Honestly, I didn’t go to Santa Barbara to hang out with giraffes; I was only thinking about reading my book on the beach. But since my kid rarely shares my vision of a perfect weekend getaway, I added a few stops to our itinerary that would satisfy his vision as well. So we spent one morning at the Santa Barbara Zoo because kids love zoos (and my kid is crazy about them). Besides, the zoo is only a few blocks away from the beach, so I knew we could just head down for some afternoon napping in the sun afterwards.
The zoo had plenty to see and do to keep us busy for over two hours, but you could certainly spend more time if you have younger kids. The exhibits were all well maintained and accessible for kids. Here are some of of our favorites:
1. The Eeeww Exhibit (Insects and Reptiles)
I have grown to love hissing cockroaches and salamanders because I have a boy who makes me touch all the creepy crawlies, so we enjoyed our stroll through this indoor exhibit to check out some of the world’s most unappreciated creatures.
2. The Penguins
Kids really enjoyed trying to read the name tags on the wings of the warm-weather Humboldt penguins as they swam around their exhibit. There was plenty of room to see the penguins from lots of different viewpoints.
3. African Veldt
The giraffes in this exhibit have the best view of the sparkly Pacific Ocean, and they seem pretty happy about it. Or maybe, it was because we visited while people were lining up for the giraffe feedings.
4. Tropical Aviaries
We walked through indoor and outdoor aviary exhibits and got a close-up view of many birds.
5. Asian Small-Clawed Otters
The energetic otters draw a large crowd. The exhibit has new otter pups, so there’s the extra cute factor as well.
When you go:
The zoo is open 10-5 everyday except Christmas. Current admission is $12 for adults and $10 for children. Check website for updated information. Parking is $5, but there plenty of the Santa Barbara visitor trolleys that stop right in front of the zoo.
The Ty Warner Sea Center is the aquatic branch of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, and is located right over the Pacific Ocean on Stearns Wharf. It is a small aquarium, but what it lacks in size, it makes up with engaging and accessible exhibits.
At the shark touch-pool, my son got to touch a harmless swell shark. The tidepool tank had viewing windows that were accessible to even the youngest toddlers and an underwater tunnel for them to walk through as well.
Older kids enjoyed some of the computer-based exhibits throughout the first floor of the center. We also spent some time with some other aquarium youth volunteers as they pulled up samples (of mostly seaweed) in netted cages attached to ropes. They were all great about answering questions and giving information about specimens they had for viewing under video microscopes.
The second floor of the aquarium was a special exhibit called Superpowers, about animal adaptations, which included another touch-pool opportunity. The 39-foot model of the gray whale and her calf hangs in the main entrance, right over the gift shop.
Useful Tidbits: Admission for just the Sea Center is currently $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-12. You can also get a Santa Barbara Nature Pass and get admission for the Sea Center and Natural History Museum for two days. Parking is free for the first 90 minutes with validation from the Sea Center. Check the website for current information.
I saw the first Monarch Butterflies fluttering around the streets of San Luis Obispo, about fifteen miles away from the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. I’m glad that I did, or I would have completely forgotten that they start arriving at their winter home in the groves of Pismo Beach in early November. So then I would have just driven right by them on Highway 101, and I would have missed the best pit stop ever.
If you’re in the Pismo Beach area between the months of November and February, follow Highway 1 to Pismo State Beach and the North End Campground entrance. Find the free parking in the campground and follow the marked path. Besides seeing trees full of butterflies, you’ll find docents, displays, and some binoculars set up for the kids to get a closer view.
I have already written about our annual visits to the Natural Bridges Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Santa Cruz, California: here, here, and here. I know that I’m a little obsessed with these orange buggers. It’s just that they’re so darn cool. So what are you waiting for? This winter, go find a butterfly grove near you.