10 Tips For the Best Day at Riverbanks Zoo: Columbia, SC

Posted on |

Are you planning a trip to Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC? Some call it the Riverbanks Zoo, some call it the Columbia Zoo. No matter what you call it, we know you’ll enjoy a trip to this popular Columbia, SC zoo.

With over 2,000 animals spread across 170 acres, plus a fairly new aquarium and reptile complex, there is so much to explore, learn, and do! We will share all of our tips, what to expect, and how to prepare for your day of wild, memorable fun at this awesome zoo in Columbia, beside the Saluda River.

Riverbanks Zoo, Columbia Zoo, Columbia, SC
Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC

The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is made up of two large sections. You have the zoo side and then you have the botanical gardens’ side. This is where Waterfall Junction, the popular splash pad and play space, is located.

Waterfall Junction, Riverbanks Zoo Splashpad

It’s so cool, that we have a whole other article focused just on the Riverbanks Botanical Gardens and Waterfall Junction.

Wild About Riverbanks Zoo

How much time should you plan to spend at Columbia’s zoo?

Okay, so you’ve decided to take a fun family outing to the zoo! Now what? We know the zoo can be a bit overwhelming to prepare for, especially if you’re planning a full-day trip, so let’s make this easier and help you plan what comes next!

You can make the zoo last as little or long as you’d like, but we would recommend setting aside at least 2 hours to explore!    

Helpful Tips and Tricks for Visiting Riverbanks Zoo

Tickets to Riverbanks Zoo

Do I need to buy advanced tickets for Riverbanks Zoo?

First, let’s talk tickets! We highly suggest purchasing your tickets or annual membership online before arriving. This will help save time (and your sanity) by skipping the line at the ticket booth. Children younger than 2 are free and military and senior citizens can show their ID to get a discount.

Another incentive to purchasing your tickets online is that you save on the $5 parking fee.

Columbia Zoo Membership

If you think your family will go to the zoo more than once or twice a year, it would be a good idea to look into the annual Riverbanks Zoo membership pass.

There are several different membership packages and price ranges. Membership incentives include discounted admission into other zoos, free parking, free entry to some events, and so much more! 

The Explore More Card

Another tip is to purchase an “Explore More” card. Although it’s not necessary (especially if you’re looking for a more budget-conscious trip), the Explore More card provides access to additional attractions and experiences at Riverbanks Zoo.

Visit the zoo’s website to learn more about the card and see how many credits each attraction will charge. 

Riverbanks Zoo, sea lion exhibit
Sea Lion at Riverbanks Zoo

Best Times to Visit Riverbanks Zoo

What are the best times to visit Riverbanks Zoo?

If at all possible, we recommend planning your zoo trip for a weekday, especially when going during the spring and summer months. However, if the weekends are your only option, don’t let that deter you from the fun.

Either way, it is best to get there early as the parking lots fill up quickly and the popular exhibits will get crowded. Be aware that on the weekends, the zoo expects parking will be full by 11 am. Usually, parking spaces will open up around 2 pm.        

Getting Around at Riverbanks Zoo

Riverbanks Zoo is divided into two distinct areas: the zoo itself and the Botanical Gardens. The two parts of the zoo are connected via a paved walkway. You can either walk to and from each side or take a tram across.

If you have younger children and/or have a lot of things to pack, the tram is probably the best option for you! The walk is not necessarily easy, but it is scenic. So if your children are a bit older, it might be worth the hike.  

Think of the zoo portion as one large circle. When entering, it is best to either head left towards Sea Lion Landing, or right towards the otters. Then, stay on the path the whole way through the zoo.

When you make it to the zebras you’re about halfway around. Once you’re back to the beginning, head into the center to check out the flamingos, penguins, and the Aquarium and Reptile Conservation Center.

Riverbanks Zoo Map

Handheld maps are hard to come by, however, you can either download the map from the zoo’s website before arriving or scan a code once you’re inside the zoo to help you get around. 

For more on what you’ll see at the Riverbanks Garden entrance, check out the companion piece to this article on the Riverbanks Zoo Botanical Gardens and Waterfall Junction.

Riverbanks Zoo Packing Guide: Things to Bring  

Packing for a day out of the house can be tough, especially with littles. Here are some things we don’t want you to forget:

  • Sunscreen
  • Water bottle
  • Hand sanitizer 
  • Sunglasses
  • Hats 
  • Light jacket for cooler months 
  • Stroller or wagon (single and double strollers can be rented at the zoo if needed)
Giraffe at Riverbanks Zoo, feed giraffes at Riverbanks Zoo
Feeding a giraffe at Riverbanks Zoo

You Can Feed Animals at Riverbanks Zoo, Columbia

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! With so many animals to see and exhibits to explore, it would be hard to discuss them all. Here is a list of some of our favorites that we hope you don’t miss out on:


Get your cameras ready! From 10 am – 1:30 pm, daily you can feed the giraffes using your Explore More card. The giraffes are usually eagerly waiting to be fed and will stretch their noses into the feeding area and lick the lettuce right out of your hands. Such a cool and memorable experience! 

Sea Lion Landing 

Here you will find a large tank, outdoor and indoor amphitheaters, and places to view the sea lions and seals from all directions. Throughout the day, the trainers put on short shows (free with admission) where they feed the animals and show off their tricks.

My kid’s favorite place to watch the animals swim is through the large glass inside of the building.  

Lorikeet Feeding 

Calling all bird lovers! Daily from 9 am – 4:30 pm you can feed nectar to Lorikeets. My son really enjoys this part of the zoo, but it’s definitely not for everyone. The birds WILL land on you and oftentimes there will be more than one.

