Continuing our tour of the best Backpacking parks in our great state of Iowa, my comrade and I spent 2 nights at Preparation Canyon State Park. Located directly adjacent to the Preparation Canyon Unit of Loess Hills State Forest; the flora, fauna, and geology of this park are amazing and unique to North America. If you have not visited this area, put it high on your to-do list. The weekend was blistering hot at 95° F and a 9/10 UV index, but we were conditioning for a larger trip this summer, so we welcomed the challenge.
The park boasts 10 backpacking, hike-in campsites. However, you will find maps and literature that reference only 8, for seemingly good reason. Sites 9 and 10 (apparently more recent additions) are the most remote in the park and might tempt those seeking that added level of solitude. We examined both of them and they were both found to be overgrown and the nearby creek tributary was mostly dry. Instead, we spent both of our nights at Site 3, which seems to be the crown jewel. It is a small trek up a hillside and looks out across the general area, with a phenomenal star gazing opportunity. The creek just to the North was still flowing and provided our water source. You will not regret staying here. The other sites are mostly in the woods and line said creek. I'm certain they would be great as well.
A quick drive from the park lands you at the State Forest Lookout, which is partnered with a short 0.91 mile loop trail that is picturesque. Around the "back," (Northwest side) of the park there are shelters, picnic areas, and overlooks. You cannot park at these locations while camping in the park.
The immediate surrounding towns provide very little in the way of amenities, so plan ahead. The cultural history of the park is intriguing, as it was the site of a 19th century Mormon town (from which the park gets its name). The town however is completely gone, there are no abandoned historical structures to explore.
You won't miss them. Hike through the hilled prairie trail which is the first right as you enter from the Eastside Boundary, and you'll know why you came.
In summary, this park is the quintessential example of the diversity that Iowa has to offer, and rivals Yellow River for it's backpacking. It's proximity to the larger State Forest means you could spend weeks exploring if so inclined.
This park may deserve a different rating at a different time of the year. This is Iowa's largest State Forest, and the Woodburn Unit plays host to several Backcountry campsites and 6 miles of trail. There is a picnic table and fire ring at every campsite. The trails are wide and well graded and not too much up and down except for periodic creek crossings which necessitate a steep descent-ascent. The trails are lightly trafficked.
You will find absolute solitude at this park, we didn't see anyone else out there with us. Perhaps for good reason. The defining characteristic of this park is it's insect life. Repellant and an active bat population kept the mosquitoes away, but the ticks were everywhere! My wife and I had more issues than other members of our party, but we were near constantly plucking them off of us. A frightening proposition for any backpacker.
In general the insects were diverse and abundant: ants, spiders, beatles, butterflies, moths, flys, ticks, wasps, you name it. Cobwebs would form overnight across the trail you just traversed and broke them the day before. At Buck Stop, a careless previous occupant made numerous gashes into a living tree with a blade, but we found a small swarm of Tawny Emperor butterflies making use of the opportunity. Amazing! Again, most insects were not an issue with heavy use of repellant, but the constant threat of ticks put a damper on our excursion.
Additionally, when we went in early July the creeks were dry. Making the only water source the spigot at the parking lot. The trail from Black Oak Camp to the Parking Lot is the shortest and easiest for this purpose if you find yourself running low.
We heard plenty of wildlife in early evening and at night: owls, raccoons, deer, coyotes.
We started out Friday evening with our packs and hiked and camped the park until Sunday morning.
We hiked all 6+ miles of trails here. Our first night in we camped at Buck Stop Camp. This site is on top of a ridge and is wonderful, you feel absolutely surrounded by wilderness; however, the site was a bit overgrown and thus undersized in terms of usable tent space. Our second night we stayed at the exact opposite corner at Longbeard. This is a great, bare, mostly flat site that is quite large, could host a large camping party.
Summary: This park may be better during the fall when the ticks have gone dormant, but at that time I believe it starts to get its use as a public hunting grounds. The lack of overland water in the summer and thriving tick population makes it a challenge to be at ease. The trails are easy to moderate, well graded apart from a few steep down-ups to dry creek beds. Good training ground for backpackers, tuck your pants into your boots, and happy trails!
My friend and I were eager to test out some new backpacking gear for the first time in advance of a larger trip this summer.
We have stayed several times at the Big Paint Campground which is a wonderful drive-up campground that seems to have mostly tent campers. Only two sites at that campground have direct creek access, 55 and 53.
For our most recent trip, we hiked from Paint Creek area headquarters along Brown's Hollow Trail to Brown's Hollow Campground. It's a low spot in the area, and became a bit soft as we were met with a brief downpour just as we arrived. But what can you expect being down in a 'hollar'?
This park is LUSH. Tons of wildlife and we thoroughly enjoyed hunting for wild oyster mushrooms which we gave a quick sautee before including in our rehydrated meals.
This was a quick trip, only one night. However we took it slow the next morning and we're greeted by HUNDREDS of butterflies! They were everywhere! Using the Koffman's Field Guide to the Midwest I identified them as Hackberry Emperors. Magical morning indeed.
The park has several backcountry camping spots and I will likely use them all as I continue to train for a larger trip later this summer. The park has a great feeling of isolation and wilderness that can be absent from other places.
We traveled over 8 hours on the hope of grabbing a spot here early on a Friday. Our plan was to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Our diligence was rewarded, as we arrived around 11AM and had our pick of the litter. Every site has water access and is picturesque. This was a fantastic place to stay as a base camp to explore the National Park just to the North.
The water from the pump at entrance to the campground was quite cloudy and brown. Though locals insisted it was fine to drink we opted to purchase water to supplement what we had brought from just down the road at the General Store. Also filter treated water from the lake which was quite refreshing.
At night, the lake gave back the heat of the day and became shrouded in a wonderful mist. Truly spectacular to behold with the stars above.