Great New Jersey Staycation Destination – The South Mountain Recreation Complex – A Visit To The Turtle Back Zoo And Essex County miniGOLF Safari

Entrance To The Essex County miniGOLF Safari
Essex County miniGOLF Safari fun.
Meerkats preside over the Essex County miniGOLF Safari
A chimp perched on a waterfall at the Essex County miniGOLF Safari
Families play at the Essex County miniGOLF Safari
Children check out a turtle at the Turtle Back Zoo.
A python at the Turtle Back Zoo.
The Turtle Back Zoo's pheasant area.
A pair of seahorses dance in their tank at the Turtle Back Zoo.
A cougar at the Turtle Back Zoo.
The Turtle Back Zoo: home to one of the world's few Red Pandas.
Parakeets in the Turtle Back Zoo Aviary.

With summer coming to a close, many families are looking for some activities to enjoy before life returns to its normal hectic pace.

I would recommend any of the fun-filled features part of Essex County’s South Mountain Recreation Complex. 

The complex is part of the South Mountain Reservation, and some of the many recreational activities to partake in within the Essex County Parks System.

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The South Mountain Reservation is 2,047.14 acres comprised within the municipalities of West Orange, Maplewood, and Millburn

The South Mountain Recreation Complex is nestled within the reservation, and located in West Orange.  It boasts the Turtle Back Zoo, Richard J. Codey Arena, and the miniGOLF Safari. 

Coming soon, and now on the Turtle Back Zoo Official Map will be the Treetop Adventure Aerial Obstacle Course.

Also expected and excitedly anticipated is McLoone’s Boathouse Restaurant, expected to open in October 2011.  Click here for more information.  The restaurant will offer the succulent meals, and classy ambiance this dining legacy is already known for in the six other established locations within New Jersey and Maryland.  The already stately facility is on its way to completion; it is beautifully designed, and perfectly complementing the background of the natural surroundings of the South Mountain Reservation, and overlooking the reservoir.  This will make a wonderful addition to the South Mountain Recreation Complex to further add to the atmosphere of enjoyment, and things to do for all ages, interests, and occasions.

Yesterday was a glorious day with the blue sky as a backdrop, and sun shining down on the South Mountain Recreation Complex, where my children and I spent a memorable time at the Turtle Back Zoo, and miniGOLF Safari.

Our first stop was the miniGOLF Safari, completed in 2010.  Click here for more information about the miniGOLF Safari.  The mini golf escapade is part of the zoo, yet has its own separate entrance, and admissions. 

We weren’t the only ones who had the idea to spend some time playing mini golf.  There was a wait of about 10 minutes and a number of people before us to get onto the course, and the line continued throughout the afternoon, with a wait either lengthened or shortened from the amount of time we spent.  I can tell you though – it was worth every minute waiting, and even better, every minute playing.

Harris Miniature Golf, Inc., of Wildwood impressively laid out the course, and didn’t miss a beat.  This 19-hole course rivals, and in many cases, exceeds, courses you will play at well-liked resort areas.

Stepping onto the miniGOLF Safari Course is truly like stepping into another world.

Designed with an African Safari in mind, the course boasts beautifully landscaped grounds, accented with sandy portions, outlined with round white stones, and teeming with flowing waterfalls and small ponds.  Whimsical life-sized animal statues such as lions, and monkeys overlook the course.  A trio of Meerkats overlooks one of the water bodies, and pseudo alligators swim in a painted canal.  Children, including mine, sat on the alligator statues, and posed for pictures in the mouth of a hippo statue in between golf swings.

Faux palm trees, and authentic tropical grasses, and other flora and fauna native to Africa harmonize with the overall feel of the place.  The course is divided into three geographical and topographical areas:  desert, grasslands, and Congo, with each region filled with appropriate features borrowed from the authentic ecological terrain. Additionally, speakers are cleverly housed and disguised within carved simulated rocks, and pipe in sounds of the African plains.

For me, one of the best things: seeing the joy on the faces of families who played at the course.  People of all ages and levels played, smiled, laughed, and overall appeared to have a blast.  To me, the wait to get on the course was a testament to the popularity of this mini golf course.  There were even adults without children who came for a game. 

On top of the mini golf, there is food service, and a small area with tables, and generously sized umbrellas to savor some shade.

Something else that I thought was fantastic about the mini golf course is its handicap accessibility.  Wheelchairs can navigate almost every passageway between the holes, although the twelfth hole, for example, in the middle of the course has two entrances.  One entrance is a climb up the side of a waterfall area (and the golf ball is shot down a slide area from the top), or, one can opt to take the ground route, which is also, naturally, wheelchair-friendly.   I found that since the course is navigable for everyone, it is a terrific choice for people looking for something great to do in Essex County. 

Essex County miniGOLF Safari – located on the corner of Cherry Lane and Northfield Avenue, for information and mini golf birthday parties call: (862) 520-5024.  Admission costs: $7 adults, $5 children.  Hours of operation:  10am-9pm, Mondays through Saturdays, and 10am-8pm Sundays.  Hours of operation are subject to change.

From there, we headed over to the Turtle Back Zoo.  There is transportation between the zoo, and the mini golf, however, we decided to drive and park there.  The parking lot to the zoo was packed, yet there is ample parking in the complex, which houses the Codey Arena as well (also known as the South Mountain Arena, and is a home to recreational skating in the region, and is the official training and practice place for the New Jersey Devils).  Click here for information about the Codey Arena. 

