Turtle Back Zoo is located on a plot of land known as South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, New Jersey. As you travel down Northfield Avenue it is quite difficult to miss. It is nestled behind South Mountain Arena, one of the area’s largest ice rinks. This zoo has been around for a long time. I have childhood memories of a much smaller zoo with sea lions splashing everywhere. When I went to Turtle Back, the paths were made of dirt and there wasn’t that much to see. Now, there is a large selection of animals, an aquarium, a carousel, pony rides and an aviary. There is also constant renovation at this site which recently added a unique mini-golf course and many new zoo exhibits.
The zoo itself is very clean, with paved paths in most areas of the zoo. As one enters the zoo you will find a nicely kept zoo store with an assortment of treats for you and your family. As you migrate down the path there is quite a large reptile house. The reptile house holds a giant tortoise, many frogs, salamanders, a giant python and a few varieties of insects. Just beyond the reptile house is one of the crowned jewels of the zoo, the antique choo choo train. The red and blue engines are free to all zoo visitors. The train takes its riders past the City of Orange’s reservoir and through the surrounding woods. Two tunnels make the trip all the more exciting.
Some of the main zoo animals to draw attention are the cougars, the red panda, the new aquarium and of course, the gibbons. The cougars are new additions to Turtle Back, they pace and play to delight all the visitors. The animals that bring the most smiles to zoo patrons are the high flying, gibbons. This playful pair hoots, swings, jumps and hangs in a new exhibit made especially for them. The red panda is beautiful to behold and loves his haunt on his log for all to see. The river otters make quite a show of the water, which makes the water viewing window a popular place to watch. The penguins at feeding time put on a tuxedoed dance and prance as they forage for their fish. The playful prairie dogs dig tunnels as the children go underground to see how they dig around. Finally, the bald eagle graces the zoo with a regal presence that demonstrates why he is the symbol of our nation.
The zoo also has it’s own “Essex Farm” where all can visit the farm animals. The giant pig, cows, lamas, draft horse and chickens are very tame and used to lots of attention. There is also a small petting zoo for the brave where sheep and goats can be fed . Adjacent to the farm is a brand new pony ride center. The ponies are in excellent shape and take children on rides for a mere $2. The farm is quite a bit of fun to visit!
The aviary is one of the favorite places in the zoo. There are a tremendous number of parakeets housed in the aviary. Patrons can purchase a seed stick for $2 and feed the birds as they wind through a path lined with trees. The middle of the aviary sits next to a kangaroo pen. Recently three baby kangaroos became a part of this exhibit. They are very close and easy to see as you move through the aviary. The parakeets are best visited in the early morning. They are quite hungry at this time of day and will readily come to you, your stick or your head (whichever is closest to land on). The birds are tame and make a great treat for those who do not get to spend much time in their company.
If you like to picnic, the zoo offers three different areas to unpack your lunch and eat. If you have forgotten a lunch there is a cafeteria that provides pizza, burgers and hot dogs (and a few more treats) with a seating area. I personally prefer to pack a lunch and enjoy a sunny spot in the shade at one of the zoo’s many picnic tables. All are kept very clean and there are many garbage cans to dispose of your waste. Vending machines are also available for ice cream and sodas throughout the zoo.
Turtle Back Zoo will also have new additions coming in the fall and next year. They plan to add an exhibit called “Big Cat Country” by fall of 2011. This exhibit will house lions and tigers in a cave like setting that visitors can walk into. The feel of the exhibit will give the viewer the impression that they are in a cave. Also planned for the end of Summer 2011 is an Aerial Obstacle course that will feature climbing ropes and a zip line for older children, teens and adults. This will be located next to the already popular zoo carousel. Finally, for the fiftieth anniversary of the zoo, the sea lions will again return to Turtle Back Zoo in a new exhibit home. This zoo continues to grow, prosper and become one of the best places to spend a day in northern New Jersey!