Cruisin’ the Upper Iowa River

 

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Upper Iowa River MapHere we go on another water adventure! This time we traveled to northeast Iowa and paddled through the bluffs along the Upper Iowa River.Upper Iowa River

Our group was made up of four families that formed a small armada of 5 canoes and 4 kayaks. While two of the kayaks were brought by one of the families, the rest were rented from Chimney Rock Campground (red star) who also provided the shuttle and return service. They offer 7 different floats where they shuttle you upriver for a 2, 4, or 6 hour float back to the campground, or you can launch from the campground and float 2, 4, 6, or 8 hours downriver (and the times are pretty accurate). You can also combine floats for a shuttle upriver and a pick up downriver past the campground. When I called to make the reservation for our trip, for the best views they recommended doing 2 hours upriver, stopping at the campground for lunch, then doing 2 hours downriver, so that’s what I booked.

DSC_0231This area is very popular with river goers and there are a good number of canoe services to choose from. Full disclosure; our trip did not start smoothly as they had a couple of their shuttle workers not show up for work and one of the shuttle vans broke down. We didn’t get our launch until almost two hours after our scheduled time. They did refund us a portion of the fees, where genuinely apologetic, and busted their tails trying to keep up with the demand on them. I will return to this river, and will more than likely use their service again. Now, on to the water.

We were going later in the summer when traditionally the water levels are lower. I had been watching the river levels through the US Geological Survey site for a couple of weeks leading up to our date to make sure there would be enough depth. There was nothing to worry about. With the amount of rain we had received throughout the spring and summer the Upper Iowa River was a good 3-3.5 foot deep and flowing a little swift.

DSC_0279DSC_0266The swiftness was one of the first things I noticed as we were holding the canoes steady for people to climb in and launch. By the time we got everyone in the water, there was a good spread within the group. We closed the gaps and our armada was under way. It didn’t take long for the bluffs to enter our view and the frustrations of the rough start to melted away.

It was a gorgeous day and I shot some pics and played with my new GoPro during this first portion of our trip. The pictures turned out well, but the video footage is a little random and limited. For the most part, the first 2 hour section had a nice casual flow that allowed the inexperienced paddlers a chance to get used to being out on the water. Which we found to be a good thing.

As we neared the campground, the speed of the river picked up and every now and then a canoe would get caught in the current. Nothing major, some casual instruction would help them straighten it out. When we reached the campground it was a little harsh landing as they didn’t really have anything built up for the canoes to run aground on, and there was only about a 6-8 foot width on a semi-steep bank for 9 vessels to rapidly land and get out of the water. Not to mention other groups arriving at the same time trying to get out. With the river flowing as fast as it was, there wasn’t really a way for the canoes to sit in a holding pattern out on the water to wait their turn. Not the worst thing in the world, but something that could be improved.

While we were eating lunch and taking a break from the river I decided to leave the cameras behind in the vehicle and focus more on enjoying the moment. Unfortunately, the second half of the journey had the best views! Next time for me, but it could be an important note for you.

DSC_0462Once we gathered up the party, we shoved off on what turned out to be the best section of the river. The towering bluffs were beautiful and there wasn’t an unhappy face to be seen.

As I mentioned before, the swiftness of the river increased around the campground and remained that way for the duration of the float. We had two incidents where a canoe and kayak got caught up in the current and capsized when they struck a downed tree. No one was hurt, just momentarily shaken before laughing it off. Another paddler from a different party actually commented on how their canoe was currently stuck on the bottom of the river after they capsized and the current was forceful enough that they hadn’t been able to pull it out of the water yet. All along this final stretch we came across several canoes that had tipped, so be wary if the river is up that it could get dicey.

DSC_0497After passing Bluffton, the swiftness spread us out a bit and we all started arriving at the landing one by one, which turned out to be a good thing. That particular landing definitely needs to be improved. It was a very skinny 3-4 foot wedge on a super steep river bank that didn’t have a place to run aground. You had to attempt to broadside the shore, and grab onto anything you could in order to stop your momentum, so you could get out and crawl your way up the super slippery bank, pulling your canoe. It wasn’t very fun and would be very challenging to try and get multiple canoes out at once. Luckily, people from another party were landing there as well and helped as the rest of our group started to arrive. We worked together and got everyone out safely.

DSC_0340We didn’t have to wait long before the shuttle van arrived. We helped the over-worked guys get the canoes and kayaks loaded, piled into the van, and headed back to the campground.

Even with the hick-ups and challenges, some of which are just what comes with outdoor adventures, we all had a great time in the end. The day was beautiful, the scenery was amazing, and the company was great. I will always be looking forward to a return to the Upper Iowa River, and it’ll remain an option every time the talk of planning a float comes up!

DSC_0432Thanks for reading and enjoy you float!

Pikes Peak State Park (Iowa)


DSC03106Pikes Peak MapPikes Peak State Park
is located on the southern outskirts of McGregor in northeast Iowa.

