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By Jennifer Wilson, from the July/August 2007 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Thousands of years ago, a glacier skidded to a halt on the land of the Middle Raccoon.
“This place is a sleeping giant.”
Joe Hanner, director of the Guthrie County Conservation Board, trundles his pick-up over an undiscovered piece of paradise less than an hour’s drive northwest of Des Moines.
Just outside Panora, Hanner brakes atop one of those iconic Iowa hills where you can see the green spread of cropland so far it seems to evaporate in the humid distance.
Take a look east, it’s nothing but flat expanse of Iowa gold. Look west, he says, and you’ve got a whole different matter. On the other side of the road, the terrain is hilly and plump with trees—the kind of place people generally drive for hours to pitch their tents on.
As always, the story begins with a glacier. A little over 10,000 years ago, the Des Moines lobe of the Wisconsin glacier scraped flat the eastern Dakotas and good hunks of Minnesota, traveling to, well, the east side of this road in Guthrie County.
“It stopped at this very spot,” he says. “Basically, this starts the rolling hills of southern Iowa. And it’s a really neat deal—but a lot of people don’t even think about it.”
Though Hanner calls this Glacier Road, it’s officially Viceroy Trail, leading visitors to a patch of forested hills in west-central Iowa where the Middle Raccoon River offers surprising riches aside from her beauty. Think walleye, channel cat, panfish and smallmouth bass.
The Raccoon River Valley Trail stretches flat and paved along an old railroad line for mile upon canopied mile, and the camping brings you among any number of critters, from turkey to deer to fox.
“People don’t realize there’s scenic wild natural areas this close to the metro area,” says Hanner.
And when they find out?
Well, that’s the sleeping giant of Guthrie County.
A showoff of a river
A rich green blanket covers this chunk of Iowa. Gauzy fluff floats on heavy summer air—a gift from cottonwood trees hemming in the Middle Raccoon.
In a state known for subtle beauty, this short fork of the Raccoon River is a waving prom queen. Rivers like these—riffled, sparkling, shallow, traced by sandbars and woods—are what we dream of when we’re stuck at our cubicles at work instead of fishing like we should be.
Entering Guthrie County at Whiterock Resort near Coon Rapids, the Middle Raccoon flows southeast by way of Panora and Lake Panorama, and through Dallas County, where this all-American beauty hits its confluence with the Des Moines River at Principal Park.
Fishing in these clear waters is a grab-bag. “It’s pretty crazy to be in western Iowa and have a river where you don’t know what you’re going to catch,” says Hanner.
Paddling a canoe or kayak is a fine way to see its flirty charm. You can put in from Lenon Mill Park in Panora—quite possibly the state’s coolest little in-town campground—and float as far as your lazy side desires.
Catch this spot after a summer rainstorm, and steep rivulets tumble down wooded slopes as mists rise from the water. Nettles look pretty as a carpet when you’re safe in the seat of a canoe—just one of the growing things among a lush understory of woodland plants and dense foliage that adds to the Middle Raccoon’s feeling of seclusion. Imagine the swirl of color in fall.
“The Middle Raccoon is a really surprising river to find in this part of central Iowa,” says Nate Hoogeveen, the Department of Natural Resources’ water trails coordinator. “The boulders dotting the channel, the riffles and small rapids, and the deep woods lining its banks really transport to a place that seems way more than 40 minutes from Des Moines.”
About now, smallmouth bass are hitting prime time. Hunting season is just around the corner. Whitetail deer, turkey, goose, ducks and small game are on the itinerary.
And prairie. You can always look for prairie species in Guthrie County.
In Iowa’s late summer, the forbes are on fire. Grasses are heading out. Nature’s mood is purple and gold.
Just to the east of Panora, tiny Greenwood Cemetery is bordered on the south by a small chunk of native land. Panora’s original settlers platted this land for its dead, and a steep hillside was never any use for a man with a heavy plow.
A bit bigger at 3 acres, Bundt Prairie three miles north and a quarter-mile east of Guthrie Center on Nice Avenue is an original native prairie, also unplowed, thanks to its fortune of once hosting a one-room country school.
