Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange is a real New Jersey treasure—it’s family-friendly, budget-friendly, and committed to wildlife education and preservation, making it one of the top attractions in NJ. It’s also a nostalgic spot for me, having gone there as a child, and now able to take my own family. Known as one of the best zoos in NJ, Turtle Back Zoo is home to over 1,400 animals from every continent (except Antarctica). The good news is everyone’s favorite NJ zoo is open year-round (weather permitting) and following all COVID-19 protocols, including timed entry, limited capacity, ample hand-sanitizing stations, and even thoroughly sanitizing their beloved train every 2 hours. Want more NJ zoo fun? Be sure to check out our list of zoos in NJ and petting zoos in NJ for more live animal fun.
Featured image via @dani_ela_mg
Here’s how to spend your day at Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey
If your kids are anything like mine, you must start with a train ride. Upon entering the park, keep to the right and get ready to board an old-fashioned choo-choo. It takes you along the waterfront, past the giraffes, through beautiful foliage and the striking pond in the South Mountain Recreation Complex (fun fact—it’s part of the Essex County Park System, which is the oldest county park system in the country). It’s a great way to relax and plan your next moves through the 22 exhibits.
Giraffes, lions and big cats reign at Turtle Back Zoo
After your train ride, head to see the fan-favorite, majestic giraffes in the newer African Adventure area. Here, Masai giraffes roam and relax, surrounded by other friends, including majestic lions and entertaining hyenas. Be sure to see The Shores of Africa, an indoor space where you can watch penguins splash and swim while you cool off in the AC, too.
Amazing Asia is another must-see exhibit, home to two scarce species — the Amur leopard and Red Panda. Snow leopards and adorable gibbon apes also call this exhibit home. Next, get ready to roar as you head on over to Big Cat Country, where jaguars and cougars roam throughout their 7,500 square foot habitat that’s also a breeding area. Chances are you’ll spot them hanging out by the window since there are heated rocks adjacent to the large glass windows and viewing areas. You may also see them taking a dip on the jaguar pool.
Old McDonald has a farm at Turtleback Zoo, too
Aside from the exotic animals from across the world, Turtle Back Zoo is also home to Essex Farm. With pigs, horses, goats, and sheep, Essex Farms is an idyllic farmhouse come true. The storybook barn is where your farm-loving littles will want to spend a long time, peeking into each stall. Though the feeding area and pony rides are currently closed, it’s still a must-see.
Under the Sea and Reptiles
You aren’t able to reach out and touch the stingrays right now, but the Stingray touch tank is still worthwhile. It’s a welcome break from the heat and an excellent way to see the sea up close. A line outside guarantees social distancing inside, so you can rest assured your family won’t be near anyone else.
Another popular attraction, the reptile house, is home to the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard. Inside, you find creepy, crawly beings like the Taveta golden weavers, a green tree boa, and yellow poison dart frogs. But don’t worry—they’re all behind glass so littles (and you) can view from afar.
Bears, Wolves and Sea Lions
After, head on over to the Black Bear exhibit and the Wolf Woods to see these gorgeous friends up close. The Wolf Woods offers many different vantage points to take in the majestic wolves within their naturalistic setting. At the Black Bear exhibit, you can watch twin sisters Jelly and Jam from a cute little house. They climb, swim, and play in their wooded enclosure while sharing their exhibit with a beautiful red fox.
Finally, take a stroll to the sea lion sound exhibit right near the Penguin Coast. There you’ll see an 82,000-gallon pool that’s home to sweet, sunbathing sea lions in all their glory. You can watch them underwater or from above at the “beach” as they play, yell, swim, and soak.
Take a spin on the Turtleback Zoo Carousel
The train ride isn’t the only moving attraction at Turtle Back Zoo. The colorful carousel, nestled in a beautiful gazebo, and currently has certain animals blocked off to ensure proper social distancing. For another fun spot, the dinosaur-themed Prehistoric Playground within the zoo will allow your littles to climb, slide and even pretend they’re a groundhog in the underground tunnels—and ensuring a nice car-nap on the way home.
If you’ve still got energy, stop by the miniature golf course. The Mini Golf Safari is an award-winning 19-hole mini-golf course within the zoo and recreation complex. Admission is separate from the zoo ($12 for adults, $10 for children), and they require masks.
What to Know Before You Visit Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange
Admission to Turtle Back Zoo is $17 for adults, $12 for children, and babies under 2 are free. Parking is also free, and there’s ample space in the garages and street-level lots. You can bring your lunch and snacks, or opt to purchase take out from the cafeteria and enjoy sweet treats like delicious shaved ice from a kiosk near the train ride.
It will take about 2 hours to see everything the zoo has to offer. Just don’t forget to bring your mask, sunscreen, and keep a friendly social distance from others. Oh, and I always wear sneakers, because the steep hills are not very flip-flop friendly.
Fall and Winter events at the Turtle Back Zoo
The zoo isn’t just a one-season visit: During the winter, be sure to check out the fantastic Turtle Back Zoo Lights Show. And there are always a ton of Turtle Back Zoo events happening all year round, so for more information and family-friendly activities, click on #NJMOM’s guides to having fun there in the winter and the spring.
Turtle Back Zoo
560 Northfield Avenue
West Orange, NJ 07052