Outdoors

Take advantage of Iowa's county gems

Lots to do in all of Iowa's 99 counties

A rock at F.W. Kent Park in Johnson County says it all. (Marion Patterson/correspondent)
A rock at F.W. Kent Park in Johnson County says it all. (Marion Patterson/correspondent)
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A few years ago, we entered Iowa after an endless drive across South Dakota.

Tired and hungry, we needed to get off the road and spotted a sign pointing to Woodbury County’s Little Sioux Park. Soon we were relaxing by our tent near a small, pleasant lake in a park we had never heard of.

That’s often the way it is with county parklands. They are serendipitous gems tucked into nature and scattered about Iowa.

In 1974 we faced a tough decision. After a weekend in Idaho’s massive Clearwater National Forest, we discovered a job offer in our mailbox. It posed a dilemma. The position would lure us to the Midwest, a region with sparse public land for the hiking, fishing and camping we loved.

The offer was just too good to resist, and we’ve been Midwesterners for 45 years.

Iowa’s road map lacks the vast patches of green shading that indicate national forests on the Idaho state map, and statistics confirm map colors. Federal and state governments own 67 percent of Idaho yet only about 1 percent of Iowa. Our state ranks 49th in public land. Only Connecticut ranks lower.

Fortunately, we learned that numbers are misleading. They don’t tally 200,000 acres in 1,850 separate places managed by Iowa’s 99 county conservation boards. Iowa may lack national forests and parks, but it’s comprehensive system of county parklands is the nation’s best.

State parks may grab headlines, but county parklands likely provide far more recreational opportunities. There is a county park, trail, natural area, river access or preserve within a short drive of every Iowan’s home. Every year new ones open.

Iowa was once a vast sprawling prairie wilderness inhabited by Native Americans. For centuries they lived sustainably in an ecologically healthy environment. Sadly, their rich cultures were shattered as the tsunami of modern settlement roared westward in the 1800s. With the Louisiana Purchase, all land that became Iowa was claimed by the Federal government. Anyone could hunt, camp, fish or roam around this public land.

It didn’t last long.

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Federal policy quickly privatized Iowa’s land by either selling it to settlers or businesses or giving it to railroads and homesteaders. Before the income tax, land sales were a major Federal revenue source. The government’s hunger for money, combined with rapid population growth, converted nearly every acre to private ownership. By 1900 an Iowan wishing to picnic, hike, camp or hunt on public land was out of luck. Other than city parks there was no place to go.

Then, Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House and swiftly changed land policy. Huge tracts of federal land in western and northern states were withdrawn from privatization and became national forests and parks. Iowa already had been privatized, so it missed the national forest and park creation boat.

Iowa’s early conservationists recognized a local hunger for public land but faced an uphill battle. Its state park system was launched in 1920 but to create parks, land would have to be purchased from private owners or donated by them. Backbone, Lacey-Keosauqua and Palisades-Kepler were among the earliest parks established at the dawn of the automobile age when an increasingly affluent urban population wanted to load the kids in the car and picnic in scenic places. State parks were ideal destinations but often were a long drive on the fledgling road system from where people lived.

Prosperity following World War II increased the need for public land as growing families pushed for more places to camp, picnic and hunt. In response, Iowa passed legislation in 1955 allowing counties to create conservation boards. It was a landmark law that enormously expanded outdoor recreation. By the following year, voters in 16 counties passed initiatives to create conservation boards. More counties followed suit, and, by 1989, every Iowa county had a system in place.

The law gave each county the authority to appoint volunteers to sit on conservation boards and decide how to best use tax money to suit local needs for open space and outdoor recreation. Professional staff manage properties. Revenue comes mostly from taxes, but most conservation boards augment it with use fees, grants and the support of friends’ groups.

Every Iowa county’s conservation board is a unique entity that results in some variability from county-to-county and budgets generally reflect the population of a county. Despite some differences, most county conservation boards have acquired land and developed it into parks, natural areas, historic sites, preserves, river accesses and trails.

Our 2020 summer plan was a long drive to northern Vermont to explore the Green Mountains. Coronavirus nixed it. We were disappointed, but instead of making that expensive drive we took day trips to Iowa’s state, town and county parks. Every visit has been delightful and brought us to pleasant places we’d simply bypassed for years.

We weren’t alone. With distant travel at a standstill, thousands of Iowans, like us, have discovered the hidden gems of county parklands. Visitation is at record levels this year.

