The Smithsonian’s National Zoo began on the National Mall in 1889. Located behind the Smithsonian Castle, the popular exhibit showcased black bears, eagles, and bison; it drew thousands of visitors every day.
The space that American Trail occupies has been a part of the National Zoo since the late 1800s. The Zoo named the original trail “Beaver Valley” after a family of wild beavers that once lived in that area. A variety of North American species lived in that exhibit, including: wolves, foxes, bears, sea lions and a polar bear. Over the years, the species exhibited in the Beaver Valley area changed, and the Zoo saw a need to make room for the North American beavers, mountain lions, bobcats, bald eagles, brown pelicans, gray seals, California sea lions, many species of ducks and geese, North American river otters, and white-tailed deer that became part of the collection. In 1976, the Zoo renovated Beaver Valley with modern filtration systems for the various pools and added heated pools for the otters and wolves.
Thirty years later, the National Zoo wanted to renovate the exhibit once again with a focus on the magnificent diversity of North American species. In 2007, the Zoo’s design and development team renamed Beaver Valley as American Trail, highlighting animals native to the United States and Canada that were once in danger of becoming extinct but have come back from the brink and are thriving because of conservation efforts.
As a proactive conservation organization, the Zoo wanted to create an exhibit that not only employed the best practices in animal care, but also one that was constructed with and operated using sustainable practices. To that end, American Trail was designed to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards and features many green elements, including: recycled and filtered water from the District of Columbia’s water system; materials with recycled content; certified wood; rain garden drainage methods; cut-off light fixtures to reduce light pollution; and other environmentally sound materials and practices.
American Trail opened Sept. 1, 2012 with:
In late fall 2012, American Trail visitors will also encounter two harbor seals—a species that the Zoo has not exhibited previously.
Although many North American species are now regarded as treasures to be protected, their conservation was not always a priority. The majority of American Trail species have rebounded after facing severe threats. The bald eagle, North American beaver, brown pelican, and the gray wolf were all once listed as endangered. Conservation efforts—including efforts made by the National Zoo—have helped recover their populations. Seven animals on American Trail were rescued from the wild. These individuals remind visitors of the fragility of North American ecosystems as well as the amazing resilience these animals possess.
American Trail’s new amenities are not just for animals. The path that runs through American Trail is compliant with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. A new food kiosk—the Seal Rock Cafe—will serve visitors fresh, local, sustainable seafood options that change with the seasons. At the Tide Pool area, humans young and old can dip their toes in a shallow pool that contains artificial sea life such as barnacles, sea urchins and sea stars.