Ledges State Park is super popular and well worth the (short) drive from the Des Moines metro – we kicked off summer with a visit to splash and explore! I had read reports of the canyon road being closed due to damage (picture and article here), so I thought I’d scope out options for parking in an effort to make it easier to visit. This is such a fun place to come and spend the day hiking and splashing, the shallow water makes it perfect for babies and toddlers (as well as older kids, adults, and dogs of course!). Lots of folks bring water toys, nets, and beach balls but we usually have the most fun looking for animals and playing with sticks.
[You can see more specific details on the Ledges State page or check out its location on the interactive map.]
This is a screenshot of the trail map on their site – but I highly recommend downloading the Iowa Parklands version instead! You can see where the canyon entrance is, and that is normally a one way road down to the bottom, so I marked the road where you can’t drive with two red X marks. You can see that the campground and several other places to park and access trails are still open, because they are ahead of that canyon road entrance. You can also see the light grey ‘pea’s creek’ snaking over the road – so you can see how far you’d have to walk from one of the parking spots down to the water, and walking back up would be relatively steep.
I marked the easiest place to park and walk up with a red circle, at the base of the road. There are two ways to get to the water, that I’ll show below.
If you want something to put into your GPS, the intersection of 255th St & P Avenue is closest, as shown above, and then you can see you’ll turn on 255th street and slowly curve around to the parking lot, passing the lost lake trail area (that is 100% open).
This is your view as you come to the last parking area, with the bridge just barely visible. The canyon road is also barely visible, but you can’t park or drive up the one-way (there is a gate).
Once you are parked at the bottom, you have 2 options to get up to the water: walk the trails or walk the road. I did both to compare them, you can see above that they’re pretty close in distance but extremely different in walkability. If you’re carrying a big lunch cooler, using a stroller, etc. I would absolutely use the road, no question.
If you want to get wet early but also skip the steep steps and narrow trails, there is a small shortcut through shallow water. In person, you’ll see a faint deer path through the grass at the arrow above, and the road through the trees. The trailhead, with a sign, is off the other direction.
To give you an idea of the terrain, these are pictures alongside it. If your kids aren’t sure footed or you are anxious about heights, this is not the trail for you. My 4.5 and 2 year old kids had no issues, but they seem to be part mountain goat.
This is the trailhead you’re looking for, you’ll be taking the Mesquakie Trail to Reindeer Ridge trail.
You’ll turn left and go up the stairs (turning right along the flatter direction will take you to shelters that you drove past on your way in).
You’ll turn left again, the sign isn’t there any more. Going up/to the right will end you in the same place, it’s just a higher loop, but we saved our legs for splashing.
Slowly, you’ll start to hear water and people and start descending, coming to water!
There is a ford over the street, providing really shallow water for splashing. The deepest areas are right next to the road where the water splashes in, but most of it is barely shin deep on my toddler (obviously it varies due to rain fall and water levels).
Lots of pretty spots to scope out! We spent most of our time by the road, but it’s an easy creek to walk and explore. You can continue to walk up the road and check out different water crossings as well; I’d guess the ones in the middle are the least busy with the road being closed.
My daughter found a toad and was super proud of spotting it; I enjoyed finding water bugs and their cool shadows (science behind the shadows here).
There were a ton of birds flying around, apparently cliff swallows. It was so fun to see their heads poking out!
Last but not least, it was fun looking at all the different rocks, with lots of colors and shapes to spot. We walked the road to get back to our car instead of taking the trail again, it took about the same amount of time (and was much easier) even though it is a little further distance wise.
Ledges is one of our favorite places to get wet and spend an entire day, we will be back again soon, and I hope the maps make it easier for other people to visit even with the road closure! You can see pictures of our fall visit, sans water, in this post.