Posted January 27, 2022 – Narrated by Carmen
See our 5-Bambi rating legend at the end of this review.
Call it faith, wizardry or universal wisdom, Jim’s travel philosophy is a beautiful fact.
The next enchanting two-week vacation is never more than four hours away. 4-3-2 is our address. This travel-wonder mojo holds us in thrall as we make our bed (literally) on America’s highways.
A back road Sunday drive leads to every new-to-us destination. Usually, we have the luxury to choose between city, suburb, countryside and maybe, if we’re lucky, a smattering of wilderness. Only rarely do we find all of those attributes in one location.
Lists of “The Most Beautiful Places In America” abound, but most people are convinced they live in one of the top ten. That’s how beautiful this country is. With help from Beauty and The Beast, we are able to enter the local’s reality that their hometown is perfection and make it our home, too.
For an old married couple who blew their annual two-week vacation on the same three trips year-after-year, Living in Beauty is quite the awakening. In five-and-a-half years, we’re not over it because this mind-blowing Forever Camping journey is still taking us places we’ve never been, like Iowa.
Marilyn Smith, our dear San Diego friend and chiropractor, grew up in Iowa. She’s told us about Iowa’s beauty for the last forty-five some-odd years – but from our coastal California perspective we just couldn’t understand.
In mid-September, that all changed when we pulled out of Door County, Wisconsin, for a three-day Sunday Drive – that’s what we call these pacifying and opportunistic Harvest Hosts interludes between our two-week destinations.
Here’s our first Sunday Drive TikTok.
U-Pick Strawberry Farm
A storm broke open as we stopped at UPick Strawberry Farm in DeForest, Wisconsin. It had been pressing upon us all afternoon, zig-zagging across the landscape, spitting and threatening.
As we drove in, the sign read Fresh Tomatoes. So, I put the pasta water on to boil and Jim stepped out to inspect the fields.
Suddenly, the hair on my forearms stood up. Thunder bowled and lighting cracked. Pico dove into his “cave” under the table and Jim vaulted back into the trailer. Pick-your-own would be on hold till morning. This is why we keep Herb The Herb onboard: emergency pesto.
Next morning, a girl scout troop showed up and cleaned out the strawberries, but tomatoes were still abundant. Summer marinara was in the future.
Potosi Brewing Company
Moving down the road a piece, we overnighted at Potosi Brewing Company in Potosi, Wisconsin.
Harvest Hosts doesn’t always promise you a quiet rose garden beside a mountain stream flowing with locally sourced beer, brats and cheese but …
The next day we crossed over into Iowa – a strong state, a practical state, a seriously hard-working state where, as I’ve been told, all the best chiropractors come from.
Then we drove a scenic 115 miles to Amana Colonies …
… an intriguing 300+ year-old agricultural community built by German pietists.
Before the early 1930’s, the seven villages of the Amana Colonies – also known as The Community of True Inspiration – remained tightly controlled and culturally insular except for commerce and manufacturing.
Today, like most utopian movements with the grit to survive, Amana is a National Historic Landmark thriving on tourism, shopping, hiking and cycling.
There, we spent two days learning a good deal about American history, colonial settlements, architecture, folk art, woolen mill blankets, hearth baking, hand-crafted candy and chocolate.
Craft beer isn’t a trend here. Millstream Brau Haus continues the Amana brewing tradition which goes back to 1885.
And the hometown hospitality is genuine, too.
Inspired by the community – and, incredibly well fed …
we stocked up with chocolate espresso beans for Christmas gifts …
Prairie Flower Recreation Area
and pulled out of Amana on a Tuesday morning, heading for Prairie Flower Recreation Area. Jim worked for months to successfully secure a site in this stunning campground on Saylorville Lake, a reservoir north of Des Moines.
But Jim’s hard work and good fortune took a turn when we saw our campsite, positioned a few feet off the road.
Here, just thirty minutes from Des Moines, the traffic was noisy and fast with no border wall or fence. When Pico sees deer he bolts after them. We’d have to keep him on a short leash for two weeks. No, this would not do at all. But, thanks to 4-3-2, the day was young, so we returned to the office to request a better site.
“Sorry. No openings for a fourteen-day stay but you might try Jester,” the camp host said as she issued our refund, “Better hurry, it’s first-come-first serve.”
About seven miles away – over the bridge on the other side of the lake – the park was completely off our radar, but it appeared that Jester was our only hope.
So, bye-bye prairie flowers.
We turned left onto the road and crossed over to the west shore of Saylorville Lake. Here, the traffic was slower and the pastoral landscape took us to an even deeper level of tranquility.
Within fifteen minutes we pulled straight into our fabulous, scenic site overlooking the lake.
Home again, for two weeks …
with a boat launch nearby.
Oh yeah… Heaven. Thank you Lewis A. Jester!
The 1,661 acre park is named for the man who once farmed this land.
His son and uncle gifted the land to Polk County in 1954, and Jester opened to the public in 1958.
How To Secure a First-Come-First-Served site at Jester Park
Registration is accomplished at a kiosk located at the entrance.
The process begins with selecting a site. This involves driving around, or parking and riding a bike, to find a space. Sites with an orange post must be reserved online. A green post on an empty site indicates that the site is up for grabs.
Pick as many sites as you can and rate them according to preference, checking cell signals along the way. Take your time, don’t speed. Be as thorough as possible and keep your fingers crossed that you secure your preferred site before someone else does.
As you look for a site, watch out for tiny pup tents. Savvy locals use the pup-tent method to secure a space for the weekend.
Some campers holding sites with pup tents might check back throughout the week to set up camp or look for a more desirable spot. Jester is a local’s campground. Everyone knows everyone. “Hey Buddy! When do you plan to leave that spot? Text me.” You get the idea.
