McIntosh Woods State Park

McIntosh Google MapMcIntosh Woods State Park is located on the shores of Clear Lake in north central Iowa.

The park is a short little hike that I checked out during the fall of 2016 with my hiking buddy Jessie. It was a three part tour that included Pilot Knob and Beed’s Lake State Parks. I’m just now getting to the trail report do to an editing issue. Jessie had just purchased a camera and was taking it on his first hike. Well, he wanted to make sure it had a full battery and ended up leaving it on the charger. I just happen to have the same camera, but only one battery (which I’ve since purchased a second one…). Since I had my camcorder, I decided to let him use my battery so he could use his new camera, and I would just stick to the video.

So after we got home, he gave me the photos to use. Long story short, I had to upgrade my software to help edit the photos before I was able to post them. Don’t forget to pop on over to YouTube and watch the video, and now on with the trail report.

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Clear LakeMcIntosh Woods is a state park on the northwest shores of Clear Lake outside of… Clear Lake, Iowa. There is another state park on the southeast shore of Clear Lake, you guessed it, Clear Lake State Park. Enough Clear Lakes yet?

Now one issue I have with trying to explore as many state park trails as I can get to, are the parks that only have 1-2 miles of trails. For instance, this one only has about 2 miles of trails, but it is a 2.5 hour drive. So it’s 5 hours of driving for an hour (or less) of hiking. So to help accomplish this, I’ve come up with what I call hiking tours. I sector off the state and find ways to have a goal hike of a moderate length, then find the short ones near by that I can combine into a “tour” that can be achieved in a single day. This one started with an early drive to the target of Pilot Knob, then had stops at McIntosh Woods and Beed’s Lake on the drive home. It works quite well for justifying the drive to the shorties.

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Now as I’ve eluded to, McIntosh Woods can be quick. The red is the route Jessie and I took in a clockwise manner. In total we logged 1.83 miles. The elevation was pretty much flat, but that doesn’t mean this park was without character. From the parking lot (P on the map), it’s a few dozen yards to the beach. They have a sign that warns of zebra muscles, so make sure to wear your shoes if you decide to go for a dip. Now one thing that was very apparent, this is a very popular fishing lake. There were boats and birds everywhere.

JPA_0263After we’d had our fill of the sand, we turned around and headed northwest. The trails were well defined and easy to follow. The first surprise we came across was an observation blind built by a local Eagle Scout. Scouting is one thing I wish I never quit back in the day, so I appreciate the work done by those that achieve their Eagle.

McIntosh Trail Map 2

The blind overlooked a pond with plenty of vegetation and such to provide for some nice scenery to accentuate the scene. On this day the only activity we had were a couple of mallard ducks bathing.

The next stop on the trek was at the northwestern edge of the park where the two yurts are located. Now these yurts still have my interest sparked. Ever since that hike I’ve kept them in the back of my mind as a  place to take my wife and toddler. I’ve never stayed in a yurt and I’m kind of curious. Iowa DNR, needs to start reading my stuff and hook me up! 😉

Now, I’ll be honest and say that at this point the mosquitoes were wrecking us. They decided it was time to appear. That is one risk with parks near water in Iowa. We pushed on harder at this point. Once we got a little further into the eastern portion of the trail they did lessen in their veracity.  Now one thing we were bummed about is that we never did find the goats that were supposed be hanging out at the park. There was/is an issue with an invasive plant that the goats targeted. So the state rented the goats to attack the invasive vegetation. Unfortunately, the weather must have been risky to allow them to roam on the day we visited.

McIntosh Google SateliteThe last thing to touch on is the eastern border. On the eastern edge of the park is the Iowa Regular Baptist Camp. Now I have to admit, it looks like they have some pretty cool stuff over there. We peeked across the no trespassing signs trying to figure out what they were, then headed back to the car.

All in all it was a nice little hike to add on to the day.

As far as challenge, there wasn’t really one. I think anyone can hike this trail. It is by far short enough to not challenge anyone to the extent that they would need food and water. After all, it is only 1.83 miles. The biggest challenge with this park is keeping the bugs away.

DSC_4958If the goats are still there and out munching on the invasive grass, all the better!

I hope you get out and enjoy your hike!

