Exploring Iowa's fall colors: 'Get away from everything' at Palisades-Kepler

Park offers perfect place to take in seasonal scenery

The overlook on the Cedar Cliff Trail at Palisades-Kepler State Park in Mount Vernon on Monday, Jun. 26, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The overlook on the Cedar Cliff Trail at Palisades-Kepler State Park in Mount Vernon on Monday, Jun. 26, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A short drive southwest of downtown Mount Vernon sits Palisades-Kepler State Park, which took its names from the dramatic palisades overlooking the Cedar River at the park’s center.

“It’s very scenic through there,” said Park Ranger Jim Hansen. “That is where the park gets its name. They’d refer to the limestone bluffs as palisades.”

Palisades-Kepler, established in 1922 and doubled in size thanks to an estate gift from Louis H. Kepler in 1928, has long been a draw for nature lovers or those just looking to get away. The Civilian Conservation Corp built the limestone lodge — a popular spot for weddings and parties — and other park structures in the 1930s.

“It’s a good place to come if you’re a nature lover, a lover of a peaceful place, to get away from everything,” said Faith Robinson, 39, of Cedar Rapids, who came to Palisades-Kepler throughout her childhood.

Now, as a parent, she brings her children to hike, swim in the river or have a barbecue.

Swimming is a popular activity at the park, but people should use caution because the Cedar River has strong currents. The park draws about 250,000 people a year by the most recent count several years ago, Hansen said. Many come for fishing and kayaking, but he said hiking is probably the most popular activity.

The 840-acre park features six miles of trails, mostly through forest, including the Cool Hollow Trail, which cuts through the park.

“The trails are very rugged, difficult as far as Iowa terrain goes,” said Hansen while walking along the rocky, hilly Cedar Cliff trail.

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The Cedar Cliff trail traces the river’s edge, climbing into the bluff and offering a bird’s-eye view of the river, as well as a place for bald eagle sightings. A gazebo and flagstone landing are at the peak. Evidence of fossils are etched into many of the rock outcroppings, Hansen said.

“It’s left over from when this was all covered in a warm water sea,” he said.

Hikers may stumble on people bouldering and rock climbing on some of the rock faces lining the trails. Anchors for top rope climbing are set atop a cliff near the gazebo. Climbers must register at the park office.

In the fall, foliage draws people from near and far to explore the forest of black walnut, hickory, basswood and maple trees.

“The leaf color here is really dramatic,” Hansen said. “It’s a pretty mature hardwood forest.”

Camping also has generated strong demand from visitors.

The park has 45 campsites, though the campground is due for a renovation and will be closed through Nov. 30. However, the park’s four cabins remain open year-round and include running water, a kitchen, microwave, bathroom, a bed and futon.

Karlen Uhde of Hiawatha has been coming to Palisades-Kepler annually for a dozen years with her daughters and grandchildren.

“It’s really comfortable,” she said. “There’s a bathroom, shower, refrigerator. We can bring our own food and cook. For us, it’s camping but a little easier.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Palisades-Kepler State Park

WHERE: 700 Kepler Drive, Mount Vernon

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CABIN AND CAMPING RESERVATIONS: iowastateparks.reserveamerica.com

DETAILS: (319) 895-6039, iowadnr.gov/Places-to-Go/State-Parks/Iowa-State-Parks/ParkDetails/parkid/610113

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