One of the nation’s best, if underrated, zoos and South Carolina ’s most popular single attraction, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden (500 Wildlife Pkwy., 803/779-8717, www.riverbanks.org , Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 9 a.m.–6 p.m. in spring and summer, $9.75 adults, $7.25 children, under 3 free) is a fairly unique combo site. Not only do you get a crackerjack zoo (nearly 400 species are represented) with an extensive environmental and educational component, but a beautiful and well-done botanical garden as well.
The seriousness of Riverbanks’s mission is underscored by the fact that their two best exhibits might be something of a surprise. Their 20,000-square foot Aquarium Reptile Complex is a stunning and vibrantly colorful collection of reptiles, fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. It may not sound like much fun just reading about it, but this will be one of the highlights of your trip.
Another particularly outstanding collection is the Birdhouse, which actually comprises three separate avian habitats: Penguin Coast, featuring several different species of the always-popular swim-happy birds; Asian Trek, featuring many exotic species from the far east; and Savanna Camp, with birds from Africa and South America.
You’ll also get plenty of meat-and-potatoes zoo action as well, with a focus on a typical range of African mammals, from elephants to zebra to giraffe to a particularly good gorilla exhibit.
When my daughter and I visited Riverbanks in summer 2008, a gorgeous litter of the cutest lion cubs you’ve ever seen was on display, spending most of their time sleeping and drinking milk from a bottle. They’re not cubs anymore, and those lions now have their own dedicated habitat. And speaking of lions—sea lions, that is—Riverbanks has a large sea lion habitat with regular shows and feedings at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The Riverbanks Zoo is only part of the picture, however. Take a free, regular tram from the zoo grounds to the 70-acre botanical garden, one of the most extensive in the South. The tram drops you off at a nice little visitors center run by Clemson University. The highlight of the site is the 34,000-square foot Walled Garden, intricate with mazes and lush with colorful flowers.
There’s also a Bog Garden, for water-loving plants, a peaceful Shade Garden, an exquisite Rose Garden (with a nice selection of Noisettes, a popular native flower), and the eccentric Dry Garden out front in the parking lot, featuring drought-resistant species.
The “river” in Riverbanks is the Saluda River, across which the tram travels to and from the two attractions. A River Trail in the botanical garden takes you from the Saluda River Bridge down along a path to the ruins of the old Saluda River Factory.
Dating from 1830, the Factory is one of South Carolina ’s oldest textile mills and, at one time, the largest in the South. This is actually a separate historic district in its own right, since at one time there was a general store, tavern, and several boarding houses here.
If zoos aren’t your thing, or you object to them on ethical grounds, you can simply visit the botanical garden by itself. It has its own separate entrance from the West Columbia side. Admission is the same whether or not you go to the zoo, however.
Some tips on enjoying Riverbanks: It gets hot in Columbia . Go early in the day or late in the day to see the animals at their best. Regardless of the heat, Riverbanks begins attracting heavy crowds just before lunchtime. If crowds bother you, get there right as it opens. When you enter, take stock of the rotating schedule of exhibits, programs, show times, and feeding times before you set off on your trek through the zoo.
Riverbanks couldn’t be easier to get to. It’s just off I-26 at the Greystone Boulevard exit.