can have a unique falconry experience just north of Sacramento, California. The West Coast Falconry promotes “preservation through education,” offering more than a dozen different experiences to choose from.

You can take a basic falconry lesson, encounter all kinds of raptors, or enjoy a pleasant nature excursion. There are excursions for all ages, though most are 7+.

5. Lions, Tigers & Bears

Not far from the world-famous San Diego Zoo is a big cat and exotic animal rescue called Lions, Tigers & Bears. It will certainly have you saying “Oh my” as you go on a 2-hour guided educational visit of the sanctuary and animal habitats.

It’s home to more than 60 animals of 19 species. You can upgrade your tour to feed one or all of the animals you meet. All visits are by reservation only, so be sure to book ahead.

6. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay is perhaps as famous as the San Diego Zoo, but many non-Westerners may not know about it.

It’s an incredible nonprofit public aquarium known for its regional focus on the marine habitats of Monterey Bay. The marine exhibits are just part of what they do.

Their scientists are rebuilding sea otter populations, transforming fishers and aquaculture around the world, and working to protect California’s ocean.

Located right on the California Coast, it’s the perfect stop on a scenic Highway 1 tour of California.

7. Elephant Seal Vista Point

Farther south on scenic highway 1 is a chance to see unusual creatures in the wild: elephant seals! These big-snouted seals lounge, bark, and sometimes fight on the beach within easy view of the public.

In fact, the Piedras Blancas Rookery is the only elephant seal rookery in the world that is easily accessible, free, and open to the public all year long. No reservation is needed and even RV’s can drive right up and park to see the animals.

8. Aquarium of the Pacific

The Aquarium of the Pacific gives the Monterey Bay Aquarium a run for its money. It’s a 5-acre site on Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach, California. 

It has beautiful exhibits, including a shark lagoon and a fun penguin habitat. The aquarium hosts a lot of unique educational programming, including guest speakers, art and science events, responsible seafood initiatives, and more.

As a bonus, it’s located right across from the famous Queen Mary; the iconic ship turned tourist destination.

9. The Catalina Island Bison

People travel from all over the world to see bison in Yellowstone, but you can actually see them within a short boat ride of LAX. Yes, a boat ride.

There is a herd of wild bison on the small Catalina Island off the coast of California. How on earth did bison get on an island? It’s believed that Hollywood is to blame.

The story goes that a film crew brought the bison to the island to capture scenes of the American West for either The Vanishing American or The Thundering Herd. Once filming was done, they apparently left the bison there to roam freely. 

10. Capt. Dave’s Dana Point Whale & Dolphin Watching Safari

Sometimes to have the best animal experience, you have to leave the land. And California is known for its front-row seat to the Pacific Ocean.

While there are many whale watching tours available in California, the Dana Point Eco-Safari is known as one of the best. It runs year-round to look for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and more.

As you cruise, a naturalist tells you all about the sea creatures, their lifestyles, their natural habitats, and what’s being done to protect them. 

The catamaran is purpose-built to give you the best experience, including an underwater viewing pod!

Our Favorite California National Parks

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When Jennifer and I travel to the southwest, we are continually amazed at the majesty and beauty this country has to offer. And it's really hard to stay in just one state! So we created this Bundle for you in case you like to travel as we do. 

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Mike Wendland

Published on 2022-09-02

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

4 Responses to “California Animal Tour: 10 Best CA Zoos, Aquariums & More”

May 12, 2023at11:06 am, linda gomoll said:

Next time you are in the Coachella Valley, stop by The Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA. Most visitors love this scaled down version zoo and you will have an opportunity to see species from Africa, Australia, and the US Southwest. Hint: try and come October-April, before temps can rise to 100+ during the day.


May 13, 2023at7:54 am, Team RV Lifestyle said:

Thanks for adding this to the list! Team RV Lifestyle


September 02, 2022at11:27 am, Vickie Sweitzer said:

Thanks for promoting these great places. It must have been hard to choose as there are many more. In my area we also have the Santa Barbara Zoo (a family friendly zoo along the coast), America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College (open only on weekends but it is the premiere international program for training animal trainers), and the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita (a very unique experience!)


September 03, 2022at9:35 am, Team RV Lifestyle said:

Thank you, Vickie, for adding to our list and for the encouraging note — Team RV Lifestyle


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