Summer's here, which I hope means that soon, on a hot and sunny day, you'll find yourself at Grand Rapids John Ball Zoo. As you wind your way past the chimpanzees you can hear, and feel, the powerful roar of the lions. You turn right, laughing at the antics of the Black-and-white Colobus, and approach the trailhead of the new 11-acre Idema Forest Realm. Suddenly, you find yourself walking along a beautiful, elevated, winding boardwalk under a canopy of trees.

elevated boardwalk in the Idema Forest Realm

It's cooler. It's peaceful. And there are benches!

inviting benches in the shade of John Ball Zoo's Idema Forest Realm

You take a seat and watch, as the kids scramble to engage in creative play in the Camp Kitchen, and jump from stump to stump in the Treenasium, both part of the Nature Play Zone. It's kid bliss, and its not too bad for grown-ups, either.

creative play in Camp Kitchen of the Idema Forest Realm

"We purposely kept this area very naturalistic," says Kris Byland, Marketing Director for John Ball Zoo. "It's a place where kids get to play in the woods, and mom and dad know they're in a safe area," she says.

John Ball Zoo designed the Nature Play Zone with creative play in mind, says Zoo Director Andy McIntyre. "Kids can build forts and climb over logs," he says. "We're also planning to add informative signs about animal tracks and trees," says McIntyre. "We want to include elements of interactive science, where kids learn about nature around them."

big-kid fun in the Idema Forest Realm

But there's more to the Idema Forest Realm than child's play. Currently, you can see the back of the grizzly bear exhibit from the boardwalk, but by the summer of 2013 you'll be able to watch the grizzlies from above through a new black chain fence, planned to replace the current concrete wall. "The entire grizzly habitat is getting a facelift, with less concrete, more green space and water, and a glass front that will allow nose-to-nose viewing," says McIntyre.

The tiger exhibit planned for 2014 will be housed in the Idema Forest Realm. "Instead of a traditional exhibit where the tigers occupy one large space," McIntyre says, "our tigers will inhabit a flex space that includes a yard and trails the tigers can move around in and explore."

When you finally rise from your bench in the forest, continue up the short trail, and as you cross under the forest trail archway, you'll see two things: the new Funicular and the amazing Bissell Tree House.

young zoo visitor, Grace, walking through the archway in the Idema Forest Realm

Let's talk about the Bissell Tree House first. In a word: stunning.

an amazing spot for your event: the Bissell Tree House

This is an absolutely gorgeous facility in an equally gorgeous setting. As you peer through the floor-to-ceiling windows, you can glimpse the cityscape through the treetops. It's a very cool experience because you feel like you're in a forest, but in a completely modern facility, with the city for a backdrop. For weddings, corporate events, and private parties, I can't think of a more beautiful spot in Grand Rapids. For information on renting the facility, click here.

Grand Rapids cityscape, through the trees outside the Bissell Tree House in the Idema Forest Realm

Now, whats a Funicular? The new Funicular at John Ball Zoo, scheduled to open in the next few weeks, is a cable-car style elevator designed to whisk visitors from the zoo entrance at the bottom of the hill, up through the treetops, to the Idema Forest Realm on this track:

Bill and Bea Idema Funicular Track at John Ball Zoo

Each of the 3 Funicular cars can hold 6-10 guests (depending on strollers, etc).

Bill and Bea Idema Funicular at John Ball Zoo

It's a 4-minute ride to the top. Once there, guests can peek at the Bissell Tree House and stroll through the Idema Forest Realm, then head to see the animals, essentially working their way through the zoo downhill. Of course, zoo visitors can also walk uphill through the zoo, as I did, and end at the top of the Idema Forest Realm near the Funicular, then ride it down (which I didn't, since its not yet up and running). Future visitors are welcome to ride the Funicular both ways, as well. The Funicular ride costs $3 per person, each way, in addition to John Ball Zoo's entrance fee.

My suggestion for locals and visitors? Visit the Idema Forest Realm at the John Ball Zoo for a back-to-nature experience moments from the city.You can find the John Ball Zooan AZA member, at 1300 W. Fulton, Grand Rapids, MI.