Homer's Travels: Hiking Iowa: Preparation Canyon State Park

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Preparation Canyon State Park

Note:  I was going to follow the advice of GeekHiker who suggested going out without gear, camera, GPS, or geocaches and just relaxing in nature, maybe with a book.  I ended up following his advice to the letter except that I took my camera ... and my GPS ... with geocaches loaded ... and I didn't take a book.  I guess I didn't follow his advice but it felt good to get out never the less.

After we moved to Nebraska, one of the first things I did was look for a hike to do.  My first Iowa hike was going to be in Preparation Canyon State Park.  What attracted my attention to this park, when looking for hiking opportunities, was the name.  Frankly I found it hard to believe that Iowa had anything that could be remotely called a canyon.  This was before I ventured into the Loess Hills of western Iowa.  By the way, the canyon/quarry that young James T. Kirk drives his stepfather's antique corvette into ... it ain't real folks.

When I was planning to do the hike back in 2008, I discovered that tornado damage had temporarily closed the park.  Shortly before we moved, a tornado ripped through the park uprooting trees and wrecking havoc.  Sadly the same tornado system also ripped through the Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp killing four boys and wounding 48.  It took almost two years to repair the damage to the park and finally, in 2010, I managed to go to Preparation Canyon.

Preparation canyon was named by Mormon pioneers who stopped here and set up a town named Preparation in 1853.  The Iowa DNR site has a short history of the area.

I looked at the Iowa DNR trail map and decided to start the hike at the end of the main park road on the south-west side of the park.  I would follow the trail and link up with other trails used to access eight hike-in camps.  These trails would form a loop back to a northern parking area where I could either follow the road or take another trail back to where the car was parked.

I started down the trail, and down was the word here.  To get into the park you drive up some rather high hills - high for Iowa anyway.  The Loess Hills in this part of Iowa (north-central western Iowa) are higher than those near Omaha.  The entrance of the park is at a high point so the trails on the western side of the park all start by going down.

Busy Bee ... they're always busy.
A few hundred feet down the trail I saw the results of the tornadoes.  On either side of the trail were plastic tubes that protect newly planted tree.  On the trail ahead ... well, it was hard to see the trail ahead.  It was obvious that the trail had not been maintained in the last two years.  The very wet spring and summer we had resulted in waist high grass completely engulfing the trail.  The trail, if it were cleared, would be the width of a narrow road.  Where the rangers had driven down the trail, leaving wheel tracks, was an eroded, rut filled mess.  In places the ruts were almost two feet deep.  The ruts were hidden by the thick grass and made the trail hazardous.  To make it even worse, the ground was muddy and, in places, the trail was very steep.

I waded through the grass and made it down the steep ridge.  By the time I got to the bottom my pants were completely soaked through thanks to the dew.  At the bottom the trail turns to the left to follow a creek.  The rain  had swollen the creek into a swampy, green, duckweed covered pond.  The water was so high that the trail was under a quarter inch of water.  I slowly walked through the water, feeling the mud suck at my new New Balance 977s (sort of halfway between a walking shoe and a boot). The trail then sunk deeper under water (Here's a close up of the trail at this point).  I decided that I didn't feel like wading.  I turned around and fought my way back up to the car.

Yes ... This Is The Trail Along The Creek
When I got back to the car I decided to walk down the road to another trailhead north-west of the car.  I started down this trail and ran smack dab into the same unmaintained trail that I'd encountered on the other trail.  I persevered and reached the bottom near the ponds, soaking my pants even more.  This trail was different in that the trail never went under water.  I also saw from this vantage point that the swollen creek was a collection of several pools of water connected by small streams.

Verdant Pools.
I reached the junction were the first trail met the trail I was on.  I'd turned around about 100 feet away from the junction.  This is a guess since I really couldn't discern where the other trail was.  At this point I followed another rutted, overgrown trail up the other side of the canyon.  It wasn't much better that the other two trails I'd been on.  I was starting to wonder if this entire day was going to be a wet, messy struggle hip deep in soggy grass when the grass disappeared.  I'd reached the top of a ridge where the trail I was on met up with the hike-in camp trails.  From this point on, all the trails were maintained and the grass was no more than ankle deep.  Also from this vantage point you can see the tornado damaged area of the forest.  In the center of this picture you can just  make out all the plastic tubes with new trees.

I followed the wooded trail around past unoccupied camp sites moving from one trail to another in my attempt at a loop around the park.  It was a lot easier and my pants started drying out.  It also was not very traveled this late in the summer as a number of spider webs stretched over the trail.  I passed the sole occupied camp where the sounds of a father-son pair enjoying one last camping trip before school starts could be heard beyond their tent.

My next turn took me out of the wooded area onto a grassy meadow covered hill.  A nicely mowed path led up to the top of a hill and a welcome bench.  From the top of the hill you could see the treetops - I'll have to try to get up here when the leaves change this fall.  I stopped and ate a snack bar while I felt the cool breeze on my face.  I sat under a blue sky with temps in the high 70s and I felt content.  It had been months since I'd gotten out of the house, out of the backyard, out of the car, out of civilization.  It was restoring.

I followed the trail past a few more empty camps.  Stopped to take pictures of flowers and insects - my favorite subjects, it seems.  The trail ended at another parking area.  The choice from here was either follow the road back to the car or follow another trail that connected up with the overgrown trails I'd been on earlier.  As my pants had started to dry, I decided to follow the road back to avoid another soaking.  I did stop to look for a geocache but it was hidden in the middle of the tornado damage and I suspect it was in Oz by now.

Back at the car I drove to a nearby overlook in the Loess Hills State Forest, found a geocache ("Loess Hills Forest Overlook"), and took pictures for this panorama:

Loess Hills Forest Lookout Panorama.
There is a short trail that leaves from the impressive lookout platform (you can see the trail in the picture) but, not knowing how long it was I decided not to do it.  Turns out it was only 0.91 miles.  I'll have to do it some time as the area is beautiful.

Total hiking distance was about 4.72 miles including the extra round trip I did on the first, waterlogged trail.  The elevation gain from peak to trough was about 317 ft but I ended up doing this elevation four times (There are multiple 'canyons' in this park).  Pictures, mostly of insects and flowers, can be found here.


  1. I really enjoy these posts! Between pictures and wonderful words, the walls around my desk melt away to visions of nature. Thank you!

  2. Okay, so you didn't quite follow my advice, but if you had fun and enjoyed the day, that's all that counts.

    So, which is worse: tall overgrown Iowa grasses covering the trail, or tall overgrown California chaparral covering the trail?

  3. Miss McC: I thought you didn't like the whole nature thing. I remember something about Target.

    GH: I've never rally hiked through overgrown chaparral but there was this one time ... Chaparral can be scratchy. Grass is very wet. I think it's a wash.

  4. I'll take scratchy over wet. I never bled from "wet". :)