Pikes Peak State Park (Iowa)


DSC03106Pikes Peak MapPikes Peak State Park
is located on the southern outskirts of McGregor in northeast Iowa.

Now the air needs to be cleared, this is THE Pikes Peak. Not that little hill in Colorado that gets all of the fame… Pikes pic

Zeb-PikeThe story is that in 1805 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike was sent to the region to survey for a military fort to be built on the northern Mississippi River. He chose the location where our Pikes Peak is now, but the government later decided to build on the Wisconsin side by Prairie du Chien. Then in 1806, newly promoted Captain Pike took another expedition through Colorado and attempted (but failed) to summit what was then known as El Capitan. It was long after Pike’s death that the mountain was refered to as Pike’s High Peak, then later shortened and officially renamed to Pikes Peak. So you see, first come first serve. After all, we have trees to go with our snow. I mean, what do you do with all of that gorgeous view anyway? /wink

DSC03114So Pikes Peak State Park is one of the most visited and photographed parks in Iowa. It consists of two units, linked by a connecting trail. The northern portion which is the lesser traveled, consists of most of the more rugged hiking trails; whereas the southern portion is the most visited with the overlook and the small waterfall whose trails are short and highly maintained.

DSC03183One of the biggest attractions of Pikes Peak State Park are the fall colors that cover the area in late September. The entire northeast of Iowa has a lot visitors around that time of year, with some making it a long weekend to drive through all of the parks in the surrounding area, such as Yellow River State Forest, to see the colors.

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There are a few different ways to hike Pikes Peak. You can break it up and just hike the north, south, or the whole thing; varying which trails you want to take and make your hike as long or as short as you want.

If you choose to hike just the north unit, you can drive through the south part of McGregor and park in the northeast corner. It is a pretty steep climb up to Point Ann on the Point Ann Trail (blue), then you can hook up with Horn Hollow Trail (maroon), and finish on Chinquapin Ridge Trail (green) in order to create your shortest loop of about 3.5-4 miles. You can also stay on the Point Ann Trail until it connects to the Chinquapin Ridge Trail, or use the Bluebird Trail as a connector, for a 5-6 mile loop.

DSC02098The trails are thickly wooded with very well maintained crushed rock trails that weave through the ravines. The scenery is great and I’ve never had a bad hike there, even when a light rain kicked off a bit after we had just started down the trail. This is in the drift-less zone of Iowa (where the glaciers didn’t smooth it out during the ice age), so expect some good climbs and descents in this area.

DSC02036Point Ann is the northernmost point and offers a nice view of the Mississippi River. The only other place in the north unit you get river views will be along the eastern ridge-lines of the Chinquapin Ridge Trail.

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If you are just looking to hike the southern unit, the most common thing to do is to park in the lot (orange star), then walk the 100 feet to the overlook (red star) where you can view the river and Wyalusing State Park across the river in Wisconsin; then hike the Bridal Veil Trail (yellow) to the falls. This trail is very built up being paved until you are almost to the Crow’s Nest, where it turns into a wooden path all the way to the Bridal Veil Falls (green star). There are some stairs, but otherwise this .75-1 mile down and back is fairly easy. On the return you could also pop onto Myotis Trail (yellow dash) if you wanted to shorten it a bit and walk on some dirt.

DSC03117You can also put together a loop by leaving the parking lot and heading west along the Weeping Rock Trail (purple), choosing to break off of on either the West Hickory Ridge (light blue), or the East Hickory Ridge Trails (green), and then taking the Bridal Veil Trail back to the parking lot for a roughly 1.5-2 mile loop. While there isn’t as much climbing and descent in the southern unit, there is still a decent little ravine running down the center to get the legs burning a little bit.

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If you are looking to cover some ground and want to hike the whole park, here is my 9.7 mile route I enjoy (red). I park in the south lot (orange star) and jump on Weeping Rock (purple). Where it connects with Chinquapin Ridge (green) you’ll find the ranger’s home and the original concession stand that was restored and relocated (blue star).

DSC03140Then I take the Point Ann (blue), to Horn Hollow (maroon), to Chinquapin route for the north; and then the West Hickory (light blue) to Bridal Veil (yellow) route for the south. Altogether it is a good amount of hills that will often leave you ready for the adventure beverage waiting for you at home.

DSC02073When it comes to recommending gear for your hike at Pikes Peak State Park, it all depends on what you want to do. If you only want to do the overlook and falls, then you don’t need to worry about taking anything, except maybe some bug spray. Just stay on the constructed paths and enjoy the views. Similarly, if you just want to check out the southern loop, I would advise making sure you use a map so you don’t accidentally head toward the north unit.

