John Ball Park has 3 Playgrounds, Including a HIDDEN One up an Old Staircase

John Ball Zoo playground header 1

John Ball Zoo at a Glace

  • 3 Parks with playgrounds
  • Zoo
  • Kent Trails lead up to the zoo.

John Ball Zoo
1300 Fulton W Grand Rapids, MI

John Ball Park has 3 Playgrounds, Including a Hidden One!

John Ball Zoo is a gem in itself. Inside the zoo are animals of all kinds, a zipline, ropes course, treetops play area, and on and on.

But did you know that John Ball Park (1300 Fulton W| Grand Rapids, MI) is more than the zoo? Just outside of the zoo entrance are three wonderful places where kids can picnic and play. My family loves doing this on our lunch break at the zoo. We can hit up the zoo in the morning, and then pop over to one of the many shaded picnic tables and playgrounds so the kids have lunch and let off some extra steam before we head back in for more zoo adventure.

Because the zoo attracts so many visitors, they’ve equipped their parks areas with three playgrounds and over 100 picnic tables. Here’s a little bit about each playground.

John Ball Zoo playground valley view kids Hunt

Valley View and Nessie

This is where you’ll find the main playground that everyone notices when you come into the park. There’s a large play structure, ample parking right next to the playground, and loads of shaded picnic tables. Bonus: you’ve got a great view of Nessie, the ArtPrize sculpture that has found its permanent home in the pond at John Ball Park.

John Ball Zoo playground Nessie 1 2

Picnic Acre

Tucked just south of the park (to the left if you’re facing the zoo entrance), is a sweet little playground away from the hustle and bustle of zoo traffic. There are many picnic tables here and the bonus of this playground is that there’s an indoor bathroom right there!

John Ball Zoo playground picnic acres wide Hunt

Hilltop Park aka The Hidden Playground

Have you discovered the Hidden Playground yet?

Way back at the forest edge (behind the admin building, and next to the bandshell) there is an old concrete staircase of 129 steps which will lead you to the secret playground and a beautiful pavilion overlooking some of the John Ball Park woods. There is a large grassy area surrounded by woods, with a play structure in the middle.

John Ball Zoo Secret Playground Map Hunt

The Mystery of the Old Stairs

The pavilion was built in the 50’s but according to zoo officials, the stairs are much older, and are suspected to have been part of a trail system through that woods on the hill. The history of these stairs has piqued our interest. Do you know anything about it?

John Ball Park Playground secret stairs

Tips for Your Trip from other Parents

  • Consider when your kids would best enjoy the playground–before heading into the zoo, when they have more energy? During a lunch break? Or after the zoo, before you head home?
  • Have little ones take a potty break before playing at Valley View–the restroom is not close by.
  • Watch for duck poop if you approach Nessie’s shore.
  • Hilltop Park is heavily wooded and may be buggy, depending on time of year.
  • Hilltop Park is also not stroller accessible unless you park at the top. (I left my stroller at the bottom of the stairs when we went, but it wasn’t locked up or anything.)
  • The staircase to Hilltop is old and not well maintained. There is a railing, but be sure to use steady footing.
john ball park playgrounds

John Ball Zoo has graciously let us share their map that marks picnic and play areas, as well as where you can find the restrooms (always so important with kids in tow!).

John Ball Playgrounds and Picnic Map

John Ball Zoo FAQ’s

Is this park good for toddlers?

Valley View is more toddler accessible, but can also be very crowded on busy zoo days. Picnic Acres seems quieter, but the play equipment is limited to a couple of slides and smaller swings.

How are the bathrooms?

Picnic Acres and Hilltop have indoor restrooms on site. Restrooms near Valley View are at the Admin Building.

Are there picnic tables and grills?

John Ball Zoo playground picnic Hunt

John Ball Zoo has over 100 picnic tables!! Hilltop and Valley View also have single charcoal grills and there is potable water available at Picnic Acres.

Is there any shade?

John Ball Zoo playground hidden wide

Hilltop provides the most shade, with Picnic Acres providing decent shade, and Valley View being in full sun. There are trees everywhere, though, so it’s easy to get out of the sun.

Can I fly a kite here?

John Ball Zoo playground Picnic Acres wide Hunt

The best spot for kite flying would be at Picnic Acres.

Is there an admission fee?

No admission fee for the zoo playgrounds but there is admission if you choose to visit the zoo (and we really hope you do-it’s so much fun!) 

When is this park open?

John Ball Zoo playgrounds are open from until 9 PM or dusk, whichever comes first.

What is Parking like?

John Ball Zoo playground Valley View boy parking

John Ball Zoo offers acres of parking. The main lot extends into the grass during the busy season, which is right next to the Valley View playground. Picnic Acres is just a short walk from the southwest corner of the parking lot, while the Hilltop Playground is a bit of a hike from the parking lot. (There is parking at the Hilltop Playground if you drive up Butterworth and access the Hilltop driveway, but the fun is in the hike to discover the playground!)

Have Tips or Questions about John Ball Zoo Playgrounds?

Leave us a comment below and we will get back to you!

John Ball Zoo Secret Playground girl Ward
John Ball zoo Playground valley view kids 2


5 thoughts on “John Ball Park has 3 Playgrounds, Including a HIDDEN One up an Old Staircase”

  1. I brought my 4 year old and 18 month old up the stairs to Hilltop Park today. Thank you for sharing this gem! It’s beautiful and so peaceful today. It’s like a little peace of country in the city. The playground is in excellent shape and my oldest loved the idea of “exploring” a secret place. The stairs are many, and they are in worse shape as you get higher, but still my little one maneuvered them with little trouble. I would do a birthday party up here for sure if they weren’t in the winter.

    1. I love that you could share this gem with your kids! Great observations on this secret park. May you have many more trips to this special spot in GR. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this post. I had no idea that the Hilltop playground was there any more.
    In the 50’s and 60’s we had our church picnics at the top park. There was a shelter there also. And we had a very fun time there, although I remember it being very buggy.

    Then as the years passed we quit going up there because it had a reputation for being a hangout for homeless people and if my memory is Correct, there were some not so nice activities going on up there. Kind of ” out of sight, out of mind”. With everyone including the police.
    I’m sure the police and park security have much better control of things these days, and it is a very nice place.
    That’s my memory of this park..

    Arlene Helder
    Grand Rapids

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