If you’re looking for a unique, family-friendly activity in the Bay Area, look no further than the California Trail at the Oakland Zoo. Now celebrating its one-year anniversary, the eco-friendly exhibit offers gondola rides, an immersive experience in nature and up-close encounters with native California species. Designed by Berkeley-based architectural firm Noll & Tam Architects, in collaboration with zoo exhibit designers PJA of Seattle, the $72 million California Trail project is a triumph in environmental conservation, education and research.

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large zoo building in a forested area

When the California Trail project was completed last July after 20-plus years in the making, the project doubled the size of the Oakland Zoo and added several new native California animal species including American buffalo, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, jaguars, California condors and gray wolves. The 56-acre exhibit includes 26 structures and was carefully designed and constructed for minimal site impact. To further reduce landscape impact, the design team decided against developing roads and parking lots in favor of an aerial gondola that whisks visitors over the landscape to the start of the trail.

gondola over forested area at sunset
people looking at bears behind glass wall

“We worked closely with PJA and the zoo to minimize impact to the natural landscape, from the placement of the gondola that eliminates auto traffic to the careful siting of the boardwalk that preserves oak trees,” noted Janet Tam, principal in charge of the project. “The design intertwines animal habitats with human habitats; animals have their feeding grounds and night houses to retreat to, much like visitors enjoy the Landing Cafe for refreshment then stroll over to the Interpretive Center for quiet reflection.”

Related: Newly opened Los Gatos Library by Noll & Tam Architects pursuing LEED Gold

woodlined room with information on California condors
outdoor round wood pergola

Visitors journey to different exhibitions via an 800-foot-long elevated boardwalk, which loops back around to the 20,150-square-foot Visitor and Interpretative complex that offers information about the history of the animals and the state of California. The California Trail also includes The Landing Cafe, an overnight campground and a playground designed to reflect the ecological zones of California. The buildings’ environmental impact is reduced even more with the use of solar power and rainwater harvesting.

+ Noll & Tam Architects

Photography by Eric Dugan Photography via Noll & Tam Architects

visitor center near forest and mountains