So obviously this isn’t a hike, but it is an outdoor activity! I went canoeing with my wife and a few friends on a section of the Maquoketa River just outside of Monticello in east central Iowa.
We rented our canoes from Outback Canoe Rental at a reasonable rate that tends to be right around the average amounts I have found in Iowa. We arrived early for the full day float which they suggest is about 8 miles and takes 4-5 hours if you include stops along the way. I will admit that we didn’t stop a whole lot, so our trip was closer to 3 hours.
That being said, we very much enjoyed the quality service the rental company provided. They were organized and efficient in getting us shuttled up to the launch point in Hopkinton, and in retrieving and getting us out of the water and on our way once we landed back at the site.
The float itself was great! We went mid-July and the weather was superb. The river had a very casual flow to it that really helped increase the enjoyment. The roughest part of the river was at the launch just after the Hopkinton dam. It was moving pretty swift with a soft river bottom that caused the launch to be mildly hectic, enough so that my wife’s sandal was yanked off her foot as we shoved off. It was nowhere to be found so she was barefoot for the day.
All in all that was the worst that happened. The river was pretty shallow, calf to thigh deep at most spots with an occasional bottom rub. It was the first time I had been in the water since high school and early college and it simply made me remember just how much fun it is to be floating down a river.
The trip sparked a big desire to find more opportunities to get out on the water every year! If it has been a while since you’ve been on a float, or if you haven’t ever been on the water before, I feel this is an excellent choice to get your feet wet… pun intended.
Eden 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.
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.
In 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.
From 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. Continuing 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.
The 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.
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.
One 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.
Pine Lake State Park is located in central/northeast Iowa just outside of the towns Eldora and Steamboat Rock.
I did notice during my hike there that there where not many pine trees to be seen for a park called Pine Lake. However, I did read later that the park was named for the fact that it was the southernmost stand of native pine trees in Iowa, but unfortunately most of them were blown down in a massive wind storm in 2009. Some of them were 250+ years old. That being said, the park is still a pretty heavily wooded park with plenty of deciduous trees that would make for some nice fall foliage. The park was well maintained with groomed camping and social areas, with a mix of paved and dirt trails.
It was a beautiful day for the hike, so let’s get on with the report. For this hike I had planned to hike about 6 miles over some relatively flat ground that would circle the lower lake, and do a down and back along the Iowa River. I parked in a small lot on the northern most point of the Pine Lake Recreation Trail (yellow) which I found to be a paved path that seems to stretch from the parking spot to the town of Eldora as a way to get to the beach and camping areas. It was well covered with trees on either side, and would make for a safe alternative for cyclists to get to the beach without needing to ride on the highway.
I left the paved trail just after the spillway dam where it meets the South Trail (blue) on the south end of the Upper Pine Lake. This section was a little less maintained as it veered north into the short Upper Pine trail (green), but very manageable. This is where I saw the first remnants of the work the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put into the park during the 1930’s. At the north end of the Upper Pine is the stonework from an old bridge that has since been dismantled, collapsed, decommissioned, etc. It looked as though at one time the trail possibly continued north from there and possibly circled the Upper Pine Lake as well as the Lower Pine Lake?
After I finished having a stare down with a deer, I turned around and headed back to the South Trail. This trail had a good number of bridges that kept my camera busy. They mostly had that quality rustic feel to them that people like my wife love. One thing of note, this was the first time I experienced a trail system traversing someone’s backyard. Since then I have found that this is not all that uncommon. If you want direct access to Iowa state park lakes from your home, then you may have to share your shoreline with park visitors.
Once you finish the South Trail on the western edge of the lake you do have to cross the road to get to the western portion of the park where you’ll find the cabins and trails along the Iowa River. I took Hogsback Trail (orange) north where it merged with Wild Cat (magenta). These trails had a more open feel to them with tall trees that created a sense that I was walking under a canopy. There was a small stream running through it that presented a heavily moss-covered bridge for some nice photos. Unfortunately, we had been receiving a lot of rain that summer and I only got a short ways into Wild Cat before the trail was flooded and I had to turn around.
As I headed back over to the Pine Lake Recreation Trail via Beach Trail (white by the NW corner of Lower Pine Lake) I had trouble actually finding Beach Trail. I walked along the highway trying to find the trailhead with no luck. Eventually, I stumbled across a tiny sign that said beach that way (or something like that). Turns out, there was a tunnel that went under the highway and led to the beach. That is something they could mark on the map as it was totally unexpected so i wasn’t looking for it.
Once I hit the small little (but nice) beach I got back on the paved trail and headed back to the beginning. I bumped into a little chipmunk and a couple fawns on the way. Even with a couple trails needing some maintenance and another trail being flooded out, I had a pretty good hike and enjoyed the park.