Now the air needs to be cleared, this is THE Pikes Peak. Not that little hill in Colorado that gets all of the fame… Pikes pic

Zeb-PikeThe story is that in 1805 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike was sent to the region to survey for a military fort to be built on the northern Mississippi River. He chose the location where our Pikes Peak is now, but the government later decided to build on the Wisconsin side by Prairie du Chien. Then in 1806, newly promoted Captain Pike took another expedition through Colorado and attempted (but failed) to summit what was then known as El Capitan. It was long after Pike’s death that the mountain was refered to as Pike’s High Peak, then later shortened and officially renamed to Pikes Peak. So you see, first come first serve. After all, we have trees to go with our snow. I mean, what do you do with all of that gorgeous view anyway? /wink

DSC03114So Pikes Peak State Park is one of the most visited and photographed parks in Iowa. It consists of two units, linked by a connecting trail. The northern portion which is the lesser traveled, consists of most of the more rugged hiking trails; whereas the southern portion is the most visited with the overlook and the small waterfall whose trails are short and highly maintained.

DSC03183One of the biggest attractions of Pikes Peak State Park are the fall colors that cover the area in late September. The entire northeast of Iowa has a lot visitors around that time of year, with some making it a long weekend to drive through all of the parks in the surrounding area, such as Yellow River State Forest, to see the colors.

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There are a few different ways to hike Pikes Peak. You can break it up and just hike the north, south, or the whole thing; varying which trails you want to take and make your hike as long or as short as you want.

If you choose to hike just the north unit, you can drive through the south part of McGregor and park in the northeast corner. It is a pretty steep climb up to Point Ann on the Point Ann Trail (blue), then you can hook up with Horn Hollow Trail (maroon), and finish on Chinquapin Ridge Trail (green) in order to create your shortest loop of about 3.5-4 miles. You can also stay on the Point Ann Trail until it connects to the Chinquapin Ridge Trail, or use the Bluebird Trail as a connector, for a 5-6 mile loop.

DSC02098The trails are thickly wooded with very well maintained crushed rock trails that weave through the ravines. The scenery is great and I’ve never had a bad hike there, even when a light rain kicked off a bit after we had just started down the trail. This is in the drift-less zone of Iowa (where the glaciers didn’t smooth it out during the ice age), so expect some good climbs and descents in this area.

DSC02036Point Ann is the northernmost point and offers a nice view of the Mississippi River. The only other place in the north unit you get river views will be along the eastern ridge-lines of the Chinquapin Ridge Trail.

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If you are just looking to hike the southern unit, the most common thing to do is to park in the lot (orange star), then walk the 100 feet to the overlook (red star) where you can view the river and Wyalusing State Park across the river in Wisconsin; then hike the Bridal Veil Trail (yellow) to the falls. This trail is very built up being paved until you are almost to the Crow’s Nest, where it turns into a wooden path all the way to the Bridal Veil Falls (green star). There are some stairs, but otherwise this .75-1 mile down and back is fairly easy. On the return you could also pop onto Myotis Trail (yellow dash) if you wanted to shorten it a bit and walk on some dirt.

DSC03117You can also put together a loop by leaving the parking lot and heading west along the Weeping Rock Trail (purple), choosing to break off of on either the West Hickory Ridge (light blue), or the East Hickory Ridge Trails (green), and then taking the Bridal Veil Trail back to the parking lot for a roughly 1.5-2 mile loop. While there isn’t as much climbing and descent in the southern unit, there is still a decent little ravine running down the center to get the legs burning a little bit.

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If you are looking to cover some ground and want to hike the whole park, here is my 9.7 mile route I enjoy (red). I park in the south lot (orange star) and jump on Weeping Rock (purple). Where it connects with Chinquapin Ridge (green) you’ll find the ranger’s home and the original concession stand that was restored and relocated (blue star).

DSC03140Then I take the Point Ann (blue), to Horn Hollow (maroon), to Chinquapin route for the north; and then the West Hickory (light blue) to Bridal Veil (yellow) route for the south. Altogether it is a good amount of hills that will often leave you ready for the adventure beverage waiting for you at home.

DSC02073When it comes to recommending gear for your hike at Pikes Peak State Park, it all depends on what you want to do. If you only want to do the overlook and falls, then you don’t need to worry about taking anything, except maybe some bug spray. Just stay on the constructed paths and enjoy the views. Similarly, if you just want to check out the southern loop, I would advise making sure you use a map so you don’t accidentally head toward the north unit.

If you want to knock out the north loop I would say you should bring your food, water and your map. In addition, you might want to put a jacket in your pack for potential weather changes and a first aid kit as the terrain is a little more rugged. Now if you desire to hike the entire 9.7 mile route, expect a 3.5-4 hour hike. So make sure you have plenty of water and calories to keep you going. Of course the same suggestion of putting a jacket, bug spray, and first aid in your pack. You should also make sure you definitely have your map for this hike. There are a lot of options for you to take so you’ll need the map to help keep you on your planned route.

DSC02051Now while Iowa’s Pikes Peak State Park may be the lesser known little sister to Colorado’s name stealing mountain, she is still one of my favorite parks to visit. My wife and I try to make it an annual visit to check out the leaves. During summer visits we like to sneak into McGregor afterward and have lunch at the marina bar and grill; just your standard short order food, but it is nice to eat out on the deck on the edge of the river.

Pikes Peak is a great place to spend a day out on the trails, and I hope you get the chance to enjoy it soon.

DSC03161Thanks for reading!

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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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

Yellow River State Forest

dsc_7959yellow-river-state-forestYellow 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.

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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.

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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.

dsc_7979The 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.

dsc_7969Once 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).dsc_8003 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… bridge-map

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. dsc_8008After 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!

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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!