The San Diego Zoo is rightly considered one of San Diego’s greatest attractions. This is one of the best zoos in the world and it provides hours of entertainment. The Cole family has been going here since the mid-1970s and we continue to go several times a year. It is amazing how this place is constantly improving and refuses to rest on its laurels. Africa Rocks, is the latest and biggest new area of the zoo. This is our guide to Africa Rocks at the San Diego Zoo.
Note, if you are only staying for a day or two, Go City Card gives you the option to buy 2 or more attractions and gives you a discount of 20%.
The San Diego Zoo Society was founded in 1916 but the current location did not open until 1923. When I first visited the zoo in 1976, I got the feeling that not a great deal had changed in its 50 or so years. I have been coming regularly since I moved to San Diego in 1991 and I can say that with the launch of Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks it is almost an entirely new place. I think the only thing remaining from my first visits is the Reptile House area, the tour bus and the sky ride.
One by one, the zoo has replaced older area with new themed areas. In 2009 the massive Elephant Odyssey opened on the upper mesa and it seemed that outside the much smaller Dog and Cat Canyon there was not much left to upgrade. Surprisingly, before upgrading Dog and Cat Canyon the zoo added the new Australian Outback section in 2013. This was because the zoo had much bigger plans for Dog and Cat Canyon.
Dog and Cat Canyon was built in the 1930s and definitely showed its age. I had strong memories of it from my visit in 1976 mainly because of how steep it was. They even had a moving sidewalk to take you back up (this is still in operation). Basically this was a straight shot down a steep canyon with animals on either side of the road. It was hard to imagine they would build a space here larger than Elephant Odyssey.
Demolition on Dog and Cat Canyon began in 2015. Africa Rocks finally opened in portions during 2017 as the largest and most expensive zoo addition to date. Africa Rocks cost a reported $68 million and covers 8 acres versus 7.5 acres for Elephant Odyssey. Overall it is amazing example of what good design can do with a seemingly limited space.
At 8 acres, Africa Rocks takes up only about 8% of the San Diego Zoo’s 100 acres. However, we spent a good hour and a half on our first visit, and I can honestly say this seems bigger than 8 acres. The walkway curves much like a switchback hiking trail so it becomes a fairly leisurely stroll, either way. However, if you want to go downhill you will turn right when you enter the zoo.
Africa Rocks starts in a fairly far corner of the zoo so it may not be the first thing you visit. Our suggestion is you turn right at the entrance, head past the bus tour and into Australian Outback. Touring through Australian Outback will take you right to the top portion of Africa Rocks.
You enter Africa Rocks with an area on your right called kopje gardens/Ethiopian highlands and the area on your left the Savannah habitats. The gardens are very nice but the first thing that caught our attention was the baboon exhibit. It was huge and there was viewing from multiple locations. We spent almost half an hour alone watching the baboons. It was also good to see the eagles again. One area of the zoo that has been closed awhile for redevelopment is the birds of prey .
Past the baboons you come to a very large walkthrough aviary, that stretches across two levels. We were fascinated to see a whole bunch of bee hives. These are intentional to feed the resident bee-eater birds.
From the aviary you start to enter the rain forest and Madagascar section. This includes African cats (leopards/serval/fossa), crocodiles and vervet monkees. For fans of the Madagascar movies there is an impressive lemur exhibit that can keep you entertained for quite awhile. However, before you view the lemurs you will probably want to check out the 65-foot waterfall that is the centerpiece of the Madagascar section. You can walk under a grotto behind the waterfall and of course kids love this.
After Madagascar, you come to what is arguably the highlight of Africa Rocks, the penguin section. Of course, this is supposed to be an African themed exhibit. Yes, there are penguins in Africa, off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa on the appropriately named Penguin Islands. The penguins can be viewed from above or below, swimming in their 200,000 gallon tank along with sharks. You heard that right, penguins, sharks and other fish are swimming together and you can view them from a 70-foot long underwater glass viewing area.
Many San Diego natives will be familiar with the sharks. These are leopard sharks which are a major attraction on the shores off La Jolla in the late summer weeks. They are harmless to humans (and penguins) and we have swam in the water with hundreds of them.
Africa Rocks ends in the Asian Passage section at the bottom of the canyon. There is a large eating right next to the popular panda exhibit. There are also moving sidewalks on either side of the canyon that take you back to the top. The right sidewalk takes you to Elephant Odyssey. The left walkway goes to the Lost Forest section and back towards the entrance/exit. Of course, you can always choose to walk up the multiple stairs or pathways.
Just when we thought the San Diego Zoo could not get more impressive they went and added Africa Rocks. As far as I can tell about the only area of the zoo that has not been completely redesigned in the past 25 years is the Reptile House. That was one of the original buildings and holds many sentimental memories. The snake collection is also amazing so I don’t see a huge need for that to change. However, Dog and Cat canyon was dated and what the zoo did with it in designing Africa Rocks is, in my mind, its most impressive development so far.