Don’t Forget the Bug Spray: Camping at Jester Park

Don’t Forget the Bug Spray: Camping at Jester Park

Camping at Jester Park

My family and I try to embrace the lifestyle philosophy of “buy less and do more.” Thankfully, our budding city has a lot to offer in the “do more” category that’s also easy on your wallet and big on good times.

My (now) seven-year-old son and I have spent a good chunk of our five years living in the metro exploring, getting dirty, and trying to find the nearest bathroom at a few of the area’s state parks. While there are more Des Moines area parks than what I’ve listed here, we’ve adventured through Walnut Woods, Jester Park, Big Creek and Ledges. Each park is no more than an hour trip from our home in Clive, which makes them perfect for a day of technology-free fun.

A few weekends ago, we went camping with several other families at Jester Park in Granger. I grew up camping as a child. My parents would take my sister and me on summer road trips across the entire U.S. Besides slipping and falling into a huge pile of bison poop in Yellowstone National Park, those trips hold some of my dearest memories.

This trip was my first time taking my son camping. As a single mother, it always just seemed better for my sanity to explore during the day and sleep in our own beds at night. This time, however, I had my fiancé with me who had already taken my son on a Boy Scouts camping trip a few months earlier. I’m also five-months pregnant, so the more manual labor I can task out, the better.

Reserving a camping spot for the entire weekend cost us a little under $40. Unfortunately, Jester Park doesn’t give you the option of only securing one night. While we only stayed Friday night, we ended up paying for Saturday night as well.

This seems like an obvious statement about Iowa in July, but it was hot and the mosquitoes were bad. No breeze, muggy, sweated in our sleep, came home with 20 bites on my legs despite wearing pants and soaking-myself-in-bug-spray type of bad. My recommendation to other families planning for a Des Moines area camping trip would be to take your adventure in late spring or early fall. Unless night sweats are your thing, of course.

Of the four families camping, we had about eight kiddos among all of us. Prior to getting to the campground, we divided up who would bring what to eat and drink. After establishing beer was a top priority for making it through the evening, we also brought meat for grilling, water, fruit, chips, ingredients for s’mores (a must), breakfast food, and various other snacks.


There weren’t any garbage cans in the area, which was a little surprising, but we managed to stuff all of our trash into the empty plastic bags we brought our food in. I imagine the garbage cans are kept to a minimum because of the nocturnal wild life residing in the area. We had a monster raccoon shuffle through a canvas bag near our tent around midnight and eat all of our dog’s food. Our Golden Doodle’s lack of reaction to the furry visitor is only further confirmation that — although happy, fluffy and generally awesome — he’s a crappy watchdog.

The kids kept entertained doing what kids do when there are no iPads around. They got dirty, ran down by the lake, laughed, made up games and played with outdoor toys that kept their parents busy 25 years ago.

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Processed with VSCOcam with c2 preset

The s’mores were a big hit — because when aren’t they? I also had about a dozen packs of sparklers left over from past Fourths of July. It was somewhat magical to watch the kids run around and swirl them in the air. As a bonus, nobody lit them selves on fire.

It’s probably safe to say the adults didn’t sleep that great. Apart from being pregnant and uncomfortable, I woke up about eight times only to peer over at my son with half his body on top of the sleeping bag and half on the floor of the tent, the side of his face plastered to the ground with drool running down his chin accompanied by the every-so-often deep-sleep twitch.

I was jealous.

The bathrooms were a decent hike. While I have no qualms with popping a squat, my fiancé was sweet enough to drive me over to them at five in the morning. Honestly, I was proud of myself for making it that long and also really stoked we’d all be getting up soon.

Breakfast was phenomenal. We made eggs, bacon and diced potatoes with a side of Pop Tarts. We talked about when we’d do it again, and all agreed it would definitely not be until September or October.

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Processed with VSCOcam with a9 preset

Overall, it was a mediocre but memorable experience for everyone over four feet. The kids, though, had fun. That’s really why we were all there. It was a good first test run to know what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s a mental list I’ll share with you for what to do next time:

  1. Reserve a spot close to the bathrooms
  2. Find an electric site
  3. Wait to go until the weather cools down
  4. Take a blow-up mattress
  5. Battery-operated fans are also a good idea
  6. Bring a trash bag

Despite the unpleasant parts, I imagine we’ll continue camping at various other Des Moines parks in the next year. It’s one of those special activities, in busy lives that are filled with too many activities, that just feels necessary. It’s a time to get back to the basics and just be together as a family. It’s also something I hope my kids will do with their children someday, whether they like it or not.

About the Author


Growing up in a household with a reading teacher and a newspaper editor for parents, Elyssa Shapiro has a great appreciation for storytelling as well as a natural curiosity. Those attributes eventually guided her through the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and into her career as a communications professional.

Elyssa has worked with a diverse group of organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits. She began her career at a small public affairs and public relations firm in Des Moines, Iowa, and then took over programming, media relations and eventually fundraising for a statewide nonprofit. She currently works in corporate communications and serves as a consultant for a local autism center as well as a freelance writer, editor and photographer.

Prior to calling Des Moines home, she lived in Vicenza, Italy working for various military programs that provided services for children and families.

She and her husband have a seven-year-old son and are expecting their second child this December. Together, they enjoy traveling and creating new memories.

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