The Northern Trail at the Minnesota Zoo

Last updated on October 17th, 2018

While I was at the Minnesota Zoo last weekend specifically to spend time learning to take pictures of birds along the Tropical Trail, it was a nice enough day that I also spent some time exploring the Northern Trail.

This section of the zoo features animals from cold weather climates around the world, all of which are well-adapted to winter in Minnesota. I walked it counter-clockwise with an off-duty zoo volunteer. It was great to share the trail with a photographer who knew so much about the animals we were seeing. Still, we didn’t get good views and photos of all the animals along the way, so the following is just a sampler of what we saw.

The first animals along the way were a couple of young tigers, but they weren’t being very cooperative. On the other hand, a young moose in a nearby enclosure was willing to come forward and pose for us!

Young moose at the Minnesota Zoo -

Young moose at the Minnesota Zoo -

While the number of moose in Minnesota has dropped precipitously, they are much more common in other parts of the world.

The caribou, on the other hand, weren’t at all interested in posing for us.

Caribou at the Minnesota Zoo -

(At least I saw a few. I never spotted any at all in the Canadian mountain parks last summer.)

Dholes are wild Asian dogs. They live and hunt in packs and are endangered throughout their native range in Asia; they are also rarely found in North American zoos, making seeing a pack a special treat. And we were lucky to see them moving around their enclosure at the zoo.

Asian dogs at the Minnesota Zoo -

Asian dogs at the Minnesota Zoo -

Of all the animals we see, I’m most taken aback by the camels. (Camels? In winter?) I even asked my off-duty zoo guide friend for confirmation that these are, indeed, Bactian camels from the Gobi Desert.

Camels at the Minnesota Zoo -

Camels at the Minnesota Zoo -

Unlike the dromedary camels of the Middle East and African deserts (which I have both seen and used for transportation in Egypt and Morocco), these bactian camels have two humps (the better to store fat during lean times) and are well-adapted to the huge fluctuations in temperatures that can be found in the Gobi Desert.

This duo is a mother and calf (maybe Jenny and her son Forrest, born last spring), which explains all the affectionate nuzzling. (I don’t generally think of camels as affectionate!)

The Zoo’s bactian camels are from domesticated stock, rather than (genetically distinct) wild stock. While domesticated camels are common in the Gobi, their wild cousins are highly endangered.

Aside from black bears, the only animal I remember from my last visit to the Minnesota Zoo 15 or maybe 20 years ago are the Asian wild horses. I remember them as Przewalski’s horses (named for the Russian scientist who identified them) with pale coloring and stiff dark manes that made them particularly striking.

Wild horses at the Minnesota Zoo -

Wild horses at the Minnesota Zoo -

Wild horses at the Minnesota Zoo -

What I didn’t remember was how extraordinarily endangered they were, having actually gone extinct in the wild in the 1960s. Since that time the Minnesota Zoo and others have worked together to re-establish wild populations in the grasslands of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. At least in theory you can again see these horses on the steppes of Asia and Eurasia, although you are probably guaranteed to sight a few of them when you visit the Minnesota Zoo!

From Asia the trail takes us firmly back to the USA for a bit, with exhibits featuring prairie dogs, bison, and pronghorn antelope. None of these are particularly cooperative subjects, but I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing all of these in their native habitat at least a few times.

American prong horn at the Minnesota Zoo -

The takin exhibit transports us back to Asia again, this time to the high mountain slopes where takin can still be found in the wild. The Minnesota Zoo has several Sichuan takin, one of four subspecies.

Asian wild goat at the Minnesota Zoo -

Asian wild goat at the Minnesota Zoo -

Things were pretty quiet when we arrived at the Tiger Base Camp, with one lone Amur tiger (probably Molniy, an adult male, rather than his mate Angara) resting under the trees near the lookout.

Tiger at the Minnesota Zoo -

The zoo actively breeds these rare Amur tigers and currently has four tigers, including a pair of young adults that were raised together as cubs. (We saw those two earlier in our visit, but weren’t able to photograph them very well.) As their range has decreased over time, wild Amur tigers can now only be found in a few isolated areas of China and Russia.

Our next stop is to see the Amur leopards. Like the Amur tigers, these rare beauties are native to far eastern Asia and Russia. The zoo has four of these leopards, which are nearly extinct in the wild, and their enclosures are designed to allow visitors a close look at them.

Leopard at the Minnesota Zoo -

Amur leopards at the Minnesota Zoo -

All three of the leopards on exhibit are active while we visit and it is amazing to watch them at such close range.

We spend a LOT of time watching the leopards.

But the big cats aren’t the only charismatic mega fauna to be found along this section of the Northern Trail. This area is called Russia’s Grizzly Coast, and one of its namesake grizzlies (a brown bear) is out rolling around under a (probably fake) fallen tree.

Grizzly at the Minnesota Zoo -

Grizzly at the Minnesota Zoo -

Grizzly at the Minnesota Zoo -

Although the exhibit highlights animals that can be found in Russia’s far east, grizzlies are also be found in North America and my companion tells me that this is probably Kenai, one of several bears rescued as cubs in Alaska.

The wild boar is charismatic in its own way, wandering about and making odd grumbling noises as if seeking to entertain us.

wild boar at the Minnesota Zoo -

While I’ve eaten my share of wild boar over the years, I’ve never been face-to-face with one before; I’m very glad there is a sturdy barrier separating these guys from me. I would not want to run into one of these guys out in the woods! Nonetheless, seeing (and hearing) one close at hand like this reminds at the same time of wart hogs battling each other in Africa and eating cinghiale with pappardelle in Italy.

I’m not sure my off-duty zoo volunteer companion is amused when I tell one of the wild boars that he looks very, very tasty.

The last creatures on the trail are the sea otters. Like the bears, these are actually Alaskan sea otters, but they don’t seem to object to standing in for their Russian brethren as well.

Rocky the sea otter at the Minnesota Zoo -

Like sea otters everywhere, they are unbearably adorable . . . even through thick, dirty glass.

Rocky the sea otter at the Minnesota Zoo -

By now we are back by the central plaza, and I am freezing. It’s time to say good-bye to my new-found cold weather friends and look for some place warm. Obviously they are all far better suited to this weather than I.

The Minnesota Zoo is located south of Minneapolis in Apple Valley. It is open year-round. The Northern Trail winds through the zoo and is not heated, although there are a few viewing shelters along the way. Russia’s Grizzly Coast is located near enough to the zoo buildings that visitors could make a quick trip to that area without spending too much time in the cold.

Special thanks to my fellow photography classmate and off-duty zoo volunteer for her  company and back stories about the animals.

A tropical escape at the Minnesota Zoo
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