Palisades-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.
There 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.
If 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.
The 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.
Now, 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.
You 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).
The 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.
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.
Once 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.
Immediately 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.
Palisades-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.
I 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.
Thanks for reading!