Since moving from Athens, Georgia to Iowa City last August, I’ve spent my free time relaxing in the parks and green spaces of Johnson County, and my weekends hiking. hiking in state parks and trails. Here’s a tentative ranking of the five state parks I’ve explored statewide so far, plus an honorable mention from Wisconsin.
Lake Macbride State Park, Johnson County
I first went to Lake MacBride in October on a second date. We walked until what she described as a “waterfall”. In reality, it is a weir that separates Lake Macbride from the Iowa River. She swore there was usually more water in the ‘waterfall’ and there were pictures online to verify her claim. But when we visited it was a slight trickle, like a leaky faucet. Still, I enjoyed the large body of water and the shady path leading to it.
Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa
My date and I went in January, under a foot of snow, which I thought would make for great photos. Unfortunately the caves were closed when we arrived for bat hibernation. We explored some of the shallower caves that weren’t underground or didn’t require light, and hiked the forest trails. It was my first real experience with snow. Georgia’s snow, when it appears infrequently, is fine and powdery. This snow was thick, mostly untouched for weeks, and magical. After surviving my first winter in the Midwest, I’m still in love with the snow.
Backbone State Park, Dundee
We hiked the Backbone Trail, which loops between Backbone Lake and the Maquoketa River. The mile long tail has jagged rocks and overgrown roots. It’s narrow but beautiful. We climbed up a section of carved out rock to hide from the wind and eat our picnic. It was “spring,” my partner said, which meant bare trees and brown grass, but no snow. Further on, we looked over the ledge to see the river, surrounded by tall yellow grass. It reminded me of the dead marshes. The trail was slightly disorienting. It did a loop without us realizing it, and we kind of ended up in the parking lot.
Ledges State Park, Madrid
I would like to come back in late summer or fall when the trees and flowers are in bloom. My partner and I hiked around Canyon Road and the Table Rock loop. The paved trail started above the gorge and the cold, windy air burned my face. We descended and failed to cross a flooded path. The spiral stairs felt almost vertical on the return trip. We came across a witch stone house, a nearby flood post. We had listened to a horror podcast earlier, and the dead forest started to scare me as we walked back to the car.
Palisades-Kepler State Park, Mount Vernon
We hiked the Cedar River Trail and Cedar Cliff which started around a beach. It has a rough texture somewhere between sand and silt, but the dogs didn’t seem to care. Further on, there is a dam. The water rushed through so we couldn’t walk along. There are stairs, carved into the rock, that lead to the Cliff Trail. We found a nice vantage point for hammock and reading. As I left I saw the American Gothic Barn, a replica of Grant Woods’ famous painting covering the exterior of the barn.
Worth the detour
Devil’s Lake State Park in Sauk County, Wisconsin
Devil’s Lake has three things I love: large bodies of water, large trees, and large rocks (in that order). The park includes Devil’s Gate, a rock formation with a large gap in the middle. The rocks were pinkish red with pale green streaks. I stopped to take photos every five minutes. From the lookout, the forest was a sea of vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. I was amazed at the sight of the lake, which covers 374 acres. Even with a wide lens, I couldn’t photograph the whole area and my panoramic shot was too wide to fit on Instagram. If you’re doing the three hour drive for a weekend, stay at the Birdhouse Inn.
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 307.