Zoo visitors in Minnesota can now observe animals in a unique new way: from above, on an elevated pedestrian walkway.
The path, which adds more than 70,000 square feet to the zoo, cost $39 million, per a statement from the zoo. From the walkway, visitors can look down upon camels, tigers, moose, bison, ducks, leopard sharks and other creatures year-round. It also allows them to access marshes, ponds and hardwood forests.
The eight-foot-wide walkway is designed to be accessible to zoo-goers of all ages and ability levels, including those who are using wheelchairs or pushing strollers. It’s flanked on both sides by a climb-resistant, chest-height steel railing, and it’s included in the price of general admission to the zoo, according to Minnesota Public Radio’s Tim Nelson.
Dotting the trail are 22 overlooks where guests can stop and take in the views from benches. Though the walkway is exposed to the elements, the zoo’s maintenance staffers will work to keep it free from snow, ice and other potential hazards.
The Minnesota Zoo, which is located in Apple Valley, Minnesota, first opened its doors in 1978. With 4,500 animals representing 505 species, it’s one of the largest zoos in the nation.
John Frawley, the zoo’s director, first became inspired to build the Treetop Trail during a trip to New York City around 2016. While there, he walked along the High Line in Manhattan, a 1.5-mile rail line that had been converted into a city-owned public park. He realized he could build something similar, breathing new life into the zoo’s shuttered monorail line, the Skytrail, which opened in 1979 and went out of service in 2013.
“We came back and hired architects and looked into the substructure, and could it handle a project like this? And sure enough, they came back and said the substructure, the old monorail track, was really well-built and it’s going to be around for a long time,” Frawley tells Minnesota Public Radio. “That’s when we started the journey.”
Construction crews are also repurposing the monorail station platform into an event space, where the zoo plans to host outdoor yoga classes, cocktail hours, educational programming and other events.
In the long run, the zoo’s leadership team is hopeful the Treetop Trail will help generate renewed interest in the zoo, which saw its visitors drop by 24 percent from 2020 to 2022 during the Covid-19 pandemic, reports Erin Adler for the Star Tribune.
“The big shift is that we really want to be more than a zoo, we want to be a place where people are connected to nature,” Frawley tells the publication.
The Minnesota Zoo is not the first wildlife attraction to give visitors a bird’s-eye view. The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, has a 1.45-mile elevated walkway for guests to view its rescued tigers, lions, bears, bobcats and other creatures. The facility is the current world record-holder for the longest elevated walkway in an animal sanctuary.
Even so, Treetop Trail is billed as the world’s longest elevated pedestrian walkway that’s “built in a full loop configuration,” Zach Nugent, a spokesperson for the zoo, tells Smithsonian magazine. “We are in the process of taking the first steps to have this record confirmed and adjudicated by Guinness World Records.”