COLUMBIA - Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden is putting out a welcome mat for visitors from the Aiken-Augusta area, who can save minutes and miles when a new western gate opens in mid-April.
It's just in time for some spectacular spring blooms and the kind of weather that makes animals more active.
The new entrance, located off U.S. Highway 378, will open to several new dimensions to Riverbanks, one of the top-rated attractions of its kind in the nation. One such dimension is a children's garden which - youngsters will be relieved to know - is a place where they are not expected to learn anything except that gardens can be fun, said Jenks Farmer, curator of gardens.
The zoo staffers got together and tried to remember all the things they thought were fun when they were small, he said. Then they tried to re-create that magic in a play garden with grassy knolls to roll and tumble on. It has a weeping tree with branches a child can hide under and a stone fort with a deceptively simple entrance that leads to a secret place. In summer, tall plants will help conceal the entrance more.
"We didn't want kids to feel like they were being forced to learn anything," Mr. Farmer said. "Whether they learn anything or not, we want them to leave here knowing there is something special about being beside a plant, under a plant, near a plant. We want them to have the feeling that plants are fun."
What matters to many grown-ups might be different, the Riverbanks folks concede. For them, the new entrance means a shorter drive, parking convenience and a pleasant walk into the zoo and garden. The entrance leads into the botanical garden first, but the ticket purchased is an admission to both areas.
The new parking lot holds 250 cars, and there's a gravel area for additional vehicles.
The lot was created with nature in mind. Almost half is green space, and not a single tree was cut to build the parking area. In fact, no trees were cut to create the new gate, and trees shade the lot. All the water collected because of the paving will be shunted into the green spaces to keep them lush and into a series of ponds so that by the time it passes through the last pond, the water will be clean enough to put back into the Saluda River, Mr. Farmer said.
It will take time, but eventually the parking lot and entry way will be a full-grown garden, he said. The area is planted with "naturalistic plants" similar to the ones seen along a South Carolina rural road or in a swamp or in the woods.
"There is lots of inspiration in the woods and fields, and we have tried to bring that here," Mr. Farmer said.
The entrance includes a bog garden with a waterfall - admittedly a potential haven for mosquitoes. Stephanie Miller, another curator of gardens, has been filling it with carnivorous plants, including pitcher plants, to help take care of that problem. Frogs, lizards and turtles also will help to keep the mosquito population down.
Because one of the purposes of the botanical garden is to give visitors ideas of what they can do in their own yards, Ms. Miller said, the bog garden suggests what to do with drainage ditches or soggy areas.
"So many places stay too wet for most kinds of plants," she said. "Hopefully, people will realize that instead of spending a lot of time and money trying to change those spots, they can spice them up with plants that thrive in that environment."
There's also a touch of history in the plaza area, which uses stones from the old Central Correctional Institution, torn down three years ago.
Visitors get from there to the botanical garden on Treetop Bridge, which offers a view of woods and natural creeks.
Property for the new gateway area was purchased when the original zoo was built 30 years ago. A western entrance has always been in the master plan, but residents of nearby neighborhoods weren't sure they wanted the attendant traffic. To solve that concern, planners will have traffic come into the parking lot on a newly built road, Garden Way, a left turn off U.S. Highway 378 for Aiken-Augusta visitors who have taken Interstate 20.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.