Homer's Travels: Hiking Iowa: Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve

While the electorate went to the polls I went to the Five Ridge Prairie state preserve to do some hiking.   The preserve is located north of Sioux City in the northern Loess Hills, a recurring theme to my hiking lately.

Rutted trail.
Five Ridge Prairie is a 800 acre park where tree filled valleys are squeezed in between prairie covered ridges.  The Plymouth County Conservation Board is working to return the park to a pre-European settler state using prescribed burns and careful control of grazing.  When I pulled into the parking area I talked to a couple who were getting ready to do some prescribed burns.  I asked if the park was open and they said it was and that there were some bow hunters already in the park.  This made me a little wary about hiking but they assured me that deer don't usually wear blue jackets like the one I had on.

I entered the park on the main trail.  The road-width trails extend out between marked junctions and trails.  At key points along the trails, metal sign posts either indicate a ridge (R1-R5) or valley (V1-4) along with directional arrows pointing towards the nearest junctions.  These trails are clearly mark on the maps found in a box at the first junction labeled V1.  This actually was a pleasant surprise as these trailhead map boxes are rarely stocked and the maps that can be found have been soaked by rain ... multiple times.  Besides showing the trails, the map also shows mowed fire breaks that run around the border of the preserve and intersects the main trails at several points.

I planned out a route that used both the trails and the fire breaks.  I started by heading for ridge R1.  This trail climbs the first ridge and, eventually, ends at the north fence.  From there I turned west and followed the mowed fire break.  I was doing fine until the fire break ended abruptly at a narrow wash of a seasonal creek (There was some water in it but not much. October was a dry month for us this year).  I found a place to cross by following game trails.  On the other side there was no fire break so I followed the fence up the ridge until I ran into another fire break and I was once again on the right track.

Fall had swept through this area and, with the winds we experienced last week, most of the trees were bare.  From the nearby ridge R4-F you have a sweeping view to the west  (I took a picture which you can see in the blog title banner).  The landscape, being so dry and dead looking, reminded me of some of my California hikes.

I turned south and headed towards ridge trail R5.  This took me past a pair of bow hunting perches.  The trail ends at a fire break that follows the south fence of the preserve.

Prairie Ridge.
Turning east I followed the fire break expecting it to turn north eventually.  The fire break passed a ridge before fading into nothing.  At this point I realized that the fire breaks were not mapped well and that I could not rely of the map.  In hindsight I should have continued following the fence.  Instead I turned north and hiked through the hip deep grass up the ridge.  Near the top I saw a power line.  I had crossed under it when I was on ridge R5.   I decided at this point to turn east and roughly follow the power line expecting it to take me to another fire break that would get me back on track.  Unfortunately the power line led me into forest filled with thorn bushes.  As I weaved through the thorns, thanking myself for wearing long pants, the thorn bushes got thicker and thicker.  I soon was cursing under my breath.  The thorns were short but they still managed to poke through my pants every now and then.  I kept going east until I came out right by the V4 sign post.  I would credit my awesome navigational skills but it was just dumb luck.

I followed the trail to ridge R4-C and turned south-east towards R4-B.  This trail lasted about thirty feet before it disappeared in hip deep grass.  After being lost once I wasn't sure I wanted to get lost again but I persevered.  I hiked through the grass walking as straight a line as I could.  My choice was vindicated when I found the R4-B sign post  which was soon followed by signs for R4-A and V3-B.  After V3-B the trail became much clearer and easier to follow.

Cow Grazing An Idyllic Location.
On the way to the next ridge I ran into a bow hunter.  He was camo head to toe with only his eyes showing.  We exchanged a little small talk and continued on our ways.

After a few more junctions, I was on the way to the car.  In the end the hike totaled 6.31 miles with about 1,522 feet elevation.  Getting out in the fresh air was exactly what I needed.  No politics out there on the prairie and in the Loess Hills.  A map of the hike can be found here.  Pictures can be found here.


  1. I find hunting camo to be disconcerting. And hunter gear always smells really weird.

    Sounds like a good trek! The only thing is that everything looks too crunchy. This would not be a good napping place.

  2. Reminds me a bit of the Sierra foothills in the winter, actually...

  3. Miss McC: It was a little weird but not unheard of around here.

    Ha! Things were fall crunchy.

    GH: It did remind me of California.