During a spring break getaway, Debi’s family managed a stop in the desert – Palm Desert, that is. After a day spent at Joshua Tree National Park, we wanted to get up close and personal with desert wildlife. So they carved out some time to visit The Living Desert Zoo. Michele’s family visited the Zoo for two days during a weekend trip one December. We’ve combined our perspectives for a complete view of how a trip to this zoo could go for families.
The Living Desert promises “a wildlife adventure through the deserts of the world.” To this end, the park is divided into two parts: North America and Africa. Each features not just desert animals and aviaries, but native gardens as well.
If you end up getting inspired to stay in Palm Desert from reading our post – check out our Palm Desert Family Travel Guide – with hotel ideas.
But The Living Desert is more than a collection of exhibits. It is also a nature preserve. In fact, more than 1,000 of its 1,200 acres are undisturbed Sonoran Desert, including a series of nature trails visitors can access during their stay. In researching our post, we discovered that “the U.S. has 4 major desert communities: Great Basin, Mohave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran” (according the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum site and their awesome map).
If you get a chance, read about the fascinating history of The Living Desert, because it will make your visit all the more meaningful to know the work that went – and continues to go – into preserving the desert.
We’ve spent a fair amount of time at zoos and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention three things that really stood out for us about The Living Desert.
- The animals seemed more active and alert than any we’ve seen at other zoos. In fact, we watched a diamondback snake strike at its neighbor snake in the reptile and invertebrate house. (Thankfully, no snakes were harmed during this encounter.)
- The exhibits don’t just look natural; they feel natural, too. Take the bighorn sheep hanging out at Bighorn Mountain. No fake-colored, faux rocks here – this is the real deal. Then there were the numerous animals we spotted slumbering in their dens, thanks to a peek-in-window feature I’ve never seen before.
- You’ll see animals you’ve never seen before. Have you seen a Sand Cat? If you haven’t seen one you must find the enclosure and check it out. It was but one of the many animals that were new to us.
We also liked that many of the residents of The Living Desert are common to the area but hard to see up close. This includes the aforementioned diamondback, a roadrunner, ravens, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons – even a badger. The African faves (giraffes, camels, cheetah and ostriches) were merely icing on the cake.
Michele’s Photo Journal
Can you spot the cheetah?
How about now?
And with her zoom, she caught this strange photo of the 2 cheetahs with what looks like a one-headed cheetah with 2 bodies.
Trains, trains, trains!!! Who knew that this zoo would have one of the most impressive model train displays I’ve ever seen. The engineer actually has a dedicated tower to run the trains! If you have a little train lover then you might as well invest in a membership.
We got up close to some really beautiful and interesting birds. Check out the plumage on this East African Crowned Crane and then look at what happens when it gets close to the brush.
Totally camoflaged! And what about this African Wood Stork?
The Gecko Gulch Playground and picnic area is definitely the place to hang out in the shade. There are lots of trees and who doesn’t want to take a ride on a saguaro cactus slide? There is gold to pan at the playground (fun for getting wet in the heat), rope spiderwebs to climb, and places to crawl. Give the kids some time here.
The whole area near the playground is actually a wonderland for little ones. The Endangered Species Carousel has whimsical depictions of animals.
Don’t miss the Discovery Center which has indoor exhibits on fossils and the desert. Everything in here is touchable with drawers to pull out and exhibits to touch. My favorite was the burrow display where you can put your hand in the holes to feel what the temperature is at different levels in the desert ground.
We liked that there was so much to see! We want to go back for hiking and more exploring of the garden trails. Some other animal highlights for Michele’s family were the jaguar, the wolf, and the cute little burrowing owls.
5 Fun Things to Do at the Living Desert With Kids
- Catch a show to learn more about zoo residents from the experts.
- Tour the Wildlife Hospital & Conservation Center. It’s free and you can drop in any time.
- Ride the carousel – because it’s fun!
- Get up-close with the animals by watching the giraffes eat, riding camels or visiting the petting kraal.
- Go on a nature walk. Choose from more than 20 gardens and several nature trails.
- Check The Living Desert web site for updated hours, pricing & special events.
- Note that summer hours are MUCH shorter with the last admission at 1pm from June 1st to September 30th.
- Extra costs for shuttle rides, giraffe feedings, and camel rides.
- The Living Desert is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, so ask about discounts if you have a membership at another AZA-accredited zoo.
- The shuttle stops at 11 locations throughout the park; drivers announce what to see & do at every stop. Tickets available at the entrance or from the drivers.
- Mixture of paved & dirt paths, all seem stroller friendly.
- Lots of covered (shaded) spots to rest throughout the park.
- Plenty of restrooms located conveniently throughout the park.
- There are a few restaurants, plus picnic tables if you opt to bring your own.
- Free parking.
- Palm Desert can obviously get quite warm (especially in the summer), so plan to arrive early & bring plenty of water, hats & sunscreen – umbrellas aren’t a bad idea, either. Weather extremes like heavy rain or cold can happen in the desert so be prepared by checking the weather.
- Allow 3 to 4 hours for your visit. The scope of the zoo is pretty phenomenal. On the winter day when Michele visited in December, the weather was very comfortable for traipsing all over the expansive zoo over a 3 hour period (and they didn’t come close to seeing it all).
- Read our Palm Desert Family Travel Guide for hotel recommendations and other things to do in the area.
The Living Desert is located at:
47900 Portola Ave.
Palm Desert, CA 92260
Note: This review is based on our family’s personal experiences. Debi’s family did not receive any incentive to visit, nor any compensation for sharing opinions. However, on Michele’s trip she received free admission for her family to their holiday WildLights event – but returned the next day and purchased a membership. Read our full disclosure policy for more information.
* Portions of this post originally appeared on GoExploreNature.com and FunOrangeCountyParks.com.