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A Walk on the Wild Side: Preparation Canyon and Iowa's Loess Hills

  • 6/3/2015 4:34:00 AM
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Explore Preparation Canyon State Park in Iowa's unique Loess Hills | Iowa DNRThis article, by Sandy Flahive, originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine.

Visiting western Iowa’s razor-ridged Loess Hills on a hot, breezy summer afternoon that eventually succumbs to the ruling grandeur of a moonlit night is surely as intense an experience today as it was for renowned naturalist and University of Iowa professor Bohumil Shimek as he describes it in a section of the 1909 Iowa Geological Survey Annual Report.

“During the day these bluffs may burn in the heat of the midday sun, they may be swept by the hot blasts of summer winds, or hidden in the whirling clouds of yellow dust which are carried up from the bars of the great river; but in the stillness of early morning, and again when the peace and quiet which portend the close of day have settled upon them, they are both restful and inspiring when looked upon from the valley; and there is no grander view in the great Mississippi-Missouri valley than that which is presented under such circumstances from their summits—on the one hand over the broad valley and on the other across the billowy expanse of the inland loess ridges which appear like the giant swell of a stormy sea which has been suddenly fixed,” Shimek wrote about the geology of Harrison and Monona counties.

To be sure, settling in for an extended period in this region of topographical mosaics is a dream-come-true for any geologist or naturalist. It’s easy to imagine studying these rare, great rolling drifts of wind-blown soil deposits with depths of more than 200 feet that, over thousands of years, water has carved into stair-stepped sugar sand.

However, it takes just the single afternoon amid the lower wooded tracts and valleys of the Loess Hills, capped with a night of tent camping atop an imposing, prairie-covered bluff, to provide even the short-stay visitor with a surreal, soul-stirring adventure.

For anyone who has such a day on a bucket list, it would be well to have the DNR’s Brent Olson as a guide. As manager of Loess Hills State Forest and Preparation Canyon State Park, which lies within, Olson wears well his comfort with the fairly untouched, idyllic territory he serves.

“People like to come here because it’s so remote,” he explains with obvious appreciation of the region’s isolation. “In fact, we just started getting cell phone service not too long ago.”

Indeed there is little high technology in this west central Iowa outpost, nor roiling waves of humanity, nor hustle and bustle—making it the perfect destination for anyone wanting to run screaming from life’s daily hassles.

A good starting point for an excursion into the forest is the tiny town of Pisgah. It is true the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway—a 200-mile stretch running from north of Sioux City to near St. Joseph, Mo.—and two byway loops converge here, almost outside the door of the iconic Old Home Filler-up an’ Keep on Truckin’ Café. Even so, none of that distracts from a wayfarer’s quest for serenity and beauty.

To learn the area, it’s impossible to do better than hitch a truck ride with Olson along the winding roads and through the wooded splendor of the 11,600-acre state forest he knows by heart. The journey is one of non-stop educational instruction.

“The forest is located in both Monona and Harrison counties,” he begins, “and it’s the newest state forest, founded, you might say, in 1986. In time, we hope to increase the acreage to 20,000 by acquiring adjacent land that comes up for sale.”

Heading north out of Pisgah toward the Preparation Canyon Unit, a stop at Jones Creek Pond is in order. Created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the popular clear, clean lake serves up ample catches of bass and bluegill for anglers who find it a relaxing haven on a warm day.

Plenty of all-weather roads and public parking make the four units accessible year-round. “We have hikers, hunters, fishers, bird-watchers and others who just want to come explore and enjoy the scenic views,” states Olson. “We have 20 miles of trails that wind through the entire forest and are always working to expand and improve them, as well as add signage. It all takes time and money.”

What lucky folks encounter along the trails is roughly 700 vascular plant species—or about a third of what is found in Iowa. The forest is a diverse mix of bur oak to hickory, black walnut, elm, basswood, ash, Kentucky coffee, ironwood and cedar. The prairie consists of short and tallgrass species, including compass plant, locoweed, ground plum, yucca and skeleton weed.

Managing and maintaining the diverse ecosystem is a job Olson finds never-ending but satisfying. “Every year we burn about 2,300 acres of woodland and prairie for vegetation and invasive species management,” he reports. “It then renews itself, becoming even healthier.”

For the past seven years, extra work has been done expanding—through tree-clearing and burning—segments of the original prairie. What not long ago was confined to narrow bluff ridges and south-facing slopes has now become 400 acres of native prairie with more than 340 species of plants. “We’re trying to give visitors a look at how these hills once looked,” he says. Occasionally, nature has relied on its own management devices: three naturally occurring forest fires in the past 20 years.

Stringent management goals are observed in tree planting. “We study nursery catalogs and send to the State Forest Nursery, among other places, for seedlings,” he says. “Almost a million native trees have been planted.”

The intense vegetation management efforts contribute to an abundance of wildlife. Along with deer, quail, swans, pheasant, wild turkey, dozens of bird species and “lots of bobcats”—which thrive in the rich environment—the rare plains pocket mouse, regal fritillary and ottoe skipper butterflies also proclaim this home.

Except for areas around residences and the visitor center in Pisgah, the entire forest is open for hunting, hiking, nature study and cross-country skiing.

“We do set some land aside for crops, too,” asserts Olson. “It’s cash rented out to local farmers and about a fifth of what is produced is retained through the winter for wildlife food and cover.”

A view of one corn plot becomes close and personal when Olson turns the mellow afternoon drive through the tranquil setting into a wild ride. Sideswiping the length of one of the greening corn plots, he gives the stalks along the edge an early harvest in order to drive the truck over a narrow path leading to a tucked-away research plot where butternut-tree seedlings are grown. “This member of the walnut family is known as white walnut, grown in protected sites within the forest to see if they show butternut canker resistance,” explains Olson.

