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Explore the exciting Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas

Have you talked to the animals lately? If not, head to the City of Manhattan’s gem, the Sunset Zoo.

The hospitable folks at Visit Manhattan and the Sunset Zoo sponsored our visit, but the opinions are ours. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Table of contents: Sunset Zoo | Singing Tower | Sunset Cemetery | Insect Zoo

Large blocks of limestone carved with a bas relief bison near the Sunset Zoo entrance
The Sunset Zoo’s welcoming bison

A large bas-relief bison, an original native limestone work, greets guests at the front of the zoo. His beauty and high standards indicate the quality of the small zoo we’ll visit together.

This is a great experience for children, their parents, and their grandparents. Remember that, like their human counterparts, the animals are more active — and provide a better viewing experience — in the milder seasons, spring and fall.

Bonus attractions

As a bonus, we’ll explore the nearby Sunset Cemetery and the Pasley “Singing” Tower and then go to the K-State Insect Zoo on the Kansas State University campus. The Insect Zoo is the perfect Halloween destination.

Trees, clouds, and blue sky from the Sunset Zoo deck
Look over Manhattan’s Flint Hills at the Sunset Zoo’s deck.

The charming Sunset Zoological Park is on a hill in the city’s heart, and the zoo took advantage of the hillside when building its animal habitats. The main building is atop the hill, and the habitats circle the hillside below.

Before you start downward, pause and enjoy the tree-lined view from the opening plaza. The small zoo is not only filled with a surprising array of animals, but it is also full of flower gardens. The gardens attract another animal form: pollinating insects. 

Roxie’s reliable report: The year-round zoo’s small admission fee makes it friendly for family wallets. However, an annual Friends of Sunset Zoo membership provides free admission (except for some special events) and members-only events. Reciprocating zoos (PDF) offer free or discounted admission but check before you go. 

Sunset Zoo metal archway, water tower, road, and parking lot
Park in the paved parking lot, on the zoo’s road, or Oak St.

What you need to know about visiting the Sunset Zoo

  • Park in the main lot off Oak St. Overflow parking is available in the field southeast of the main lot, or park on Oak St. 
  • Download a guide map and look for directional signage.
  • A concession stand is between the Asian exhibit and the Americas. It offers classic snacks like burgers, hot dogs, and soft pretzels. The stand will fill guests’ bottles for $2. 
  • The zoo is wheelchair accessible, but Manhattan’s Flint Hills assigned steep slopes to the Asian Trail and the gibbon exhibit.
  • Rent wagons and single or double strollers at the zoo’s ticket booth.
  • Six ADA bathrooms and four changing stations are available. Ask guest services about places to nurse infants.
Closeup of a chimpanzee's face
Gain a close encounter with a chimpanzee at the Sunset Zoo.

Meet the animals at the Sunset Zoo

Now, let’s descend the hill and talk to the animals. A short downhill staircase or ramp brings you to the trail system’s first fork and a directional sign. Start at the Nature Exploration Center to the east or a trip through five continents. Only Europe and Antarctica are missing. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Feed a tortoise on weekends in the Wild Wonders Room for a small fee. Buy a ticket at the gift shop. Enhance your experience with a rented Wild Wonders Activity Kit. Sometimes, volunteers lead unscheduled Wonderspots, helping guests to see, touch, and learn about zoo animals.

Expedition Asia sign in front of a fenced pavilion at the Sunset Zoo
Entrance gate to Expedition Asia

Tour Expedition Asia at the Sunset Zoo

I recommend heading to the zoo’s newest exhibit, Expedition Asia, which opened on April 9, 2022. It highlights three threatened species: tigers, sloth bears, and Amur leopards. The three species’ enclosures cluster at one end of the exhibit, with Asian small-clawed otters, red pandas, and white-handed gibbons at the bottom of the kidney-shaped section. A sidewalk divides them from red-crowned cranes. The endangered cranes symbolize fidelity, good luck, love, and long life.

Over 80,000 guests visit the zoo each year, and the zoo hopes seeing these endangered species will inspire the conservation of the natural world.

