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!
Thanks for Reading!