This is definitely a park that is accessible to most who are looking to get outside. The paved path is going to offer a nice trail for biking, strollers, or just casual walking, etc. The dirt trails aren’t overly challenging and should be good for most people as well. As far as gear, nothing major is needed. As always I would suggest water, snacks, and a map. Depending on the time of year you may want some bug protection as well.
Pine Lake State Park is a nice little park that I need to revisit. My video footage was corrupted before I could put together the video report, so I want to return to have something to show since this park is well worth the trip. I do have some, so I may throw something together just to get the information out there in another format. (Update: I did put together the video and posted it over on Youtube.)
Yellow River State Forest is located in the northeast corner of Iowa near Harper’s Ferry and north of the McGreggor, Marquette, Pikes Peak State Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument area.
The forest has a great network of hiking and equestrian trails and is one of the few true backpacking areas in the state. In total the literature claims about 25 miles of trails. On my trip I focused on the exterior hiking-only loop (highlighted in gray), with a short excursion into the center on the all purpose trails to check out the old firetower in the southern area (#9). I chalked up 15.4 miles overall, but I left a good miles behind as I had to cut my hike short due to time… well mostly due to time.
Let’s just start off by talking about the hike: My plan was to hit the park at sunrise and take advantage of a full day’s worth of hiking. I was planning 14ish miles for my route, taking me 4.5 hours. I was quite wrong with those numbers. First of all 14 miles wasn’t close. I am guessing that the route I wanted to take is closer to 17 or 18 miles. Second, and more importantly, the terrain was far rougher than I understood. The trails were great and well maitained, but the elevation changes were steep and often.
I parked in the main lot by the information center (#1) near the western entrance (I believe that is what it was since it wasn’t open that morning). I took White Pine Trail toward one the four backpacking sites, Camp Glen Wendel (#2), which was a decent little site with a small pond. My first complication came around point #3 on the map where it shows walking through a patch of woods, after crossing the road, before crossing the river. I found the entrance, but no trail. After a good portion of time scrambling around the thicket I found the exit and realized that had I just passed the entrance and stayed on the road for another 20-30 yards, then jumped on the gravel road heading north for maybe 80-100 yards, I would end up in the same spot without the frustration. So that is my recommendation.
The next section was part of the equestrian trails on Painted Creek Trail that followed the creek back towards the center before the rough climb up Bluff Trail on the way to the overlook (#4). I took a good rest once I got to the top of the climb for a snack and to catch my breath. Aside from being able to overlook the creek and one of the campgrounds, you can see the old fire tower sticking up above the trees in the distance. After the break I meandered through the woods to Little Paint Campground (#5) which was a very pleasant area that is well maintained. After I left the campground it didn’t take long before I started questioning the map and distances. I found that you just follow the road across the main park road and keep going for probably a half mile until you get all the way through the Equestrian Campground (#6). Once back on the trail I found myself on a nice winding path that lead to a very steep climb which left me a little (or more) winded.
Once I got to the top of the hill I found myself walking next to a cornfield that lead into an open field before turning back into wooded trails and transitioning into a steep, rocky downhill that ended at the second, and very nice looking backpacking campsite with access to moving water; Heffern’s Hill Camp (#7). It is a short walk down to the creek and the road, so one could drive up and park a couple hundred yards away rather than hike the whole distance if they wanted to. However, this is the furthest camp from the main parking lot if you want to get some miles in both ways. Tricky section number 3 comes up next (#8). There is a mix of trails that all meet at the bridge where the gravel and creek meet. Trying to explain this in my head was trying enough, and I was there making the decision! So I made this super detailed map showing how I crossed the bridge and took the trail towards the center…
I stayed on Saddle Trail Loop veering to the right (north) on my way to the fire tower (#9). Even though I knew no one is supposed to climb the tower, I won’t deny that I hoped I could sneak up inside and get a view from the park as I’ve seen videos of people up there, but they must have been by permission of the park as it was surrounded by a high fence that was locked and topped with barbed wire. I wasn’t getting in. After walking around the tower for a bit and taking some pictures I had a choice to make.
The time was getting later than I had planned for, and the mileage was telling me there was no way my route was going to be 14 miles. So, continue on the planned route which meant following the Firetower Trail east back to the backpacking trails, or hit the Firetower Road and go north back to the start or south towards the backpacking trails… After some internal debate about time, terrain, and my conditioning I decided it would be the smart choice to cut the rest of the southeast out. At this point I was only tired, not in pain, so I elected that since it wasn’t that much further I would take the road south and meet up with the backpacking trail, Brown’s Hollow Trail (#10), back to the start.
