Discovering Columbia SC: RiverBanks Zoo + Botanical Garden

My mom and I decided to spend the Thanksgiving weekend, taking in the sights of South Carolina’s state capital city- Columbia. Located in the heart of South Carolina’s Midland region, this is a city filled with history – from the legacy of Native American peoples (Conagaree and Catawba) to The Revolutionary War and Civil War and beyond, past meets the present here.

Founded in 1786 as the capital of The Palmetto State, Columbia is home to The University of South Carolina and numerous museums.

It’s location at the confluence of three rivers – The Saluda, Broad, and Congaree Rivers makes Columbia a top recreation destination. South Carolina’s only National Park – Congaree is located less than twenty minutes from downtown Columbia.

Nicknamed SODA City because of it’s abbreviated name – COLA, Downtown Columbia is home to top museums and revitalized historic districts with hotels, shopping and dining options to satisfy your thirst for a good time.

We’re starting our Columbia adventure at the city’s ‘wildest’ destination – The Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden. With over 2000 animals and 4,300 species of plants – Riverbanks Zoo takes you around the world in 180 minutes.

I am an animal lover and make a point to visit regional AZA approved zoos when I travel. We enjoyed a trip to Zoo Atlanta to see the pandas in May (22). So, when I heard about Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo I knew I had to visit.

Conveniently located within ten minutes of downtown, The Riverbanks Zoo spans 170 acres, including picturesque riverfront views of the Saluda River.

We arrived just after ten a.m; the mild temps and overcast skies were perfect for a walk around the zoo.

You can download a zoo map here.

We started our zoo ‘safari’ with a stop at the grizzly habitat. The massive bear was cuddled up in a corner in a deep sleep – or torpor, which is a mini hibernation. I can relate – without a morning cup of coffee I’m bear-ly awake.

  • fun fact: You may remember our trip to Yellowstone earlier this year…Yellowstone is home to one of the largest grizzly bears in the Lower 48.
  • Grizzlies can weigh over 900 pounds
  • They raise their cubs for three years in the wild
  • Click here for more fun facts about grizzles here

Continuing down the path we saw enjoyed learning about the Hamadryas Baboons that were enjoying a bit of fun in their interactive habitat. Hamadryas have large cheeks with pouches to store food (like chipmunks) to eat later. In the wild, baboons feed on roots, fruits, nuts, tubers grasses, vegetables, eggs and small animals.

From Riverbanks Zoo website

We loved seeing the Lions as they prowled their ‘savanna’ at feeding time. They are truly majestic creatures.

The gorgeous Amur Tiger peeked out its cave, yawning and stretching its stripes. Can’t blame a tiger for taking a cat nap…Amur Tigers, also known as Siberian Tigers are native to Russia, China and possibly North Korea – they are threatened in the wild. This tiger so beautiful with big eyes and unique stripes.

The Gorillas were having.a ball – as the ‘teen’ gorillas were chasing each other and wrestling. The parents watched on and seemed to be having a bit of conversation. I could have watched them all day long!

Going down-under:

The Riverbanks Zoo is one of the only zoos on the east coast that is home to koalas – and I must say their cuteness calms the soul. I didn’t take pictures of the koalas as they were sleeping and scrunched up in the tree. With each breath their big ears twitched a bit.

  • Fun facts:
    • Koalas are not bears, but marsupials. Marsupials are mammals that carry their young in their pouch while they develop. Koalas are born blind, deaf, and as small as a jellybean. After their birth, baby koalas (or joeys) have to crawl into their mothers pouches, where they’ll stay for six months.
    • Koalas eat eucalyptus leaves and only eucalyptus leaves. These leaves are toxic to all other species of animals…they love to eat and sleep!

Not far from the koala knockabout, hang out with wallabies and kangaroos. This is a an open area where you walk right beside these Aussie-amazing creatures on a designated path. The Red Kangaroo was a bit shy, but we made friends with a wallaby. Like koalas, kangaroos and wallabies are marsupials. Click here to learn more.

