Think of Iowa and chances are good that you would never think of thick dense forest. But consider this: You’re perched atop a 400-foot-high ledge called Big Paint Overlook in Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest. Eagles circle overhead as you gaze at Big Paint Creek below and a broad landscape of surrounding bluffs.
Not quite the flat-as-a-tabletop land most people expect, is it?
Yellow River Forest contains more than 25 miles of trails that wind through its thick woods, around limestone outcroppings, and up steep slopes. One sparsely marked trail on the north face of Heffern’s Hill feels more like Colorado foothills than Iowa plains as it leads through a densely wooded and rocky run-off that spills into a deep ravine.
Yellow River’s trails are generally well marked and cared for, which is one reason the forest’s four backcountry campsites fill up quickly. But you can pitch a tent almost anywhere, and-better yet-there’s no entrance fee or camping charge, so you get it all free. But be ready for some hill climbing. In Iowa, no less.
This Fall, I went with 3 friends to Yellow River and had a great time. We hiked about 11 miles out and back. The only downside was water. Not much to choose from, and couldn’t get to camp next to the Yellow River.
Where: 200 miles southeast of Minneapolis/St. Paul and 245 miles west of Chicago. The trailhead is 12 miles southeast of Waukon on State Forest Road off IA 76.
Maps: A trail map is available free at forest headquarters (see below).
Trail Info: Yellow River State Forest, (319) 586-2254.