If you want to knock out the north loop I would say you should bring your food, water and your map. In addition, you might want to put a jacket in your pack for potential weather changes and a first aid kit as the terrain is a little more rugged. Now if you desire to hike the entire 9.7 mile route, expect a 3.5-4 hour hike. So make sure you have plenty of water and calories to keep you going. Of course the same suggestion of putting a jacket, bug spray, and first aid in your pack. You should also make sure you definitely have your map for this hike. There are a lot of options for you to take so you’ll need the map to help keep you on your planned route.

DSC02051Now while Iowa’s Pikes Peak State Park may be the lesser known little sister to Colorado’s name stealing mountain, she is still one of my favorite parks to visit. My wife and I try to make it an annual visit to check out the leaves. During summer visits we like to sneak into McGregor afterward and have lunch at the marina bar and grill; just your standard short order food, but it is nice to eat out on the deck on the edge of the river.

Pikes Peak is a great place to spend a day out on the trails, and I hope you get the chance to enjoy it soon.

Please head on over to YouTube and watch the video of my hike!

DSC03161Thanks for reading!

Elk Rock State Park

DSC_8532Elk Rock MapElk Rock State Park is located near Knoxville in southeast Iowa, about 45 minutes from Des Moines.
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Elk Rock was one of those parks that I had been looking at for a while before I finally made it there on a last minute decision. The weather initially called for storms, but then everything shifted and I found myself with bright sunny skies, and a desire to get away for a day. What I got was an excellent day of hiking, full of beautiful weather, wildlife, and scenery!

DSC_8849The first impression I had was on the drive into the park. Coming from the north you cross over Lake Red Rock on a long bridge that gives you a great view of the bluffs the lake sits in. It made me really desire to get out on the water in order to check out photo opportunities from that angle.

DSC_8501I drove into the center of the park where the equestrian campground was to start my hike (orange star). This was a very nice little area with a quality playground for little ones. I followed the road for a short couple hundred yards north toward the trail-head of the North Loop Trail (blue). The trail was supposed to be a 1.8 mile trail, but ended up being around 2.5 miles. This seemed to be a theme throughout the park, I ended up hiking more miles than advertised. Not a whole lot more, maybe an extra half mile per trail, but a standard example of why you should use the numbers given out more as guidelines.

DSC_8516Now the North Loop Trail starts out semi-rough with some soft sandy sections that are pretty chewed up by the horses. This was probably the worse section concerning horse damaged trails, probably because it is closest to the campground. That aside, it was a nice walk in the woods. The trails were open under the canopy of leaves that allowed the wind to flow through, but not enough to keep the bugs at bay. There was a nice break in the trees that offered a pleasant vantage point of the lake at the northern most point of loop.

DSC_8540After spending a moment checking out the view, I headed back down the trail. The elevation remained relatively flat as the trail found its way to the road that serves as a junction point for the three trails (green star). A short walk down the gravel road and you’ll find the trail-head to the East Loop Trail (yellow).

DSC_8650The wildlife woke up as I began the East Loop Trail and the birds were everywhere. It gave me plenty of practice and I captured several with my camera. Along with some slugs, snails, millipedes, butterflies and dragonflies. The best part of this trail was toward the end where you come across an open field of tall grass. The wind blew through freely and the birds were quite chatty.

DSC_8738A notable thing about this trail is that a lot of it skirted the edges of various cornfields. This is actually another tidbit that isn’t that uncommon about equestrian trails I’ve found. Quite a few of them do tend run their trails on the outer portions of a park and along cornfield borders. In these sections the sun felt its strongest, and the lack of scenery did make time seem to stretch a little. I did have to remind myself that the trail was made with horses in mind, not just people.

One place I found a lot of potential to improve this trail was at the northern most point (red star). It overlooks the lake and has a hitching post for horses and a rotting picnic table. Unfortunately, the view is completely blocked by dead-fall trees. If the park service were to go out and clear away all of that dead-fall  and possibly add a nice bench, it would open up a view of the lake and create a nice rest spot for future park users. I think it could be quite nice.

DSC_8507The trail returned to the road again and I moved on down to the West Trail Loop (red). This was my favorite trail of the three. It was less damaged by far, more than likely due to it being furthest from the equestrian camp. My opinion could be skewed I’ll admit, since it had the best trails and was following up a somewhat mundane cornfield walk. Anyway, the trail was thickly wooded and the trail it self was smooth and flowing. Even though it is called a loop, it was actually more of a down and back with a loop at the end.

DSC_8779I almost got a picture of a deer standing in a moss covered pond, but unfortunately I couldn’t capture the focus until after it was on the shore. The wildlife was active in this section as well. Aside from the deer, my favorite photo of the day was captured here. The cardinals had been taunting me all day, but i finally got one in my lens. I returned along the West Loop Trail until I got back to the paved road, which I hoped on for the walk back to the vehicle (orange line). On the way out I did stop over at the boat ramp and parking lot. Even though it is just a place to put in your boat, it was still photogenic as well.

