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Hiding Out in Union Grove

From the July/August 2017 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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“I could stay here forever.” 

My daughter Meg echoed my feelings precisely as she twirled around our cabin at Union Grove State Park 20 miles northwest of Tama, earbuds intact and her music flowing. It was our first visit—we’d only recently heard of the park even though it’s not much more than an hour’s drive from our home in Des Moines. Had we known of it sooner, we could’ve enjoyed decades of day-tripping. But no matter. These Jill-come-latelys were over the moon.

Union Grove is one of the best-kept secrets among Iowa's state parks - here's what to explore | Iowa DNROur enthusiasm soared even before we could unpack and plan the day’s activities. Views from the cabin were that good. One glance, and we took a unanimous silent vote to dawdle. The blue summer sky went on forever, and lush green grass sloped downhill for what seemed like a football-field’s length (especially walking back up!) before bottoming out at the lake. Sitting on the porch in knotty-pine chairs handcrafted by DNR woodworkers from another park, our most urgent task was deciding whether to look up or down—up, to check out the bird life winging its way in a sea of blue, or down, for a Zen moment of soft-focus reflection on the luscious spread of green and the glassy lake lapping at its feet. Just like that, we were in no hurry. 

The only thing better than soaking up the views with our eyes was feeling them through our toes. Shoes kicked off, we sunk our feet into the velvety grass carpet leading to the lake and whooped in delight, especially as we gained speed headed downhill. As a state park groupie, I can attest that not too many of our parks feature cut-grass lawns to soften the camping experience. Even after only a short drive buttoned-up from Des Moines, the barefoot approach to the lake was rapturous. Later that night, several hours past sunset, we carried blankets down the hill and spread them out by the water. The blue sky of mid-day was transformed into something more magical. With no city lights to interfere, stars glittered overhead in an abundance we never see at home.

There are only two cabins for rent at Union Grove, and both sit atop that long, sloping hill. “The greatest sledding hill in the state of Iowa,” Roger Thompson, the park’s DNR manager, assures us. Thompson knows: He once incurred broken ribs when his sled veered off course into an oak tree at the side of the hill. The campground also is at the top of the hill, just behind the cabins. So even if you’re opting to overnight it at one of the 25 campsites (11 have electric hook-ups, and a modern showerhouse and restroom facilities are close by), the views are yours to savor. 

Unlike any of the other cabins we’d rented at Iowa state parks over the years, these are comparatively luxurious. Each one was built new from private donations ($100,000 for one of the cabins, which was completed in 2011, and another $30,000 for the other that opened in 2014) from a benefactress whose family had a long association with the property. The A-frame lodgings (wood-sided, not log) include a spacious handicap-accessible modern bath, a full kitchen and—wait for it—radiant heated floors, which make them winter-friendly. We can’t wait to go back when there’s snow on the ground. The lake views that sold us at the porch are nearly as impressive from big picture windows in the living room and the separate bedroom—another feature not typical in most state park cabins.

After years of family tent-camping, outhouses and mandatory practice-casting with my flyrod along the streams of northeastern Iowa, was it any wonder my daughter felt she’d finally found nirvana?

I left her with her music and views and took off with binoculars to explore the trails that begin at the bottom of the hill and wind along the lake. I’d hoped to find the pair of sandhill cranes Thompson sometimes sees here, but they were elusive. An eagle fishing in the lake was less shy. I also spotted a great blue heron, cormorants and Canada geese—everywhere. Thompson has seen as many as 2,500 of the Canada species flock to the park, but snow geese and swans are also frequent visitors. Bluebirds and other passerines sang noisily out of sight in the tree canopy, but honestly? That porch with the views called louder. I spent the next hour perched there, binoculars focused on the plethora of downy woodpeckers in the old trees that flank both sides of the hill.

Union Grove, which is equal distance from the small towns of Gladbrook to the north and Garwin to the south (its mailing address is in Gladbrook), got its start in 1935 when the Lake Park & Holding Company built the 100-acre lake now at the park’s center. In 1938, the privately-owned lake was sold for $10,000 to the state, which created a 200-acre park around it to meet the outdoor recreational needs of area residents. Still in operation, the Lake Park & Holding Company remains involved in the park through its friends association.
Maybe one of the reasons I’d not heard of the park is because of its popularity with the locals, who keep it a carefully guarded secret. Families from Marshalltown make a day of picnicing at the tables on the west side, and sunning at the beach a few yards away. Still under construction during our visit, a new playground replete with benches for the grownups enhances the family experience. 

