A California diary… Bob and Tigg on tour in 2005
10 days in southern California… day three
San Diego… and a world-class zoo


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on September 5, 2005. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

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Day three, Monday, April 18, 2005

If you are planning to comment about my earlier observation that I haven’t seen any system for labeling exit signage on the highway with letters, numbers or anything beyond a street name… you can stop. (Oh, send it along if you want to. I like mail. I’d love to hear from you. But driving south to San Diego this morning for a day at the San Diego Zoo, I see numbered exit signs. Amazing.)

A couple of other interesting observations…

Camp Pendleton. I’m sure for some of you, daily life involves a military base in some way. You work at one… live at one… drive past one. Something. Well, for people like me that don’t experience this every day, it is quite a shock to be driving along, blink your eyes, glance to the side of the road, and suddenly see a huge tank cruising along literally right next to the highway. I see submarines occasionally. Planes every so often. Tanks? Next to the highway? No.

Stop lights on an on-ramp. Really. Red lights right there at the top of the on-ramp. Unbelievable. They basically allow traffic to enter one car at a time, which assists in the problems that might be created by merging traffic during rush hour. Or, at least that’s what it seemed to do for the week we encountered them. Funny side story… A few weeks after this trip, I went to Chicago with my Dad. One evening, we stopped for dinner, and then got back in the car and drove toward the on-ramp. There was a red light at the top of the ramp. Well, I had seen these in California, wasn’t shocked to see it here, and I stopped. Dad on the other hand almost dove out of the car trying to curl himself up for the impact he figured had to be coming since there was no other earthly reason for me to be stopping at the top of an on-ramp. When I pointed to the light, he was amazed, because he had never seen such a thing.

You know those “adopt a highway” programs you see just about any place you drive? Well, they actually take them seriously in southern California. As in, seriously enough that there are clean sections of highway with trash bags of collected material set aside near the signs for pick-up. Really… clean highways.

Today we’re heading along for a day at the zoo, and this is something all of us have been looking forward to for quite some time. I’m not sure why I like visiting zoos so much… perhaps memories from my childhood.

We arrive at the San Diego Zoo, and we need to talk about tickets… because one of the ticket options is why I have to agree with Tigg, who said as we were leaving: “I think I liked the National Zoo better.”

Adult tickets for the zoo cost $32 per person. As is the case with several theme parks, there are options available to build upon that pricing and the offerings that go along with it. For instance, the San Diego Zoo is associated with the Wild Animal Park (we didn’t go there, but it looks very interesting), and you can purchase tickets to visit both locations at a discount with a two-day, two-park pass. There is another package that incorporates Sea World. (Again, we didn’t visit that park. We’ve seen one in Orlando, and may be headed back this November. Decided not to visit this one.) There are also some great options involving hotel packages. And then there are options involving just your visit to the San Diego Zoo, and how you plan to get around once inside. For our admission, we have opted to pay and get unlimited use of the guided bus and sky ride (called an aerial tram on the ticket portion of the web site, Skyfari when you are inside).

And… problem.

We get inside and decide to stay together as a group for a little while. Looking at the map, we figure a ride on the Skyfari will take us to the other side of the park, and also allow us to get a great view of the zoo. Kind of take in the whole thing before we really start wandering around.

We get on at the Skyfari East station. We ride over: the Reptile House, Scripps Aviary, Tiger River, Gorilla Tropics, The Treehouse, and a few other exhibits. At least the map says we rode over them. See, the foliage was so thick we couldn’t see anything underneath us except for the tops of trees. So… yeah… nice ride, but not exactly for what it offers of the zoo.

Now don’t mistake the comment I quoted about the National Zoo a few moments ago as saying we didn’t like the San Diego Zoo. All of us liked it… a lot. It is definitely the world-class facility it advertises itself to be. And we would welcome the opportunity to return. But when you compare the ticket prices -- well over $100 for a family of four in San Diego to get inside... free admission in Washington, D.C. -- I think there are legitimate comparison questions to consider based on costs alone. While some of the exhibits in San Diego were beautiful and included animals I had never seen before, some main areas… pandas, gorillas, assorted monkeys… were flat out nicer in Washington. The exhibits of elephants and bears were pretty much a wash between the two places.

But enough about that stuff… because this was a good day and I don’t want to waste it with the appearance that I’m complaining. Let’s get back to the start of our visit…

We walk onto the main grounds and directly over to the Flamingo Lagoon. Between the flamingos and the peacocks, the pictures seem to be coming out wonderful and from very close range. From there we head over to the Reptile House… interesting, but, yeah, yuck... and then over to the Skyfari ride I already noted.