DSC_8807In total I hiked 10.74 miles in 4 hours and 15 mins. I was shutter-bugging it the whole way, but still managed a 2.5 mile per hour pace. So someone just out for a walk should be able to move a bit faster if they wanted. Since this is a longer hike, I would very much recommend you take a pack to carry your food, water, and map. It would be a good idea to have sunscreen and bug spray for sure, along with at least a rudimentary first aid kit. The only other must I would suggest, your camera. If the weather is good, so will be the photos.

One thing nice about the style of this park is that because of the pseudo-hub where all of the trails meet, you could hike only 1, 2, or all 3 trails depending on your time and abilities. There aren’t any difficult sections, just some low grade rolling hills, so anyone who can handle the distances can handle the hikes.

DSC_8847Elk Rock State Park was a very enjoyable hike that I will return to. While sections of the trails are frustrating due to damage from horses, and the cornfields were a little boring, overall I had a great time. If you’d like to check out the video, you can watch it over on the YouTube channel. I hope you enjoy your hike out at Elk Rock State Park as much as I did!

DSC_8591Thanks for reading!

Wapsipinicon State Park

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Wapsi MapWapsipinicon State Park is located in east central Iowa on the edge of Anamosa, about 40 mins east of Cedar Rapids on Highway 151.

It was my first hike of the year for 2016 in late February. The geese were out, the wind was a constant light breeze, I definitely needed my gloves and jacket, but I had a great time finally getting outside again.

Wapsi trail.jpgThe park is a mix of prairie and wooded trails over a mildly hilly terrain. The route I took was roughly a 4.5 mile loop with a short section of road walking. You enter the park from the north at the dam, and follow the road skirting the river on its north, and the golf course to the south. It’s a nice little entrance drive with some parking areas along the river before you pull into the trailhead for the prairie (orange star).

DSC_7589The first thing I checked out was a short path to an old bridge called Hale Bridge Trail (pink). A neat bridge that was restored and relocated to the park in 2011. I strolled out onto the bridge to check out the view and get some photos before returning back to the Prairie Trail (yellow).

DSC_7602The Prairie Trail is primarily a mowed grass path. I elected to hike it clockwise and traveled along the river first. It was pretty sparse, as prairies are, with a few patches of trees. It was late February, but the grasses were still long in some sections and I imagine in the height of the summer when everything has bloomed it is likely a pretty sight. Once I got to the southern portion of the trail there was a small hill to climb that reminded me I hadn’t been doing anything all winter. It continued arching around until I was headed north toward the overlook (red star).

As I headed to see what the overlook was all about, I did descend a bit before climbing to the crest of the hill. The overlook it self is the high point of the park looking off to the east with an expansive view of the prairie below. After looking around for a bit I retraced my steps back to where the Prairie Trail connects to Pine Trail (green).

DSC_7629As I said goodbye to the prairie, I entered the wooded section and what I feel is the most attractive part of the park. There is a small little pond (green star) at the beginning of this trail that may have photo potential in better weather when wildlife would likely venture to it. On my trip it was still frozen over. After a couple dozen yards the trail developed into a nice path that cut through the pines. Eventually the trail had to end, and when it did I found myself at a three-way intersection of park roads along a creek (blue star). I hopped on Dutch Creek Trail (purple) and headed south. The trail was short but had the nice little creek on the west side with some moss-covered outcroppings on the east.

DSC_7672It terminated at a clearing that led to an attractive stone bridge to get to the remaining trail I hiked; Horse Thief Trail (blue). This trail is a short one that leads to a cave (yellow star) that has been developed into an obvious point of interest with man-made stairs. I tried to get some good shots of the cave as it is a neat little spot, but I didn’t have as many lenses then, and couldn’t capture it all. Another time it looks like. DSC_7683Once I had explored this area to my fill I decided it was time to head out. I followed the trails back to where I had left the Pine Trail (blue star), and started the road walk back to the vehicle (red).

DSC_7692Along the way I found that the roads where actually blocked off at the playground area (purple star). So the only accesses to the park during that time of year were the bridge parking areas (a small lot on each side) and the playground. Something to be aware of if you planned on driving deeper into the park.

Since this park is approaching the 5 mile mark, I would very much recommend water, food, and a map. The terrain isn’t overly difficult, having only a couple good climbs, so trekking poles are up to the user. I have become more of a proponent for them having started carrying a baby and more camera gear these days. They really do help with balance, especially over any non-flat ground. I was solo on this adventure which allows me to move a little faster. Keeping that in mind, I was able to complete the hike in an hour and 45 mins, but if you aren’t sure of your pace or are hiking with a friend or more, 2 miles an hour is always a good base number to estimate with. If it is a particularly photogenic day, then that might delay your pace a bit more as well. Things to keep in mind.

