Elk Rock State Park is located near Knoxville in southeast Iowa, about 45 minutes from Des Moines.
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!
The 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.
I 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.
Now 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.
After 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).
The 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.
A 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.
The 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.
I 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.
In 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.
Elk 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!
Thanks for reading!