Traffic is the downside of First-Come-First-Served campgrounds. Campers are constantly scouting – and, in mid-September, time’s a’wastin’ to squeeze in that last camping trip of the season. With patience, strategy and luck you will find the perfect spot, just like we did, with a great kitchen window view.
Like most minimally staffed campgrounds, registration is a self-check-in process. Come with your checkbook – no credit cards or cash.
There are 80 electric sites (17 allow for advance reservation); 62 non-electric sites (9 of these allow advance reservation); four primitive walk-in sites; and two reservable youth areas.
All sites are large, naturally landscaped with no green screen. The prettiest sites are nestled into the trees …
and overlooking the lake.
No water or sewer connections are available in any of the sites, but potable water spigots are located throughout the campground. There’s a free dump station at the entrance.
Some of the streets are paved and some are dirt, but all are wide with plenty of room to maneuver.
There are five distinct camping areas.
We occupied area #2 in campsite 212e (the e is for electric).
Sturdy shelters, picnic tables and grills are scattered throughout the park – these pleasant areas are styled to accommodate groups.
Each shelter comes with at least one Iowa-sized grill – big enough for entire side of pork, beef or mammoth, if that’s what’s for dinner.
Big get-togethers happen here.
Modern, fully-equipped cabins surround a community fire pit. Perfect for a family reunion or group retreat.
The Lodge with kayak and equipment rental appeared to be closed for the season or, perhaps, due to COVID.
Bring the binoculars, with over 300 species of wild fowl, Saylorville Reservoir is a bird-watching hot spot.
There are two, clean and functional, but outdated, bathhouses with showers.
Other features include: a primitive amphitheater with earthen terrace seating,
a sand volleyball court,
and a playground.
Pack your clubs for the gorgeous 18-hole championship golf course, and an 18-hole miniature golf course.
This area is also a biking bonanza with miles of interconnecting trails.
Our lightweight, folding and portable Dolphin eBikes entirely served our transportation needs around the campground, the lake …
and to the corner pub for happy hour …
We were in our habitat. But Jester Park reminds us that this is where the deer and buffalo used to roam.
Jester Park Nature Centre is the crowning feature of the park – with habitat and interactive learning exhibits. Its environmental education outreach includes a bison and elk enclosure to explain how this land thrived before big-agriculture took control of over 60% percent of the prairies for animal feed production (which must really confuse the aliens who are always landing in those cornfields).
Fortunately, Iowa women are accepting their role as land owners and taking more responsible steps. Here’s to the future of more sustainable Iowa farming.
Taking Care Of Business
The campground is not staffed or equipped to accept packages, so we fetched deliveries at the nearby Amazon hub. On the way we stopped by the post office to vote; had the tires rotated; and picked up a growler at 515 Brewing.
Whoa! Even without the help of our weBoost Cell Signal Booster, the Verizon cell service was screaming-fast with bursts up to 100 Mbps. Such efficient service helps visitors to support neighborhood business.
Unfortunately, there is no camp store, laundry or propane in the park, but the Polk County business community is happy to take care of you.
Downtown Des Moines
The city is only a few minutes away. If you have more time, there’s a beautiful shady cycling trail which leads right into downtown. The free outdoor art exhibit at Papajohn’s Sculpture Park alone is worth the visit …
We love home cooking, but we also enjoy dining out on the town …
and diving face first into the World Food & Music Festival.
Gosh, the weather was nice.
Come sundown it was a bit buggy but no worse than anywhere in Florida at any time of year. Funny how Central Florida kept coming to mind. It must be the recreational opportunities, safe off-road cycling trails and the ideal climate (without the hurricanes and gators).
Yessiree-bob, the Prairie Life really pulled us in. We could get used to Iowa summertimes. I think we get it now.
It’s the weeds …
the frogs croaking contentedly …
the rustle of nesting cranes in the marsh …
colors that appear one day …
and are gone the next …
It’s mid-September …
Everything is changing …
The angle of the sun …
is reordering the landscape.
Better pay more attention …
and be home before dark.
Here are some Jester Park links you might find helpful:
- Nature Center
- Outdoor Recreation & Wellness Center
- Equestrian Center
- Golf Course
- The Lodge
- Bison & Elk Herds
The physical address for the campground is 12130 NW 128th St, Granger, IA 50109
$25 per night. $150 per week. Or Senior discount, $20 per night. A discounted 7-day rate applies to non-reservable (first come first serve) sites. Discounted senior rates apply only to non-reservable (first come first serve) sites only.
Many campsites cannot be reserved in advance. Those using these first come first served campsites should set up at their campsite before registering at the campground registration booth located one mile from the park entrance. Firewood is available near the registration booth.
Online reservations, https://www.polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation/parks-trails/jester-park/, can be made for some campsites. Online reservations are available for camping between April 15 and October 15. Campground shower houses are open mid-April through mid-October. All sites are first come first serve from October 16 through November 30 and April 1 through April 14. Campgrounds are closed from December 1 – March 31 (except to walk-in tent camping, which is allowed year-round).
Fourteen day limit.
Park Office Phone Number is 515-323-5338 and the Ranger Cell Phone Number is 515-249-3229
If you want to see our exact route, click here.
*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.
|Our “BAMBI” rating system explained:
– One Bambi: Should’a boondocked.
– Two Bambi’s: Better than a Cracker Barrel or Walmart.
– Three Bambi’s: Adequate for a short stay.
– Four Bambi’s: Great place! Met our expectations for an extended stay. Needs minor improvements or is not ideally situated for all our preferred recreation (hiking, cycling, swimming, kayaking) without driving.
– Five Bambi’s: Destination Camping at it’s best! Critical as we are, there’s nothing we’d improve, and you can bet your sweet Bambi we’re going back!
Click here to see our other campground reviews.