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THE TRAIL PHENOMENON

One early evening we unloaded our bikes at Marion’s municipal Waldo’s Rock Park, cycled down a short access and pedaled east on Linn County Conservation Board’s stretch of the Grant Wood Trail. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we skimmed along nodding to other bicyclists and walkers. Some trails follow quiet creeks. Others wind under a verdant canopy. Still others parallel lush Iowa farmland. This network of trails is a sight that would have amazed Iowans in pre-trail days.

About 40 years ago the renowned Cedar Valley Nature Trail was begun amid bitter controversy. Landowners claimed trails were crime incubators, but advocates successfully completed section after section of a trail that today connects Waterloo and Cedar Rapids.

Soon new trails opened across the state. Acre per acre they may be the most heavily used and loved of all parklands. Many are long and connect different county conservation board and municipal parks. All seem busy with walkers, skateboarders, bicyclists and even folks enjoying nature from their wheelchair.

Despite the concerns of early trail opponents crime is minimal while opportunity for exercise, fresh air and interesting scenery is nearly unlimited.

PARKS

Most Iowa county conservation boards have at least one park. Many have more.

Parks are usually developed for intensive recreation and often include campgrounds, picnic areas, playgrounds, trails, lakes for fishing and swimming, and rental lodges and cabins. Many campgrounds have flush toilets and electricity, while others offer rustic sites for tenters wishing to shuck modern conveniences for a few days.

Often, developed facilities adjoin forests, wetlands and prairies crisscrossed by trails. Pinicon Ridge, Morgan Creek and Kent are popular parks in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area.

NATURAL AREAS

Conservation has always been a key mission of county areas, and most boards have protected land in natural areas.

These usually have few modern facilities but often feature trails. Many encourage hunting and fishing. Matsell Bridge, near Viola, is one of our favorite county natural areas where we can hike. In addition to miles of trails, Matsell has backpacking campsites, a shooting range and an isolated rental cabin overlooking the Wapsipinicon River.

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Equestrians enjoy its trails. Last fall we explored Van Buren County’s Lindsay Wilderness Area near Bonaparte. Many more natural areas beckon us.

PRESERVES

Hunting is not usually allowed in preserves but they always offer the opportunity to discover fascinating native plants and wildlife.

One early summer we discovered a field of blooming wild strawberries in Johnson County’s Ciha Fen near Sutliff. Emerging from an oak savanna, we admired the fen, a natural pond perched on a high spot that seemed to defy gravity. No other people were there and we felt as embraced by nature as we might have in a big Idaho national forest.

Ennis Preserve, just down the Cedar River from Palisades-Kepler State Park, is a favorite short walk along a loop trail descending to the river.

RIVER ACCESSES

Iowa’s major rivers are publicly owned but using them can be challenging. Because they are often bounded by miles of private land, launching a kayak requires permission of a landowner. Otherwise it’s trespassing.

Thankfully, many counties created river access points. Most are tiny slivers of land just big enough for a small parking lot and a boat launch. These accesses make river recreation possible on thousands of acres of publicly owned water.

 

Compared to enormous tracts of land in western states, Iowa’s county parklands are tiny, but they prove how numbers are misleading. Cedar Rapids native, Nancy Patterson, states it well.

“I was an interpretive naturalist at Yellowstone National Park and now manage the Campbell Creek Science Center in Alaska,” she said. “Yellowstone is vast but small compared to huge public lands up here in the Last Frontier. Even though the land is vast, most public use is close to roads and parking lots. Few people venture into the Isolated interior. That’s why Iowa’s county parks are so important. They may be relatively small, but because they are widespread and have excellent access, they are particularly valuable to people.”

Linn County Conservation Board’s executive director, Dennis Goemaat, agrees.

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“Matsell Bridge is a big area by Iowa standards but mostly just hunters, equestrians, and intrepid hikers make it to the back areas,” he said. “Most people using Linn County’s parklands stay close to roads and parking lots.”

Decades ago, we made the leap from Idaho to Iowa believing we’d have to abandon our love of distance hiking, camping and simply absorbing the quiet beauty of nature. We were wrong. Iowa’s comprehensive system of county parklands, combined with the state’s impressive state and municipal parks, help all of us enjoy quality of life boosting outdoor recreation.

FINDING COUNTY PARKLANDS

An easy way to find county parklands is to visit mycountyparks.com. It includes a link to a 242-page guidebook listing many trails, parks, natural areas and river accesses open to the public.

The website, sponsored by the Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards, makes reserving a cabin or campsite easy and includes links to the websites of individual county conservation boards. Another resource is the Iowa Sportsman’s Atlas that has paper maps of each Iowa county showing the location of federal, state and county public lands. We always keep a copy in the car.

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.