Summer Countdown: Top 10 Things to Do in Your County Parks

The days are muggier and buggier as the smell of fried food on a stick fills the air. This can only mean one thing in Iowa - the beginning of the end of yet another short but sweet midwest summer and the start of pencils, papers and the eruption of cheers from your local high school stadium. But before that glorious taste of freedom comes to seasonal halt, give the kiddos one last hurrah with a local vacation - a county park staycation!

Polk County Conservation is home to more than 14,000 acres spread out across 20 parks, trails and wildlife areas chock full of adventure as summer winds down. Let's take a quick tour of all the fun to be had just waiting around the corner! In no particular order, here is our top 10:

Oxbows at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt

10) Canoe at Chichaqua
The old oxbow river channels of the Skunk River provide ample opportunity to explore the natural world at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. Wildlife species such as river otters, great blue herons, beavers, wood ducks and painted turtles are just a few of the animals that can be seen while canoeing these backwaters. And Chichaqua has canoes for rent right on site! Cost is $8 per hour; paddles and life jackets are provided. Reservations can be made in advance by calling 515-249-5925 or on-site on a first-come, first-serve basis.

9) Fishing
The summer heat may stifle action a bit out on the water but with a little background knowledge, fishing will be just as fun as late spring, early summer! And let's get back to basics. Rig up a simple cane pole and head out to the ponds at Thomas Mitchell, Yellow Banks and Fort Des Moines Parks. Crappie and bluegills on the end of a hook, worm and bobber presentation will provide hours of panfishing fun! Without reels and casting, cane poles eliminate numerous snags and snares inevitable with young kids. You can really keep it simple with a traditional cane pole or purchase a fiberglass collapsible pole - perhaps easier to transport than a 6-14 foot wooden or bamboo pole! Click here for more cane pole information.
Creek walk at Thomas Mitchell Park 

8) Creek Walks
To seriously beat the heat means diving in first! Wading through Camp Creek at Thomas Mitchell park fits the bill on a sweltering August afternoon. Limestone steps installed throughout the waterway improve recreational access to the water for both children and adults alike. Other hotspots to get your feet wet include Mally's Park in Berwick and Paw Creek at Jester Park (accessible via the Hickory Ridge Trail).

7) Natural Playscape and Wildlife Viewing
Constructed from natural materials such as boulders, earth mounds, and water features, this innovative play area encourages imaginative natural play while avoiding plastics, metals, concrete and instruction. Sneaking in a little education is easy with the bison and elk exhibit nearby complete with an accessible observation deck, educational displays, spotting scopes, high quality art components and inviting view.

6) Remember those cane poles?  
Discovery Pond across from the Jester Park cabins is the perfect spot for beginning anglers. A hiking trail also surrounds the pond.

5) Birding
Don't miss the biannual migration of the American white pelican. These magnificent birds are beginning to arrive at Saylorville Lake from the northern U.S. and Canada in preparation for the fall migration. Saylorville serves as one of the largest resting spots stateside for one of the largest birds in North America. Look for the most impressive gatherings towards the end of August. By late September-early October most of the pelicans will have flown south to the Gulf Coast for the winter months.  

American white pelican
There are also two bird blinds for park users to take advantage of; one at Jester Park near Shelter #6 and one at Chichaqua just west of the Longhouse. Bird blinds are great places to observe birds. Inside the blind, you can take a seat and watch birds in their natural setting. Bird feeders are filled regularly to attract birds to the immediate area.

Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt is designated as a Bird Conservation Area by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. The recently constructed wildlife viewing platform is a prime location for viewing many species of birds from meadowlarks to sandhill cranes. This platform area has spotting scopes installed and is easily accessible from Highway 65. Click here to download a brochure about this Bird Conservation Area which includes a field guide checklist.

4) Horseback Riding
Jester Park has even more to offer! Saddle up for adventure with the Jester Park Equestrian Center! Trail, wagon and pony rides are available all month long. Contact JPEC at 515-999-2818 to schedule your ride today! 

3) Golf
Situated within the beautiful Granger countryside, the Jester Park Golf Course is one of the premiere courses in Polk County. Players of all skill levels can try their luck at the 18-Hole Championship Course, 9-Hole Par 3 Course (also perfect for beginners and junior golfers), or Driving Range. The Jester Park Golf Course is accessible from NW 121st Street, just west of the Jester Park entrance. Go online to for more information.

Biking on the Chichaqua Valley Trail
2) Paved Trails
How about a ride or walk along the Chichaqua Valley Trail? With a recent addition of 6.25 miles of trail from the city limits of Bondurant stretching to NE 29th St. where the trail crosses beneath I-80, this Polk County and Bondurant project allows trail users to ride from Des Moines to Baxter via the Chichaqua Valley Trail. Load up the family for an afternoon of fun along this trail!

 1) Soft Trails
Soft, natural trails are also a big ticket for enjoying nature at a slower pace. Take a leisurely stroll amongst the shade and shadows created by a thick canopy of greenery overhead throughout our parks. Beautiful oak and hickory trees in Jester Park and Brown's Woods provide the perfect opportunity to cool down while taking in natural surroundings. The Savanna Trail at Yellow Banks park is home to some very old residents. This trail guides you past some of the last remaining savanna oak trees in Polk County - some are estimated to be more than 250 years old! Additional hiking trails within the park lead to overlooks of the river valley, a Native American burial mound, and a unique backpacking camping area.

Summer fun is right outside your front door right here in Polk County - no (major) travel required!


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