With two boat landings, the lake is popular for kayaking and canoeing. Powerboats are permitted, but only if they operate at no-wake speeds. As a convenience for campers, there’s a boat dock by the campgrounds, but it’s bring-your-own boat—the park does not provide rentals. Sixteen pontoon docks, each designed to accommodate two pontoons, can be privately rented for the season.

Jetties added in 1988 make fishing from the bank productive, but they’re also a good spot for birding—you don’t need field glasses to watch activity in an eagle nest just across the lake. During our visit last summer, the lake was in the final stages of a clean-up dredging, but it’s since been restocked with crappie, largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish. The fishing’s not great yet, but it will be. And after the new fish fatten up and reproduce, Thompson recommends anglers come back in the winter. 

“Ice fishing always seems to land the best fish,” he notes. He says it’s not uncommon to have around 30 ice anglers in 15 to 18 shacks on the lake each weekend after the water is hard-frozen. Thanks to an aerator, part of the lake stays unfrozen no matter how cold the temperature. “This is what allows the lake to be oxygenated and prevents the fish from dying,” Thompson explains, thus those good winter catches through the ice. And because the entire park is open year-round, its 3.5 miles of trails aren’t limited to hiking and birding. They’re equally conducive to cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

In addition to the trail that runs along the lake just below the cabins and campground, another one is located at the northwest end of the park. For sheer beauty and serenity, this is the trail for me. Cherry trees, hickories, white and red oaks and basswoods create a forest wonderland straight out of a storybook. The large cherry trees alone demand gawking time, many growing cankers in eerie, other-worldly shapes. Don’t expect a lot of sunlight, which can be a welcome change on a hot summer day. The heavy canopy obscures the sun, but intermittently it pierces through, sudden and unpredictable, in a golden blaze so astonishing it seems downright biblical. Have your camera ready. Also, wear durable clothing. You’ll want to explore off-trail, and the understory is brambly.

The big trees that imbue Union Grove with so much of its charm haven’t had an easy time of it. Straightline winds of 129 miles per hour blew down eight old-growth trees that flanked the cabins in July 2011. “We had to take down 284 others,” says Thompson. A matched grant from Trees Forever has allowed 160 new trees to be planted, and hopefully more donations will result in additional plantings. 

Before it was known for corn, soybeans and butter cows, Iowa was famously a prairie state. Union Grove, along with most other Iowa state parks, honors that heritage. Plan on spending some time at the park’s eight acres of reconstructed prairie, where monarchs, zebra swallowtails and black emperor butterflies can be seen fluttering amid the big and little bluestem prairie grasses, partridge peas and milkweed.

After just one night at Union Grove, I feel like a local. I’m a little reluctant to share this best-kept secret.

Nearby Attractions
Gladbrook is a short drive away, and its small-town-friendly grocery store is a great spot for stocking up on supplies. If you visit the park between June 22-25, the short drive to Gladbrook is a must, especially if you have kids—these are this year’s dates for the town’s annual Gladbrook Corn Festival. A parade, petting zoo and tractor rides are among the activities. (Gladbrookcorncarnival.org)

Immersing your kids in the outdoors, away from TV and other electronics, may feel like culture shock to them. To soften the blow, treat them to the movies at the Gladbrook Theater. It’ll satisfy them, and feel like a step back in time to you. (gladbrooktheater.com)
Iowa artist Patrick Acton glued more than 4 million wooden matchsticks into 65 detailed scale models of world-famous architecture and more. Many pieces have gone on to be featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums around the world. See several in this downtown Gladbrook museum aptly named Matchstick Marvels. Admission charged. 641-473-2410; matchstickmarvels.com

If you crave Mexican food and have 15 minutes to spare, drive to Marshalltown. We enjoyed the authenticity of Tacos y Mariscos Maraville, 911 E. State St.

Union Grove is one of the best-kept secrets among Iowa's state parks - here's what to explore | Iowa DNR

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