Family & Pets

A Guide To The Riverbanks Zoo And Garden

September 20, 2013 8:00 AM

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(Photo credit PETER KNEFFEL/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit PETER KNEFFEL/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit PETER KNEFFEL/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit PETER KNEFFEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Located about 90 miles south of Charlotte down I-77, the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is one of Columbia, South Carolina’s prime attractions. A visit here is a tradition for lots of Carolina families and many kids ride their first pony at the Riverbanks Farm. More than just a showplace for exotic animals, the zoo offers numerous activities, including new zip-line adventures that take guests high above the crowds. For Charlotte residents, Riverbanks makes a great day-trip destination or weekend getaway, with plenty to please the whole family from toddlers to teens to grands.

Riverbanks Zoo And Garden
500 Wildlife Parkway
Columbia, SC 29210
(803) 779-8717

General Information:

The main entrance of Riverbanks is located just off I-126 at the Greystone Boulevard exit, about a mile and a half from downtown Columbia. The Botanical Garden entrance is off US 378 (Sunset Boulevard). A wheelchair-accessible tram runs between the zoo and garden. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, with extended hours on summer weekends. General admission tickets, which include access to both the zoo and garden, cost $11.75 for adults, $10.75 for military and seniors and $9.25 for children ages three to 12. Children two and under enter for free. Additional fees are charged for various activities and programs. If you decide to make an overnight visit, numerous local hotels, listed on the Riverbanks webpage, offer special packages that include tickets to the zoo.

The Zoo:

Over 2,000 animals from around the world make their homes at Riverbanks. Giraffes, zebras and ostriches roam the African Plains savanna on the shores of the Saluda River, while Ndoki Forest is home to gorillas and elephants, with lions and Siberian tigers housed nearby. Koalas and kangaroos have their own Australian environment. Penguins, one of the most popular animals at Riverbanks, can be found in the Birdhouse. The Aquarium Reptile Complex includes several habitats, including a 55,000-gallon Pacific Coral Reef tank with sharks and moray eels, where diving demonstrations take place daily. Conservation Outpost offers an up-close look at unusual small animals, while the friendly goats, llamas and cows at Riverbanks Farm are eager to interact with youngsters.

Related: Best Zoo And Aquarium Events In Charlotte

The Botanical Garden:

Located across the Saluda River from the zoo, the maze-like Walled Garden forms the centerpiece of the 70-acre nationally recognized Riverbanks Botanical Garden. The Old Rose Garden contains a world-class collection of Noisettes, a sweet-smelling variety of antique rose developed in South Carolina. Shady trails offer overlooks of the river and lead to historic ruins that recall Sherman’s visit during the Civil War. A museum located in a log cabin contains exhibits explaining the history of the area.

Activities and AdventuresZoo admission includes zookeeper talks, as well as a bird show and the popular penguin feeding. For an additional fee, pre-register for a behind-the-scenes tour of areas normally off limits to visitors, including the habitats of big cats, gorillas, elephants, hyenas, penguins, lemurs and grizzly bears. Kids can mingle with kangaroos in the Walkabout and feed giraffes. Other kid-friendly activities include the Endangered Species Carousel, pony rides, the Spots and Stripes Railroad and a rock-climbing wall, all modestly priced. For a more adventurous experience, try the Sky-High Safari rope course, or a zip-line tour through the tree tops or across the Saluda River.

Where to Eat:

At Riverbanks itself, the Kenya Café, open all year, serves a menu of Angus burgers, salads, sandwiches and kid meals. To get beyond fast food, make a quick trip across the Congaree River to downtown Columbia with its many dining options. Two spots located just across the bridge are Lizard’s Thicket Restaurant, with a menu of Southern favorites, and Maurice’s Piggie Park BBQ, serving wood-smoked barbecue since 1939. A few blocks away on Main Street, the Lambsbread Vegan Café is a real find for vegetarians, with a colorful décor of carved African animals and masks along with numerous non-meat menu options, available for dine-in or take-out.

Special Events:

Riverbanks hosts numerous special events, including wine tastings, outdoor movies, concerts, a beer festival and the free Springtime at the Garden Festival. Boo at the Zoo, with a Trick-or-Treat Trail, costume parades and marshmallow roasts, takes place the final two weeks of October. The annual Lights Before Christmas celebration, from Thanksgiving to the end of December, is Columbia’s longest running and most beloved holiday tradition.Related: Best Day Trips For Families Around Charlotte

With 15 years of experience covering restaurants in Charlotte and the Carolinas, and two regional guidebooks under her belt, Renee Wright examines the dining scene with enthusiasm plus a deep knowledge of food trends and outstanding local eating ops. Her work can be found at

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