I wouldn’t normally venture out to the Smithsonian National Zoo on a humid Saturday at the end of summer, but this wasn’t an ordinary weekend. After two and a half years of work, the American Trail was reopening to visitors. Did you know that this trail has been part of the National Zoo since the late 1800’s? And that it was originally called “Beaver Valley” before they changed the name in 2007? Or that one of the main reasons for the renovation was that the seal and sea lion pool was leaking over 100,000 gallons of water a day despite efforts to conserve the water? Well, if you didn’t, you just learned your new thing for the day.
|Waterfall Near the Beginning of the Trail|
We started at the part of the trail closest to The Elephant Outpost (which is awesome if you haven’t seen that new addition!) and worked our way down the hill. It was late afternoon and we were finally getting a break from the sun. As we walked along the trail we experienced several of North America’s ecosystems, including coastal upland, wet forest, eastern woodland forest and the shore. The trail ignites all of your senses as it is filled with sounds of running water, a variety of green trees and flora, tall rock walls and smells of the water.
The first animals we saw were the two American river otters. Their exhibit is not as large as the Asian river otters’, but it was fun to watch them swim and wrestle underwater. Next, we saw the North American beavers. The beavers were pretty active, too! This particular exhibit hasn’t changed that much, but you do get a great view of the beavers. One was having a snack on land while the other was busy carrying sticks and such to their dam. My girls just loved going back and forth watching the beaver work. Also included in their exhibit are two hooded merganser ducks, but they were sound asleep on a rock when we were there.
Photo from Smithsonian National Zoo
Adjacent to the beavers are two gray wolves (the white one is beautiful). This species has never been exhibited before at the National Zoo. The white one was in plain view pacing his area. The revamped exhibit allows for visitors to see the wolves better when they are out and about. Don’t worry about the Mexican wolves the Zoo had before on exhibit on the trail. They were part of a conservation release program.
Across from the wolves is a bald eagle. I don’t think people realize how big this bird actually is. I noticed that the exhibit was not enclosed as I remember it being in the past. This is because the eagle fell from its nest when it was young and can not fly. I like the openness of the exhibit and you can get a pretty clear view from a side viewing area.
We did not actually see the raven exhibit, but there are four of them. One of them is a rescue. This is another species the National Zoo has never had on exhibit before.
We didn’t intentionally save the best for last, but it worked out that way! Of course, the big talk has been about the new seal and sea lion exhibit that was being unveiled. I don’t know how many of you remember the old exhibit for the seals and sea lions, but it was more like a huge, white-bottomed swimming pool than a natural habitat for the creatures. This new exhibit is totally different! You will seriously forget you are at the zoo and will be transported to the west coast once you enter this exhibit.
Photo from Smithsonian National Zoo – sign by entrance of tide pool
As we got closer, we could hear children screaming and laughing. I thought the seals and sea lions were swimming and that’s why everyone was so excited. I had totally forgot about the tide pool! My tired husband suggested we walk on by so the girls wouldn’t notice. Granted, we had been at the zoo for a LONG time by then, but I said we should go for it. (I am trying to do more of “living in the moment” these days. The “old” me definitely would’ve agreed with him.) He asked if I was sure and I said let’s get these socks and shoes off!
Photos from Smithsonian National Zoo: Empty tide pool
The tide pool is very kid-friendly and is surrounded with model sea stars, barnacles and sea urchins – which my 3 ½ year old loved searching for and touching. Water shoots up from numerous holes in the ground. I almost got caught over a couple of them, which my husband found very funny. (Did I mention I was wearing a skirt?) Every two minutes, a “tidal wave” sweeps across the area. The water came up to my ankles. My 3 ½ year old would rush up to where the water would come out of and my 17 month old was trying to “catch” the water spewing from the “geysers” around us. My girls love the water, so they had a blast! After we were well soaked, we headed on to the rest of the exhibit.
The first seal we saw was a gray seal. She is a retired NAVY seal whose skills were utilized during the Cold War. (Maybe that’s why she was napping.) She will have three friends join her in the late fall. Two harbor seals will also join the exhibit then. This is another species that the National Zoo has not previously exhibited.
Next, we got to see four very active California sea lions (two which are rescues) and two lazy brown pelicans. Both pelicans have wing injuries that prevent them from being released into the wild.
Trying to touch the sea lion--how precious is that?!
The underwater viewing area was filled with adults and children alike trying to get a glimpse of the sea lions swimming by. This is a great place to just park the stroller and let the sea lions do the entertaining. The sea lions seemed to be showing off by swimming on their backs and looking right at us as they swam by. I could’ve sat there longer myself, but we wanted to give other people a turn.
Photos from Smithsonian National Zoo – This is the view from the seating area pictured below. I love the natural look and feel of it.
As we walked further along the path, we saw this huge seating area where visitors can sit and watch the keeper talks, which happen twice a day. It would be a great place for a break or just for watching the sea lions if they are on the rocks. However, it’s not very shady.
Photo from Smithsonian National Zoo – The hidden gem of the exhibit
We were getting ready to leave the trail when I noticed another path. I decided to go ahead to see what it was. I saw the sign that said “stroller parking” but the kiosk was shut down for the night. So, I peeked in the cave and boy was I taken back! The flooring is soft and bouncy and there is a HUGE underwater viewing area. There is no ambient lighting behind you and except for not being wet, you feel like you are under the water. It really felt like the floor was moving. We took advantage of the fact that we could have our strollers in there and parked the girls for a private show. A few other people meandered through, but other than that we had the cave to ourselves. There is also a small seating area where visitors can sit and watch.
Waiting for the Sea Lions
There is also the Seal Rock Cafe on the trail, but it was closed by the time we made it by there. The cafe serves local Chesapeake Bay seafood meals and it even has a vegetarian option. These meals feature local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients such as shrimp and fish.
The National Zoo did an exceptional job with the American Trail renovation. There is so much more to it than meets the eye. I didn't even mention how so much for the trail was done with "green" thinking in mind. I have spent quite some time reading about the building of the train, the exhibits, and the animals themselves. I definitely recommend that you take the family and learn more about what treasures are around us in our own country- from flora to fauna. The American Trail is certainly an experience for the senses as well as the mind and a great field trip for the entire family!
A Few Tips
-Bring water. I didn't do this and had to shell out $3/bottle and it wasn't even cold. They gave scups of ice, but bottled water was hard to come by that hot, humid day!
-Be prepared to park your stroller to enter the cave
-The closest bathrooms are a three minute walk uphill. They actually have a sign posted with the time!
- Not all parts are shaded, dress for the weather/sun appropriately.
Angela Pounders is a transplant to Manassas Park from Arlington. She is blessed to be a stay at home mama to two beautiful girls. As a former teacher (as well as preschool director and Children and Family Director), she is always on the look out for fun, easy and educational things to do with her girls. She also loves to share her ideas and is looking to start her own blog, The Master’s Daughter, by the fall.