Connecting the Dots

Hopping Between Iowa’s State Parks

Sally Ortgies and her husband love nothing more than piling into the car and taking off in whichever direction they see fit. Recently, they’ve been taking even more road trips in an effort to complete a grand challenge: visiting all of Iowa’s state and county parks.

As the parks and recreation director for the city of West Des Moines and a board member of the Iowa Parks Foundation, Sally loves promoting Iowa’s state parks program, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Last September, while planning a way to honor this anniversary, Sally realized there were many hidden gems that she hadn’t seen yet.

She mentioned this to her husband, and the adventure-loving pair decided to spend the last leg of 2019 and all of 2020 driving to every state park in Iowa.

“That’s kind of been our way of vacationing for years,” Sally said. “We don’t get on airplanes or cruises, we just get in a car and take off in a certain direction. This is a way to see parts of the state we’ve never seen by just connecting the dots between all the state parks.”

After doing extensive research, Sally and her husband, both Iowa natives, created a list with nearly 100 state and county parks and started planning day trips, sometimes knocking out multiple parks in one day. Their record for parks visited in one day is 10.  

Typically, the couple focuses on visiting two or three parks with each trip, leaving plenty of time to explore the park’s trails and campgrounds, have a picnic and visit nearby attractions. They have visited 40 parks so far.

As with any adventure, challenges have presented themselves along the way. From finding bathrooms and working around navigation issues, Sally said they’ve experienced more car trouble than anything.

Just a few weeks ago, while visiting Waubonsie State Park where Sally was excited to hike and explore the Loess Hills, the couple decided to check out the park’s cabins. After driving down a long dead-end road to the cabin area, they both got out of the car to explore. When they returned, they discovered their car had a dead battery.

“Usually, even though Iowa is pretty rural, there’s never a problem of finding help,” Sally said. “But that place was remote, and it was not a good feeling.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t long until help arrived. Another couple drove into the cabin area and happened to have a battery starter, allowing Sally and her husband to continue on their journey having earned a valuable lesson. They returned home and instantly purchased a battery starter kit.

Though each trip comes with its own challenges and lessons, they are long outlived by the memories, which Sally has been documenting on her personal Facebook page and now her new Instagram page, @Iowa-Park-Lady.

She has even inspired some of her followers, including her younger sister, to set off on their own state parks visits and offers some advice for how to make the most of a trip: be sure to visit some of the less populated parks, be prepared for anything and get out of your car and explore.

“Just hop in the car and go. Look for things you might not otherwise notice and see the beauty in them,” Sally said. “It’s those little things that as a park lady, I get really excited about.”

Published December 2, 2021

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