There are more than two dozen zoos in Michigan, but the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids in West Michigan is one of the oldest and one of the best. It’s also one of the best things to do in Grand Rapids!
When the weather finally turns warm after a long Michigan winter, no family activity combines fun, togetherness, and getting outside better than a trip to the zoo. No matter how old you are, it’s hard not to smile or enjoy yourself when you’re surrounded by so much to see and so many animals.
Sitting on 140 acres, the John Ball Zoo is the perfect spot to see tons of animals, have some unforgettable hands-on experiences, and leave happy. If you’re taking a family trip, is there anything better than seeing your kids happy at the end of the day?
History of the John Ball Zoo
The original 40 acres of John Ball Park were donated to the city in 1884 by John Ball, a noted explorer and pioneer who assisted in the development of Grand Rapids. An additional 100 acres were eventually added, along with amenities like the zoo, ball fields, playgrounds, and more.
The “Ball 40”
Animals have been a part of the zoo for many years and the first mention of animals at the zoo was in 1891. The small menagerie of animals at its inception was affectionally known as the “Ball 40.” During the Great Depression, though, much of the zoo’s collection was given away to other zoos.
The John Ball Zoo had a resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1949, Grand Rapids Mayor Katherine Whinery suggested the formation of a zoo society and the hiring of a zoo director.
Under the supervision of Zoo Director Fred Meyer, the zoo began construction of a Monkey Island Exhibit, which opened to the public in June 1950. During the next two decades, the zoo was built in the park’s hills.
The zoo was owned and operated by the City of Grand Rapids until it was sold to Kent County in 1989. The county continues to operate the zoo and the park today.
Further expansion of the zoo occurred in the 1990s when a bald eagle aviary, the Living Shores Aquarium, and a cafe area were among several additions made.
A New Master Plan
In 2005, a new master plan involving all 140 acres of the park was hatched to rework the whole zoo. The plan called for a system of streams — called Grand Rivers of the World — to connect the zoo to the park surrounding it.
In 2008, a new green lion exhibit was opened to the public, and in 2008, the Monkey Island Exhibit was renovated. One of the newest additions to the zoo came in 2012 with an inclined railway and a three-car train that takes you on a four-minute ride to the upper reaches of the zoo.
Things to Do at the John Ball Zoo
So what can you do at the John Ball Zoo? The simple answer is a lot and you can start by looking at all sorts of fun, colorful, and amazing animals.
The zoo is broken up into several sections where you can see your favorite animals and creatures, most of which are born in other zoos. Very few of the animals have been taken from the wild.
You’ll be transported to many places at this exhibit, including the Northwest coast, a Michigan stream, and even the coast of Patagonia. It features penguins, eels, coastal birds, marine invertebrates, sharks, and exotic fish in a 40,000-gallon tank.
Red’s Hobby Farm
This interactive children’s zoo exhibit focuses on birds and domestic animals found on farms. You can usually tour this exhibit for hands-on experiences from June to September. It features owls, cows, goats, sheep, and chickens, as well as acts as an aviary for some birds.
Wild Way Trail
This seasonal exhibit is on a wooded trail that takes wanderers from the wallabies to Red’s Hobby Farm. Along the way, you can see howler monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, cockatoos, parrots, and wallabies.
Idema Forest Realm
This wooded nature walk can be reached on foot or via the Funicular railway. It takes you to the back portion of the zoo, which features maned wolves, grizzlies, snowy owls, red pandas, and Amur tigers.
The east end has an observation deck with a great view of downtown Grand Rapids. The TreeTops Outpost and Children’s Nature Play Zones offer kids a chance to play by using natural materials and the experience of outdoor recreation.
This exhibit is chock-full of primates, mammals, and birds — chimpanzees, lions, bongos, warthogs, camels, and much more. Adventurous visitors can try their hand at riding a camel, or check out the Bissell’s Lions of Make Manyara exhibit.
