Snow Kreilich, TEN x TEN, and Buro Happold collaborate on an elevated trail at the Minnesota Zoo

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Snow Kreilich, TEN x TEN, and Buro Happold collaborate on an elevated trail at the Minnesota Zoo

The trail passes through less developed portions of the zoo, taking visitors through forested areas. (Snow Kreilich Architects)

The Minnesota Zoo’s Treetop Trail will bring visitors closer to nature—and not the kind that clearly involves an actor in a bear costume. Snow Kreilich Architects, Buro Happold and TEN x TEN turned former monorail infrastructure into “the world’s longest elevated pedestrian loop” (though they may have competition on this claim).

The zoo was home to a problem-plagued monorail, which was taken out of service in 2013 after numerous incidents and 34 years of interrupted service. Conversations between the zoo and Snow Kreilich over the former monorail began in 2016, and by 2018, planning for infrastructural reuse began. As AN reported, ground broke on the 1.25-mile-long trail last year. $39 million in combined public and private funding supported the project, which opened on schedule on July 28.

The trail loops and winds through the zoo across 1.25 miles of walkways. (Snow Kreilich Architects)

Minnesota Zoo director John Frawley said that “The Treetop Trail will provide an accessible and immersive pathway to nature for all ages, abilities, backgrounds, and communities.” Two Minneapolis-based firms, Snow Kreilich and TEN x TEN, led the architectural design and landscape design, respectively, with Buro Happold providing engineering services, Meyer Borgman Johnson serving as structural engineer of record, and PCL overseeing construction. Over 80,000 hours of labor went into the project, with no injuries reported during the construction process. 

The loop will connect the more exhibit-dense southern end of the zoo to the less developed, forest-heavy northern part of the zoo. Elevated 32 feet from the ground, visitors can access the trail at four public entrance points, all of which are ADA-compliant. The trail is built to operate in all seasons, with the deck expanding and contracting under temperature changes, but will close under high wind conditions. 

Covering large expanses of the park, pedestrians can weave through trees and be offered new viewpoints on habitats home to tigers, moose, bison, and camels, among other animals. At the southern end of the loop, the trail will pass near the Savanna, Bison Landing, Tiger Overlook, and Wetland Overlook, among other areas; much of the Minnesota Zoo is organized around habitats rather than species. Moving north, zoogoers will pass over the Moose Landing and Turtle Pond before passing through the forest. 

All of the trails four entrances are ADA accessible. (Snow Kreilich Architects)

The trail was constructed with 400 20-foot-long modular sections—containing a total of 15,000 composite deck boards—which were wheeled into their positions by a bespoke trolley system. 1,000 tons of structural steel went into reinforcing the monorail structure, and adding handrails and frames throughout the loop. The winding path includes extended decks at vista points, and provides prime opportunities for bird watchers year-round. 

Frawley hopes that the trail can usher in a new era for the zoo, saying: “As we look ahead to the Zoo’s next 45 years, the Treetop Trail is a major step in furthering connections to nature and animals in an accessible and immersive way.”