Pilot Knob State Park

Pilot knob googlePilot Knob State Park is located in north central Iowa near Forest City, the home of Winnebago.

The park is a nice little hike that I checked out during the fall of 2016 with my hiking buddy Jessie. The video has been out over on YouTube for a while now, but I’m just now getting to the trail report do to an editing issue. Jessie had just purchased a camera and was taking it on his first hike. Well, he wanted to make sure it had a full battery and ended up leaving it on the charger. I just happen to have the same camera, but only one battery (which I’ve since purchased a second one…). Since I had my camcorder, I decided to let him use my battery so he could use his new camera, and I would just stick to the video.

When we got back home he gave me the photos to use, but the foggy haze was thick and I only had Lightroom 5 at the time. Lightroom 6 had come out with this amazing new function called Dehaze that actually eliminated most of the fog to bring out what is hidden behind it. It is great! Like I said, I only had Lightroom 5, not 6. I didn’t upgrade until last fall, which is why there is such a delay.

Now on with the hike!Pilot Knob Trail Map

So Pilot Knob was part of a three park tour that included McIntosh Woods State Park and Beed’s Lake State Park. It is one of the oldest parks in the state, having been dedicated in 1923, and much of the construction was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s.

DSC_0735Knowing we had three parks to hike, we got there early and parked on the western edge (orange star). Here it appears is a popular place for ice skating as they had a good number of benches around the pond and a warming house where the trail started.

Thanks to Lightroom’s Dehaze feature, it really cut through the fog in the pictures, but here’s one I didn’t use Dehaze on that really helps to show how thick it was.DSC_0741

JPA_0035On this particular hike we took a counter-clockwise route that sent off on Fork Trail. All of the trails we walked were well-worn and pretty easy to follow. We wandered through the mist as Jessie practiced with his new gear.

It was a pretty flat walk as we rounded Dead Man’s Lake, which was more like a small pond.

This first portion passed quickly and we crossed the road to take Three Bridges Trail that runs the southern border of the park. This is where the look of fall really started to show it self.

We both were very much enjoying the hike so far. About half-way down this we came across a little bench that was facing a pasture (red star). It looks like it is a memorial bench, and the brush was cleared out up to the fence line so someone could sit and check out the trees, or possibly watch horses or cows grazing on the other side.

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Moving along the trail we came across an old amphitheater (green star) that I didn’t know about. I wish there was some kind of history marker I could find about it, because it was kinda neat. You could tell it was built long ago, probably during the CCC days.JPA_0112JPA_0105

We speculated about different aspects of the amphitheater before moving on to the wildlife management portion of the park. Our journey down this trail was short-lived however, as it was pretty nasty and chewed up with all of the wet weather we had been having. So we turned back (purple star) to rejoin the main trails of the park with the East-West Trail. This one honestly wasn’t much better, so we pushed through quickly.

JPA_0171After the push through the rougher trail, we took a break at the campground. The campground was pretty nice, and bathrooms were pretty good for a state park. Everything is next to the small lake inside the park and offers some nice recreation space. There is also a pretty good little playground for the younger kids as well.

JPA_0213The main focal point of the park is just a short walk to the south of the campground. You’ll sneak along Plum Alley Trail for a tiny bit before jumping on Tower Trail which ends at a small parking lot. From the parking you’ll head up to the high point of the park where you’ll find the Pilot Knob Tower (blue star). The park website references that this was a landmark to assist travelers heading west.

JPA_0190One thing is for certain, I wish we had clear skies for the view! It was quite nice as it was, but some bright blue skies would have helped the fall colors really pop. We took some time getting pictures and enjoying the view before we got moving along on our way back to the car.JPA_0189

We retraced our way back to the campground and followed the Plum Alley Trail along the north side of the lake back to the car. The fog had started to lift at this point as we prepared to head on toward our next stop.JPA_0225

In total, the route we took was a little over 6 miles. We chose to stay off of Equestrian Trail, and we turned back on McGrady Trail in the WMA section. So we could easily have stretched it out a few more miles if we wanted to. All in all, a good little hike. One I’ll have to return to with the wife and kid(s), hopefully on a bright sunny day.JPA_0237

As for my recommendations; make sure to bring a map as there are a good number of junctions to navigate (their map link is dead currently. Best bet is to “save as” the above map. I’ll contact and update if the link gets fixed). With all those junctions, you could make this hike as long or as short as you’d like. So bring water and snacks accordingly. The whole park has very little elevation gain, so that combined with the network aspect, means pretty much anyone should be able to spend some time on the trails there. Oh, and don’t forget something to capture the view from the top of the tower.

