Outdoors

Explore Iowa's national parks

With travel limited, there are getaway options close to home

The view of the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument, one of Iowa's federal gems. (Marion and Rich Patte
The view of the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument, one of Iowa’s federal gems. (Marion and Rich Patterson/correspondents)
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January’s snow swirled past our house as we planned a June 2020 New England trip.

En route to a Vermont conference we’d detour “down east” to Maine and take in one of America’s classic national parks, Acadia National Park.

Then, the coronavirus scrubbed the conference and distant travel.

With an Acadia visit impossible, we spent summer days exploring Iowa’s national parks and other federal areas. We weren’t alone.

“We’re not seeing as many out-of-state visitors this year, but the number of Iowans enjoying the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is way up,” said seasonal interpreter Keith Hindman.

Like us, many Americans scrapped plans to visit distant parks, instead day-tripping to intriguing places close to home. In Iowa we’re fortunate to have sites managed by the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Although Iowa has fewer units of the National Park Service than Utah, Alaska or other states, Effigy Mounds National Monument and The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site offer history, hiking, beauty and nature near the corridor.

Effigy and Hoover were created by Congressional legislation and signed into law by a president.

“National monuments and historic sites are truly national parks although called something else,” said Garrett Cloer, Chief of Interpretation at the Hoover Site.

Visitors to all national parks enjoy interacting with friendly rangers wearing classic uniforms topped with a campaign hat. Exploring them, whether massive Denali in Alaska or diminutive Hoover in Iowa, is a learning adventure.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Early in the 20th century, Iowa and Wisconsin tourism promoters proposed creating a national park spanning the Mississippi River. Senior government officials inspected the area and declared it too settled to be a national park. But they noticed fascinating and mysterious mounds high on rugged bluffs and recommended it become a national monument. That happened in 1949 when President Truman signed legislation creating Effigy Mounds National Monument.

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We love Effigy for its trails, wildlife, distant views and the humbling aura of the mounds themselves, created by a sophisticated Native American culture long before Columbus made landfall. Coronavirus closed the visitor center this year, but trails are open and offer Iowa’s best hiking.

We huffed and puffed our way up the steep trail from the visitor center. Once we reached the blufftop, walking was easy along mostly level trails that took us past massive earthen effigies. It is a sacred spot that left us humbly contemplating the rich culture of the ancient Iowans who created them.

As we hiked on toward a Mississippi River overlook, a wood thrush serenaded us from deep in the forest. Later we walked an easier trail from the visitor center to a boardwalk spanning a wetland. A swimming muskrat, turtles snoozing on a log and birds winging over the marsh provided entertainment.

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Only 40 miles from Cedar Rapids and closer to Iowa City, is the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site that honors Iowa’s only native-born president.

An easy walk led us through Hoover’s boyhood home, his father, Jesse’s, blacksmith shop, a tiny school, the Quaker meeting house and the graves of Herbert and his wife, Lou Henry. We were amazed at how tiny the Hoover home was. Jesse and Hulda lived with their three kids in two-room 14x20-foot cottage. Smaller than many modern living rooms.

Strolling through the site brought us back to the bygone era of Hoover’s boyhood. Perhaps the mood we felt is best stated by the former president himself when he said “In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope.”

Our visit went beyond history. We marveled at tall pines and maples near the homestead and watched prairie wildflowers dance in the summer breeze just past the Hoover graves.

Sandwiched between the boyhood home and prairie is the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. It’s on National Park Service land yet administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. Closed this year by coronavirus, the museum tells the story of Hoover’s life and archives draw historians. The website provides intriguing stories of President Hoover and Mrs. Hoover’s lives. One of our favorite displays shows President Hoover trout fishing, a passion launched as a boy catching chubs in Iowa’s Wapsinonoc Creek.

Like most national parks, Effigy and Hoover feature a junior ranger program. Although designed for kids, people of any age can pick up a free activity booklet. It is a guide to the human and natural history of the area. Completing quiz questions lets a visitor head home with a junior ranger badge.

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“Many home school families visit, and with more parents home schooling this year we welcome them to come to the Herbert Hoover site to learn,” said Ranger Hindman.

National Wildlife Refuges

Want the kids to see wild buffalo and elk?

A long drive to Wind Cave or Yellowstone National Parks isn’t necessary. Both enormous native animals can be spotted at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, just east of Des Moines. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 6,000-acre refuge feels much like a national park.

Coronavirus closed its Prairie Learning Center building this year, but trails and roads are open. It’s a place to enjoy stunningly beautiful vistas of what Iowa looked like before settlement.

Iowa’s other federal lands

Efforts to create a national park along the Mississippi River never happened, but led to the establishment of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.

It is 240,000 acres of river, backwater and low forest. Being wet and swampy, the refuge isn’t well suited to hiking but is a wildlife paradise offering boating, fishing, hunting and exploring opportunities.

Further downstream the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge spans the Mississippi and bottomlands with a great canoe trail. A new and smaller Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge is emerging on a few tracts in northeast Iowa. North Central Iowa hosts Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge, while DeSoto Bend National Wildlife Refuge hugs the Missouri River. All are open to the public and offer outstanding wildlife viewing.

Effigy Mounds, the Herbert Hoover Site and Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are outstanding destinations for families to enjoy and learn from the outdoors close to home. Unfortunately, they lack one visitor amenity common in larger parks — campsites.

Fortunately, Saylorville, Red Rock, Rathbun and Coralville Reservoirs, all managed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, feature modern campsites with ready access to massive lakes. The corps also manages campgrounds along the Mississippi River.

Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at windingpathways.com.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.