Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
Columbia SC 29214
- Mon: 9am-5pm
- Tue: 9am-5pm
- Wed: 9am-5pm
- Thu: 9am-5pm
- Fri: 9am-5pm
- Sat: 9am-5pm
- Sun: 9am-5pm
With more than 2,000 animals representing more than 350 species, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina -- named for its setting along the Saluda River -- is one of the Palmetto State's top attractions, surpassing 1 million visitors annually. Chosen multiple times by TripAdvisor as one of the nation's best 10 zoos, Riverbanks is home to species such as African elephants, giraffes, gorillas, African lions, Siberian tigers and zebras. The zoo also boasts a renowned 70-acre botanical garden that is an attraction unto itself.
Best and worst time to go to Riverbanks Zoo
Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with slightly later hours on spring and summer weekends. The weather in spring (April and May) and fall (late September to early November) is the most pleasant, with colorful blooms bursting forth in spring and brilliant red, orange and yellow hues accompanying the cool, crisp days of late fall. Columbia is notorious for its sweltering summers, so avoid afternoons from mid-June to August, when the animals are also trying to stay cool and may be less active.
Must see/do at Riverbanks Zoo
Be sure to tour the zoo's 20,000-square-foot Aquarium Reptile Complex, divided into a quartet of galleries -- Desert, Tropics, Ocean and South Carolina -- representing the habitats of amphibians, fish, invertebrates and reptiles. Riverbanks' Australian Animals exhibit transports you Down Under on a walkabout filled with lorikeets, koalas, red kangaroos, wallabies and Aussie reptiles. Also save time for a trip through the adjacent botanical gardens, separated into several themed gardens and boasting more than 4,200 species of native and exotic plants. From the gardens, you can access the Woodland Walk, a half-mile scenic trail that winds along river shoals and past the ruins of a 19th-century mill.
Admission to Riverbanks Zoo
Tickets are $14 to $17 for adults and include membership to the zoo and botanical garden, with slight discounts for purchasing online or for military, senior citizens and children ages 2-12. Children under 2 are admitted free. A number of attractions -- such as animal feedings, pony rides, rock climbing, a carousel, the Spots & Stripes children's train and a vertical ropes challenge -- have extra costs ranging from $2 to $7, or you can purchase an unlimited rides and attractions wristband for about $20. Another extra: Zip the Zoo, zip-line canopy tours over the animal attractions and the river that cost $55 to $80. Annual zoo memberships provide discounted year-round admission for individuals or families.
Parking at Riverbanks Zoo
The zoo and botanical gardens have separate parking lots. On busy weekend days, spaces in the main zoo lot can fill up by mid-morning, so plan to arrive early. An overflow parking lot is available on nearby Rivermont Drive. Or you can park in the garden lot and start your visit there. A complimentary tram runs every 10 to 15 minutes between the garden's amphitheater and the Saluda River footbridge that leads to the zoo.
Public Transportation to Riverbanks Zoo
The COMET, Columbia's public transportation system, has a daily route -- 34B Bush River Road/Saint Andrews -- that stops once per hour at the corner of Greystone Boulevard and Stoneridge Drive, a half-mile north of Riverbanks and about a 10-minute walk down Greystone to the zoo entrance. Visit catchthecomet.org to view connecting routes and times from various sections of the city.
Food at Riverbanks Zoo
The zoo has two year-round restaurants with expansive menus. Ndoki Pizza features stone-fired pizza, fresh-salads and artisan sandwiches, while Tuskers -- adjacent to the Aquarium Reptile Complex -- offers salads, chicken tenders, burgers, sandwiches and pizza, plus Starbucks coffee and other drinks. For a real Southern treat, sample the fried pickles at Solo's Market. Several other stops, open seasonally from spring to fall, offer ice-cream and other snacks such as popcorn, cotton candy and pretzels.
Insider tip for visitors to Riverbanks Zoo
If you're in town for the holidays, bundle up and check out the zoo's Lights Before Christmas, held most evenings from mid-November through December. The event includes nearly 1 million lights, animated images, choreographed music-and-lights displays, a nightly bonfire, visits with Santa, hot chocolate and other holiday fare.
Author's bio: Kevin Adams is a freelance writer who is a South Carolina native and has had travel articles appear on USAToday.com and in Golfweek magazine.