If you haven’t been to the Turtle Back Zoo since your third-grade field trip 20 years ago and remember it as small and underwhelming—you’re in for a surprise. Seemingly every year this Essex County destination adds new attractions and animals, making it one of the best (if not the best) zoo in the state. This spring, four African giraffes made Turtle Back home, joining other recent newbies, like sea lions housed in the massive Sea Lion Sound exhibit, stingrays in a hands-on touch tank, and enormous jaguars and cougars in the Cat Country exhibit. 

What to Do

The zoo has a circular layout (with some offshoots), so if you start at the main entrance and work your way around, you won’t miss a thing (including the friendly free-roaming peacocks). Visit long-time zoo faves like the penguins, prairie dogs and wolves, and take a walk through the butterfly enclosure (open now through Labor Day). Another can’t-miss is the aviary, where you can buy a popsicle stick covered in bird feed for $2 and the parakeets will hop right on top for a snack. Insider tip: Get there early so the birds aren’t already full. 

Wander past the gibbon enclosure, which looks like something out of Indiana Jones, and stroll through the Southeast Asia exhibit to see the red panda. Don’t miss the native NJ section where you can spot animals you see in nature preserves and backyards around the state—including a gorgeous bald eagle. 

There’s also an Endangered Species Carousel (complete with ride-on pandas, alligators and tigers) for $2, a free train ride that takes passengers through the woods alongside the reservoir, and a dinosaur-themed playground.  

More Fun

Big kids will love the aerial obstacle course right next to the zoo, tucked up in the trees, with an easy level for little kids (ages six and up) that’s just 10 feet high but still a thrill, and a bigger (about 35 feet off the ground) level for adults and braver ’tweens over 54 inches tall. There’s even a zipline for kids over six who weigh more than 80 pounds. (Adult course is $28, junior course is $18, zipline is $13).

Want to make a day of it? Take a walk on the newly refurbished 1.7-mile path around the South Mountain Reservation reservoir, stop at Codey Ice Arena for some indoor skating or play a round at the Essex County Mini Golf Safari (adults $10, children $8). You can also head to the nearby Regatta Playground and scramble up the giant boat jungle gym, or paddle on a swan boat
($15 and up). 

Turtle Back Zoo Information:

560 Northfield Ave., West Orange

973-731-5800; turtlebackzoo.com 

Hours: Monday-Sunday: 10 am-4:30 pm 

Admission: Adults are $14, kids are $11, children under 2 are free. Yearly family membership is $95. (Lower prices in off-season months, December–March).

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