I don’t know about you, but I always love that glimmer in my girls’ eyes when they first see a new place space. Don’t get me wrong, the three places I’m about to discuss have become some of our tried and true Iowa outdoor favorites but we are hoping they will open up some new places for you to explore the next time you find yourself with free time in central Iowa.
1. The Natural Playscape at Lake Red Rock
This is a place we just found out about this year! Designed and maintained largely by students at Central College in Pella this space is great fun for all ages. The best news about this play space is there are nice bathroom facilities right by the main play area and plenty of nearby parking. When you have a preschooler and one girl being potty trained – well- bathrooms are essential!
Our favorite features: As simple as it sounds my girls loved the wooden posts outlining the entire play area. Counting them, jumping on and over them, walking on them – you name it! They also loved the tee-pee type structure made of sticks and little canoe type form for them to play in. If you have a kiddo that loves to make noise like my four year old does then the musical section with all sorts of things to make noise and bang on will be right up their alley. My oldest also really loved the giant “nest” structure. Overall the entire area was neat, well laid out, and lots of fun.
Bonus Feature: There is a fantastically maintained 1/4 mile loop nature trail that leaves from one side of the play space, cuts through the surrounding woods, and ends at the other side of the play space. All three of my girls – ages 7, 4, and 2 walked it and had fun. They even have some features along the trail you’ll need to walk and check out. It’s very easy to follow and a fun little bonus.
Where It Is: This playscape can be found at North Overlook Beach at Lake Red Rock. 1007 Hwy T15, Pella, IA 50219. You will want to park on the opposite side of the lot from the beach and then will walk through a mowed grass section toward the bike trail and see the sign for the playscape!
2. Thomas Mitchell Park
We first went to Thomas Mitchell Park in 2017 and it was instant love for the whole family! At this park you can really do it all – camp, hike, creek stomp, picnic, and playground play. The camping area is near our favorite creek stomping location and makes a great changing spot. While we have yet to overnight camp here, we love to come for a full day where we hike the nature trail, play in the creek, change, eat a picnic lunch at the large picnic shelter, and then play on the play ground until we are all exhausted, happy, and ready to go home!
Our favorite features: The GREAT creek! When the park received renovations a few years ago they definitely had all of us creek lovers in mind. If you drive through the park, past the playground and up into the camping area you will find a large parking lot with a red bridge to the side. We like to climb out of the car, cross the bridge and walk the trail a short distance where large stone steps lead us down into the water. Most of the year the creek stays cool and low but do pay attention to recent rain reports as it could be higher if we recently received heavy rains. We have found frogs, tadpoles, minnows, and even a turtle during our explorations of this creek. The terrain is easy to walk and all three of my kids can handle it no problem with their Keens on. The opportunity for open ended nature play here is limitless! When you get done at the creek you will definitely want to see the playground which is large and great for all ages.
Bonus Feature: Fantastic shower house! If you get really muddy it is easy to change clothes and clean off in the shower house right by the parking lot before eating lunch and hitting up the play ground.
Where It Is: 4250 NE 108th St, Mitchellville, IA 50169
3. The Enabling Garden
This beautiful space is in the most unlikely of places – right next to a Hy-Vee (large grocery store) in the middle of the city of Altoona, Iowa. The creators of the Enabling Garden describe their goal as “to welcome people of all abilties to experience the garden.This Polk County Master Gardener project provides an area that illustrates gardening for individuals with physical impairments by demonstrating construction of barrier-free gardening. Through the use of design concepts such as raised beds and vertical wall gardens, visitors learn how gardens can be adapted to accommodate any gardener regardless of age or ability.” In other words this space is a gardening wonderland for everyone who enters! On top of having great garden space that my kids love to check out every season of the year, they have a nice sized natural playscape with a GIANT sand area that my kids could wallow in all day.
Our Favorite Features: The giant sand box – It is nicely maintained and the kids can play in the sand making all sorts of creation for hours. The mixture of plants and flowers in the space is always gorgeous and engaging and we love to use all of our senses to explore this space.
Bonus Feature: Awesome sculptures! A giant praying mantis sculpture along with changing art installations always amaze my kids. The garden is also home to events for kids and families. Make sure you check out their website here: The Enabling Garden.
Where It Is: 1050 1st Ave S, Altoona, IA 50009.
Have you been to any of these places? What is your favorite hidden gem where you live?
I would love to have places to add to my list as we travel!