Malaysian tiger in a grassy enclosure
Malaysian tiger/Little Leapling Photography

About 750 Malayan tigers remain in their native habitat. Unfortunately, all tigers share the same dim fate.

Sloth bear at Sunset Zoo
The sloth bear/Little Leapling Photography

People forced insect-eating sloth bears to become dancing bears for centuries. Only a few thousand sloth bears remain in the wild. 

Amur leopard
The Amur leopard/Little Leapling Photography

Amur leopards are in worse shape; only 35 of them run wild. Like the other two species, habitat destruction has affected them negatively. Additionally, their beautiful coats make them a poacher’s dream.

Maned wolf at the sunset zoo
The colorful maned wolf/Little Leapling Photography

Experience contrasting colors in the Americas

In the Americas section, the maned wolf‘s red coat stood out in contrast to the gray Chacoan peccaries and “nosy” giant anteaters. Look for the bandit-masked ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar in the habitat building. Birds include the green aracari. The bird’s plumage has a rainbow of colors, not just green. The flamingo flock’s salmon shades were even more obvious.

Roxie’s reliable report: A flamingo flock is called a flamboyance or a stand.

The crested screamers often announce their presence at the Sunset Zoo.
You’ll hear the shrieking crested screamer before you see it.

The crested screamers, gray, white, and black avians, are less visibly obvious but more audibly so. Their namesake call sounds like a strangled siren, echoing across the zoo.

Colobus monkey eating vegetables while perched on a shelf at the Sunset Zoo
The colobus monkey is happy to eat his veggies.

Bless the rains down in Africa

Continue north of the first fork to look at two more of the zoo’s array of primates, ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar, chimpanzees, and the handsome black-and-white colobus monkeys. Both of them are within glassed viewing areas. A kiosk outside shows how thick the dividing glass wall is. Cheetahs and spotted hyenas complete the African section. Birds include the violet turaco with its yellow and violet head. Look for the .

Visit the Land Down Under at the Sunset Zoo

The Australian Walkabout holds Bennett’s wallabies; Western gray kangaroos; tall emus, who don’t advertise an insurance company; and an Australian aviary. Look for the straw-necked ibis.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Place your camera directly onto the glass for the best pictures. This will reduce reflections.

Go behind the scenes at the Sunset Zoo

Banners around the zoo explain what various employees do. Get past the banners and the barriers with the zoo’s Behind the Scene Experience. A modern zoo aims to mitigate animal boredom. Therefore, the zookeepers devise mental challenges to engage the animals.

A sign reading "Animal Artwork" and "Zoocasso" next to an animal paw print.
Commission your own ZOOcasso masterpiece.

Sunset has created the ZOOcasso program to keep the animals sharp, where a dozen animal species create paintings in the colors of the patrons’ choice. Buy the ultimate conversation piece, a painting from a Madagascar hissing cockroach or a common boa constrictor. 

Meet your choice of two Ambassador Animals at the zoo’s Chautauqua Amphitheater. You’ll have a picture with your animals and will learn all about them.

Enjoy Animal Encounters. Meet the red pandas, sloth bears, or guinea pigs and feed them. Groups are limited to a maximum of six people. 

The Kansas State University School of Veterinary Medicine partners with the zoo to provide the highest level of animal care. Zoo Vet Experience participants learn about preventive care for the animals. It’s a good opportunity for aspiring veterinarians to see their potential futures. Please give two weeks’ advance notice.

Two sections of a mural showing the Works Progress Administration constructing the Sunset Zoo
Examine the WPA’s zoo construction project.

How the Sunset Zoo began

Veterinarian Dr. E.J. Frick, the zoo founder, cared for the animals from the zoo’s inception in 1933. He continued for 43 years. The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided much of the zoo’s original funding for infrastructure. Fortunately, the original limestone remains part of the zoo’s master plan. A marker commemorates Dr. Frick, and a mural honors the WPA.

The zoo achieved accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in 1989. The zoo has earned AZA accreditation every five years since then. 

