Backstory : Here at Active Endeavors we always love to hear about how our customers are getting outside, where their adventures are taking them, and stories from their latest travels. When we started noticing on Instagram that local outdoor enthusiast Greg (@wolfchamberlin) was making frequent, regular visits to various Iowa State Parks, we were interested in hearing more and learning about his favorites. Thanks for guest posting, Greg!
Like many people this year we have spent more time in state parks than we ever have. Maybe this is because Covid, maybe it is because our boys are getting older and are now easier to get around, maybe it is because of the 2020 State Park Challenge. Whatever the reason it has been great for our mental and physical health. It has been great for our family. State parks are some of the few and best places we can actually go and spend time safely. Here is a list of the best state parks for various activities within an hour(ish) of Des Moines that you should check out if you haven’t already.
Best overall state park for activities: Brushy Creek
Just over an hour away from Des Moines (on the way to Fort Dodge), Brushy Creek State Park has something for everyone. Into mountain biking, they have that. Camping, check. Fishing, Brushy has a large man-made lake created by a dammed up valley floor. The area frequently hosts fishing tournaments. Horseback riding, target shooting, check, check. It is really a great park. It is one of Iowa’s largest (if not the largest) state parks. If you go there you are also about 15 min away from one of our other favorite central Iowa state parks, Dolliver Memorial.
Best state park for a quick getaway: Pine Lake
Nestled in the hills just outside Eldora, Pine Lake state park is quite the delight. It has two lakes and a river running right near. While floating season may be over, it would be a beautiful place to check out some fall foliage. There is a paved bike path that runs through the park and it has some interesting hiking that we managed with one of the boys walking and the other in the backpack. Pine lake has a golf course, some classic CCC features, and a set of great looking cabins (currently being renovated) that overlook the river. Lastly and probably most importantly Pine Lake has the best restrooms of all of the near 30 state parks we have visited so far.
Best state park for mountain biking: Banner Lakes/Summerset
Don’t tell anyone I told you, but this is one of the central Iowa state parks best kept secrets. Located just north of Indianola, what Banner lacks in amenities, it makes up for in activities. Some of the Des Moines area’s most technical mountain biking trails are located within the confines of the park and beautifully maintained by the volunteers of Central Iowa Trail Association. These trails navigate around the remnants of old gravel mining pits that have created the beautiful lakes the park gets its name from. The small lakes are great for fishing and kayaking. There is a single road loop that circles the park that has a generous bike/walking lane. The park has a firing range and is connected to a bike trail system that runs from Carlise to Indianola. For bonus points you can stop in town and get some ice cream on your way to check out Lake Ahquabi State Park.
Best state park for a beach trip: Big Creek
Swimsuit season might be over but beach season never stops. Our boys love the beach. They don’t really like getting in the water but they love the beach and Big Creek has a great one. As the weather gets colder the beach gets more open and that makes more space for the boys to run unimpeded and have all the rocks they want to throw in the water. Disclaimer: while Big Creek does have the best beach, the best sand award goes to Lake Anita State Park. The sand there is cool to the touch no matter how hot the day, and not filled with a bunch of sharp rocks like many of Iowa’s other beaches.
Best state park for a picnic: Walnut Woods
If you don’t have much time and need a quick nature fix, pack up some snacks or stop and get some food and head down to Walnut Woods. Just minutes south of Des Moines it’s a great place to relax on the always well maintained grass. Let the kids run around. Home before bath time.
Best state park for a stroller walk: Green Valley or Lake Anita
In my head these are basically the same park. They are both southwest of Des Moines. One more south, the other more west. Both have good size lakes. Both have camping. Both have paved trails that loop around the lake and park. If you want a great place to push a stroller and don’t want to mess with the 1,000,000,000,000 new trail users jockeying for space with an apparent disregard for human life on the Des Moines trail system, check out these good friends.
Best park close to home: Ledges
Ledges is rad. It’s usually busy, but that is probably because it is close to home and rad. You can go play in the canyon or explore the trails. It is a great place to watch the leaves turn. If you are lucky enough to get one, Ledges has some great camp sites. Pro tip (at risk of sounding antisocial): Ledges is also super doable on a weeknight. Again, pack some food and you can have pretty much the whole park to yourself.
Thanks for sharing this awesome information, Greg! If you have a topic that would be fun to share as a blog post, shoot us a message (@activedsm) – we are always looking for outdoor enthusiasts to share their stories with us!