Overall, I really enjoyed my hike at Wapsipinicon State Park, more than I thought I would. I want to return for another hike at some point. I was kind of hoping that we would have a good snowfall this year as I was thinking it would make for a fun snowshoeing area. It will continue to be one of those short notice options on my list going foward.

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Thanks for Reading!

Ledges State Park


dsc_5729Ledges State Park
is located in west-central Iowa, just northwest of Des Moines.

ledges-mapLedges is one of the oldest state parks in Iowa and is quite popular from what I saw. There are three sections with trails that unfortunately don’t connect so you have to drive between them. I liked my visit to the park very much. The fall colors were in full and the trails offered a good variety of terrain to keep my interest up.

Ledges Multi.jpgI started my hike in the northeast corner of the park at the campgrounds (A). It has your standard drive up campsites as well as a few pack-in sites. The pack-in sites aren’t very far in, but it is nice to find them in a park as backpacking sites are pretty rare in Iowa. There is one main trail traveling the length of the pack-in sites, with off shoots traveling down to a creek bed. This where you’ll first discover how quickly the elevation changes within the park. It is a very steep grade between the trail and the creek, and this is a common profile for the rest of the park.

dsc_5606I plodded around trying to put together a 2 mile loop of some kind before I realized that all of the trails really just lead to the creek and back for the various camping sites. If you don’t mind some minor bushwhacking, the creek was nice to follow as I hunted for some photo opportunities. I came to the end of the property and made my climb back up to the top of the ridge and the trail. On my way back to the parking lot I spotted what looks to be the remains of a building of some sort. I didn’t really find much info on what it could have been, but thought the remaining chimney was neat (red star).

dsc_5683I drove on down to the center section where I found most of the visitors hanging out (B). The road cuts into between a couple bluffs where you can stop near a bridge that crosses a stream. There is a little sandy beach here that several children were using to play in the stream below the bluff. In the stream was an all too common cairn that are popular along hiking trails these days.

dsc_5733This parking spot also gives you access to the two ridge trails that you can put together for a 4 mile loop. I first took the east trail (Hog’s Back Trail, orange star) and found myself walking a good distance along a cliff that turned into a ridge line with a sharp descent on either side. This was one of the more memorable trails I walked that day.

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dsc_5792The trail eventually crossed over one of the picnic areas that was quite open before skirting and open field and then plunging back into the woods (green star). In this section of the park was my first run-in with a locust tree and their insane thorns. These things were massive and sharp! The trail continued to meander along the ridge tops of the hilly wood until I exited in more open picnic areas on the western edge of the park.

dsc_5809I passed by a couple of these open areas before I found my way back into the woods for the short remainder of trail in this section. Before I got far though I came across a spider I had never seen before. The colors were very bold and I had to try to get a photo. Unfortunately I was still pretty new to my camera and had issues getting a solid focus, but I still have to share this guy.

dsc_5825The walk back was a quick one from here. However, I wasn’t quite done. I crossed the road near the aforementioned bridge and climbed to the top of the west bluff. This one was more developed with wooden stairs, railings, and benches (blue star). The trails wanders around the top for a bit with a few overlooks. The best section of trail in the park was on top of the west bluff for certain. As far as coming to Ledges for a quick visit and pictures, this is the section I feel would draw the most interest. It was directly over the parking area and the spot where the kids were playing in the stream.

This is probably the most important word of caution; stay on trail when on top of the bluffs. Stone can be slippery when moist and it doesn’t take much for someone to start a slide. It is a good 60+ foot drop if you were to fall over the edge. In fact, Ledges claimed a life this January (2017) as they were attempting to get photos too close to the edge. I debated putting this in here, but felt it too important to gloss over. I want more people to get out into the woods, but I also want them to get home too.

dsc_5565I took several photos while I was up there, and eventually completed that section and drove to the last part in the southwest corner of the park (C). The trail here led to a pond, circled it, and then headed back for a little over a mile. While there was a minor climb not too far down the trail, this was by far the flattest of the three areas. It was also the least maintained, with it starting to get a little overgrown around the backside of the pond. It was still very nice little walk to put a cap on the day.

When you visit Ledges State Park I would recommend you prepare yourself for some steep climbs that settle into a nice stroll before descending back down. This could mean trekking poles or a walking stick for some, while others may just want to feel those thighs burn. And as always; remember your water, food, and maps.

dsc_5858This is definitely a photogenic park, so be sure to bring something to capture shots. One thing I like a lot about this park is that you can choose your own way since there are basically four options to take or leave. This is a park I will have to go back to since I didn’t capture any video footage the first time, and this is a place that deserves a video review to really relay what it has to offer. So add Ledges State Park to your to do list, you won’t regret it.

dsc_5843Thanks for reading!

