Before one can start a 12-year-long camping odyssey there must first be a plan. And this becomes even more important if small children are involved. With our goal of visiting all of Iowa's state parks before 2027 (when our oldest graduates high school) we maintain an intense focus on quality. This isn't about merely checking a box off a list; if a park is known for hiking then we want to hike it. But those parks might make more sense with teenagers than preschoolers. So we started by contacting the Iowa DNR for a list of all the state parks. We divided Iowa up into four quadrants. We noted which parks allow camping and which are known for hiking. In order to achieve our goal we need to visit roughly 7 parks a year. To start, keeping our children's current abilities in mind, we've decided to camp at one park in each quadrant and then visit 3 additional parks. After careful consideration I crafted our first two years of parks. But before we set off to Viking Lake we knew we needed a practice run.
Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt is a county park in Polk County that stretches for 10 miles along the Skunk River. Conveniently it is also only five minutes from our house. We chose this location for our practice weekend. Chichaqua has a lot to offer. There are hiking trails, canoe rentals and a native birds mini zoo. It's important to realize that there are camping opportunities beyond the state parks. There are many amazing county parks like Chichaqua waiting to be explored. I grew up camping at Roberts Creek on Lake Red Rock near Pella and I can tell you some of your best camping memories may very well come from county parks. This was certainly the case for us.
We knew we needed a practice run because fitting the camping supplies needed for five people into a Honda Fit is a challenge in and of itself. We needed a chance to see what we needed and didn't need before we were hours from home. It's hard to tell what you'll need in a tent with a toddler until you're actually there. And the kids, after spending the weekend in the tent, learned they really didn't need to take their stuffed animals along. We discovered that the simplest food plan is the best for us and our kids would tell you that their favorite meal was roasting Peeps (we were out of marshmallows). Something about watching a fluorescent yellow chick roast over an open flame creates lifelong memories. Hiking with the kids is a new adventure for us and the Chichaqua trails are the perfect length and difficultly level for getting little feet wet. That being said, we discovered that it is impossible for us to pack too many socks. Kids don't like to hike in wet socks, and wet socks are a hiking reality if they're hiking in tennis shoes. It might be worth investing in hiking boots for your kids if you're planning on doing a lot of hiking. We bought Phoebe's a few sizes too big and plan on using them through her, Toby, and Lydia if they hold up. In the evening we learned it's important to camp with cash. You can't bring your own firewood into parks and most parks we've been to so far only deal in cash, so if you like your Peeps hot you'll need some greenbacks.
The lessons we learned on our practice weekend were numerous. Pack more socks than you could ever possibly need. A toddler and a found Robin's egg = messy disaster. Bird zoos are very amusing if not a little strange. Toddlers don't need pillows but everyone else does. Camp shoes are a must. In our experience Dutch ovens are more hassle than their worth. Pack cash. When you're only camping for the weekend toothbrushes are optional. Crayons and blank paper will cure all boredom. Practice makes perfect.
It's still a bit of a question as to whether or not the Fit is going to hold all our supplies. We might need to tweak our list as we go. But that might be the greatest lesson of all. When camping, with children or not, you need to stay flexible. Sleeping on the ground is not for the rigid and family bonding is not for the weak. Thank you, Chichaqua, for helping us iron out our kinks. We'll be seeing you again when we teach the children how to canoe.
And again make sure to check out more pics from the weekend at Crunchy Camping Pics.