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So thank you to Jessie from providing me with the pictures to edit and post. I hope this report convinces you that you should visit Pilot Knob State Park in the near future!

Now go enjoy your walk!

 

Pine Creek Cabins

CJP_5180The annual glamping trip with the wife’s family has come and gone for 2017. This year I found us a cabin up in the northeast corner of Iowa. As they are officially known, Decorah High Point – Pine Creek Cabins are located just outside of Decorah.Pine creek google

There are a total of 6 cabins on the property that sleep anywhere from 6 to 17 people per. Our large group of 16 (7 adults, 4 teens, and 5 children) stayed in Pine Cabin which sleeps 17, and it was plenty comfortable! The owners where nice enough to open up 3 of their other cabins that were empty that weekend for me to check out, so I’ll chat about those as well.

Pine creek overviewPine creek cabins

CJP_5210Lets go over Pine Cabin first since that is the one we stayed in. The cabin is well furnished and spacious. While it was clear that it was a cabin with fewer finishing touches than a residential home, you didn’t overly notice it unless you were looking for it. There are three levels with four sizable bedrooms.

 

Upstairs there was a loft area with a futon next to two of the bedrooms. All three areas had a nice skylight that provided plenty of light during the day… and the evening. This actually bothered my wife as it was a full moon in a clear sky and the light was bright enough to actually keep her up on the first night. I would suggest possibly finding a way to hang a shade in the bedroom skylights to help alleviate this in the future.

 

The first floor had a nice open feel in the living room area. The kitchen was a little cramped when we tried to get more than a couple of people in there trying to cook breakfast for 16 people, otherwise it was fully functional. They had everything we needed for cookware and dishes, the only thing we were glad we brought were the counter-top griddles for pancakes. They have a TV available with a DVD player for the little ones. We found this to be very helpful with baby girl as it eventually got to the point that she needed to settle down from the fun of playing with her big cousins and the only thing she’ll sit down for is her puppy movie (The Secret Life of Pets).

CJP_5238One of the best features of the first floor (to me anyway) was that there was a patio door that stepped out onto a porch that wraps around the east and south sides of the cabin. I love sitting out on porches, and I spent a good amount of time with my camera farting around with long exposure shots throughout the day and evening.

 

The basement level has the remaining bedroom and bathroom, with a secondary kitchenette and living area. The living area has a walk out patio door that leads to the yard. The downstairs bedroom is the only one with two beds in it. There is a small bed just outside that room, which I’ll admit at first seemed kind of out of place, but a bed is a bed and a 17 person cabin is about getting people together.

All in all, no one really complained about their sleep except my wife with the moon, and baby girl had issues being a little warm sleeping in her pack n play in our room during the first night. The second night my wife and I switch sides of the bed to help keep the moonlight out of her eyes, and we moved baby girl to a different spot where she could get more airflow from the overhead fan. That seemed to fix a lot of their issues as they slept through the second night.

CJP_5282Outside of the cabin, the views of the rollings hills of northeast Iowa are great. The first morning offered a great view where fog had rolled into the valley below us, with the sun rising behind it. Surrounding the grounds is a field of prairie grasses full of birds and bugs. You’re not allowed to venture out into the fields, so be aware of that, but I spent a little while walking around the perimeter with my camera. On the last night we stoked up the fire pit for s’mores and one last night of reflection, well those of us that didn’t wander off to bed early.CJP_5199

On the second day I noticed that it didn’t look like the other cabins had a lot of traffic, so I contacted the owners to ask if I could have a peek into the empty cabins. The owner, Shanyn, stopped by and said the Cedar and Balsam Cabins were rented, but she would go unlock the three vacant ones for me.