Wildcat Den State Park

dsc04710Wildcat Den State Park Wildcat Den State Park is located in southeast Iowa near Muscatine, just west of Davenport and the rest of the quad cities.wildcat-map

This is another park that I ventured to with the family without any knowledge other than it being on the DNR website and had a trail. While I will admit the kids weren’t as enthused as their mom and I about getting out, by the end the were enjoying themselves with the scenery.

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dsc04615The park offers about 6 miles of trails, mostly in a loop with a down and back tail on the east side. It was thickly wooded with some noticeable hills throughout. We started our hike by parking at the orange star in the center of the park. The parking area was surrounded by a pretty open area for picnicking, as well as a shelter. I did wander around a bit looking for the trail-head since it wasn’t immediately obvious. It didn’t take too long though before I found it on the north tree line and we were off.

dsc04638We opted to go counter-clockwise at the first junction (1) and found the trails to be well maintained. Every now and then we came across large piles of finely ground gravel that I’m assuming were staged for trail maintenance. Overall it was a nice trail that was easy to follow. The foliage was a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees throughout the park. I really do enjoy a walk in the pines. There is just something about pine groves that is simply pleasant.

dsc04639One nice surprise about the landscape was that the trail went into a valley with tall rock cliffs on both sides (2). There were a few overlook places above us that probably gave some attractive views of the trail. We went off trail a bit and checked out this mini canyon that had been carved in the rock. This is the point where the kids’ moods started to improve.

dsc04647Eventually we needed to get moving again and continued on. The down and back portion of the trail heads off to the east side of the park with a decent decline that terminates at a road in front of a historical attraction. There is an old one room school house and the old grist mill. We walked around and the area checking out the mill and took advantage of the restrooms for a little break.

dsc04694Once everyone was feeling ready to go we got back on the trail and started our climb back up the hill. We merged back up with the main loop and continued on. The northeast portion of the park really is where the biggest attraction to place sits. Along with the canyon before, we found some really nice sandstone bluffs at the green star that were a lot of fun. The incline had soured the kids’ mood again, but here is where they really perked back up.

dsc04724The trails through here are honestly stand alone if they wanted to be since you can park at the base of them. You weave all through the stone on heavily trafficked trails. There is some scrambling over rocks and climbing into alcoves, it was honestly a lot of fun. Since sandstone is a pretty soft rock, there were certain section where you could find the locals had carved various graffiti. Make sure you hit up this area on your visit.

dsc04730When considering gear, we went pretty light. It was only a couple to hike the whole park, and we did fart around a bit. The kids didn’t really bring anything, while my wife and I had our daypacks. She carried their water and snacks, while I carried my water and the first aid mostly. You can drive to most of the attractions, so if you aren’t sure you are ready for a hilly 6 mile hike then plan on hiking to the canyon and out, then drive to the bluffs and mill. While I could recommend trekking poles for those that want support, this is definitely not a gear intensive hike so no worries there. Of course as always, bring your map!

Wildcat Den State Park is a very enjoyable little stroll among the trees and bluffs of eastern Iowa. If you’re in the quad cities area, it is only a 30 min drive away. Grab the kids and left them wander around bluffs and build memories.

dsc04720Thanks for reading!

Briggs Woods County Park

dsc_8492Briggs Woods County Park is located in northwest Iowa, just south of Webster City.

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The trail within the park is actually pretty short, roughly a 2 mile loop. This report is less about the hike, and more about discussing the park in general and spreading the word about an enjoyable place to spend a weekend.

briggs-woods-trails-mapBriggs Woods has a lot to offer for a small county park. It has some hiking, a nice little lake, cabins and camping, a golf course, and is a 5 minute drive from town for easy access to replenish goods. It is also close enough to town that there is a 10 foot wide, 5.7 mile paved bike trail that travels from the golf course to the center of town.

Not knowing much about golf, I’ll start there to get it over with, heh. From what I read, the course is a nice public 18 holer whose main criticism comes from the challenge of its back 9. The front 9 seems to be fun, whereas that back 9 appears to give enough grief that if you’re having a bad day your game can go downhill quick.

dsc_8336Now back to the things I do know about. Our visit was a weekend venture with my wife’s family. In total there were 15 of us and after a good amount of research I found that Briggs Woods had a cabin that could fit us all. They have several cabins in the park, some smaller ones over by the camping area in the western portion of the park along the river (green star), and their large cabins are centrally located along the lake (orange star).

dsc_8307Now the large cabins are built similarly with some rooms on the ground floor with an open kitchen and living room, and an open loft upstairs. There are bathrooms with showers on both floors as well as TV. The finish is very nice and has a comfortable homey feel, versus one of your more simple style bare-bones cabins. In fact we commented more than once that it would be great to own the cabin personally as a weekend retreat for the family to share (as long as you like the color of wood). dsc_8309There was a grill and fire pit outside on the patio next to the porch with a pleasant view of the lake. Down along the shore was a small little dock where someone could fish or launch a canoe/kayak.

