The San Diego Zoo Safari Park (in case you didn’t know, it’s the former Wild Animal Park) in Escondido sprawls over an 1800-acre expanse chosen for its resemblance to Africa’s most productive wildlife areas. Make no mistake, virtually everything here is artificial. That doesn’t diminish in the least the park’s goal of preserving rare species of plants from around the world — and rare animals, particularly those of the African savannas. More than four decades’ worth of landscape improvements have rendered this less of a “zoo” and more of a safari experience, as the park’s new name expresses.
Parking and admission fees are unquestionably high. That expense, however, can be mitigated by joining the Zoological Society of San Diego, operator of Balboa Park’s San Diego Zoo and the Zoo Safari Park. Repeated free visits to both facilities then become possible during a year’s membership.
This is one zoo, perhaps like no other, where a walkabout resembles a true hike, albeit one where a good fraction of the scenery is engineered. Of many possible routes, the one described below circling the perimeter of the park is navigationally the easiest and offers you the greatest variety of sights. The route covers 3.5 miles in all, including two out-and-back side trips near the end of the loop. It also avoids almost entirely the heavily trafficked footpaths — so you can actually get some heart-pounding exercise if you choose not to linger at the exhibits along the way. Don’t forget to pick up a detailed park map (free with admission) at the park’s entrance.
From just inside the entrance, stay to the right, first entering and later exiting the Wings of the World aviary. Ahead, just stick with the navigational rule that you always swing to the right, except at paths that dead-end quickly or on paths and roads posted “no entry.” You’ll pass through the Congo River Fishing Village (with faux stream), the lowland gorilla exhibit, and eventually arrive at the Great Rift Lift, the launching platform for a tethered passenger balloon. Check out the view, which includes the African savanna spread in the distance. Take the stairs from there down to the Heart of Africa entrance, where you pick up a meandering path, paved and wood-planked, down past numerous animal and bird exhibits and over an artificial lagoon.
On the far side of the lagoon, the path climbs upward past the cheetah zone, the Journey into Africa bus-tour terminal, and the lion exhibit. As ever, swing right at every junction. Once past the lions, you’ll be traversing paved and unpaved paths in the “backcountry” zone of the park that closes before sunset. It is here that you will likely spot at close range wild mule deer from the surrounding area that seem to enjoy taking advantage of the enhanced habitat of the park.
Proceed north past the zip-line landing spot, lurch over a rocking suspension footbridge, pass the Tiger Overlook, and enter a deeply shaded zone of densely spaced conifers from around the world. Your rightward turns should eventually take you east to a desert bighorn and California condor exhibit with a terrific view of the savanna below and the distant San Pasqual Valley. Turn back from there and return to the looping route. In a short while, near the bonsai pavilion, you pick up a service road to the right and are directed by sign to a trail leading to the Baja botanical gardens, your second side-trip.
There’s plenty of magnificent desert succulent vegetation to see along this trail and its looping side-paths, but that’s not all. There’s native sage-scrub, chaparral, and riparian vegetation, too, and most specimens are meticulously identified with small signs. Early or late in the day, the Zoo Safari Park landscape and its skyline of rocky peaks look especially beautiful from here. A picnic table under a shade ramada fringed with palm fronds invites you to sit and contemplate the scene.
From this serene and seldom-visited retreat, go back to the looping route and return down through the visitor-clogged park spaces to the entrance/exit gates, where you started.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Hike to the far corners of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 32 miles
Hiking length: 3.5 miles