Turtle Back Zoo is zoo and animal sanctuary in West Orange in the County of Essex, NJ. Established to provide an enriching recreational experience for the community of Essex County that also fosters and inspires an interest in wildlife education and conservation, Turtle Back Zoo aims to encourage the community and future generations to appreciate, understand, and protect the natural and now fragile environment around us.


Turtle Back Zoo was founded and opened in 1963 with a collection of 140 animals across 40 species. The zoo was named after a rock formation located on the county’s South Mountain Reservation, which the Lenape Indians called Turtle Back Rock, due to the tortoise-shell like the pattern of the rock formations. The Zoo’s collection of animals grew, and by 1973 it housed 850 animals of 275 species, and a Zoological Society was established promote and provide funding to the zoo.

The Zoo underwent a major renovation in 2000 in which many of the antiquated cages were replaced with larger, naturalistic habitats, and the Essex County Animal Hospital was added to serve as an animal care and quarantine facility for the growing animal collection. A new 11,000 square foot complex featuring a new visitor friendly entrance and exit, two classrooms and an auditorium, a 4,000 square foot reptile center, and a walk-through gift shop was also built. A new picnic pavilion and animal-themed playground were later added.


Turtle Back Zoo features a wealth of animal exhibits, habitats, and displays that showcase animals from every continent in their natural environments. Exhibits range from African Adventure, Amazing Asia and Big Cat Country to Wild New Jersey, Wolf Woods, and Sea Turtle Recovery, and include American black bears, Filipino golden-mantled flying foxes, prairie dogs and wolves, and American alligators, and more. The Essex Farm is home to a range of farm animals and includes a petting zoo, where children can get up close and personal with sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens and other farm animals, while the Tropical Currents Aquarium houses an impressive array of fish and other marine creatures fish from around the world.

The vast three-acre African Adventure attraction is designed to mimic an African Savannah and features eland, ostriches, zebra, tortoises and four majestic Masai giraffes. The Southwest United States themed Big Cat Country exhibit features rock outcroppings, a waterfall, and native Southwest plantings and is home to cougars and jaguars. It has an indoor winter refuge area for the animals in the colder months and is also used as a breeding facility.

The 4,000-square-foot Reptile Center houses a pair of nine-foot-long monitor lizards known as ‘black dragons,’ along with an array of snakes, lizards, salamanders and more, while the 11,000-square-foot gibbon habitat is home to the zoo’s two gibbons.

The Sea Lions and Touch Tank exhibit feature an 82,000-gallon pool for sea lions and a 1,600-gallon touch tank for sting rays, where visitors can touch and feel stingrays and sharks. This exhibit also has space for education programs and special events.

Other attractions

Other attractions and facilities at the Turtle Back Zoo, which form part of the South Mountain Recreation Complex, include a train ride called the Safari Express, which visitors can use to explore the grounds, an old-fashioned carousel, and a children’s playground. The Turtle Back Zoo Safari Mini Golf course replicates three African regions, namely the African Grasslands, the Sahara Desert, and the Congo with Mount Kilimanjaro in the center of the course. The 19-hole course contains various animal sculptures, such as an elephant, a camel, a gorilla, a lion and more. There is also a Treetop Adventure Ropes Course for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers, a butterfly tent and aviary to explore, pony rides, an ice skating arena, face painting and paddle boating on the waterfront of the Orange Reservoir.

Visitor Information

Turtle Back Zoo is located on Northfield Avenue in West Orange and is open to the public from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm daily. The newly renovated Savanna Café offers ample seating for large groups and serves a variety of light meals, snacks, and drinks. There is also a bar area that can be used for private functions and events.

560 Northfield Avenue, West Orange, NJ 07052, website, Phone: 973-731-5800

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