dsc_8341The weather was still a little too chilly to really enjoy the lake when we stayed there, but it does offer swimming at the beach (red star), and fishing. There are two places to launch boats for fishing (like many Iowa lakes this is a wake-less lake), as well as your standard fishing from the shore.dsc_8385

dsc_8379As for the trail within the park, there is one short trail (dotted line) that wanders through the wooded area in the northwest part of the park. It is a well-groomed path that anyone can follow easily without any difficulty. This was baby girl’s first official “walk” in the woods and I wanted something simple and short since I didn’t know how she would do in the carrier. She rocked it, and discovered how much fun it is to tug at dad’s ears along the way…

Once you get to the northern end of the trail you’ll come across a couple short waterfalls. They are part of the spillway system that comes from the lake and flows into the river. The trail gives you an elevated vantage point, and it is somewhat tricky to get lower for a closer view. This would be the only point of caution I would offer for this trail.

dsc_8416After the waterfalls the trail connects to the paved trail where there is a bridge that crosses the true spillway from the lake and heads toward town to the left (north) or back to the large cabins and beginning of the wooded trail to the right (south). We headed back to the cabin from here for a quick little 1.7 mile loop that left the kiddos still in a good mood.

dsc_8344We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Briggs Woods County Park. It is a popular place so plan far in advance if you wish to stay there. We liked it well enough that we tried to go back this year. However, when I was looking in January for an August date, all 3 of the large cabins were already booked through September! So the annual glamping trip will have to be held elsewhere. If you make your way out to Briggs Woods County Park I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

dsc_8365Thanks for reading!

Palisades-Kepler State Park

dsc04870palisades-state-parkPalisades-Kepler State Park is located in east central Iowa just outside of Cedar Rapids along Highway 30.

Now this park’s review is well overdue considering it is right outside the town I live in and therefore should be considered my “stomping grounds.” I do in fact hike this park quite often since it is so close and an easy spur of the moment hike that is an enjoyable time.

You can also check out the video over on Youtube as well.

Palisades.jpgThere are two main ways most people hike Palisades; they park at the orange star and either do a short 1-1.5 mile down and back along the river (blue trail), or they do a 3 mile loop incorporating the down and back with a pass through the center (blue, gray, green, yellow). If doing the loop an alternate place to park is at the lodge (red star) or at the shelter where green and yellow trails meet. Most often I prefer to hike the park in a loop for the greater distance and exercise since the terrain you have to go over is a bit more hilly on that route. Also, I normally park at the orange star and hike counter-clockwise in order to knock out the road sections first so I can end on the more enjoyable wooded section.dsc04882

dsc_2354If you elect to do the loop in the manner that I do; depending on the river’s water level, you will begin your hike at one of the beaches / grassy shoreline where geese often like to hang out. If you look across the river you can see built on the edge of the cliff the old vacation home of the Brucemore Mansion family whose house in Cedar Rapids is a historic tourist location (purple star). Side note, in 2015 this little cottage was restored and sold for $1.75 mil.

dsc01482The shoreline will eventually turn into a patch of trees where Overlook Trail (yellow) starts which offers a couple of views of the river and the dam (yellow star). As you can see on the map, at about the dam you have to the option to continue along the trail until it ends at the other beach, or take some stairs up to the shelter. regardless of which route you decide to take, you’ll have to walk along the road a short bit to get to the green trail.

dsc04850Now, no offense Palisades, but this is your most boring trail to walk (it’s ok in the fall I’ll admit). It simply follows the road on a steady uphill grade that isn’t steep, but you feel it if you haven’t acquired you trail legs yet. This trail leads past the lodge to its west and continues along until it ends near one of the picnic areas. You won’t actually take this trail until it terminates, but rather cross the road to begin Cool Hollow Trail (gray). Cool Hollow is marked with large logs painted brown, with Cool Hollow Trail in yellow. You’ll have to keep your eye out for these logs so you can find the entrances when you cross the two roads on this trail.