We get off at the Skyfari West station and wander a few steps over to see some takins. Beautiful animals… and none of us had ever heard of them before.

Our group heads over to the Polar Bear Plunge and we come down the outer edge of the zoo grounds, eventually reaching one of the completely unexpected treats from our visit… a hippo.

With huge windows on one side of the exhibit pool and a bridge with an observation area on the other side, we stayed to watch a hippopotamus play with a ball for at least twenty to thirty minutes. To give you a good idea of what a strange treat this was, Tigg and I were watching some ducks (one older, several ducklings) swim at the edge of the pool. They got out of the water and paraded across the foot path. It was one of those rare, very cute moments that you stumble into and can never plan.

As we leave the area, the, umm, fun begins. We get lost… and I’m going to contend it isn’t our fault.

We’re entering a section called Tiger River. Our plan is to see the tigers, then turn up a path labeled on the map as leading to the Gorilla Tropics and pygmy chimps… and ultimately to where we expect to eat lunch, The Treehouse. But there are stairs, dividing paths, and unlabeled walkways. The boys go one way, and Tigg and I another. We eventually manage to see a tiger (barely… as is the case in most zoos, some of the animals know where to hide when they aren’t moving around) and find the home of the chimps. When we can’t find the boys, a call is placed to Jay’s phone and we manage to meet up at the gorillas.

Tigg could stand next to the gorillas for an entire day if you don’t nudge her along. Today is no different, and when the keepers begin to feed them, she goes through a ton of film taking pictures of the largest gorilla eating a tomato. Finally, lunch gets the vote.

We walk over to a place called The Treehouse. The paths leading around it are about as amazing and poorly planned as I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to explain… really needs to be experienced… but other than an elevator (necessary for any entrance not involving stairs and climbs), we only found one way in and one way out.

A couple of sodas… a couple of sandwiches… a wallet $54 lighter.


It was here that we saw several people pulling sandwiches out of a bag. If you are planning on visiting the San Diego Zoo… keep this in mind. You may want to call and confirm things with them, but bringing in a packed lunch would be more convenient and significantly less expensive.

We begin walking along the back paths that lead from the orangutans down to the bears and over to the pandas. (By the way, be careful with the map in this area because they aren’t kidding… it’s an escalator and it runs up.) The line into the pandas isn’t bad and we are walking past them pretty quickly. One is taking a nap and another is snacking away. Great to see.

We’ve now gone from what I’ll call the back of the zoo (according to the map it’s the west area) to the front (the east… close to the main entrance). We’re standing next to the loading area for the Bus Tour… so the boys take off on their own, and Tigg and I decide to take a ride.

Folks… I may have been unimpressed by the sky ride… I was very impressed with the bus tour. The property has lots of climbs… stairs and hills. It just so happens that as a fluke, by heading to the west section on the Skyfari and turning the way we did, it felt like we were heading downhill while moving to the eastern sections. We didn’t plan it that way. Riding on the bus we learn exactly how steep some locations are. The bus tour takes about a half-hour, and they say it covers about 75% of the grounds... which it definitely does. The drivers know passengers are looking for information about some of the animals, good views, and a few pictures… and our driver didn’t disappoint us. We had some wonderful views of the elephants and a rhinoceros, and get a guided, chauffeured, great trip around the zoo. Highly recommended.

Here’s a side note to sum up the visit… I don’t know that I have ever seen a collection of animals that look as healthy as those here at the San Diego Zoo. Every place we look the animals appear to be well cared for, and... dare I say… happy.

It was a very good day. I want to stress again that the park was very nice and we head a great time. The place is highly recommended by our group.

I just also need to be honest and say that for the cost of our family membership at the Roger Williams Park Zoo (which allows us to visit other zoos and currently costs less than two adult tickets for the San Diego Zoo), or for free at the National Zoo, we have seen some wonderful properties that may not be as extensive as San Diego… they are certainly not lost in its shadow.

We stop at a restaurant we had never heard of for dinner… Claim Jumper. I have no idea why, perhaps it was that he had one on his wrist, but Justin calls Jay the “Rubber Band Man”. The food was good… but I seem to recall it was a bit pricey. Can’t say why that thought has stuck with me. (Also can’t say why we spent a good portion of the dinner having Tigg sing the song that Justin placed in our heads.)

We’re heading back to the resort and that’s a good thing. We have a long day planned for tomorrow… including four to six hours of driving to make the round trip. We’re heading out to the Joshua Tree National Park.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com