In 1896, a small black bear named Billy Bryan was given to the mayor of Denver and the Denver Zoo was born. Today it has more than 80 acres (32 hectares) of habitats and, with more than 1.6 million visitors a year, is one of the most popular zoos in the United States.
More than 650 different species, about 200 of them threatened or endangered, are housed in enclosures almost identical to their natural habitat. Watch monkeys swing through trees, wolves prowl through a shaded wood and giraffes graze on an open field, all just a 10-minute drive from downtown Denver. It’s easy to get around either on foot or by taking the zoo’s train, which is both reasonably priced and environmentally friendly. Pull-along wagons for kids, strollers and wheelchairs are also available for rent.
One of the first points of call should be Bear Mountain. When the enclosure opened in 1918, it was the first naturalistic zoo animal habitat in North America. Today it’s considered a national historic landmark, with a collection of bears, including grizzlies and the adorable coati.
Predator Ridge offers a safe way to get close up to some of Africa’s most dangerous animals, including lions, African wild dogs and hyenas. The enclosure is a recreation of aspects of the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.
The zoo lays claim to a number of records: the world’s only rhinoceros that paints with a brush (his artworks are displayed in the Pachyderm Building), the world’s largest indoor Komodo dragon exhibit and one of the largest habitats for endangered gorillas.
Daily feeding demonstrations draw hordes of curious onlookers. Check the timetable on the zoo’s official website to schedule them into the day. Stop for lunch at one of the restaurants, or pack a picnic. There are plenty of grassy knolls to sit on and large trees to relax under. In summer, between Memorial Weekend and Labor Day, there’s an extensive calendar of free programs, from wild encounters with reptiles to interactive bird shows. During the Christmas holiday season, the zoo hosts a spectacular light display. Millions of sparkling lights decorate the zoo along with animated animal sculptures.
Located within City Park, the Denver Zoo is a ten-minute drive from downtown, and there’s plenty of parking. It’s also easy to get to by light rail or bus.