What kid isn’t wowed by majestic giraffes, vibrant flamingoes, and swinging monkeys? With a chance to see all those wild creatures and more, a trip to Turtle Back Zoo in Essex County is pure family fun. Not only is the zoo chock full of animals to observe, but it’s also manageable enough for this #NJMOM to fly solo on an outing with three little ones. This zoo is a true New Jersey gem and well worth the ride, even if you’re not local to Essex County. Read on to learn about my family’s must-see exhibits and what makes this zoo one of our favorite family destinations. (featured photo credit: @f.a.n.n.y.c.h.a.n)
What we did at Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey
We always start at the flamingo exhibit because my kids like to see the flamingos up close and really check out their unique features. As we made our way over there, a roaming peacock brushed past us, which was super cool, according to the kids (and can make a great photo op). From there, we headed past the restaurant (more on that in a bit) and looked at the prairie dogs. It’s always a prime spot—you can hear kids giggling as they watch the prairie dogs dig and scurry through the glass tunnels.
Giraffes, lions, and big cats reign at Turtle Back Zoo
Perhaps the biggest attraction at the zoo is the newer African Adventure section, where Masai giraffes roam and relax, surrounded by other friends, including majestic lions and entertaining hyenas. There is a giraffe feeding for an additional charge, and it lets you hand feed the giraffes (though no touching or petting is allowed). The giraffe section closes seasonally due to weather conditions, but you will surely see them in warmer temperatures. Afterward, we checked out the lions and hyenas and headed to the Shores of Africa, an indoor space where you can watch African penguins splash and swim.
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. Over in Big Cat Country, jaguars and cougars roam throughout their 7,500-square-foot habitat and breeding area. Chances are you’ll spot them hanging out by the window since heated rocks are adjacent to the large glass windows and viewing areas or taking a dip in the jaguar pool. In Big Cat Country, we adore the incredible friendship between one of the cheetahs, Nandi, and her dog pal Bowie. The two were raised together since they were cubs, are best friends, and can often be seen running and playing games with some zoo trainers.
Old McDonald has a farm at Turtleback Zoo too.
Aside from the exotic animals, 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 has indoor stalls where littles can spend a long time peeking into each and feeling like they are truly at a farm. My kids are also fans of feeding the goats—you put coins into the stations near the pen and fill up a cone of grain to pet and feed them. After you spend quality time at the farm (some kids want to be here all day), be sure to check out the wooden pavilion at the edge of the hill where littles can giddy up and ride a pony around a walking trail loop.
Under the sea
The touch tank is another fan favorite of my crew, perhaps because you can touch and also feed the stingrays. The 1600-gallon tank holds sharks, too (though you don’t pet those), and the kids were thrilled to see the rays glide by, but their slippery skins and sleek moves were faster than my kids could put out their hands. They gently touched a few and then watched the baby sharks speed through the tank. Next, we walked out of the building and caught the playful sea lions taking nosedives around their huge glass pool, designed to look like a natural habitat. My kids were mesmerized by watching the sea lions swimming underwater, and I realized this was a very good spot to take a calming, meditative break.
The sea lions were a great spot to hang out and relax.
Take a ride on the Carousel or Train
We never leave without a ride on the Zoo Train, a miniature old-fashioned train that has tracks along the water of the beautiful South Mountain Reservation. The train is always a hit, giving you a little downtime from all the walking. The train leaves approximately every 15 minutes from the station, is wheelchair accessible, and is free. The line can sometimes get a bit long, but part of the waiting area is shaded and moves quickly.
On the other side of the zoo, the Endangered Species Carousel is another popular attraction and a great way to get shade. Your kids will have the choice of riding on a beautifully painted panda, alligator, tiger, or one of 30 other rare creatures featured on the carousel that was custom-built for Turtle Back Zoo. Admission costs $2 per ride.
Other animal exhibits
You can see all the animal exhibits in one day, depending on how long your kids last. We were ready to go, but my daughter didn’t want to leave without a peek at the black bears. They are usually snoozing, but you can get a pretty good look, and on this visit, we were amazed to see two of the big bears snuggled up by the glass. It was really neat for the kids to see their massive size so closely. This trip was short, but other times we’ve stopped by the Reptile House, where my kids are enthralled to see the snakes and giant kimono dragon, who, according to my son, resembles a mini dinosaur. Others we like are the Australian exhibit with kangaroos and emus and the Butterfly tent, where you can walk through and marvel at over 700 amazing and vibrant specimens.
Fun at the Turtle Back Zoo any season
The zoo is open year-round, but some exhibits are closed for winter. What’s great is that there are many special activities throughout the year, like Spooky Storytime and Safe Halloween in October. In December, the zoo goes out all with the Holiday Lights Spectacular, where you take an evening stroll among the light displays and stop by to have a s’more. Not all the exhibits are open, but kids can ride the carousel, take a pony ride, feed barnyard friends, and visit Santa. Beyond the holiday events are also weekly educational programs like Storytime, Nature Club, Night Moves, Science Seminars, Wonders of the Wild, Conservation Education, and camps in the summer.
What to know before you visit Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange
The zoo is hilly but laid out into basically a giant circle, so you don’t miss anything as you walk around it. But if you have a mission to see certain animals, the habitat-like exhibits are set in regions, letting you easily pick or choose the areas to hit. If you want a snack or lunch, there’s a full restaurant (with a bar) offering plenty of choices for different appetites and diets and lots of seating scattered throughout. You can bring food in from outside if you want to brown bag it, and there are picnic tables and shaded areas to eat. It’s also a great size and doesn’t feel overwhelming for a half-day visit. We usually spend around two to three hours, but you could easily do more (or less).
Parking is plentiful, with a large parking deck right on site that’s free. You can buy tickets online or at the door and consider the yearly membership if you live close by. We think it’s well worth it because we can drop in anytime the kids feel bored or want to let some energy out. It’s become a Christmas gift from the grandparents and a true experience gift that my kids always enjoy receiving—and I know these memories of our visits here will stay with them for many years.
Turtle Back Zoo is situated within the South Mountain Reservation Recreation Complex at 560 Northfield Ave. in West Orange. Admission for adults (ages 13+) is $17, and $14 for kids 2-12 and seniors.