Overgrown and out of commission, the Minnesota Zoo’s once futuristic monorail looms over the sprawling campus where it shuttled visitors on a long, slow loop for 34 years.

Now, in an effort to salvage the structure, zoo Director John Frawley has proposed converting the 1.8-mile track into an aerial treetop walk, similar to New York City’s wildly popular High Line park built on an old elevated freight railway.

“Where else can you do that in Minnesota?” asked Frawley, who also envisions adding campgrounds, hiking trails and an adventure course to the nearly 500-acre property in Apple Valley. “All of these things are going to get people outside, moving their bodies.”

The zoo’s next five-year plan is still evolving, but it’s all part of a push to broaden the appeal of zoo exhibits and better connect guests with nature. The revised strategic plan shifts focus away from launching blockbuster exhibits and toward more bite-sized investments that slowly change the face of the institution.

By promoting health and wellness through a growing selection of outdoor activities — like rock climbing and bird-watching — Frawley hopes the zoo will serve as a gateway to Minnesota’s beloved state parks. To do so, he’ll turn to hundreds of undeveloped acres on zoo grounds and enlist the help of corporate and community partners to support conservation work.

The plans, some yet to garner board approval, call for a base camp in the backwoods with a lodge, cabins and tent sites. Zoo administrators foresee a potential revenue boost in charging for sleepovers under the stars, catered mostly to young families and first-time campers who might need a little extra help starting a fire or pitching a tent.

This summer, the zoo hosted overnighters inside Discovery Bay, where guests awoke to playful Hawaiian monk seals, and in the Australian-themed Kangaroo Crossing exhibit. Designing a dedicated campground would provide visitors a more intimate experience, Frawley said. That could mean an after-hours tour of the grounds, campfire programs and a personal animal encounter.

Zookeepers carrying a porcupine, for example, might enter a camper’s tent at dusk to discuss the nocturnal behavior of certain species. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a similar venture can run upward of $260 a person.

Funding for the endeavor could be offset by partnerships with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Girl Scouts of America and YMCA — organizations that have representatives among the 28 members of the zoo’s recently formed Nature Task Force.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr expects the zoo to capitalize on one of the state’s favorite pastimes by deepening an appreciation of the outdoors in people who wouldn’t typically “rough it” in the wild, he said. An affordable day trip, the thinking goes, might stimulate someone to take the next step and book a site along the North Shore or in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

“When people spend less time outdoors, they care less about nature. That has a direct result on conservation,” said Landwehr, a member of the Nature Task Force.

Some zoo members seemed intrigued by the base camp idea. Kaitlyn Ferdig, of St. Paul, said she could see herself planning a weekend retreat with girlfriends. “You don’t always see animals in the wild while you’re camping,” said Ferdig, 25. “This is a guarantee.”

Others, like 68-year-old Burnsville resident Melane Milbert, were more skeptical of the demand for camping options so close to the cities. “Sounds too much like my backyard,” Milbert said.

A $3.8 million campaign to renovate the zoo’s Wells Fargo Family Farm includes a multiuse bunkhouse that sleeps between 40 and 60 guests. Though construction is still a few years away, the facility will gauge demand for future slumber parties at the zoo.

Railway to walking path

Once cutting edge, the 1980s-era monorail debuted at Apple Valley when sleek, elevated trains were considered the ticket to success at zoos around the country.

Despite often scathing criticisms of the $4 ride, it did have its fans — given the difficulty of navigating young children around the property, especially in nasty weather.

Allen Nyhuis, co-author of “America’s Best Zoos,” said the monorail made the institution distinct. “It could be 10 below zero and you could still visit the buffalo or the moose,” he said with a chuckle.

After three decades of shuffling passengers along the grounds, though, the monorail had become archaic. Companies that serviced track operations went under and it would have cost about $40 million to restore the line. Plagued by years of declining ridership and mechanical problems, officials finally pulled the plug in 2013.

They explored scrapping the structure but decided that would cost too much and cause major disruptions. “We could let it sit there and do nothing with it, or we could turn it into something useful,” said zoo trustee Peter Maritz, who favors the aerial boardwalk.

New York’s High Line sparked an idea in Frawley: Why not take the same approach in Minnesota?

Within months, architects performed a walkability study of the defunct monorail track using drone footage. A concept for the “Minnesota Zoo Treetop Walk” was born, and Frawley began pitching it to the zoo’s governing board.

Unlike the monorail, a boardwalk would be equipped with multiple access points. Renderings depict viewing platforms, suspension nets and classroom spaces on a walkway overlooking the scenic campus. Frawley said the boardwalk would be free with zoo admission and predicted it would be a destination at sunrise and sunset.

Zoo officials hope to pay for the $4.4 million conversion with private donations. Work on the first 1,000-foot stretch could start next summer. Planners believe the project would be a first for an American zoo.

Virtual fun vs. real adventure

Another key initiative aims at diversifying the zoo’s clientele. To attract teenagers, who typically lose interest in traditional zoo activities after age 10, officials are soliciting bids on an outdoor ropes-and-adventure course featuring treetop-clearing zip lines.

Glen Gunderson, CEO of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, said entertainment and enrichment opportunities like those can help youth unplug from technology for the day.

“All the things that used to entertain kids pale in comparison now to the power of a smartphone,” said Gunderson. “That is their native language. We have to find a way to … shut those devices off and benefit from the natural world.”

Frawley expects no immediate increase to entrance fees ($18 for adults, $12 for kids). Some attractions, like the adventure course, would be available without zoo admissions year-round. Waivers will be provided for those who can’t afford the special attractions.

“In the end, we want to be a zoo Minnesotans can be proud of,” Frawley said.


liz.sawyer@startribune.com 612-673-4648