 

The first one I looked at was Spruce Cabin (I somehow forgot to take a picture of the outside of Spruce and Birch, so I stole their exterior shots off their website.). Now I will say that the first two I looked at had more of the traditional simple rustic cabin feel. Spruce is two levels that sleeps 8, with an open area ground floor that has stairs leading up to a loft. There is a small bed in what was probably the original mudroom across from the bathroom. Even though my first impression when I walked in was that it looked somewhat cramped, I spent sometime looking around and found it to actually be quite cozy. My favorite feature of this cabin was in the loft. There is a door that leads out onto a little balcony that has a couple benches to sit on and enjoy the scenery.

 

The next cabin I took a look at was Birch Cabin. Birch is the simplest of the cabins on the property and sleeps 9. It has a completely different look to it that leads me to believe that it may have been the original one. It is the only other one with three levels. The top floor is an open loft with 4 beds, the ground floor is a single room with a simple kitchen and living area. The doors here lead out onto a deck that wraps around the north and east sides. The basement has the bathroom and remaining 2 beds with a walk out door to the fire pit. A thing to note for those that have issues with stairs, both sets of stairs are very steep and narrow.

 

The last cabin I ventured to was Aspen Cabin. She described Aspen as their new luxury model of cabin, and I would agree. It isn’t overly large (sleeps 6), but there was definitely more attention paid to the details and finish work. There are still traits that remind you it is a cabin, like the open ceiling, but the furniture and appliances are of nice quality. Honestly, I’d probably like to have the kitchen in my home. It is a two bedroom layout on a single floor that leads out to a wrap-around porch on the east and south walls. There is a similar view, but if I’m honest, the primary grounds have a better one. There is also a three stall garage next to the cabin, although there isn’t a mention on the website and I failed to ask if that was for the guest’s or the owner’s use.

CJP_5249If there is a negative (because you have to find one when you’re writing a review right?), it’s that the cabins are more of a staging point to access things to do in the area. If you want to hang out with the family in a more secluded spot then this will work great (there is also a small playground for the kiddos). Otherwise, the property doesn’t have much to offer in terms of adventure. Fortunately, it is in prime canoeing territory as the Upper Iowa River runs right by it. We ran into Decorah to check out the trout fish hatchery, there is a pretty nice mountain bike area on the outskirts of Decorah that I’ve biked a couple times, and much more. So there are plenty of things to do in the area, just not on the property.

Once again thank you to Shanyn Hart for letting me check out the vacant cabins. If you’d like to look her up you can find her on Facebook @Shanyn.Hart.Iowa and Instagram @Shanyn.Hart. Don’t forget to head over to YouTube and check out the video walk through!

CJP_5186Decorah High Point – Pine Creek Cabins is nice place to take a weekend to get away and hang out, or to plant yourself to explore the hills of northeast Iowa.

 

Here are the results of the long exposure shots:

 

Lacey-Keosauqua State Park

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Lacey Keosaqua MapLacey-Keosauqua State Park is located near Keosauqua in southeast Iowa, just north of the Missouri border.

Lacey-Keosauqua State Park left me with mixed feelings. There is without a doubt plenty of potential for the park to be a great place to hike, however very low trail maintenance and poor trail markers left me pretty discouraged at points.Lacey Keosaqua Trail Map planned route.jpg

The above map (which misspells the name of the park) was my planned route that I estimated to be roughly 11-12 miles long. The below map is what I ended up being able to hike, although I still did end up covering just shy of 11 miles.Lacey Keosaqua Trail Map 2

Let’s just get into what happened. So I drove down to the park and made my way to the beach (orange star). I went down to the small beach from the elevated parking lot on a nicely groomed, stair-stepped path. As the sun rose over the trees, it revealed a nice mist hovering over the top of the pond.

DSC_8874I hung out for a bit and took some photos before heading back up the stairs, and then off on the trail heading north. The short path was quite nice and led to the road where there was a boat ramp. However, this is also where I ran into my first frustration with this trail (orange circle). Once you exit the short trail from the beach, you are supposed to be able to cross the road and get on more trail. Unfortunately, I looked all over and could not find an entrance to the trail anywhere along its entire length. Instead, I had to walk the road until I got to a picnic area with a shelter. There I found a trailhead leading off to the River Trail.

DSC_8950Once again, the trail was a nice path on a decent climb as I veered to the south once it split. As it continued along I found that the maintenance started to get a little lax until it crossed over into Shimek State Forest (red circle) where it pretty much felt almost non-existent. I attempted to take a spur to the south where there was supposed to be a tower of some kind, but got fed up with the weeds and turned around to just finish the park and head home.

