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.

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.

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!

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.

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?

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!).

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.

The playgrounds are kind of the bonus to the main amenity– THE ZOO!! Kent Trails do lead up to the zoo.

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

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.

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.

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

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!)

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

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!

Click on our sponsors!