Did you know there's an actual castle located in the heart of Essex County? Despite its location just off busy Bloomfield Avenue and Route 23, Kip's Castle Park is one of the best-kept secrets in the area. So secret, in fact, that I hadn't even heard of this hidden gem until recently, and I've lived in the area my whole life!
Since my 6-year-old daughter already fancies herself a princess, I figured a trip to this New Jersey park would be right up her alley. Sure enough, she happily explored the castle and pranced around the gorgeous green grounds, even without slides and swings. But playground action isn't far—we decided to pair our visit to Kip's Castle with a stop at nearby Verona Park, for the perfect double-header day trip.
Find even more warm-weather adventures in our Summer Fun Guide, plus check out these other super-cool summer day trips.
Built as a private residence at the turn of the 20th century, Kip's Castle became part of the Essex County park system in 2007.
Kip's Castle Park
Built between 1902 and 1905 by wealthy textile inventor Frederic Ellsworth Kip and his wife Charlotte, Kip's Castle rests atop First Mountain on the Verona-Montclair border. The 9,000-square-foot, four-story mansion was later owned by a cult and also served as the offices of a local law firm before the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreations and Cultural Affairs purchased it in 2007 and turned it into a park.
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My 6-year-old was enchanted by to see the inside of a real castle.
The first floor is open to the public for self-guided tours Tuesday–Friday from noon–3pm during the months of May–October, when you can wander around some of the Castle's 30 rooms of various shapes and sizes, featuring domed ceilings, Tiffany windows and six fireplaces. (Sadly, we visited on a weekend, so we weren't able to check out the interior.)
In December, the Castle decks the halls in a vintage 1920s Christmas theme for candlelight tours ($10 per person; advanced registration required), during which visitors can sip hot chocolate and munch on holiday cookies. The warm-weather schedule features springtime evening tours in April and May, plus free movies on Friday nights in June. Bring chairs or blankets and grab a spot on the grass to enjoy a movie at dusk. Be sure to arrive early for pre-movie entertainment and refreshments are available for sale.
We missed this summer's screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins Returns, but my daughter seemed thrilled at the idea of coming back next summer to watch a movie under the stars.
The grounds are wonderfully lush, with plenty of space for kids to run free.
The sprawling, 11-acre park surrounding the castle offers plenty of grassy areas to play ring around the rosy to your heart’s content, or toss around a football or Frisbee. There’s no playground, but kids will love climbing steps and small rocky hills, exploring the gardens, and admiring the amazing views of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. As I walked around, I couldn’t help but think that the park would make the ideal backdrop for a family photo shoot. In fact, the Castle is available to rent for parties, weddings, and other events.
Even though Kip’s Castle Park doesn’t offer the usual thrills active kids are accustomed to, my princess-in-training was reluctant to leave. But with the lure of playground fun calling her name, we headed down Bloomfield Avenue just five minutes to our next stop.
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The playground at Verona Park has some very cool play equipment.
With its beautiful scenery, lush landscaping, and tranquil lake, the 52-acre Verona Park offers something for everyone. Of course, my daughter made a beeline for the recently renovated playground, which re-opened last spring.
With new, rubberized flooring to prevent bumps and bruises, the playground features tons of fun equipment for kids of all ages. For big kids like my own, a multi-level climbing structure tests their strength and endurance with climbing walls, monkey bars, and a wiggly bridge, as well as a covered tower from which two long (and super speedy!) slides descend.
If you’ve got little ones in tow, there’s a smaller structure designed for tots ages 2–5 that boasts small slides, climbing steps, and a crawling tunnel. You'll also find plenty of swings, a water mister, and a unique climbing/sliding hill along the back edge of the playground. A gazebo with tables and benches allow you to take a break for a quick bite while still keeping an eye on your kiddos.
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Rent a paddleboat to take a ride around the lake in Verona Park.
Outside the play area, the children’s garden—Eden Wild—provides a scenic stroll over to the tennis courts, athletic fields, and boathouse, which is available to rent for special events. Paved trails that loop around the 13-acre lake at the center of the park are perfect for bike and scooter riders. But the best view of the lake comes from being on it. Paddleboat (two or four seats) and rowboat rentals are available for a fee of $15 a half hour or $20 for an hour.
Lucky for us, Verona Park is a literal stone's throw away from our hometown, but even if it wasn't so close, it's definitely worth the drive. And coupled with a visit to Kip's Castle Park, you can't beat getting a chance to see a real-life castle, without making the trip to Disney!
Photos by the author