On American Trail, visitors will explore and marvel at the biodiversity of the Americas—including an up-close look into the lives, behaviors and interactions of some remarkable animals. Brown pelicans, seals, and sea lions will be on exhibit together, echoing a coastal scene from California. Other animals, such as the gray wolves, will be surrounded by native trees and plants that immerse visitors in North American’s wilderness.
The majority of American Trail species are American success stories, having survived major conservation threats. The bald eagle, North American beaver, brown pelican, and the gray wolf have all been or are currently listed as endangered on the Endangered Speccies List. Conservation efforts—including efforts made by the National Zoo—have helped their populations recover and thrive. But these species remain vulnerable to extinction.
Biodiversity is one of North America’s greatest treasures, and many of American Trail’s animals are considered to be “gems” at the National Zoo. Eight animals on American Trail were rescued from the wild and live here because they would no longer survive in their natural habitats. (In contrast, most animals in the Zoo’s collection were born in human care.)
The largest exhibit on American Trail is the seals and sea lions exhibit.
Seals and seal lions live and frolic in two enormous state-of-the-art pools (the sea lions' pool holds 300,000 gallons, and the seals' pool holds 125,000 gallons of water). The pools mimics the natural coastal waters where seals and sea lions live in the wild. A wave machine keeps the water in constant motion, like the ocean, and provides sensory stimulation for the animals. Although the pool water will start out as fresh (most seals and sea lions in human care live in fresh water) the pools will slowly convert to salt water as the animals acclimatize to the change.
Watch the seals and seal lions propel their large, yet sleek and drag-resistant, bodies through the water from a submerged viewing window, a split-level viewing area, and an above-water viewing area. In the amphitheater, you'll be able to watch training demonstrations that highlight the pinnipeds’ natural behaviors as well as learned behaviors that allow Zoo staff to perform veterinary exams and daily health checkups.
The animal exhibits were designed with natural and artificial comforts. The lodge in the North American beaver exhibit is build of wood that the beavers chewed and placed themselves. (Though, we did help them out by supplementing the lodge with permanent artificial logs.)
Dispersed among boulders, the landscaping for the Zoo’s two gray wolves, recreates a forest setting typical of North America. Native plants provide the two female wolves with enrichment, which encourages natural behaviors. The National Zoo’s park management team, in addition to planting new trees, grasses, and shrubs, also incorporated plants from the original exhibit. A large sycamore tree from the original exhibit, that could not be left standing, has been chopped into pieces and strategically placed throughout the exhibit. The staggered and stacked planks offer the wolves structures that they can climb on and survey their exhibit from, play on, and scent mark, just as they would in the wild. The rear of the exhibit is filled with dense vegetation for the wolves for them to retreat into. The front of their exhibit is more open, to allow for easy visitor viewing.
It's not just the aquatic animals playing in the water on American Trail. At the Tide Pool area, humans young and old dip their toes in a shallow pool that mimics the North American coast. Hidden among the waves and rocks you'll encounter artificial sea life, including barnacles, sea urchins, and sea stars.
Stop along the way and enjoy local Chesapeake Bay seafood (and vegetarian) meals offering meals that feature local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients at Seal Rock Cafe. Menu items include Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certified shrimp and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish.
All of the animal enclosures on American Trail exhibit plants as well as animals native to North America. American Trail represents several different forest scenes found across the continent: coastal upland, wet forest, Eastern woodland forest, and shore and bluffs. The new landscaping includes native trees to grasses and features hundreds of new plantings, including blueberry bushes to willows, marsh grasses, sugar maple trees, and poplar trees.
Special care was taken to preserve the natural wooded area already surrounding American Trail and within its exhibits during construction. A number of older trees had to be cut to make room for exhibit structures, but they were all replaced with several new younger trees. All of the new plantings were approved by the National Zoo’s department of nutrition.