Homer's Travels: Hiking Iowa: Waubonsie State Park And Wa-Shawtee Girl Scout Camp

Friday, October 09, 2009

Hiking Iowa: Waubonsie State Park And Wa-Shawtee Girl Scout Camp

For the past few weeks I've been doing hikes in places I'd already posted about: Hitchcock and Fontenelle Forest. This week I finally hiked a new park.

Located in the south-west corner of Iowa, in the southern end of the Iowa Loess Hills,
Waubonsie State Park offers seven miles of hiking trails and another eight miles of equestrian trails. The trails take you through the Loess Hills, down into valleys, and up ridges offering spectacular views. On a clear day, something that I've found is much more common here than in California, you are able to see territory from four states, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas.

I arrived with a map [PDF] downloaded off the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website. I'd planned my route the night before trying to maximize the length. I would skip a smaller loop near the parking lot and start on a medium size loop made up of the Valley Trail and the Ridge trail. I would then connect that to the larger Sunset Ridge Interpretive trail. I was hoping to squeeze out at least six miles.

After finding a cache near the trailhead ("
L&C Waubonsie State Park") I followed the sign to the start of the Valley Trail. As its name implies, the trail winds down through a forested valley. As I walked along the path the signs of autumn were all around me. A brisk temperature in the lower 40s. A blanket of fallen leaves carpeting the trail underfoot. The yellowing of the once verdant leaves in the canopy overhead. It felt good. I was reminded why I hike - to restore my soul and reconnect with the world ... the real world, not the pseudo-world of CNN, MSNBC, and FOX.

I reached a junction. The signpost was there but the sign was nowhere to be found. A sign at the trailhead had apologized that maintenance had been cut due to budget shortfalls - another victim of the recession and the pseudo-world. On the sign post, an arrow was scratched pointing to the right branch seemingly indicating where I should go, so I went. The path took me up a ridge line past sycamores and cottonwoods. The trees along the path blocked the view of the hills across the valley but peeks through the foliage showed hints of yellow and red that were starting to appear.

The path dipped down and took me to a
flight of stairs descending to a bridge crossing a creek. After the bridge the trail ended on the shoulder of IA-2. This wasn't on the map. A sign at the trailhead had pointed the direction of the Bridge Trail which I apparently was on. The Bridge trail was not marked on the map. The map said that the trail that I thought I was on should have curved to the west and connect to the Ridge Trail. I could not see where the trail continued. I sighed heavily and backtracked to the junction and went the other way. I passed another junction on my right that looked all wrong so I passed it and ended up at the overlook.

At the overlook there were placards talking about the Loess Hills and the Lewis and Clark expedition (The Lewis and Clarke expedition went through this area). The views from the umbrella like shelter were impressive. Steep tree covered valley walls, the Missouri River, and the beginnings of the great plains beyond.

At this point I gave up on the medium loop. I think I'd walked the smaller loop with a detour to the bridge. I continued south along the trail finding the trailhead of the Sunset Ridge Interpretive Trail. The trail shadows a park road through wooded and prairie areas. The road turns west and the trail becomes the shoulder of the road until you reach its end. I sat at a bench near the continuation of the trail and had a drink of water and a small snack. The wind was starting to pick up. Wind speeds in the low 20s were in the forecast. I hadn't felt them on the trail as the trees made for a great windbreak.

I continued down the Sunset Ridge Trail. The trail dropped down a hill covered in restored prairie grasses. When the trail bottomed out it re-entered the forest. The narrow path followed the valley floor briefly, passing the remains of an old
root cellar. The bunker-like cellar was dug into the side of a hill with a concrete facade. There were the remains of an old ornate gate that may have been over the entrance once upon a time. Kind of looked like a hobbit's house.

The trail rapidly climbed the ridge. At the top was another plaque about the Loess Hills and a bench where you could sit and look over the
farm fields that replaced the prairies. The view faced the west and right away I understood why this was called sunset ridge. Almost makes me want to come back sometime to watch the sunset from that bench.

From here the trail widens and winds through more forest and meadows. The trail joins itself completing the larger loop. I walked back north and decide to search some more for the medium loop. I passed the umbrella-like structure and took the junction I'd passed earlier. This trail took you down then up to the top of another ridge. This ridge was rather narrow with sharp, wooded drop offs on both sides. At the peak of the ridge I sat at another convenient bench (There are many along the trails, most well placed) and took in the amazing view of the valley, made by the ridge I was on and Sunset Ridge, across the way. You could see a large meadow adjacent to the nature center that was once the Wa-Shawtee Girl Scout Camp. The 646 acre camp was purchased by the park in 2005.

Further along the trail, a trail I had determined was the Ridge Trail, part of the medium loop, ended at a "Trail Ends" sign. Once again I thought I'd missed the turnoff for the medium loop so I was more careful on the way back. There is no connector. There is no medium loop. The map appears to be wrong. I ended up going back the way I came going around the small loop the opposite way that I hiked in on.

In the end, I did the small loop twice, two parts of the non-existent medium loop, and the large loop. Total distance was 6.1 miles with a peak to trough elevation gain of about 430 Ft. I will have to return to hike the equestrian trails - they are actually listed as multi-use trails - and to double check the existence of the medium trail. Maybe in the spring the medium loop will reappear.

UPDATE: I forgot to link to the pictures. Here they are.


  1. I hope JaG doesn't see this post, that second picture will scare the bejeesus out of her!

    Sounds like a nice way to spend the day... well away from cable news!

  2. GH: I don't think JaG visits anymore. Too busy with the Boy. The picture does give the Wife the creeps.