Rock Creek State Park

DSC_9020Rock Creek Google Map

Rock Creek State Park is located near Kellogg which is just north of I-80, about halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City.

Rock Creek Trail MapThe park has a single, relatively flat, 11.5 mile trail traveling the circumference of a lake that is a standard model in many of Iowa’s state parks. In this case 3/4 of it is trail covering the southern portion of the lake (blue line), while the remainder consists of walking along the roads to finish off the northern part (green line).

DSC_2799This park did take two visits to be able to complete as it is a park that seems to suffer from low maintenance. The first time I attempted the hike, I parked at a nice little picnicking area (orange star) and only made it to a small pond where everything was completely overgrown and impassable (red star). That is one of the bigger problems with parks with trails that primarily consist of grass. Their trails require very regular mowing.

Good news is, the second trip was far more successful. I was apprehensive about the trip, but felt a sense of relief once I found that the trail was semi-recently mowed.

So I began the trip from the orange star and hiked clockwise around the lake. Another problem with grass trails is that the morning dew clings to it and it wasn’t long before my feet were drenched. Some sections were drier than others, but ultimately I did the whole 11.5 miles with wet feet. (Wet is a sore spot with me, my ultimate kryptonite.) That aside, the trail was easy to follow as it looped around the eastern inlet.

DSC_9032Eventually I found myself on a road for a short bit as I lost the trail near boat ramp/ pseudo marina (blue star). This is one of the areas where there are residential homes along the shore, so it is plausible that the docks here are designated for the homeowners. The next 1/2 mile of shoreline you are basically walking through the backyards of these houses. At least the yards are large, unlike some parks where I feel as though I could see right into their living rooms. This is also the section I got the best pictures in. I found a couple of cranes and a finch at the docks, then all along the shoreline I found some nice flowers.DSC_9028

DSC_9049Shortly after that is when the low maintenance reared its head again. In the park’s defense, is was pretty wet leading up to the hike, and many parts of the terrain in the remaining section (red circle) would be hard to mow. Unfortunately, this is also where the mosquitoes decided to join the party. Rather than digressing into a complaint session, I’ll just say that there is a lot of potential for this area of the park if there would be a little more effort put into keeping the trails mowed (or transitioning into gravel, etc.). I found myself pushing hard to get out of the longer grass and thick mosquitoes. In fact the mosquitoes pushed me off my plan of sticking to the blue trail, and taking the yellow trail to the beach (green star). One positive was capturing some photos of a funnel spider getting a young grasshopper that hopped onto its web.DSC_9086

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DSC_9097Once out of the infestation… I milled around the beach for a bit watching the geese with a bird friend.

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After having a snack I decided to start the road march up and around the northern tip of the lake and back to the vehicle (green lines – dark planned, light impromptu). The road walk was what you’d expect from a road walk. One interesting thing I found was that at the north end of the park is a paved trail that leads east from the park entrance all the way to the town of Grinnell (bold yellow line). Something nice if you happen to live in town. Rock Creek trail.jpg

From here I headed south back to the vehicle, past the campgrounds, and called it a day.

As for my gear recommendations if your journey takes you to Rock Creek State Park: a pack with plenty of water and some calories as 11.5 miles will burn some energy. Some first aid, a map, and of course, bug spray and waterproof shoes… heh. This was one of my faster paces, covering the distance in a little under 3 hours and 45 mins, part of that could be contributed to the literal bugging out at the end. So keep that in mind when planning your timetable compared to your average pace over flat ground.

DSC_2776In the end, Rock Creek State Park has a lot of potential to be a nice stroll around the lake. I think if they could improve the condition of their trails with rock and/or wood chips it would be far more enjoyable. Parks like this are one of the reasons I started this site and the Youtube channel. If more people show interest in visiting our parks to use the trails, then maybe the park service will be more likely to put money into improving the parks that aren’t as popular. During this visit I did see work being done to other parts of the park, we just need to work to get the trails added to the to-do list.

For another look at the park, please check out the video over on the YouTube channel.

DSC_9021As always, thanks for reading and enjoy your walk!

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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!

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.

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.

Thanks for reading!dsc02344

Floating the Maquoketa River

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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.

outback-canoeWe 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.

dsc02176That 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.

dsc02223All 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.

dsc02195The 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.

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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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Indian Creek Nature Center

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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.

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Indian Creek NC-Headquarters-grounds-and-activity-areas-map.jpgThe 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.

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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.IMG_1160.JPG

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.

Sac Fox.jpgAs 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!