I personally enjoy Cool Hollow, you walk through some thick woods while climbing and descending a couple good-sized hills. At the bottom of the first descent, you come across the new bridge built across a little creek. A tree fell on the old one a couple of years ago. The old one was pretty basic, but the new one definitely has more of a rustic-artsy flare to it; I like it.

dsc01720You immediately begin to climb the next hill. The eastern trail will take you to the road, where the western trail will dump you at yet another picnic area (there are quite a few in the park). Whichever you decide to take, you have to cross the road and find the marker to continue along the trail, which is another good descent that heads down to the river and Cedar Cliff Trail (blue).
dsc_2280The point where the two trails connect you are met with a stone bridge and your first look at the craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that built this park, and the majority of the Iowa state parks and beyond during the 1930’s. I like to cross the bridge and head north up the rock stairs that are kind of carved into the steep incline to get to the trail riding the cliff edge.dsc01488

This trail is a little difficult to find the end as it sort of melds into the woods and turns into private land. It would be nice if the DNR would make an obvious sign that announced the termination of the trail. Better yet, it would be great if they were to build a lookout point or something along those lines to create a goal to walking this section of trail. The views are nice along the way, but once you get to the end it is kind of a lackluster payoff.

dsc01723Once you figure out the end, you turn around and head back to the stone bridge. From here we follow the river south and are treated with many nice views of the rocky cliffs and thick woods. Eventually we come to the more prominent item built by the CCC, the round tower overlook (blue star). This is always a neat little spot to stop for photos.dsc01158

dsc_2332Immediately after you leave the tower you have to choose whether to continue along the upper route, or if you want to dip down toward the river. The two trails run parallel to each other and are only separated by a couple dozen feet or so. When the river is running high the lower trail is almost always wet so the majority of the time I just always take the upper route anyway. Now along the upper route is access to the cabins and campsites which could have been your entrance to these trails as well. It doesn’t take much longer and you exit the Cedar Cliff Trail at your vehicle.

dsc_2343Palisades-Kepler State Park is not overly long, nor is it too difficult. There are a couple of steep climbs and descents to be aware of, as well as the rocky and uneven stairs. If you have balance issues this is one park I would recommend taking trekking pole(s) to help you out. Now I always recommend the important 3: Water, food, and a map. Your first time here it doesn’t hurt anything to be prepared, but this is one park that only took me a couple of times to learn I could come with nothing and be fine. Now make sure you consider your fitness and the weather. 3 miles of even moderate effort can be a lot on an Iowa 100 degree day with 100% humidity, bring water those days for sure. In other words, most anyone should be able to hike most of the trails this park has to offer, but it is never bad to be smart and come prepared.

dsc01491I hope you’ll visit Palisades-Kepler State Park if you’re in the area and enjoy it as much as my family does. It is a nice walk in the woods with rocky cliffs that offer pleasant views of the flowing river.

dsc04864Thanks for reading!

Maquoketa Caves State Park

dsc02251Maquoketa Caves State Park is located near Maquoketa, Iowa in the east central part of the state. maquoketa-caves-state

I’d heard of this park for quite a while before I finally ventured in that direction. The park has a good number of caves varying in size from small crawl spaces to large holes in the earth. There isn’t anything on a grandiose scale that one could get lost in, but it was still fun and enjoyable to walk through the bigger ones and watch the kids crawl around in the small ones. As for hiking, there is a decent little trail system connecting all of the caves together. Maquoketa Caves.jpg

First thing first, the bats. Bats really like caves (ask Batman), and a big concern for the health of the bat population is White Nose Syndrome. Before you are allowed to walk around the caves you must first listen to information about reducing the spread of White Nose Syndrome with such things as not wearing the same clothes in different cave systems for 5 years.

dsc02240This is one of the more busy parks that I’ve been to, with parking that felt limited. You park just off the main entrance road in the middle of the park by the nature center where you’ll get your brief. From there you cross the road and head down some stair into a ravine where all of the caves are located. The main cave is located at the bottom of these initial stair and is pretty big. It is more of a natural tunnel honestly, and they have poured a sidewalk down the middle of it, (probably to get you above the constantly flowing water in it) with some overhead lighting. This is the only cave in the park treated that way. dsc02294About halfway through there is one small little cave that breaks off along the path and is a tight squeeze. We found that quite a few people were crawling through this one which end in an opening about 7-8 feet above the ground near the exit of the large  “tunnel.” We opted not to drop from the hole like some younger kids did, so back-tracking was interesting in the tight space with other park goers also curiously trying to find where it leads.

Once we exited the “tunnel” we were met with well up-kept trails that wandered throughout the park. There were a good number of stairs scattered about the heavily wooded park, with a few steep climbs. dsc02276At first the kids were disinterested with the idea of being pulled away from their electronics, but they really started to open up once we got out into the more open areas and they were allowed to crawl around in various caves. It got to the point where they were the explores and we weren’t even around anymore.dsc02332

Overall a very enjoyable experience. The website suggests they have 6 miles of trails in the park, but I feel we covered the park pretty well and only came to about 3 miles. As for pace, throw out any numbers you use to track and estimate your times. This style of exploring isn’t about covering miles. We spent 3 hours to cover the 3 miles, but you could take more or less depending on how wrapped up you get in your exploration. Nothing was too challenging for us, although some of the non-stair climbs might be a little hard for those that might need to work on their conditioning. Aside from the standard water, snack, and map; I would definitely recommend wearing clothes you are willing to get pretty dirty, a headlamp, shoes/boots that can handle rocky terrain, and some gloves like Mechanics brand that are thin yet protective and breathable.

