Riverbanks Zoo – Columbia SC Day Trip

Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden in Columbia is a day trip like no other and is sure to delight all ages. Just an easy drive south on I-77, Riverbanks Zoo, located along the banks of the Saluda River in Columbia, can be reached in well under 90 minutes from the Fort Mill area. This highly acclaimed zoo has been around for many decades and has really blossomed through the years.

My family has ALWAYS loved visiting the zoo! We used to drive almost 90 minutes to visit the Milwaukee Zoo at least once a month before we moved to South Carolina. When I found out that the River Banks Zoo was only 15 minutes away I was super excited! We recently purchased the Family Explorer Zoo Membership. For only $149 our entire family of five get free entry to the zoo all year round, plus we get free admission to almost all of the zoo attractions! Its those little extras that really add up for my family when we go to the zoo so it was DEFINITELY worth it for us!

Everyone who visits Riverbanks Zoo seems to really appreciate the size of the zoo- it’s just right. The entire zoo and botanical gardens take up 130 acres, but the animal exhibits are arranged in close proximity to each other making everything easily accessible. An easy to navigate zoo is a big plus, especially for people with small children and you can see just about everything you want to see in a few hours (even though there are around 2,000 animals) if you stay on task and don’t dawdle.

Admission is reasonable compared to equivalent attractions: Adults $11.75, Children 3-12 $9.25, and 2 and under free. Discounts are given to military families with military ID, seniors over age 62, and groups of 15 or more who register at least 2 weeks in advance.

A few activities in the zoo do cost extra including Giraffe feeding (highly recommended at $2), rock climbing wall ($3 per child), skywalk ($7), and the carousel. Unlimited daily ride passes can be purchased for $20, but this does not include admission or the sky-high safari.


The Riverbanks Zoo has everything that you would expect of a zoo. Plenty of animals to see and the best part is, that unlike some of the zoos in the big cities that are HUGE, you don’t have to walk very far to see the animals.

In addition to all of the standard zoo exhibits Riverbanks offers a few really fun hands on exhibits. This is where having the Family Explorer Pass really comes in handy as it gives you unlimited access to MOST of these exhibits at no additional cost. Our two favorite things to do are to feed the Lorikeets and the Giraffes. If you don’t have the unlimited passes you can purchase nectar cups to feed the birds in an open air exhibit or lettuce to feed the Giraffes. Each cup or handful of lettuce will cost you $2.

While the kids LOVE the inter-activeness of the zoo, for me the best part is checking out all of the babies that are roaming around the zoo!

Peak Season

If you go to Riverbanks Zoo during peak season (Spring Break, summer, a nice fall or spring weekend), it’s best to get there early. Riverbanks Zoo receives over 1,000,000 visitors each year. On our recent visit, the ticket line extended way out into the parking lot when we left the zoo around lunchtime.

TIP– Buy tickets online and avoid the crowds. I also think the Botanical Garden entrance is much less crowded, but it is a little bit of a hike from there to the zoo section.

Unlike some other zoos (the North Carolina Zoo for example) you will get to see the animals up close. When the zoo is crowded, you may have to wait a few minutes to move up to an optimal viewing point. The Gorilla building can be really packed, but your patience will be rewarded.

On our recent visit, the gorilla really put on a show, throwing his toys about and running back and forth across the room in violent bursts of energy. Guests watching got to witness not only the strength of a gorilla (I was a little worried that the glass partition between him and us might not be adequate) but the quickness and agility with which they can move.

I was a little disappointed to see that the sea lion exhibit has been replaced with kangaroos. Although it is the coolest kangaroo exhibit I’ve seen. You walk right through their habitat, no fences or anything. They were just chilling in the grass. And there are plans to build a new and improved sea lion exhibit sometime in the future.

Other not to miss exhibits are the Giraffes, Elephants, Ostriches, and Penguins. Along with the aptly named Howler Monkeys who inhabit a little island over towards the kid’s play area. You can hear them screeching from pretty much any area of the zoo. They apparently can be heard up to 3 kilometers away in the jungle. Small kids delight in watching them swing and hang from their prehensile tails.

Aquarium Reptile Complex & the Birdhouse

The Aquarium Reptile Complex and the Birdhouse are both indoor exhibits that can be a good break if the outdoor elements aren’t ideal. Prepare yourself before entering the Birdhouse though. The stench from the penguins is horrific.

But, even on hot summer days, there are plenty of shady spots to linger for a while.

There’s a great kid’s play area all the way to the right of the zoo near the river. The play area includes a carousel, rock climbing, and a playground. Just a short walk from this area is the footbridge leading over the Saluda River to the Botanical Garden.

As far as food goes, there aren’t many good food choices. The main restaurant is the Kenya Cafe which mainly serves burgers and fries. There are some smaller walk-up food places scattered around the zoo. There is also a picnic area outside the park.

If you think visiting the zoo may be something you’d like to do multiple times a year, consider getting a zoo membership. Individual memberships are $49 for a year and family memberships are $79.

Zoo Events

The Zoo also hosts many awesome events throughout the year.

Rhythm and Blooms Music and Art in the Garden will take place Thursdays in May from 6-9pm. This event is free for members and $5 for non-members. Food and cash bar available.

Other Upcoming Events

Brew at the Zoo on August 2 from 7-9:30 pm. Named one of Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 Events. Stroll through the zoo and sample a wide variety of imports, domestics, and micros. Listen to live music.

Zoofari on Friday, September 27 at 7 pm. Savory cuisine and cool cocktails, silent auction, live entertainment, behind the scenes tour, and up-close animal encounters.

Be sure to save some time to visit the Botanical Garden on the other side of the river!

Riverbanks Zoo
500 Wildlife Parkway
Columbia, SC 29210

Zoo Hours: Open 9am-5pm
9am-6pm Sat and Sun from March 29-September 29


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