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The Wild Kind: Explore the Wilderness of Palisades-Kepler

Swift water, rocky cliffs, and a canoe ride that ends with a beer and a burger. It’s a weekend wilderness hoe-down in east-central Iowa.

“In a way, there are two kinds of parks,” begins Jim Hansen, park ranger for Palisades-Kepler State Park in east-central Iowa. He sits forward in his beat-up naugahyde chair at the Sutliff Bar, a dollar-bills-on-the-ceiling kind of joint, where Johnny Cash plays on the jukebox, and bait and tackle is sold at the cash register.

“There’s Lake Macbride, more of a recreational boating place where you can go to the beach, go fishing. Great park.”

Explore eastern Iowa's Palisades-Kepler State Park: rock climbing, hiking, observatory, paddling and more | Iowa DNR

Hansen pauses, takes a bite out of his pork tenderloin—grilled, not fried. He’s a compact guy, trim and springy, built like a high-school wrestler in the lightweight division. If Hansen’s not smiling (which he usually is, unless you’re making noise in his park after 10 p.m.), you get the picture from his bright blue eyes that a smile isn’t too long in coming.

“A park like Palisades is more for people who are going to get out and hike on the trails and who love that densely wooded forest. There aren’t many parks where you can rock climb, either. Palisades is the main one.”

Hansen sits back, takes another bite, satisfied. You can tell when a ranger loves his park. And Sutliff Bar is a good place for woodsy philosophizing, especially at the end of a long paddle on the Cedar River that runs just outside its doors.

Talk turns to this smart little patch of Iowa, smack in between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Sandy beaches. Giant telescopes in a hidden observatory. Soaring cliffs above a swift river. Ancient hardwood forest where you’d better pack your GPS or end up the subject of the next Jon Krakauer novel.

“It’s a little bit of everything, really,” Hansen concludes. “It’s a unique landscape within what Iowa is.”

Up, up, up

Established in 1922, the 840 acres of Palisades-Kepler State Park is packed with well-preserved relics—follow the four-mile Cedar Cliff Trail and you’ll catch the drift. Limestone structures by the Civilian Conservation Corps look like they could’ve been built last month. Kids sift through the sand at the beach for old shells and fossils. A few remaining eastern red cedars date back 500 years. Campsites and cabins are enfolded in old growth.

Explore eastern Iowa's Palisades-Kepler State Park: rock climbing, hiking, observatory, paddling and more | Iowa DNR

Cliffs formed in ancient times also make Palisades-Kepler a rock-climbing park. Hansen and his crew help keep the sport safe and accessible for climbers who sign waivers at the ranger’s office. Climbers generally start out at a gym, then graduate to outdoor ascents at places like Raccoon Cove, along a steep rock face on the Cedar Cliff Trail.

Dave Patton, assistant director of the University of Iowa Recreation Services, gives a harness talk to a group of novices. His Touch the Earth outfitter within the University of Iowa periodically offers trips to the general public during the September-November climbing season.

Patton begins the series of commands that structure every ascent:

“On belay.” 

“Belay on.” 

“Climbing.” 

“Climb on.”

Patton says that Palisades holds the majority of Iowa’s climbing history. “Royal Robbins climbed here,” he says of the early pioneer of American climbing.

Skittering upward, hands dancing about for a solid hold, his students find this rock a muscle-draining challenge. It’s just another surprise about this area that makes it such a solid bet for a visit.

Fast water

Patton’s Touch the Earth also rents kayaks and canoes—handy for the Cedar River. It’s about 10 feet deep, a wide and fast run. You’ll start downriver from a wrecked dam at the park, then paddle a few hours to Sutliff Access, where, conveniently, you’ll take out at the Sutliff Bar, established in 1899, adjacent the old iron Sutliff Bridge.

As a canoe pulls up, a waitress leans out the back door and yells “Blake! Your food is ready!” to one of the folks chatting at nearby picnic tables.

There’s a lazy, happy feeling here. People in these parts have a good thing going, and they know it. Travelers straggle in the door every now and then, exchanging that knowing look between comrades who make a good find on vacation.

Meeting the heavens

It’s with a different sense of wonder—but just as powerful—that visitors stumble upon the Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center, just far enough away from the little shops and restaurants of Mount Vernon to afford a near-perfect darkness. From the observatory parking lot, tiny red squares burn in the distance—easy-on-the-eye red lights within the observatory domes.

In those buildings, telescopes reveal the night sky to the Cedar Amateur Astronomers who built this place—and the visitors they welcome regularly. Navigating the down-lit sidewalk, you can hear gentle shifting all around as stargazers peer through their telescopes set up on concrete observing pads. The night sky is splayed with bursts of stars like pinholes in a dark canvas.

Inside the observatory, the roof rolls away to expose the sky. There’s a fresh freedom in that outer layer of earthly protection peeling back to reveal a heavenly reward. Among the three buildings are five telescopes, including a six-inch refractor like the one Galileo used.

In 2003, when the University of Iowa retired its onsite observatory because its city sky became too bright, it donated a 24-inch Boller & Chivens telescope to the Cedar Amateur Astronomers—kind of like having LeBron James play for your Tuesday-night pickup team. 

Member Jerry Warner peeks through a telescope and talks about the group’s good fortune. “There is nothing like this in Missouri. There is nothing like this in Nebraska. This place is unique,” he says. “What we have is very special.”

The observatory is sited on the edge of Palisades-Dows State Preserve. There’s no obvious public access to this wild place, no groomed trails. Those who venture in from the observatory grounds had better have a good map and know how to use it.

Dr. Neil Bernstein, a biology professor at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, knows these woods because they are his classroom. He says wildflowers explode on the steep valleys of its 160 acres every spring—cutleaf toothwort, spring beauties, bloodroot. Neotropical migrants such as warblers find shelter here.

“In spring,” says Bernstein, working his way through the scrub, “it’s a magnificent awakening.”

A young boy visiting the observatory walks the outskirts of the preserve. He stops, his face frozen in the awe of a city kid who isn’t used to this backwoods stuff. “This must be a jungle,” he concludes.

Bernstein passes him, white work shirt rolled to his elbows and khakis covering his battered boots. The binoculars and red fanny pack mark him as a nature geek, a hiker who stops to muse over the loveliness of nodding trilliums, peer at a titmouse through binoculars, or to note that the mossy dolomite cliffs are calcareous rock—a buildup of marine invertebrate exoskeletons left over from the ancient Iowa sea.

“That’s why this is a preserve,” says Bernstein, referring to the boy. “So the children can make that realization. For students, where else could they have a natural classroom like this?”

Bernstein points out beaver tracks, and debates with Jim Hansen over what may or may not be bobcat scratchings on a tree. For Hansen, who oversees this area in conjunction with Linn County Conservation, the preserve is just another reason he likes his job.

Hansen stands at the edge of a dolomite shelf, overlooking the green tangle of wilderness. Tiny sunfish and bluegill flit in a stream rolling toward the Cedar. Wild ginger cascades past all manner of ferns to a cluster of spindly blue beech trees. An aster hangs from a rocky outcropping, and a giant snail slides across a patch of moss. Nuthatches beep.

“I wish I had a lawn chair, a cooler of water, and a sandwich,” Hansen says. “I could watch this place all day.”

And then he sits, taking it all in, ready to talk woodsy philosophy again, which seems to come naturally in this exceptional little pocket of Linn County.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine. Subscribe now

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