By Austin Henderson
Light filters in, softened by overhanging boughs of cedar and pine. Underneath towering limestone cliffs, a group in hip waders and flannel shirts gracefully casts trout lines in a clear babbling creek.
These are scenes that in the collective imagination belong to the vast open areas of the American West. But think again. Hidden among the rolling corn and soybean fields of eastern Iowa are a strong set of local parks, each unique and within a short drive from Iowa City.
For those needing a break from the grind of summer classes and the concrete of the city, I will give a short list of some of my favorite area parks.
The University of Iowa’s own Macbride Nature Recreation Area tops the list because of its proximity and diverse scenery. The 485-acre heavily wooded nature preserve is situated on a peninsula between Lake Macbride and the Coralville Reservoir.
The park offers six miles of trails that weave through hardwood forests and restored prairies, making it ideal for either a trail run or leisurely hike. Water access on Lake Macbride allows for the exploration of the lake’s wooded coves via canoe or kayak, a perfect escape from the Iowa heat and humidity.
For those interested in an overnight experience, the park has a series of group camping as well as hike-to sites. The fox sites offer breathtaking waterside views.
Next up is Palisades-Kepler State Park. The park is located midway between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon on Highway 30. Notable both for its bluff-lined river views and its rustic lodges and stone overlook, the park owes a legacy to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Cedar Cliff Trail is a must-hike, following the limestone ridgeline for 1.3 miles, leading to views of the river cliffs and surrounding farmland.
Our final destination, Yellow River State Forest, is located west of Marquette, in the hilly northeastern corner of the state. The park’s scenery makes up for the roughly two-hour drive.
The park offers a multitude of fishing, canoeing, and hiking opportunities, but a personal favorite is the Yellow River backpacking trail. Located in the park’s Paint Creek unit, the trail meanders for 14.3 miles through the wetlands, bluffs, and prairies of the state’s Driftless Region.
One can see why the location was featured in Outside Magazine as the best hiking trail in Iowa when gazing from the Big Paint Overlook, which look down at the turquoise waters of Paint Creek hundreds of feet below.
For those looking to get away from the loud nature of group campsites, the trail offers several hike-in campsites. These primitive sites allow for a quieter, more intimate experience with nature, giving a sense of wilderness that is not often found in Iowa. For a truly rustic experience, opt for Heffern’s Hill Camp, tucked behind a bluff 5 miles from the trailhead.
For more information on local outdoor activities visit iowadnr.gov.
Rentals for any of your adventures an be found at the UI Outdoor Rental Center, which serves to provide gear for students, faculty, and the community at large.