After I traveled an extra 1/2 mile or so downhill then back uphill, I found the trail marker I missed… meaning my day was finally nearing the end. I was hurting by now. My feet were howling and my steps were beginning to feel labored. As I edited the video footage in preparation for posting this report it reminded me just how exhausted I was. It was still very early in the season, I had only hiked three times previously for a total of 16 miles on mostly flat trails, and I had just spent all of 2015 so completely focused on finally finishing my degree that I only totaled 20 miles for the year. I was woefully unprepared. Yellow River State Forest had won. I left at least 3 miles of trails out there, unexplored. The 2017 rematch will happen, and I look forward to all of the pain the Forest can throw at me!
For those looking to venture into Yellow River State Forest I would definitely suggest you truthfully look at your conditioning level before attempting longer distances within the park as there is a good amount of climbing that will challenge and tax you. If you stay to the equestrian trails it should be easier as the horses need to be able to traverse the same ground. Also, take into account that the park is a well maintained network of trails where you can plan you own distances and bailouts if it gets too challenging. Regardless, I would suggest bringing plenty of water and at least some snacks. The longer you plan on going, the more I’d bring, heh. It would probably be a good idea to bring a backpack (nothing extreme is needed) with first aid and toiletry options, you could be on the trails for a bit without access to a restroom… The only thing I know I’ll bring next time is trekking poles to help with balance along some of the rockier sections. Oh and never forget your map!
Yellow River State Forest is a very beautiful park that holds some of Iowa’s more rugged terrain. Even though it beat me, from here on out I will always look fondly upon this place and look forward to returning. I encourage everyone to at least take a drive up there to enjoy the leaves as they turn in the fall at a minimum. Most of the overlooks can be driven to and the views provided are excellent! Remember to watch the video and subscribe to; the YouTube channel for trail videos, Instagram for updates on the trail to see what reports could be coming in the future, and like the Facebook page so you can get notifications as reports are posted!
Indian Creek Nature Center is located on Otis/Bertram Road on the southeast edge of Cedar Rapids, west of Highway 13 and south of Mount Vernon Road.
The Indian Creek Nature Area is a very popular place due to its nature center and trails, hosting 14,000 kids worth of few schools tours every year. First, we didn’t check out the nature center when we checked out the trails, but my wife said she had taken the older children there in the past and they had enjoyed it. The center just launched an upgrade to it this year in the fall of 2016, and I imagine we’ll be taking baby girl there once she starts walking around. When we visited our focus was the trail system.
The trails at Indian Creek consist of a 4 to 5 mile network that strolls through prairie and forest on the west side of Indian Creek, with a short nature trail section around the nature center itself to the east.
We only hiked a little shy of 3 miles of the western section during our visit a couple years ago. The website suggests that they have made quite a few improvements, which tells me we should go back and check it out. We do live in Cedar Rapids after all… not to forget the aforementioned baby hiker.
The prairie section had a nice flow that was pleasant and would be good for anyone looking for a walk in the sun. We aren’t real big on prairie walks to be honest, so it was quite nice once we crossed over into the wooded section on the northern portion of the park, especially Founder’s Grove. If there was a challenging section this would be the one place as some of the footing was loose.
If you plan to hike the whole thing I would suggest bringing water and definitely go to the website and download the maps to print. It is always nice to have a reference point to confirm you are heading in the correct direction. Other than that, the hike wasn’t difficult. You could easily spend a couple hours meandering along the trails if you wanted to, especially if you have young ones that want to fart around.
As a side note; the parking lot also doubles as mid-point parking for the Sac & Fox Trail. The Sac & Fox Trail is a 7.5 mile point to point crushed rock recreation trail that travels along the Cedar River and Indian Creek.
So snag the mountain bikes, check out the nature center, explore the trails, and ride a section and back. Then go home, shower, and head out for date night. Of course you could head on over to the other side of town for Morgan Creek. Or, do all of the above and never leave town! Make a day of it!
Morgan Creek Park is a Linn County park that sits on the western edge of Cedar Rapids near Taft Middle School and the Cherry Hill area.
The trail system consists of two short network style trails that are split by Morgan Creek running between them. They total about 3 miles and are accessible from either of the parking areas at the arboretum or the group camping/picnic areas.
The eastern portion of the park has camping, a shelter, and a picnic area with a playground. On the southern edge of the picnic area is where you gain access to the trail, which is a mowed path that winds through an open prairie for roughly 2 miles.
This trail does cross over the creek on the northern part of the park for access to or from more camping and the western trail. This trail is a 1 mile network of crushed rock that contains an arboretum and butterfly garden. There are over 250 species of trees and shrubs according to the county website.
There really isn’t much of a difficulty level to this park as it is completely flat and pretty short, therefore no real need for gear. The network system design is also helpful in that it allows you to take the next trail back to the start if you feel you want to end your walk early. This is a great park for a nice afternoon stroll, or if you want to take the little ones for a show-and-tell as the arboretum is labeled interpretive style. The trails are wide and mostly smooth too, so very plausible for those that have off-road capable strollers.