The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert feels like you are in the middle of the Sonoran desert in Arizona when, in fact, you are at the edge of its borders just 2 hours from Orange County.
I didn’t realize I could visit the Sonoran so close to home! In researching this post, I discovered that “the U.S. has 4 major desert communities: Great Basin, Mohave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran” (according the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum site and their awesome map).
If you get a chance, read about the fascinating history of The Living Desert, because it will make your visit all the more meaningful to know the work that went – and continues to go – into preserving the desert.
Can you spot the cheetah?
How about now?
And with my zoom, I caught this strange photo of the 2 cheetahs with what looks like a one-headed cheetah with 2 bodies.
The scope of the zoo is pretty phenomenal. On the winter day when we visited in December, the weather was very comfortable for traipsing all over the expansive zoo over a 3 hour period (and we didn’t come close to seeing it all).
We saw a lot of animals we’ve never seen before – like the Sand Cat! If you haven’t seen one you must find the enclosure and check it out.
Trains, trains, trains!!! Who knew that this zoo would have one of the most impressive model train displays I’ve ever seen. The engineer actually has a dedicated tower to run the trains! If you have a little train lover then you might as well invest in a membership.
We got up close to some really beautiful and interesting birds.
Check out the plumage on this East African Crowned Crane and then look at what happens when it gets close to the brush.
And what about this African Wood Stork?
The Gecko Gulch Playground and picnic area is definitely the place to hang out in the shade.
There are lots of trees and who doesn’t want to take a ride on a saguaro cactus slide?
There is gold to pan at the playground (fun for getting wet in the heat), rope spiderwebs to climb, and places to crawl.
Give the kids some time here.
The whole area near the playground is actually a wonderland for little ones.
The Endangered Species Carousel has whimsical depictions of animals.
Don’t miss the Discovery Center which has indoor exhibits on fossils and the desert.
Everything in here is touchable with drawers to pull out and exhibits to touch.
My favorite was the burrow display where you can put your hand in the holes to feel what the temperature is at different levels in the desert ground.
I liked that there was so much to see! I want to go back for hiking and more exploring of the garden trails.
Some other animal highlights for me were the jaguar, the wolf, and the cute little burrowing owls.
Finally, the winter WildLights evenings at The Living Desert are pretty magical and worth the visit.
Most of the zoo is closed (you can’t see the animals) — but the trains are running and there are LOTS of lights, a light tunnel that’s choreographed to music, plus carousel and train rides.
There’s also musical entertainment for the family and food for sale like cheeseburgers, mac ‘n cheese, and chili.
Check their calendar to see when it is happening during the holidays.
Summer hours are MUCH earlier with the first admission at 7am and the last admission at 12:30pm for a 1:30pm close from June 1st to September 30th.
Extra costs for shuttle rides, giraffe feedings, and camel rides.
This is the desert and there can be weather extremes, so make sure you check the weather before you go.
WildLights are only during the holidays.
THEN: When we first visited, we purchased a membership ($199 for a family) which paid for itself after our 2nd visit. You can definitely go back during the winter and for WildLights. Plus, it supports the zoo. It would have cost my family of four $100 to visit one time. But during the winter, you can stay from 8am to 5pm and make it an all day event. If I had 2 kids under 3 years old, that price would drop to around $60 for 2 adults.
NOW: Purchasing a membership costs $250 for a family. It would cost my family of four $120 to visit one time — so it would actually take going 3x to make it pay for itself. If I had 2 kids under 3 years old, that price would drop to around $70 for 2 adults.
Something to Consider with Purchasing a Membership: You will be able to get free or reduced admission to more than 150+ AZA-Accredited parter zoos, aquariums, gardens and arboretums throughout the United States and Canada. Click here for the full list. We did make use of this over the year of our membership and saved money.
Disclosure: My family received complimentary tickets to visit The Living Desert WildLights at night. However, we returned the following day and purchased our membership to see The Living Desert during daylight hours. Read full disclosure policy.