Sunday, October 16, 2022

9 Best Places To Hike In Iowa This Fall

Preparation Canyon, Lookout Point, 2016

Hiking it our family's love language. We all enjoy it and now that the kids are older it's actually relaxing and peaceful. Hiking has allowed us to view overwhelming beauty all over this country. We are definitely a 'summer is the best' family, but fall is undeniably our favorite season for hiking. Not because the weather is cooler or there's (usually) less bugs flying around, but for those trees that like to turn gorgeous shades of yellow, orange, and reds. Iowa has some amazing hiking spots for those of all ages and abilities. We've spent years checking out all of the spots around Iowa in the fall. I know how overwhelming it can be to look at a list of state parks, hiking trails, or travel sites, trying to decide where to hike. Once you know where to go though, the only thing to do is enjoy the adventure.

1.) We discovered Stone State Park (Sioux City, IA) on a drive through Sioux City, IA to get to the Blue Bunny Factory in LeMars (also a must visit). It was meant to be a quick visit to stretch our legs, but we fell in love with the trail system. Even on a gorgeous, sunny day it wasn't crowded. Since that time, we make a yearly hiking trip to the park and it's a knock out when the leaves start to turn.

Stone State Park: Stone State Park Loop Trail, 3.1 miles

2.) Ten years ago I was sitting in our duplex looking my computer. I had Googled, 'where to hike in Iowa.' Not a lot of great information came about (it was ten years ago, afterall), but a picture came up. It was of large hills that you could walk on top of. After a little digging I discovered it was the Loess Hills. When we hopped in our minivan the next Saturday, my husband asked where we were headed. I replied, "the Loess Hills, I've already told you that." He looked at me as if I had two heads and slowly explained to me that the Loess Hills is an entire area, not just a single destination. I was shook (and spent the rest of our nearly two hour journey from Des Moines reading about the area). On that trip, we explore the northern portion of the Loess Hills and we instantly fell in love with it. Since that first visit, which we did with a newborn, two, and four year old, we've visited at least a dozen times and have hiked so many trails. In the fall, the hills are golden with sparks of deep colors. 

Don't make the same mistake I did ten years ago and panic search where to go. These are our favorite places and trails in the area that we have hiked with our kids since they were babies and toddlers:

Preparation Canyon State Park (Moorhead, IA): Scenic Lookout Point

Waubonsie State Park (Hamburg, IA): Mincer Trail and Sunset Ridge Trail Loop, 2 miles (some steep climbs)

Hitchcock Nature Area (Honey Creek, IA): Lookout Tower and Hawk Ridge and Fox Run Ridge Trails, 2.6 miles (I believe when we did the trails, we clocked it as over 3 miles)

3.) Northeast Iowa is part of an area known as the Driftless Area. We are partial to the spots along the Mississippi River in this area. Not only does it give you spectacular views of the Mighty Mississippi, but it provides hikes that offer challenging climbs (if you prefer), varied terrain, and a little bit of Native American history lessons. I like to begin in Bellevue Iowa and hike our way up, ending in Yellow River State Forest/Effigy Mounds. Along the Great River Road, stop at Breitbach's, Iowa's oldest restaurant, for a meal.

Yellow River State Forest (Harpers Ferry, IA): Firetower via Saddle Trail, 5.5 miles

Effigy Mounds National Monument (Harpers Ferry, IA): Yellow River Bride Trail, .8 miles; Marching Bear Group and Founder's Pond Overlook, 4.8 miles; Little Bear, Great Bear, Twin View, and Third Scenic View, 3.5 miles

Mines of Spain Recreation Area (Dubuque, IA): Horseshoe Bluff Nature Trail, .9 miles

Bellevue State Park (Bellevue, IA): Bellevue Bluff Trail, 1.8 miles

Pikes Peak State Park (McGregor, IA): Hickory Trail, 2.3 miles

5.) My children and I ventured to Geode State Park for geode hunting during the pandemic. We were thrilled to find the lake was drained at the time, so we got to walk out into the area, which provided us with some excellent finds. It was so much fun! Now there's water in the lake, which only adds to the serene feel of the park on a fall day. 

 Geode State Park (Danville, IA): Geode State Park Loop, 7 miles

6.) Close to Des Moines, Ledges is the place to hike in Central Iowa, which means it can get quite busy. The Lost Lake section of the park tends to be a bit less busy. An early morning hike or sunset hike will be your best bet for less crowded trails. If it's a warm day and you don't mind cold water, walk along (or in) the creek that runs at the bottom of Canyon Drive. Pro tip: if hiking in the main canyon, hike on the south side as the north side of the canyon tends to have brighter colors.

Ledges State Park (Madrid, IA): Lost Lake Trail, 1.4 miles; Table Rock Trail and Inspiration Point, 1.2 miles

7.) Whiterock Conservancy has the darkest skies in Iowa, which is perfect for stargazing on a fall night. We like to pack a picnic, go for a late afternoon hike, eat the picnic, and then stay for the stars. We discovered the beauty of this outdoor recreation area during the pandemic and make a point to visit every fall. It's also the place to go if there's potential for views of the Northern Lights.

Whiterock Conservancy (Coon Rapids, IA): Shooting Star Trail and Big Dipper Trail Loop, 6 miles

8.) Another pandemic find was Palisades-Kepler State Park. We were instantly taken with the cliff trail overlooking the Cedar River. Our first visit was on a hot summer day and we giggled at the locals pulling up to the river with lawn chairs, dipping their feet in the river to keep cool. We kept the park in mind for fall hiking and it does not disappoint if you go during peak time.

Palisades-Kepler State Park (Mt. Vernon, IA): Cedar Cliff Trail, 2.1 miles; Cool Hollow, 1.2 miles

9.) I wasn't expecting much from our visit to Pilot Knob State Park. I knew we'd get to climb a tower, I saw something about a pond on the trail map, but I was looking to get in, get our hike done, and get out. As it turns out, Pilot Knob offers spectacular views (especially from that tower) and great colors during the fall. Bonus that it's only about twenty minutes from Clear Lake, IA, which is always fun for a visit.

Pilot Knob State Park (Forest City, IA): Pilot Knob Loop, 5.2 miles