They are known to be a little aggressive in getting the nectar so beware of little beak nibbles or even getting your cup stolen from a swooping bird. This feeding will require credits from the Explore More card.   

Riverbanks Zoo, feeding birds
Lorikeet feeding

The Farmyard 

At the Riverbanks Farm you will find all things, you guessed it . . . farm! You’ll see a garden, pigs, chickens, and goats, just to name a few. You can pet and brush the goats, climb up on a tractor, and pretend you’re a farmer, or collect “eggs” in the chicken shed using your Explore More card. 


You can get a good view of the gorillas from two places within the zoo. You can see them playing on the hill across from the rhinos or view them from the glass inside of the building next to the kangaroo exhibit.

There are seven gorillas, two of them being “toddlers,” and at least one of them is always creating mischief and giving the audience a show. 

The gorillas are part of the Ndoki Forest portion of the zoo.

Gorilla at Riverbanks Zoo
Gorilla at Riverbanks Zoo

Some other popular animals that you can find at Riverbanks are zebras and ostriches, bears, otters, lions, penguins, rhinos, flamingos, harbor seals, and more! 

The Birdhouse at Riverbanks

As it sounds, the birdhouse is where you’ll find several bird habitats and exhibits, including penguins and flamingos!

The Savanna Camp area is an interactive children’s area were kids can listen to bird calls, look at eggs from different species of birds, and lots more.

Rides and Attractions at Riverbanks

Much like the animals, there are several attractions throughout the zoo:

  • Train ride
  • Carousel
  • Jungle gym/playground 
  • Rock climbing wall 
  • Sky-High Safari 

Keep in mind that the majority of these rides/attractions will require an Explore More card. The rock climbing wall and Sky-High Safari (high ropes course) have their own sets of requirements.

Eating at Riverbanks Zoo

The zoo does not allow outside food or drinks. However, there are plenty of “snack shacks” or restaurants for bigger meals if needed. There are also several shady picnic areas thoughtfully laid out around the zoo.

Keep in mind, once tickets are purchased, you are able to leave and re-enter throughout the day. So if a car picnic is more your speed . . . have at it. I’m right there with you.  

Mark Your Calendar: Special Events at Riverbanks 

The zoo hosts some incredible events all throughout the year. Two of the most popular are “Boo at the Zoo” and “Lights Before Christmas.” Most events are family-friendly; however, there are a few such as wine tasting and “Brew at the Zoo” that are best suited for adults.

Be sure to check out the zoo’s calendar to stay up to date with events that you won’t want to miss out on! 

What is “Bridge to the Wild”?

Have you heard a little something about an expansion at Riverbanks Zoo? The Bridge to the Wild expansion will include a large primate forest with observation decks to view primates like orangutangs.

Bridge to the Wild will also include an area dedicated to animals native to South Carolina, including black bears, eagles, red wolves, and more.

New Aquarium and Reptile Conservation Center

The new Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center opened just over a year ago. The new aquarium seeks to bring an immersive nature experience to guests at the Zoo while educating them in conservation efforts that are happening at the zoo plus those guests can do at home.

The aquarium costs $10 million to renovate, which was paid for by the Darnell W. and Susan F. Boyd Foundation. Unlike many grants, Susan F. Boyd and her foundation were integral members of the renovation.

They offered behind-the-scenes support throughout the entire process. Both the zoo and the foundation worked together to bring guests this experience while also working on conservation efforts for the coral reef and different endangered species.

Inside of the new aquarium and reptile house at Riverbanks Zoo.

There are several environments at the new aquarium: the temperate forest, which is right here in South Carolina, the tropical rainforests, the desert, and where land meets the sea. It’s such a cool experience and fascinating to walk through.

There are several snakes, including ones native to South Carolina, in the exhibit. Others, like desert rattlesnakes, anacondas, and cobras may give some guests shivers but don’t worry, they are all behind glass and well taken care of.

One of the biggest conservation efforts that the Riverbanks Zoo is able to work on is the coral reefs, which are suffering massive destruction. Before the renovations, the Zoo was only able to grow and care for a few corals in Rubbermaid containers. Now they’ve got an entire room dedicated to this preservation effort.

Conservation efforts sign about coral reefs.

Education is of the utmost importance throughout the new aquarium. There are signs in the exhibits showing which animals are endangered and where they live.

When you exit the aquarium, you can make a pledge to do small things to conserve the environment like not buying jewelry made from coral, not bothering wild animals, or pledging donations to conservation efforts.

The new aquarium is beautiful, fascinating, and a wonderful addition to the Riverbanks Zoo that guests will find enjoyable for years to come.

What does the Riverbanks New Aquarium Look Like?

We checked it out and it’s beautiful!

Where is the Riverbanks Zoo Located?

The Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens is located in Columbia, SC and West Columbia, SC, in Richland County, South Carolina.

Riverbanks Zoo
500 Wildlife Parkway
Columbia, SC 

Have you been to Riverbanks Zoo? What is your favorite animal to see while there?  

Connect with Kidding Around

Love what you just read?

Join the conversation: Kidding Around Columbia Community

Follow us on Facebook Kidding Around Columbia

Kayla Simmons
About the Author
Kayla grew up right outside of Charleston, SC and is a proud graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has lived in Columbia for a combination of 5 years. Kayla has a background working with special needs children, but now enjoys nothing more than being a stay-at-home mom of two. She enjoys keeping her kids busy by finding unique play spaces and events, involving them in hands-on activities and watching them learn about the world through play. In her free time she enjoys reading, exercise and spending quality time with her family and friends.

Sign up for our email newsletter.

Comments are closed.