Our mission is a simple one: over the next 12 years my husband and I hope to take our children to every state park in Iowa. Camping at all the ones where we can do so, hiking the ones we can't. Why 12 years? Our oldest daughter will graduate that summer. And so it was this weekend that we started with our first park, Viking Lake, our Honda Fit packed to the seams with our tent and three kids under the age of 7. The forecast called for rain, but all great explorers know you can't wait for ideal conditions when you're starting a journey.
The key to camping with children is to stay flexible and the key to a great story is keeping your options open. We chose Viking Lake as our first park due to its proximity to three great "Iowa Oddities." Our first oddity was Villisca's Ax Murder House. Now I'm not big on the paranormal and I don't watch scary movies but I can appreciate a small town making a name for itself and preserving history at the same time. I was more than happy to shell out $10 per adult for some time inside the house, where kids get in free. It's a very cute little farmhouse despite its very ugly history and your time inside is unguided. The children were free to climb on the beds and play with the toys. At first that seemed a little morbid, but then you realize that nothing in the house is original anymore and it's not so bad. And again, if you don't believe in ghosts, it's just a house with a story worth being told. A sunglasses-donning tour guide who looked vaguely Duck Dynasty told us the history of the largest ax murder in American history and then let us be. It was a nice time and afterward we hung out for a little bit in the city park to let the kids burn some energy. It's a really nice park with great playground equipment and friendly children.
Leaving Villisca we took a leisurely drive through the rolling hills of southwest Iowa to Shenandoah, home of the Iowa Walk of Fame. Shenandoah has a beautiful main street and they've filled it with markers honoring famous Iowans. You'll find Johnny Carson, Niles Kinnick and Dear Abby herself(s) among many others. And at the end of the street we found a fabulous little restaurant and microbrewery called The Depot. The old railroad building is full of antiques and memorabilia and the food was amazing. I highly recommend their homemade sarsaparilla. By far The Depot was our favorite surprise of the trip.
On the way home from Shenandoah we drove through Stanton, the little white city, to see all the white houses and its famous coffee pot and cup water towers. News flash: The coffee pot is gone! Or at least we thought it was. Apparently it has been saved from the scrap pile and now resides in the city park. Again, props to Iowa for saving interesting things. And for the record the town is 90% white houses because Scandinavians like it that way. Who knew?
The rest of our weekend was spent at Viking Lake. It's a really nice state park, but popular enough you'll probably want to make reservations. The White Tail hiking trail is 5.5 miles around the lake. We only hiked the first 2 miles, to the dam, and the trail was fairly easy hiking and well maintained. The kids enjoyed looking for animal tracks and skipping rocks in the lake. I really can't say enough nice things about Viking Lake. The campground hosts were very accommodating when we asked to change sites and the DNR staff was very personable. If we were boating people the lake looked like the perfect place to throw out a line and forget about life for awhile. The park features a playground, modern showers, a restaurant, and plenty of scenic views. A very nice home away from home.
All in all the rainy weather did nothing to damper the fun of our weekend. The slow drives through small town Iowa were very picturesque and smooth. Towns like Anita, Exira, and Greenfield provided plenty of hydration and fuel opportunities. The park was a great escape from the routine of life and the oddities lived up to their legends. In a few weeks we'll be heading up to Northeast Iowa to see if Beeds Lake State Park and its surrounding oddities can compare. Stay tuned!