One of the newest attractions is the Meerkat and Cape Porcupine Habitat, which has viewable tunnels and several eco-friendly touches.
In this area, you can see flamingos, toucans, saki monkeys, anteaters, capybaras, and more. In the summer, it’s a popular exhibit because the zoo’s monarch butterflies grow and prep for their journey south.
River otters, golden eagles, brown bears, mountain lions, snow leopards, the Canada lynx, and much more can be seen in this area of the John Ball Zoo.
You can see frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes, bees, small primates, and much more in this zoo exhibit.
Crawford Tigers of the Realm
Perhaps more than any other animal, the tiger always evokes awe and wonder from zoo-goers. This trail has upper and lower realms where you can see tigers and other animals.
More John Ball Zoo Experiences & Attractions
At the John Ball Zoo, you can see more than your fair share of animals. But there are also lots of experiences and adventures that can make your trip truly unforgettable.
Sky Trail Ropes Course
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, take on the ropes course along the Wild Way Trail. It’s four stories tall and features two climbing levels and more than a dozen challenging obstacles. The course is open on weekends, depending on the weather.
Located on the Forest Realm Trail, this four-story, 600-foot zip line takes you on a ride over a waterfall to another ridge. You can purchase combo tickets for the zip line and ropes course if you hope to make the most of the hands-on experiences.
You can get up close and personal with budgies, a bird that’s native to Australia, at this attraction. You can purchase feed sticks so that the budgies eat right out of your hands!
Located near the Tiger flex habitat, the camel rides are an experience you’ll remember forever. Riders are grouped into clusters of three but can take solo rides to get souvenir photos.
John Ball Zoo Gem Company
You can pan for gems of your very own, or go hunting for shark teeth, arrowheads, and fossils. You get to choose from one of three different bags, pour dirt on top of your screen, and reveal the treasures within.
This inclined rail takes you to the top of the zoo, allowing you to explore and walk back toward the zoo entrance entirely downhill. Also, you can hop on from the Forest Realm Trail to go back to the entrance.
Special Events at the John Ball Zoo
The John Ball Zoo offers not only animals and experiences to enjoy but also several fun events throughout the year. These events make the zoo an even more special place to be:
- In early May, the zoo celebrates Star Wars Day, and you’re encouraged to dress up as your favorite character.
- In April, the zoo hosts Party for the Planet, for which the zoo staff teaches you about conservation efforts to improve native habits. This event also includes a community cleanup.
- In 2022, the zoo is hosting Washed Ashore Traveling Exhibits, which features collections of sea sculptures made of marine debris to illustrate the effects of pollution.
Frequently Asked Questions About the John Ball Zoo
Where is the John Ball Zoo located?
John Ball Park is just five minutes from downtown Grand Rapids via Fulton St, making it easy to get to shops and restaurants at the end of the day.
When does the John Ball Zoo open?
Generally, the zoo opens in late March and doesn’t close until late November. The John Ball Zoo summer season hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., while off-season hours can vary.
How much is the John Ball Zoo?
The zoo offers both summer season and off-season prices for adults (13-61), seniors, college students with IDs, and military personnel.
Individual year-long membership and family memberships are available. Some discounts are available, and admission ticket purchases can be completed at the ticket window or online.
Where can you park at the John Ball Zoo?
The zoo offers on-site parking and an abundance of spaces.
Is there food at the John Ball Zoo?
You can’t bring food into the zoo, but there are several spots for food on-site — the Monkey Island Cafe, Central Plaza Dippin’ Dots, and Tiger Paws Pizza.
Plan Your Visit to the John Ball Zoo Today!
Whether you want to walk the whole zoo to see a marvelous menagerie of animals or lose yourself in the other experiences, the John Ball Zoo offers something for everyone. You’re never too old to enjoy the zoo, and the trip will leave you happy and looking forward to returning.
Don’t forget to stop at the gift shop at the end of your visit for a fun souvenir to take home!