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

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Are you planning a trip to Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC? Some call it the Riverbank Zoo, some call it the Columbia Zoo, no matter what you call it, we know you’ll enjoy a trip to this popular zoo in South Carolina. With over 2,000 animals spread across 170-acres 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.

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

This article includes:
How Much Time Do I Need to Visit Riverbanks Zoo?
Tips and Tricks: Visiting the zoo in Columbia, SC
When is the best time to visit Riverbanks Zoo?
Riverbanks Zoo Map: Getting around
What should I bring to the Riverbanks Zoo?
Can you feed animals at the zoo in Columbia?
What other rides and attractions are at Riverbanks Zoo?
Can I bring food and snacks to the Riverbanks Zoo?
Special Events at Columbia’s Zoo
What is Bridge to the Wild?

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.

Zoo Membership in Columbia

If you think your family will go to the zoo more than once or twice throughout the year, it would be a good idea to look into the zoo’s annual membership pass. There are several different packages, price ranges, and incentives such as 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 a necessity (especially if you’re looking for a more budget-conscious trip), it will open up more activities and experiences for you and your family at Riverbanks Zoo. Visit the zoo’s website to learn more about the card and see how many credits each attraction will charge. 

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 anticipates parking being full by around 11 am without availability again until 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 (set to reopen Fall 2022). 

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

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)
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:

Giraffes 

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.   

Lorikeet feeding

The Farmyard 

At the Farmyard you will find all things, you guess it…farm! 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. 

Gorillas 

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 7 gorillas, 2 of them being “toddlers”, and at least one of them is always creating mischief and giving the audience a show.  

Gorilla at Riverbanks Zoo

Some other popular animals that you can find at Riverbanks are zebras, bears, otters, lions, penguins, rhinos, flamingos, and 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 bear, eagles, red wolves, and more!

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?  

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.

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