Other animal highlights:

  • Giraffes – so elegant and graceful I enjoyed watching them graze the wide open grazing land. The zoo does a great job with creating the habitats to be enriching and authentic for each animal

You can sign up to feed a giraffe for an extra fee…

  • Zebras
  • Rhinos (see my pic at top at post – one rhino was sleeping and the other too were roaming around when we visited)
  • Komodo Dragon- the largest lizards in the world (native to Indonesia)
  • Penguins
  • Alligator
  • Flamingoes – can live up to 30 (even 50 years in captivity)
Photo by Davor Eres on

Encounters with the wild…one of my favorite spots in the zoo is the Conservation Outpost, which features a number of unique and threatened animals.

I fell in love with The Fishing Cat (see stock image above, as my camera died) – twice the size of a house cat, the fishing cat is native to south and southeast Asia. It lives in wetlands, rivers, oxbow lakes and mangroves where it swims for fish! Yes this cat loves to swim (unlike my sweet house tabby).

We also met the adorable but fierce black-footed cat; the smallest cat in Africa – it is also the most efficient hunter.

This section of the zoo also includes:

  • Ringtail Lemurs
  • Hoffman’s Two-Toe Sloths
  • White Faced Saki Monkey (can jump up to 30 feet!)

I fell in love with the Sea Lion habitat, which recreates a bit of San Francisco’s Pier 39…Hang out with California Sea Lions and seals as they swim in the water, and have a bit of fun.

  • Sea Lions are HUGE – but extremely agile. Male California Sea Lions can grow up to 900 pounds in the summer. During mating season, sea lions pick a spot on the beach to defend and then stay at that spot. They don’t eat anything at this time, but instead focus on finding a mate
  • The are fierce predators primarily eating fish and squid. Male sea lions can eat over 40 pounds of food per day!

The seals were adorable with their feisty personalities and unique spotted markings.

Photo by David Vives on – I chose this stock photo because it reflects their life sitting on the pier in San Francisco. At the Riverbanks Zoo, they have a large pool to swim in and area to rest and sunbath as needed.

I spent over half an hour watching the seals and sea lions making waves.

Fun among the animals…

In addition to the AMAZING animals, the zoo has tons of fun educational and exciting activities for families from a train ride, to ropes course, zip line, petting zoo and more.

You can easily spend an entire day at the zoo and when hunger pangs and thirst set in – you’ll be able to grab a delicious meal or snack at one of the restaurants or outposts throughout the park.

  • The zoo hosts special events throughout the year including ‘Boo at the Zoo’ or ‘Lights at Riverbanks – for Christmas.’ Get the details here.

A River Runs Through It:

After three hours ‘talking’ to the animals, we headed to the zoo’s riverfront access on The Saluda River…This pedestrian bridge connects the zoo to the botanical gardens.

With rain probable, we unfortunately had to forgo the gardens for a future trip. The gardens are expansive and filled with floral wonder. A waterfall splash park connected to the gardens is a fun spot for kids to cool off in the summer…

  • Fun fact: The Saluda River is 200 miles long and runs from just north of Greenville, SC all the way to it’s mouth at The Congaree River

A bridge between parks…the pedestrian bridge that crosses this section of The Saluda River, connecting Zoo to Gardens holds historic significance.

“Riverbanks Zoo and Garden not only serves to protect rare and endangered wildlife and wild places, but also safeguards a number of South Carolina’s significant historical landmarks.” – from Riverbanks Zoo website.

The Riverbanks Zoo’s waterfront is a designated spot on the National Register of Historic Places. This land has witnessed human history from South Carolina’s early settlers work in the textile industry to the Civil War.

Walking across the current pedestrian bridge over The Saluda River, I learned that a covered bridge used to be in this spot, until it was burned during The Civil War.

  • In February 1865, Confederate troops burned down the old State Road Bridge (current site of pedestrian bridge) in hopes of stopping General Sherman’s army from entering the city of Columbia. Unfortunately their efforts failed a piece of history was lost.
  • You can see the remnants of the original granite abutments on opposite banks of the river, and supporting pier foundations at the base of two small river islands.

Crossing the bridge, a trail guides you to several other historic sites, including The Saluda Factory Ruins (the site of one of the oldest mills in South Carolina)

The Riverbanks Zoo is a treasure – a coming together of wildlife preservation, animal encounters, history and botanical wonders. I cannot wait to visit again during a future trip to Columbia.

To purchase tickets and plan your Riverbanks Zoo trip click here.

On our next Columbia adventure we’ll check out the cities unknown museums, before a day-trip to nearby Congaree National Park.

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