The Turtle Back Zoo was packed with people there who enjoyed the many unique exhibits.  Visitors are supplied with maps, where they can track where they’ve visited, and where to head to next.

It’s no wonder the Turtle Back Zoo was chosen as New Jersey’s Number One Zoo.  The zoo is filled with very interesting animal exhibits, and all of the animals have the opportunity to roam in areas similar to their own natural habitats.

For example, there is a wonderful Red Panda that lives at the zoo.  To me, this beautiful creature is a draw in itself.  I was so curious about what this rare being would be like. 

The Red Panda is found after a pleasant trek towards the top of the zoo.  We enjoyed searching for this little critter, who was perched up in a tree within its living area.  The panda was munching on some bamboo, which surrounded the Southeast Asia section of the zoo. 

The Red Panda in the zoo is only one of about twenty-five hundred left in the world.  This panda, and, many of the other animals at the zoo, are rare species being protected through a Species Survival Plan, managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  Some uncommon creatures, struggling to survive after poaching and habitat loss, are kept in places such as the Turtle Back Zoo, and, as conditions in their native habitats improve, the species will be released back into the wild. 

The Turtle Back Zoo’s animal conservation efforts are reasons enough to be proud to have this excellent attraction in the Garden State.

Varieties of animals from around the world reside at the Turtle Back Zoo.  From Kangaroos and Wallabys in the Australian Exhibit to Llamas in the South American Exhibit.  Penguins, Prairie Dogs, Leopards, Wolves, Tortoises, Leopards, and Bears are just a few of many types of animals found there.

The Reptile Center allows visitors to interact closely with turtles, lizards, and snakes, some very rare.  The fifteen-foot Reticulated Python, that sat curled close to the glass, where small children and big kids like myself could gaze at it, and admire its beautifully patterned skin, amazed me. 

The Tropical Currents Aquarium is also a wonderful exhibit, with six salt water environments, where rare sea species peacefully swim.  I especially thought the sea horses were beautiful and fascinating to watch.

Another terrific interactive exhibit is the aviary within the Australian Exhibit.  The aviary is open mid-May through the end of September, and, weather permitting.  Australian Budgerigars, also known as “Budgies”, or, as we may also call them in the United States, “Parakeets”, fly freely within the aviary.  Bevies of these colorful birds interact with each other, and with visitors, as they may fly up to those who have purchased seed sticks.  Don’t be surprised if a Budgie flutters over to stop and sample some seeds. 

And, Essex Farm is another stop just up from the aviary, which is a homage I think to New Jersey’s agricultural roots.  Horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and more live there, and visitors can mingle with and pet these animals. 

Moms and Dads be assured, the zoo is equipped with many hand-washing stations, and hand sanitizing units in the touch exhibit areas.

In addition to the great animals, there are other types of hands-on fun.  Outside of the cost of the regular admission ($2 each), a person can ride the Endangered Species Carousel year-round, or children two and up (with height restrictions) can ride one of the Essex Farm ponies, April through November.

There is a miniature train included in the admission price, also wheelchair accessible, open the entire year except December 1 through March 31.  The train allows a tour of the South Mountain Reservation, and takes off from Turtle Back Junction every 15 minutes.

There is also a playground (closed during winter and inclement weather), another bonus included in the cost of admission.

Other programs take place at the zoo throughout the year, and throughout the day.  “Night Moves” is one of these, with tours of the zoo at night to learn what animals do then.  There are educational programs, live animal presentations (on the zoo’s activity board each day), family workshops, “Turtle Back Tots” (a mommy and me program), “Zoo Camp” in the summer for children of all ages, and live musical entertainment (including in zoo admission).

The zoo is open all year, but is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, and has events throughout the year.  Check their calendar for details. 

Snacks and lunches are on the menu at the Zoo Café and accessible during most months, with snack machines only available November through March.  And, a gift shop stocked with all types of items is located at the zoo’s entrance.

Coming soon to the zoo:  the Aerial Obstacle Course.  I can vouch; people are truly excited for the aerial obstacle course’s debut, with its rope course and zip lines.  While my children and I toured the zoo, there was a family who headed for the new addition, as it’s on the map already, and learned it is not completed.  This is definitely a family who will be back for it.

Click here for complete details and happenings at the zoo. 

Essex County Turtle Back Zoo – located at 560 Northfield Avenue, for information call: (973) 731-5800.  Admission costs: $10 adults, $7 seniors, and $7 children (children under two are free).  Wednesdays over the summer are family nights, with $6 admissions from 5pm through 8pm, with the last one coming up on August 31.  Hours of operation:  10am-4:30pm, Mondays through Saturdays, and 11am-5:30pm Sundays.  The zoo stays open for 30 minutes following last admission.

Find the South Mountain Recreation Complex Facebook Page here

Click here to find tons of great things to do within Essex County. 

Jennifer Jean Miller is the Managing Editor, and CEO of The Alternative Press of Sussex County, a licensee of She is a freelance reporter, photographer, and marketing consultant, and has worked with Straus News, LH! Weekly, and, The Alternative Press.  Her adventures have led her all over various parts of New Jersey, and beyond, and, she enjoys sharing her travels, and interesting places to visit and experience, with her readers.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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