dsc02307Once again, a very fun little park that in the course of typing this up has reminded me how much I enjoyed it. I need to get it on the list for a return visit. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

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Eden Valley Nature Refuge

dsc02613Eden Valley Nature Refuge is a Clinton County park located in east central Iowa near the towns of Baldwin and Maquoketa, just southwest of Maquoketa Caves State Park.eden-valley

I stumbled upon this park while trying to find more locations within a short drive from Cedar Rapids that I could take the wife and kids. I wasn’t able to find a whole lot of information about the park before we arrived so I didn’t know what to expect. I believe I read somewhere along the trail that much of the system was built or remodeled by some local boy scouts, pretty impressive for sure. I was pleasantly surprised by the terrain the trails wove through. While not a whole lot of elevation gain, there were a good number limestone bluffs that offered some punchy climbs. Overall, a very enjoyable walk in the woods. Let’s get to our walk.Eden Valley Refuge.jpg

dsc02584In total we covered a little over 5 miles of trails and as you can see, the one map of the park I could find was a little… interpretive. There is a small parking area (#1: brown square just off the road that fits 3-4 cars) at the trailhead to the western section. We parked and walked south along the road to the nature center (#2) and the trailhead for Bear Creek Nature Trail (#3). The trail was a nice little wooded loop with some neat rock outcroppings along the creek. At one point it looks like they had signs describing the local foliage, but most were broken or unreadable that we found.

dsc02591From there we retraced our path back to the parking area and the western trailhead (#1). The trail started with a steady climb up a crushed limestone path that included the rock with a “face” before we veered north at the “T” intersection (#4). It was only a short walk before we came across the Bunkhouse (#5). The Bunkhouse is a cabin only accessible by foot that sleeps 12 and can be rented for $50 a day. Pretty neat and rare to have something like that in Iowa and could be a fun escape. img_1122img_1123Continuing west along this trail we were treated to a pleasing limestone bluff running above us on our north side. We eventually were able to check it out from up top via the Black Ridge Scenic Trail (#6) after we made it to a hub of sorts (#7), but we’ll get back to that in a second. Black Ridge was one of the fun highlights that I didn’t expect, but be prepared for a mild climb at the start. It is a down-and-back trail through the trees that terminated with a view overlooking the parking area and the campground from a pretty good height before returning back to the start of it.

Once we got back to point #7 you have access to the primitive camping area, a small bridge leading into more woods, or a path south into a small prairie. We took the trail into the woods with the intent of exiting a little further west into the prairie, but at the time it hadn’t seen any upkeep in a while and forced us to take the loop and return to where we started.

dsc02604The open spot on the map between #7 and #8 is the prairie where a mowed path ran through it to connect to the swing bridge at point #8. The swing bridge was pretty neat and one of the draws to the park. Once you cross, it leads into the Whispering Pine Trail (#9); a loop through some rolling mounds that had an interesting history of sinkholes throughout it. Some were more pronounced than others, but most were large depressions in the ground. Yet another unexpected find. Not to forget that there were some more limestone outcroppings here that made this trail even more interesting. Definitely one of the best trails in the park.img_1129

We made our way back across the bridge and continued along the trail until we eventually hit Walnut Trail (#10). Like most of the other trails, a nice little woods walk. Now comes the time to apologize, because from here I have to admit my memory is a little hazy. It was 2013 when we hiked this, long before I really began recording our journeys. All I had was a point-and-shoot Sony and a since defunct GPS app for tracking. Part of me thinks we were able to gain access to the tower at point #11 from the Walnut Trail, but it could be completely plausible that we had to hike all the way back to point #4 in order to gain access. So be cognizant of that potential dilemma when you venture there.

img_1134One of the bigger draws to the park was the wooden tower in the south central part of the park. It is surrounded by woods with a short loop running through them. The tower itself is a modest height that gave a pretty view of the immediate surroundings. It was definitely a very nice cap to our day.

When it comes to the recommendations section of the review, this trail should be good for anyone that can handle some modest elevation gains. There is a good amount of rolling hill terrain that could challenge those getting out for the first time, but if you allow yourself time to rest you’ll be able to push on through. If you are planning on doing the whole network of trails I would suggest bringing a backpack with some snacks and a bottle of water. As always, don’t forget a map (even an interpretive one…)!

Eden Valley Nature Refuge was a very enjoyable walk in the woods that honestly surprised me. I think this would be a great place to take kids on backpacking trips, especially as introductory ones since the hike into the camping area isn’t that long. The Bunkhouse offers a great retreat as well. Highly impressed with the work put into this small little county park.

Thanks for reading!

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