Seattle's Child

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Cougar Mountain Zoo

(All photos and video by Jasmin Thankachen)

Parent review: Cougar Mountain Zoo has all the animals, minus the crowds

An enjoyable afternoon with lots of learning ... and easy social distancing.

Quick, kids: It’s sunny! Let’s get outside.

That’s just what we did on a clear Wednesday afternoon, escaping a weeklong stretch of pouring rain and gray clouds. Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah was our destination. It turned out to be an excellent choice for outdoor fun and learning.

Cougar Mountain Zoo

Ready to head into the zoo.

Getting there & admission

After a 40-minute ride from our home on the Eastside, my kids (Nikhil, 9, and Simon, 7) were excited to see all the animals. Cougar Mountain Zoo, one of the smaller zoos in Washington, has an eclectic mix of animals, including cougars, tigers, cranes, wallabies, alpacas, lemurs, macaws and even reindeer.

Nestled at the top of a hill, surrounded by tall trees and a dense forest, Cougar Mountain Zoo is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or until dusk during the winter months). Tickets and memberships can be purchased online (children under 2 are admitted free) for guaranteed entry. We took a chance and purchased our tickets at the window.

There were not many cars in the small parking lot. Only three other families were exploring the zoo grounds, so it was a socially distanced and safe activity. With masks on, we entered through the gates and started our animal adventure.

Cougars and tigers

Following a one-way path, we stopped to see the cougars, and then the tigers. Two of the cougars cuddled together, sleeping in their den, while the other lounged on the top of another den, catching the warm rays of the sun.

A zookeeper stopped by to say hello at the tiger exhibit. The slow days and the limited numbers of guests allow for more interaction between the keepers and patrons. We were able to ask questions about the animals and learn many interesting facts about the tigers (and best friends) Bagheera, Vitez and Taj.

We learned about the extra precautions taken at the zoo, like the barred barriers that further separate the animals from humans because of COVID-19. (Animals can get coronavirus too!)

Bagheera, excited to see his keeper, chuffed and hoisted himself up the barred wall to his exhibit. The keeper chuffed back, a way of saying hello to him.

A few minutes later, Bagheera and Vitez showed us an impressive display of play, extending their bodies up and over one another. We eventually saw one tiger spray the exhibit, marking his territory. “Whoa! Did you see that?! They’re playing with each other!” my kids said. It was a treat to witness that moment.

Interacting with the macaws

We saw amazing interaction among many of the animals at Cougar Mountain Zoo that day. We moved on to visiting the other animals, stopping at the macaw exhibit to admire the colorful feathers and large, sharp, hooklike beaks.

The macaws were perched on platforms in open exhibits, and we were surprised to see that none were flying around … and equally surprised to hear them speak to us! Squawking “hello” and “bye-bye,” they left us in stitches with their loud responses and nodding heads.

Due to the recent reports of the Avian Flu, the zoo is taking necessary precautions to protect their bird population. Some birds may not be on display for public viewing.

Cougar Mountain Zoo

A highly interactive macaw entertains visitors.

Other animal exhibits

On the trail, we visited the black and white ruffed lemurs leaping onto ropes in their exhibit. We glimpsed the gray wolves lying in the cool grass and bowed down to the West African crowned cranes with their colorful, spiky headdresses.

Be sure not to miss the alpacas. We weren’t able to purchase feed for them, like in non-COVID times, but they were interesting to observe with their sidelong grins and ragged coats. One followed us from fence to fence, waiting for a handout.

Alpaca at the Cougar Mountain Zoo.

If you have any Santa believers in your family, the reindeer exhibit will knock their socks off. During the winter holidays, the Cougar Mountain Zoo hosts a reindeer festival with decorations, lights, a visit with Santa and, of course, reindeer!

The keepers were packing things away from this holiday event, but the reindeer stay and roam the large grounds all year. “So, where’s Rudolph? I don’t see him!” asked Simon. (You can find him from the observation deck, which is limited to one family at a time.)

“Where’s Rudolph?!” Look for him at the Cougar Mountain Zoo.

The nitty-gritty

We completed our walk around the zoo in an hour and a half, leaving plenty of time to go back and visit our favorite exhibits again. There are many places to rest and have a snack or lunch. Restrooms are also available for use. Bring your own food. The gift shop is open daily and snack stands are open, sparingly, on the weekend.

Watch your little ones around the many animal statues at the zoo. All are now roped off with signs that say “No climbing, sitting or touching.”

On your way out, don’t forget to check out the cougar sculptures by the entrance and make a wish (with three coins — one for each cougar) at the fountains.

Cougar Mountain Zoo offers tours with docents for small groups or pods. You can inquire with the zoo’s education department for more information on cost and availability.

The Zoo is closed on Mondays/Tuesdays and open 9:30-5:00 Wednesday thru Sunday.

Rainy-day activity approved

The zoo is stroller-friendly and easy on little legs, so families will find this a lovely day trip. It’s something you can do, even on a rainy day!

Our favorite part of the zoo: “I loved the macaws! Bye-bye,” said Nikhil.

This story was first published on Jan. 19, 2021. Updated June 2022.

More animal encounters:

Best family farms and petting zoos around Seattle

Sammamish Animal Sanctuary: unplugged, outdoor family fun

Fall City Wallaby Ranch: Real, live kangaroos!



About the Author

Jasmin Thankachen

Jasmin is the Associate Publisher at Seattle's Child and an Eastside mom of two boys. She enjoys parenting with lots of love and laughter. Co-Founder of PopUp StoryWalk, she also loves children's picture books, essay writing, and community stories.