DSC_8910I pretty much plodded my way northwest until I exited Shimek and found the trails to return to a maintained state with bridges and a small climb that eventually ended in an open space at Lacey-Keosauqua’s northwest entrance (green star).

DSC_8902There was a neat little building at the entrance that had several plaques with photos talking about the history of the park and its construction. I had heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps and had seen the CCC referenced, but it wasn’t until I came across these plaques that I actually learned about who they were and they did. Later I popped on the internet and read more about them and how they pretty much built the majority of the parks in the nation during the 30’s and 40’s, until WWII.

DSC_8905I wandered around and checked out what I could of the lodge that is available to rent before jumping on the River Trail. My mood had increased and I was all about exploring and enjoying the trails again. This almost hampered my day again as I decided to check out an unmarked trail that headed up a hill. Once I got to the top I found that it led to a memorial marker for the Army officer, Major John Fletcher Lacey, who was in charge of the construction of the park (blue star). As I backtracked to the River Trail again I found myself on a spur trail that ran parallel to it. Even though I could see the trail I want the whole time, the foliage was too thick to simply bushwhack over to it. Finally I found myself at a restroom along a park road by a picnic area. I pushed back my annoyance and continued forward until I found an access trail that led back to the River Trail, this time deciding not to explore anymore unmarked trails.

DSC_8945Now, all that being said, the River Trail is by far the best maintained trail in the park. There are several nice little bridges along the trail and plenty of scenic river and wildlife. My yo-yoing mood peaked again as I spent more time on this trail and then crossed paths with some locals who recommended the trail around the pond for some bird shots. Eventually, my mood had to fall as is the pattern with this park. Once I got to the red star I had trouble finding the trail that was supposed to lead off into the green circled area, so I just followed the trail that ended up leading back to the original picnic area where my orange circled road walk ended. Quite a surprise since once again it was another unmarked trail that shouldn’t have existed.

Mostly fed up, I speed walked the road back to the boat ramp, paused and looked to the south, the direction of my vehicle. I contemplated calling it quits, but I knew at this point in my hiking that this website was something I wanted to do. This means that in order to provide the best information I can, I have to suffer through and finish when the fun has sometimes been left behind. So I instead picked up my feet and headed east to finish the pond trail, after all, the nice couple did say that there is normally some good birding on the trail.

DSC_8970So Lake Trail as they call it, was in need of some good maintenance. It was still very hike-able with some sections that once had nice work put into them, but they appear to have been allowed to return to nature. The trail did boost my spirits up enough that I left the hike ready to leave, but not disliking the park. One thing of note; there were some oddly placed benches that were shrouded by trees (pink circles). At first this seemed kind of neat, a place to look upon the water where one could be obscured from view. Then I noticed that both peered across the pond/lake at the beach, where children play… maybe not the best positioning.

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If you are going to be heading down to Lacey-Keosaqua State Park I would suggest you make sure to take a solid amount of water and snacks as you would likely be out on the trails for a while. Even though their map is obviously outdated, make sure to bring it along as it will at least give you an idea of where trails should be. It is relatively close, just missing a few key points that led to my frustrations. There is a mild amount of climbing as well, so those that desire the extra balance may want their trekking poles.

Even though I had a somewhat rough time at the park, I still maintained a good pace and covered the 11 miles in 4 hours. I don’t want to completely discourage anyone from visiting the park as it has a lot of potential. For the time being I would recommend sticking to the Lake Trail and the River Trail. Heading off into the Shimek State Forest area is where you may likely run into frustrations of your own. If the parks service, or a local Boy Scout Troop, would put some good effort into the park, and they would update their maps, then Lacey-Keosauqua could be a great spot for a hike rather than just a good one.

The video report for this trail is up on YouTube, so go check it out!

DSC_8941Thanks 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.

You can also check out the video over on Youtube as well.

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!

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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Pine Lake State Park

dsc04345pine-lake-state-parkPine 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.

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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.dsc04328

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.dsc04338 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?dsc04359dsc04355

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.dsc04453

pine-lake-state-park-tunnelAs 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.

dsc04470Once 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.dsc04501

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.)

Thanks for reading!dsc04480