What’s New at the Oakland Zoo
The Oakland Zoo is expanding, with a new restaurant, gondola, and California critters.
Get ready because the classic Oakland Zoo you know and love is making some big changes. Imagine soaring toward the clouds over rolling hills in a burnt orange gondola, then landing at a hilltop restaurant. That’s what’s new this summer, and it is just the start of an entirely fresh adventure 25 years in the making.
The aerial ride and summit restaurant are only the first part of the Oakland Zoo’s latest expansion project, the California Trail, which will be finished next summer. With 55 acres of additional land, the California Trail experience will highlight the state’s native wildlife with eight new animal species: grizzly bears, black bears, bald eagles, California condors, American bison, gray wolves, mountain lions, and jaguars. (Yes, you read that right. Jaguars are native to California—who knew?)
The expansion aims to feel less like a traditional zoo and more like a wild animal park, as visitors wander along a boardwalk flanked by huge oaks, among expansive animal exhibits.
“We want to give the animals plenty of space,” says Joel Parrott, DVM, president of the Oakland Zoo. The zoo is also limiting the number of animals to a few per exhibit. “It’s open-range land and spacious, especially for the grizzlies,” says the veterinarian, who has led the zoo since 1985. Each animal has some pretty spectacular digs, too. The grizzlies alone have an enormous swimming hole with a stream trickling into it, and their own personal pools in their night house. And the jaguars will get a grove of trees to prowl around.
Stage I: Up, Up, and Away
Although the animals won’t be in their habitats until next summer, right now is the perfect time to check out the gondola and restaurant, which open June 5. You can ride the enclosed electric gondolas for a zippy six-minutes up to the top. You’ll glide above the rolling hills of Knowland Park, where the zoo moved in the 1950s, and take in the panoramic view.
Upon your arrival at the summit of the California Trail, disembark from the gondola car, and follow the boardwalk up to the bright and airy restaurant. You definitely don’t want to miss the stunning six-county view of the Bay Area, spanning from San Mateo to Alameda counties, which can be seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Take your meal out to the sun-filled deck, where you’ll be able to glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day.
“It’s a spectacular view and opportunity,” Parrott says of the expansion, “but here, it’s about being a great place to get something to eat.”
The cafeteria-style restaurant will fittingly feature California cuisine: house-made salads, fresh sandwiches, and wood-fired pizzas from the custom-built pizza oven. The menu will be an entirely different dining experience from the main zoo—no chicken nuggets here—and will eventually offer wine and beer.
Guests can also rent out the spectacular dining hall and its services for large evening events. Imagine hosting your next company party next to a couple of grizzlies. It’s sure to be your wildest event yet.
Stage II: Where the Buffalo Roam
The zoo’s expansion will more than double its previous footprint, making it one of the largest zoos in California in acreage (tied with San Diego). It also offers a powerful look into the state’s rich biodiverse past—and hopefully future.
“We have coastal tide pools, southern desert, northern redwoods, alpine in the sierras, [all of which] creates a tremendous biodiversity that is to be treasured, and that’s really what [the California Trail] is all about,” says Parrott.
Although the California Trail celebrates biodiversity, it’s also meant to provide a deeper look at humanity’s impact on native species and their environment. For example, some of the featured animals—such as the grizzly bear and jaguar—no longer live in California because they were hunted to extinction.
“It’s our obligation … to help save [animals] in the wild,” says Parrott. “We do it through educational programming and also in the field through conservation support,” he says.
In fact, the Oakland Zoo has partnered with six conservation groups for the expansion. One partnership involves the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. Together, they’re working to restore a wild herd of American bison to its native territory, which originally blanketed the entire North American continent. (Can you imagine spotting buffalo in Florida?)
“There is a movement afoot to reintroduce bison to the American West as free-ranging wildlife, just like elk and deer,” says Parrott. “We are going to get 18 [buffalo] to breed here, and we’ll send the offspring back to Blackfeet country, and send them back to the wild.”
As guests enjoy their time flying through the sky on the gondola and taking in the view with delicious food and wine, it’s also good to think about the big picture, says Parrott.
“The theme is all about California native wildlife, one [member] of which—the grizzly bear—is on our state flag, but it’s not here in California anymore,” Parrott says. “That’s a really important story to tell.” It is the Oakland Zoo’s hope, through education, preservation, and a whole lot of fun, that we can keep California wild for generations to come. oaklandzoo.org, californiatrail.org.
1922 Henry A. Snow opens the Oakland Zoo downtown. It later moves to Joaquin Miller Park and then to Knowland Park in the 1950s.
1957–1961 Construction begins to improve and develop the zoo. The first major addition? A new enclosure for Miss Effie the elephant.
1987 Oakland Zoo’s Education Department is established to provide school and community groups with on-site classes. Today, it serves 50,000 students annually.
1998 The African Savanna section opens, featuring 11 animal exhibits and highlighting 18 savanna species.
2010 Grand opening of the Wild Australia exhibit, featuring wallaroos and emus.
2017 The gondola and restaurant in the new expansion open to the public.
2018 Grand opening of the entire California Trail expansion.
Conservation Success Stories
The national bird was on the endangered species list in the 1960s and 70s. Now, due to conservation efforts the bald eagle is on the rise and their population is steadily growing in California.
This canid was eradicated from the state for nearly 100 years. But after being reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and the mountains of Idaho and Montana, the wolves have done so well that now there are two packs that have been spotted in Northern California.
These raptors numbers went down to 22 birds left in the wild. Now, thanks to captive breeding in the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, the condor’s numbers are up to 400 and roughly 120 of them are back in the wild. What an amazing example of recovery from the edge of extinction.
Visit californiatrail.org to learn more about the eight native species headed to the Oakland Zoo and all the other conservation efforts being made.