Old Zoo Nature Trails: Hiking Through Abandoned Ruins

Sign overlooking the entrance to the Old Zoo Nature Trails
The entrance to the Old Zoo Nature Trails
At A Glance ?
Location Type: Destination
Population Rating: 1
Price/Fee: Free!
State: Texas
City/Town: Cisco
Route: I-20
Coordinates: 31.392, -99.174
Address: Co Rd 112 Cisco, TX 76437
Pet Friendly: Yes
Bike Friendly: No
Trail Surface Type: Dirt & Grass

Hiking trails that wind through the abandoned ruins of an old zoo… that’s pretty awesome.

I’m making this our first location-related post because this is one of my favorite places we’ve visited. We’ve been to this site twice – once in October 2021 and again in November 2022 – and both times something about it really captured my imagination. This area offers a number of fun and serene activities and sights, including hiking trails, ruins, a picnic area, a lake, and a dam.

Where It’s At

The Old Zoo Nature Trails are located a couple of miles north of the town of Cisco, Texas, on the eastern edge of Lake Cisco. The sign outside the entrance has this to say about the history:

The Cisco Zoo opened in 1923 and was home for many animals for nearly two decades before closing in the 30’s. The zoo was a major attraction for Cisco, along with the world’s largest concrete pool. Families would travel from miles around to get a chance to see a black bear, flamingos, deer, or even a monkey.

It was a real treat for Texans to be able to see these kinds of ‘not every day’ kind of animals right here in Cisco Texas.

Based on some other information I’ve seen, this zoo started with some donated animals. It was relatively small but still quite popular at the time. Sadly, contemporaneous newspaper reports indicate some of the animals died – including a deer and a bear who was mysteriously poisoned – and the zoo subsequently fell into disrepair.

In 2021, a non-profit called Students, Athletics, Families, and Education (SAFE) started cleaning the area up and turning it into the hiking trails that are there now.

The Hiking Trails

Sign at the entrance to the Old Zoo Nature Trails showing the trail map and a brief history
This sign at the entrance includes the trail map, some history and the medallions that are hidden throughout the site. Unfortunately, it was printed on a shiny black surface and doesn’t photograph well.

According to that sign at the entrance, there’s 0.9 miles of trails here. I believe those are the “official” trails and I don’t think this includes all of the other paths you can take, including a dirt road leading up a hill to the dam and an overview of the lake. There’s definitely enough here to keep you busy for a while even if you aren’t stopping to check out the ruins along the way. The trails are in mostly wooded areas and can be moderately challenging as they run up and down a fairly steep hill and there’s a number of old stone steps to climb. It’s still rough terrain and not wheelchair friendly.

The flora and fauna of this area are pretty standard for this part of Texas (now that the zoo animals are gone). You’ll find lots of trees and rocky terrain. Although we didn’t encounter any, there’s always the threat of snakes and there’s plenty of venomous kinds in the area so be sure to keep an eye out.

The Abandoned Ruins

This is, of course, the real draw of the place. Here you’ll find the remains of a century old zoo, what appears to be the remnants of some bungalows or cabins, and what was once the world’s largest concrete pool (according to the information posted at the site) but is now an unwelcoming concrete pond.

There’s something so cool to me about walking around the ruins of a zoo from 100 years ago and there’s still so much here that you can pretty easily imagine how it looked to the flappers and Gatsbys as they walked around gawking at the animals. It’s unfortunate that so much of the rock face in the main section has been defaced with graffiti over the years but the volunteers who are restoring the site have done a great job of cleaning it up.

The Scavenger Hunt Medallions

As an added bonus, the restoration crew have hidden ten medallions throughout the area, each depicting the silhouette of a different animal. They are affixed to rocks and trees all over the area so keep an eye out as you walk the trails and explore the ruins. I’ve only succeeded in finding half of them so if you can find them all, you’re doing a lot better than me!

A collage containing the giraffe, lion, cougar, monkey and peacock medallions from the Old Zoo Nature Trails
These are the five medallions I was able to find

The People (or Lack Thereof)

In our experiences so far, this has been a relatively sparsely populated site. At the time of our visits, there were usually only one or two other cars in the parking lot with just a handful of people and since it’s such a large swath of land, you can pretty much move about without having a lot of contact with others. Our previous visits were on a Sunday (October 2021) and a Friday (November 2022) so I can’t say what the crowd might be like during the summer months. And keep in mind that the restoration had only recently begun when we visited. I wouldn’t be surprised if the word has been getting out about just how awesome it is which may result in larger crowds.

Final Takeaways

As I said, this is one of my favorite places even if I can’t explain exactly why. I love history and we’ve always enjoyed checking out abandoned places. I’m thankful these volunteers have undertaken this task and I know they don’t need a checklist from me, but I’d love to see some more information posted about the historical context of the ruins, the pool and the general area.

Final conclusion: this is a great place to hike and I would file it under DESTINATION.

If you’ve been here (and especially if you have updated information), let us know in the comments!

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