Before you go, support the animals and purchase a souvenir from the gift shop.

Now that we’ve greeted the animals, let’s visit the bonus attractions, finishing with what bugs us.

Related: Visit additional Kansas zoos in Garden City, Salina, and Wichita.

Paslay Memorial “Singing” Tower

The Pasley Memorial “Singing” Tower stands opposite the Sunset Cemetery’s entrance, a block north of the Sunset Zoo. The 1931 limestone tower is 50 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter. Its split-face, dimensional cut, mortared limestone walls are distinctive Flint Hills methods. Local architect Joseph T. Ware designed the structure, and Leroy C. Pasley, a professor at then-Kansas State College, designed and installed the sound mechanism. The WPA helped with tower construction.

Roxie’s reliable report: The tower’s carillon plays bells at 6 p.m. daily except for Memorial Day and Independence Day. It also plays bells and chimes from 11 a.m. until noon on those holidays.

Related: See more of what Manhattan has to offer, including the Midwest Dream Car Collection.

Limestone bricks make the Sunset Cemetery's entrance arch
The Sunset Cemetery entrance arch honors veterans.

Sunset Cemetery

Sunset Cemetery was Manhattan’s sole burying ground for over 100 years, and the stone main entrance dates from 1917. 

Roxie’s reliable report: The City of Manhattan discovered that some of the prospective cemetery’s land was too rocky for burying people. Instead, the city created the Sunset Zoo.

Famous people buried there include:

Minnie Howell Champe's gray tombstone with the dates 1878-1948
Minnie Howell Champe’s grave marker in the Sunset Cemetery
  • Medal of Honor recipient John H. Callahan
  • Washington Marlatt, a founder of Bluemont College (later K-State) and an Underground Railroad conductor
  • Earl Woods, the first Black baseball player in the Big Seven Conference and champion golfer Tiger Woods’ father
  • Minnie Howell Champe, the first Black woman to graduate from K-State
  • Hosea McDaniel, older brother of Hattie McDaniel. The McDaniel family left Manhattan after Hosea’s 1885 death and moved to Wichita before the future Academy Award winner was born.
Elephant ears and a tree stand in front of the Insect Zoo building, a former K-State dairy barn
Leafcutter ants crawl up the Insect Zoo’s exterior.

Down at the Insect Zoo

Face your fears at the creepy Insect Zoo in the former K-State dairy barn. You’ll know what’s coming when you see an army of ants ascending the dairy barn’s frontage. This is the perfect Halloween destination. 

The leafcutter ants are skilled fungus farmers, and watching bees in the Observation Beehive is mild compared to what’s to come. Crawling things like chafer beetles (a/k/a June bugs), prickly walking sticks, lubber grasshoppers, and an intrusion of roaches are everywhere you look. Fortunately, they’re confined to glass cages, but still.

Mexican fire leg spider at the Insect Zoo
Burn, baby, burn, Mexican fire leg inferno

Depending on your opinion, better or worse creatures are yet to come. Representatives of the 800 tarantula species, like Indian ornamental spiders and Mexican fire legs, are present.

An electric blue desert hairy scorpion glows on a dark blue background

The Insect Zoo welcomes the spiders’ scorpion and centipede cousins to the party. The scorpions glow under black light. Oh, yeah, that’s creepy.

A small rolling pin and a coffee cup rest in the Mock Kitchen sink while covered with roaches.
You’ll never look at dirty dishes the same again.

For the maximum ick factor, view the Mock Kitchen, where insects rule. You’ll forget about hunger after that. Also, peer through the microscope at the Microscope Projection Display.

Ornamental grasses with a limestone border at the K-State Gardens
Ornamental grasses at the K-State Gardens

Roxie’s reliable report: Stroll through the adjacent 19-acre K-State Gardens after investigating the insects. The gardens sell poinsettias and amaryllises in November.

Your Manhattan zoo experience may recall the classic PBS show All Things Bright and Beautiful. The title refers to an Anglican hymn: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

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