Throughout the year, tour buses carry travel groups through the forest, and school buses haul kids from as far away as Des Moines to view the towering, undulating hills and traverse the curvy roads that once served as stagecoach routes.

Still, because of the vastness of Loess Hills State Forest, the 25,000 people who visit it annually do not translate into tourist overload by any means. Nevertheless, it’s likely somewhere along the trails and byways a visitor will encounter other sojourners and enjoy a conversation. In such a remote location as the forest’s main overlook high on a bluff in the Preparation Canyon unit, such an opportunity comes as an especially pleasant surprise.

“We’re shocked to find anyone up here, especially ourselves,” laughs Tony Meiner from Carroll, who along with his wife, Colleen, and cousins, Harold and Carol Meiner of Coon Rapids, stands on the large, well-built, handicapped-accessible observation deck that offers breath-taking panoramic views of the majestic hills and deep valleys.

“We’ve spent the day road-tripping and had never been here so we just followed the road,” he offers. “We did get a little lost, though,” delighted at their good fortune in discovering the scenic overlook.

“A little?” chimes in Harold, poking fun. “He acted like he knew where we were, but he didn’t have any idea, and we all knew it.”

Hearing the cousins cajole one another, Olson says that despite their particular circumstance, “This overlook is one of the most visited spots in Iowa. We’ve had as many as 30 to 40 weddings and receptions right here on the overlook.”

“Well, sure, I knew that and that’s why we’re here,” Tony responds to the loud “Harrumph!” of his disbelieving cousin.

As if everything encountered thus far has not been enough to satisfy the curious, there’s much more in a visit to Preparation Canyon State Park.

Less than two miles from the soaring overlook, Preparation Canyon is a unique 344-acre park. The name came from its location on the site of the former Mormon town, Preparation, with colorful history galore.

In 1853, Charles B. Thompson led about 60 families away from the Utah-bound Mormon wagon train after the charismatic leader reported receiving a message from the “Spirit” to settle the area. This place was to be their “School of Preparation for the Life Beyond.”

To everyone’s surprise it turned out to be the richest farming valley in the new territory. The canny, greedy Thompson, pretending to receive further directives from the “Spirit,” successfully collected all the deeds and possessions from the settlers.

By 1856, the townspeople realized they had been duped and demanded return of their property. The swindler refused and narrowly escaped being lynched, fleeing the state unable to secure the deeds. Most of the disillusioned settlers moved on to Utah. Those remaining prospered for a few decades, but by 1900, Preparation had faded into obscurity. Eventually, descendants of one of the original families sold their land to the state and thus came the park.

Preparation Canyon is also the only state park to have entirely hike-in camping. Ten primitive sites, for which no reservations are needed, are equipped with picnic tables, grills and pit toilets.

Olson was devastated in June 2008 when a half-mile-wide tornado ripped through the area and wiped out nearly 300 acres of forest and 175 acres of park. Today, stumps in the storm-damaged earth sprout shoots, and thousands of planted seedlings bear witness to a resolve to restore what was destroyed. “In 10 years, you’ll never know there was a tornado,” says a determined Olson.

It’s always exciting to save the best for last…and despite the sense of accomplishment backpacking into a primitive forest site, it’s exhilarating to experience a night of camping atop the uttermost ridge of a loess bluff lit by a moon just past full.

To do so you: 1) need to be a bit of a risk-taker as you will camp where few trek, 2) should be fairly hale and hearty to backpack in—and up—maybe a mile or more, and 3) definitely cannot be a scaredy-cat because on that high ridge you are disconnected from the world.

If Rip Van Winkle enjoyed his nights in the Catskill Mountains as much as one can on a Loess Hill ridge in the middle of summer, well…no wonder he hunkered in for 20 years, although in truth, a companion or two is a desirable addition.

The ingredients for the evening are simple. Once the tent is up, a campfire is in order, not so much for cooking as for ambiance. In such a location, twigs and smaller tree branches are plentiful. Food and beverage is purposely limited to “the-easier-the-better” rule. After the fire is made and secured and a simple spread of victuals and ice-cold beverages laid out, there is blessedly little to do but kick back and let the night take over.

As ink descends over the tops of tens of thousands of trees, one can see the last breath of coral sky on the distant western horizon. The bottomlands of the Missouri River fade fast, and a few twinkly lights on distant, rural Nebraska farms pop up. And who’s the know-it-all who proclaimed Montana the “Big Sky” country? Especially at night, no sky on earth can be as expansive as the Iowa dome.

The glow of a slightly waning moon as it rises over a slope to douse the dark competes with the campfire as the site’s light source.

A ragtag band of insects begins to organize as the day fizzles, and before long the hills reverberate with a synchronous, if not melodic, arrangement of “Buzz-z-z,” “Hmm-m-m,” and “Hiss-s-s,” the latter emitted by some strange instrumentalist—and no, the unknown contributor is not a snake.

Though the players drop off one by one throughout the night, it is the wee hours of morning before the last one allows the stillness of the hills to prevail. Before that, the only exception to the non-stop jam session has been the lamentation of a few backwoods coyotes whose wailing and jabbering on a distant eminence manage to silence the performers for a nanosecond.

Inside the tent, sleep descends on a weary camper, but before it does, a warm breeze kicks in, sending the last vestiges of wood smoke from the dead fire through the mesh openings of the tent. A slim shaft of moonlight beams through as well. A lone mosquito, still on the hunt for blood, happily finds its intended victim too lethargic to do anything but whisper, “Shoo.”

Then, a companion camper utters a drowsy “sweet dreams.”