Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Destination NE Iowa: hiking, camping, spook cave, and a giant strawberry

A few words about our foray a week or so ago to Northeast Iowa. If you're going to talk Iowa backpacking and trails, it's just a matter of time before Yellow River State Forest gets mentioned. Everyone seems to love it, so we picked a beautiful fall weekend to check it out.

It's a solid four-hour drive from Des Moines, and if you haven't been to this part of the state, the bluffs and hills are unlike anything you see elsewhere in Iowa. This area didn't get smooth rolled by the glaciers, and it's dramatically different. Stunning bluffs along the Mississippi.

We opted for the relative luxury of a drive-up campsite this weekend. Chairs, cooler, full-size tent (which felt absolutely cavernous compared to our backpacking tent), and air mattress. AIR MATTRESS. Sleeping like royalty, I tell ya.

We reserved a $6 campsite (no water, no electricity, no problem) at Little Paint Campground, and slept to the sounds of this lovely little stream:


The campground was full and fun. On one side of us was a large group of guys presumably there to fish or hunt. They had a community tent, mess-hall style, with a generator. Because that's what we all wanted to listen to in our non-electric campground. A generator. Serenity now! That's okay. We also had some grad students from Iowa City on the other side of us. We know college students. Dennis offered them hot dogs and marshmallows and we became BFFs and talked trails. Nice guys. (Why are there no women here, one might ask herself??)

A little more time spent in research would have informed me that Yellow River's campgrounds have hole-in-the-ground outhouses but not shower houses. So I guess I didn't need to pack those towels after all. Less towels, more deodorant. That's the right plan.

Anyway, the hiking. Yellow River has 45 miles of trails for different purposes (hiking, equestrian, mountain biking, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling). We found a source of water for filling our water bottles by the Park Office and White Pine/Forester trailheads, and hiked a total of 8-9 miles on Saturday, only getting lost once. The trails are mostly marked, but not exhaustively so, leaving a little room for adventure. We did a combination of trails: White Pine, Forester, Brown's Hollow, and returning back to our starting point via Fire Tower Road. This gave a variety of terrain and quite a bit of elevation change. The Forester Trail was my favorite part, narrower and on a forested hillside slope. Really pretty.

A few pics:



My favorite part of the hike was coming upon Brown's Hollow Camp, a small hike-in campground, where three campers were sitting around a fire. One asked, "Have you had any contact with the outside world?" Um, yeah, pretty much just a couple hours ago. They wanted to know the weather forecast, and we were also able to tell them that the Cubs would be playing the Dodgers in the NLCS. These trails aren't THAT remote, but they draw some serious backpackers. Of the gear we've thought about adding, a saw and full axe haven't even been considered. But we saw people carrying both of those with them through the woods, so maybe we need to 'up' our game. Or not.

Yellow River is much bigger than we had a chance to see in a weekend. Still, the Paint Creek Unit where we spent the entirety of our time was really beautiful and unspoiled. We drove up to an overlook near Bluff Trail, and decided this would be another good area to explore by foot on another visit.



On Saturday night we left the campground and spent a little time in nearby Harper's Ferry, watching the Cubs game at "Miss Fitz" bar, and then on Sunday before heading out, we drove through the charming river town of Marquette and across the river to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Cute cute cute. I could spend more time here. But not on this particular day, because we were being drawn in by all the roadside signs for Spook Cave.

SPOOK CAVE. Let's do this.




About 10 minutes west of Marquette, signs will direct you to the heralded cave, where for $12 per person you can get in a metal jon boat and venture into the cool and creepy cave. And by "venture," I mean duck down as far as you can bend over so you don't hit your head on overhead rocks as you enter. And by "cool" I mean a constant 47 degrees year-round inside the cavern. Our guide told about the cave's history, and about the rocks and stalactites and bats and frogs and alligators and missing people. You have to do your own separating of facts from fiction. It's weird and interesting and well worth the stop. 

Also on our route was Strawberry Point, Iowa, home of the world's largest strawberry. So there ya go.


We stopped and had strawberry shortcake at the old Franklin Hotel. It seemed like the right thing to do, and the Franklin is pretty cool. 


And then, for good measure, we drove a half hour out of our way to see the Field of Dreams, because Dennis hadn't been there before. Why not.


Yep. It's a baseball field in the middle of a corn field. So there ya go.

You can really fit a lot into a weekend! I think we have more to explore in NE Iowa, but this was a good start. 



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