Along Highway 44, just outside Guthrie Center, walk through the white picket fence of Sheeder Prairie State Preserve to take in nearly 25 acres of untouched land. If you close your eyes, you might capture a distant sense of life a few centuries ago, when 75 percent of our soil was alive with prairie blazing star, compass plant, sunflowers, partridge pea and black-eyed Susan.
“The great black soil we have, we owe all to this,” says Hanner, indicating the virgin land. “There’s no bad time to visit the prairie, but from the middle of summer to Labor Day Weekend, it really sprouts amazing color and changes weekly.”
The trail between city and country
The hard-surface Raccoon River Valley recreational trail links Des Moines metro area bikers and in-line skaters with Guthrie’s natural assets. “If you’re man or woman enough, you can ride from Jefferson, through Waukee, east into Clive,” says Hanner. “Soon you’ll be able to go all the way to the (Iowa) Cubs’ stadium” at Principal Park.
Canopied by trees, this abandoned railroad-turned-bike trail was developed in 1989 and stretches 56 essentially flat miles. Mature trees serve as shade and windbreak, giving riders lots of uninterrupted miles. (A note of caution: A few areas north of Panora can be bumpy enough to feel like hitting waves with a speedboat, and a few crossroads have heavy gravel that can be rough on road bikes.) All told, this is a favorite for many cyclists.
“In Panora, there’s a wonderful restaurant, Chad’s,” says avid Des Moines cyclist Deb Wiley. “We’ll start early, riding from Waukee, then fill up at Chad’s with pancakes, French toast or eggs, and ride back. It’s a great way to start a Saturday.”
Nature and nurture
Iowa’s most famous farmers, the Garst family, got their start in Guthrie County, a few miles east of Coon Rapids on Highway 141. Visitors can spend a few hours or days at the famous homestead where Roswell Garst, hybrid seed entrepreneur, invited Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev to tour his farm in 1953.
Read a funny account of the story in the main house library, or just ask granddaughter Liz Garst—she lives on the property. The whole area is now headquarters for Whiterock Conservancy and Resort (formerly Garst Farms Resort, now donated for public use).
The combination working farm/vacation spot is for easygoing travelers who are open to a different interpretation of the word “resort.” Accommodations are simple farmhouse or cabin structures, some with unusual décor. Campsites are the best deal. At $8 you can glimpse all Whiterock has to offer—open land, river, fields, woodlands and ponds.
Experts are available by appointment to talk about any number of topics, such as botany, farming or birding—Whiterock and much of northwestern Guthrie County has been designated a state Bird Conservation Area. The 100 million-year-old rock formations could turn up dinosaur bones on any given hike. A stargazing field boasts one of the darkest skies in Iowa (and wi-fi access).
“Part of the mission here is to connect people with the environment in a pretty unstructured way,” says Liz Garst.
It’s one of those places where everyone can run free; play in the river, hike trails, fish or schedule hayrack rides. Garst Farms once was known for its full farm breakfasts, but the focus has shifted to conservation and education. That means no more breakfasts.
Whiterock Conservancy and Resort is a work in progress, full of Iowa history and nature-bunny pleasure. But you can get the same at a 920-acre Civillian Conservation Corps-built public area nearby: Springbrook State Park, north of Guthrie Center on 160th Road.
Even if you’re not hiking 12 miles of trails, the turkey, fox and deer will likely make a guest appearance if you drive through. The 120 campsites lie in a bowl-like valley below the dam of a 17-acre spring-fed lake complete with sandy beach. A basketball court, camp store, horseshoe pit and sand volleyball pit keep everyone entertained if Mother Nature isn’t enough.
But it usually is. Mature trees shade the sites, with a creek running the campground perimeter. Cabins will return next year.
Native American burial mounds rise up in the thick forest. Public hunting grounds ring the park, which holds controlled hunts yearly. But watching the wildlife is the biggest sport.
“Every now and again, I get to see a scarlet tanager,” says park manager Carolyn Guttenfelder.
This is a fine resting place in a countrified vacationland, a landscape dotted by black cattle and corn that rises and falls like piano keys. Here in this region undiscovered by many, the two faces of Iowa show themselves—farm and forest—in shades of brown, green and gold. From a shady campsite under a dark sky, the silence of open space is broken only by flowing water and the heavy sigh of summer wind through bottomland trees.