Homer's Travels: Hiking Iowa: Lake Of Three Fires State Park

Friday, September 17, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Lake Of Three Fires State Park

Yesterday was an almost perfect day for hiking with weather in the 60s, a light breeze, and a state park with a cool name.  The only downer was that it was overcast.  I'm talking hard core June Gloom for those living in California.

My destination was Lake of Three Fires State Park near Bedford, IA.  I'd heard about it at a hiking site I came across recently, AllTrails.com.  After registering you get a list of recommended hikes in your area.  Some of the suggestions I received were hikes I'd already done but there were a few that were worth checking out.

Lake of Three Fires State Park is located about two hours drive from where I live.  When I lived in California, I rarely drove more than an hour to get to a trailhead.  I have found in Nebraska, you have to drive a bit to find the good hikes, especially if you are interested in distance. Ponca, Indian Cave, and now Lake of Three Fires - almost two hours away, all worth the drive.

Lake of Three Fires is named after a legend in the area.  From the park brochure:

"Legend says the Potawatomi (a tribe that once roamed the plains of SW Iowa and NW Missouri) joined with two other tribes, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and the Odawa (Ottawa) and formed the Three Fires Confederacy, a loose alliance that promoted their mutual interests.  It is believed that the three tribes held a great council meeting to join forces for protection against invading tribes."

Lake of Three Fires - Water Plant Growth.
I parked in the south-east corner of the park near, of all things, a sewage settling lagoon.  From there I followed the map south.  The trail is marked as an equestrian trail but it is actually a multi-use trail.  As an equestrian trail, hikers should watch where they put their feet as horse exhaust is common.

The trail, a slightly overgrown dirt road, weaves in and out between forest and meadow.  This time of year, meadow means lots of flowers and long grass (Thankfully I took my allergy meds before I'd left that morning).  Seeing all the flowers and remembering the dearth of flowers last spring (compared to California, that is) I have come to the realization that early fall might be the wildflower season in these parts.

Lake of Three Fires - Early Fall Color.
There was a lot of wildlife on this hike.  Mostly white-tail deer, toads, and birds including cranes.  One of the most eerie sound I've ever heard was the sound of a dozen ravens taking flight as I approached their perch.  The flapping has a low, orderly, woosh-woosh sound that sounds like some portent of evil.  Or maybe it was just me.

The trail turns west then north along the west side of the lake.  While the east side of the lake is the camping/recreation area of the park, the west side is the forest and rather wild part of the park.  The trail passes four park ponds (and several outside the park boundary) as it moves north.  The northerly trail zig-zags back and forth adding distance to the hike.  If you do not want the distance and do not care much about the ponds, there is a short cut trail that connects the tips of the zags that ends near the northern wetlands.

Lake of Three Fires - Wetlands.
The wetlands are, to me, the most interesting part of this park.  I think I have a thing for wetlands.  I suppose it's because there were so few in California where I first started my hiking.  The wetland area must have been dry in the past as now the skeletons of trees poke out of the duckweed covered water.

Water Lily.
The trail, past the wetlands area, turns south and eventually passes through the campgrounds and public areas.  The three campgrounds include a primitive area for tent campers, pads with connections for RV campers, and very nice cabins with electricity, plumbing, and air conditioning.  The lake is too small for skiing but fishing is permitted - I saw a boat with a couple fishing at the north end of the lake.  The public areas include very impressive stone and wood shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corp.  The centerpiece of the shelters were large stone fireplaces and I could just see myself relaxing next to a roaring fire on a chilly autumn night.

The total hike was 7.8 miles.  The park advertised the park as having 8 miles of trails so they were close.  If you include some of the short cuts they would be about right.  AllTrails.com said there was 10.5 miles so I will have to be careful not to be too trustful with their claims.  Total elevation gain was about 920 feet but that was distributed over 6+ elevation changes.  The actual peak to trough change was only 97 feet.

I enjoyed this hike.  It was unpretentious but still had  a nice variety of landscapes.  I came away relaxed and satisfied, signs of a good hike.  Pictures of the Lake of Three Fires State Park can be found here.


  1. My family and I live in SW Iowa and Lake of Three Fires is a place we try to get to at least once a year. We like staying in the cabins with heat/a/c, stove, fridge, and it's own bathroom. It's good for our kids who shy away at using old fashioned outhouses. It's a beautiful park with the swimming beach, hiking trails, picnic areas and it's a nice place just to have a campfire, cook some hot dogs and relax.

    1. Karen: Thanks for stopping by Homer's Travels. The lake offers many different services that fit most people's comfort zone. That's what makes it a great place to get away from things. I need to go back and do some camping sometime soon.