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The first time we visited Pammel State Park in Winterset, Iowa, was also the first time we took our girls camping.
They were 2 and 4- which makes that trip 10 years ago!
We pitched a tent under a canopy of trees and spent a weekend splashing in the river, teaching our girls camping safety, and enjoying one of Iowa's first state parks.
The terrific memories of our first visit made it easy for me to say YES to returning in partnership with Travel Iowa's 99 Parks campaign. But this year we camped in a bit more luxury – both in our RV and in one of the park's yurts!
About Pammel State Park
Located 4 miles southwest of Winterset – famous for the Bridges of Madison County and being the birthplace of John Wayne- Pammel State Park is a perfect retreat under an hour from Iowa's capital city of Des Moines.
Set in 350 acres, Pammel Park is known for its nature trails on land and water, as well as the ‘backbone', a limestone ridge that runs above the Middle River.
If you're after a peaceful woodland getaway, this park is for you!
Camping in Pammel State Park
No matter the type of camping you prefer, Pammel State Park has you covered!
New to camping?
Check out our Camping 101 guides!
Tent Camping at Pammel Park
Pammel Park has 5 elevated tent only camping sites nestled at the back of the forested section of the campground. These sites provide easy access to the bathrooms and shower while offering a bit of distance from the RVs.
Tent campers can also choose to set up on a modern site which includes electric, water, picnic table and fire ring with grill top. Tip: if you do this plan to bring tarps to protect the bottom of your tent from rock puncture.
RV Camping at Pammel Park
RVers can choose to camp among the trees or in the natural grassland meadow. All modern RV sites include 30 and 50 amp power, water, picnic table, and fire ring with grill top.
Though we like the shade a tree-covered site provides, we chose site 19, which sits at the edge of the woods, but in an open meadow area. From here we saw deer grazing in the tall grasses and flocks of turkey buzzards as they circled, then descended, into the trees.
We also had beautiful views of the night sky with no trees or ambient light to dim the stars.
Driving or pulling an RV? Be sure to note that the historic Harmon Tunnel entrance is only 12'6″ at its highest point and has a fairly tight turn to enter the park. Use these alternate directions to avoid the tunnel: From Winterset travel south on U.S. Highway 169 for 1.75 miles, turn west on Carver Trail for 2.5 miles, turn north on Pammel Park Trail for .5 miles to enter the South gates of Pammel Park.
Yurt Camping at Pammel State Park
For those who want a taste of nature but don't want to pitch a tent, Pammel State Park has two yurts.
Though I wouldn't term this as glamping, it is definitely a great alternative to sleeping in a tent!
Up to eight people can sleep comfortably in the yurt cabins and you'll enjoy many comforts of home including electricity, air conditioning, a refrigerator, stove top and oven.
Outdoors you'll find a slightly raised deck, which is ADA accessible, a picnic table, charcoal grill, and nearby fire ring.
The yurt does not have a bathroom or running water indoors. You'll find the restrooms and showers are nearby and a outdoor hydrant and wash pit for rinsing your dishes.
Pammel Park Yurt Packing List
Though you'll find many comforts of home in the yurts at Pammel Park, you will need to pack quite a bit for your stay.
- Bedding for double and twin beds, or sleeping bags
- Towels (microfiber towels dry quickly and are great for camping)
- Personal toiletries
- Baby wipes for quick cleanup in the yurt
- All food and drinks- including water
- RV grade plastic hose & filter if you wish to fill water from the on-site hydrant
- Pans, mixing bowls, knives, cutting board, spatulas, serving utensils
- Plates, cups, and eating utensils
- Containers for leftovers
- Charcoal and grilling utensils if you plan to utilize the grill
- Need camping recipe ideas? Iowa's Perfect Picnic Packing List
For outdoor comfort:
- Camp chairs
- Outdoor blanket
- Flashlight or electric lantern
- Bug spray
- Lighter (for lighting your campfire)
- Roasting sticks and all the goodies you need to make smores
- Baby wipes for quick cooking clean up
- Biodegradable dish soap
- Dishwashing cloths and hadn/ drying towels
- Light cleaning supplies (broom and dustpan are provided but you do need to clean any messes and tidy the yurt before leaving)
Primitive (backcountry) camping is not allowed at Pammel State Park.
How to Book Camping at Pammel State Park
Pammel Park is a popular camping site, especially during summer weekends. I recommend making a reservation online to be sure a site is available.
Keep in mind that there is a 2 night minimum stay when reserving your campsite online and that reservations must be made 2 days in advance.
Holidays, including Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and the Covered Bridge Festival, have a minimum 3 night stay.
Online reservations are taken at mycountyparks.com. From the home page choose Counties -> Madison -> then facilities.
Don't want to make a reservation? Available sites are first-come first-served and the campground host will tag any reserved campsite. If a campsite is unclaimed you can arrive and set up, no reservation required.
What To Do at Pammel State Park
As you enter the campground through the historic Harmon Tunnel it feels like you are entering another dimension. A place where nature reins and relaxation takes root.
The most popular spot in Pammel Park is probably the ford. This low-water vehicle crossing spans the Middle River creating a perfect wading spot.
Above the ford you'll find a shallow river pool, terrific for swimming, while below the spillway you'll find one of the best fishing spots for Channel Catfish and Flathead in the county.
If you've brought kayaks you can put in below the ford and loop along the ‘horseshoe' section of Middle River to the other side of the tunnel. From here it's a short walk back through the tunnel to the parking lot.
Take a bit of time to learn the history surrounding the park.
That historic tunnel you drove through was once a river diversion that powered a mill. You'll still see grinding wheels on display near the ford.
The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) carried out a lot of projects in Pammel Park in the 1930s. You can still view some of their work including the Backbone shelter and its adjacent bathrooms, the south and west entrance gateways, and retaining walls at the tunnel.
Four marked hiking trails wind through Pammel Park.
The Lodge Trail and Interpretive Trail are found on the west side of Middle River, beginning from the parking lot adjacent to the Lodge Picnic Area.
East of the river, and closer to the campgrounds, are the Nature Center Trail and Backbone Trail.
The Nature Center Trail is terrific for birders and is an easy walk with young children.
Backbone Trail is more rugged. Much of the main trail, leading away from Backbone Shelter, is clear cut and wide. But when you take the trail that forks down the limestone hill toward the river the pathways become more narrow, more rocky, and more wild.
Another choice comes when this lower pathway splits. Follow to the right and you'll exit at the Harmon Tunnel; veer left and you'll return to the Backbone Shelter.
But where Pammel Park truly shines is just the simplicity of it all. Our stay in the park was one of complete relaxation.
The campground and yurts are far enough removed from the picnic areas that large gatherings don't intrude on the peacefulness. As the sun set our campsite was completely dark, leaving our campfire, the nearly full moon, and the stars as our only light.
As night descended the timber behind us came to life. The sounds of birds calling and trees rusting as they came to perch, coyotes answering one another through the undergrowth, and cicadas singing, were the perfect concert as we toasted smores over the campfire and enjoyed our little spot of tranquility.
Related articles to help you plan your trip to Winterset, Iowa
About Iowa 99 Parks Campaign
Did you know that the state of Iowa has 99 counties?
The 99 Parks campaign highlights one park in each county to give Iowans and visitors an idea of the wide range of activities, scenery, and experiences they will find in Iowa. (No, it's not all flat and cornfields!)
Iowa's state and county parks offer so many great outdoor activities.
What do you like when you go camping? A beach? Horseback riding? Easy access to cycling trails? Luxury cabins?
You'll find all these – and more! Discover the fun you'll find when you venture outdoors in Iowa!