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From the September/October 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Autumn brings a welcoming crispness to the air. It’s officially fall in the Midwest, and fun abounds statewide for those in search of color and good times outdoors. Yes, northeast Iowa is the top hotspot for fall color, but here are some less trod places with everything from fishing to paddling and hiking. So get out—there is much to explore!
Hike with Naturalists at Fort Defiance State Park
Burnt amber, succulent plum, deep mahogany—the vibrant tones of fall leaves jump off the trees.
Fort Defiance State Park is the perfect place to explore autumnal colors, with its 191 wooded acres full of a variety of trees, from hawthorn to plum to locust to oaks.
“It’s a hidden area that is close to the Iowa Great Lakes that has a good variety of trees and hiking trails,” says naturalist Charles Vigdal. “I like to go there in the fall because of the foliage and the colors.”
All ages are invited to tromp through the woods, breathe in the fall scent and watch for birds, deer, turkeys and other wildlife. You might event spot a pileated woodpecker, or a rarer avian species.
“Our Hike the Wild program gets people outdoors to areas that hikers may not have been to before,” Vigdal says, adding it allows people the opportunity to explore parks with professionals that can talk about the flora and fauna.
Hike the Wild is held year-round, with another fall hike set for 9:30 a.m., Oct. 25, at the Diamond Lake Complex, where shallow lakes restorations have created a birder’s paradise. Get all the details at dickinsoncountyconservationboard.com or 712-336-6352.
Iowa City Area— More Outdoors in Fall than Football
If you enjoy the great outdoors, you can’t miss Lake Macbride State Park, Iowa’s largest park. Its 2,180 acres welcome outdoor activities from camping and hiking to outdoor games and picnicking. A 5-mile multi-use trail on the north side of the lake connects the park to Solon and another 7 miles of hiking trails await, including one especially scenic trail that extends 1.5 miles between the beach and the lake’s dam. Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty have bountiful parks in their own right—just pull on a sweatshirt and head out to find a new favorite place to admire the fall colors.
Hiking: Squire Point Trail and Woodpecker Trail are hidden gems that only the locals seem to know about, but they provide spectacular views of Coralville Lake, particularly in fall. Access Squire Point from Dubuque Street near the construction of Liberty High School in North Liberty. Woodpecker is accessible from West Overlook, closer to I-80. Learn more at iowacitycoralville.org.
Bicycling: The Iowa River Corridor Trail is the most heavily used and longest paved trail in Iowa City, totaling about 14 miles. The North Ridge Trail runs north and south from North Liberty to Coralville. Find these trails and more, plus get maps and details for paved, single track and other bike routes statewide at iowabikeways.com.
Hit Madison County for Fall Color Hikes, Paddling and Movie-Magic
Expect vivid views and historic surprises when you hop on the rock-strewn Middle River Water Trail that starts in eastern Adair County and ends at the Holliwell Covered Bridge in Madison County. The Middle River is a scenic, narrow stream that twists and turns through a mixture of lazy rolling countryside, densely forested hills and limestone bluffs to create a moderately challenging paddle, especially at high or low water levels. It also provides an occasional exciting chute and ledge, navigated with reasonable effort.
Most paddlers opt for a shorter stretch from the Roseman Bridge to Pammel State Park—about 8 river miles. This section weaves and snakes through the most scenic river portion in Madison County. Expect a somewhat challenging paddle as you drop through numerous chutes and ledges. You will encounter more rock bluffs and longer fast-water chutes as you approach Pammel Park. The take-out is across the ford on river-left. (During periods of high water, the ford may be closed to vehicles.)
Along with the natural beauty found all around Middle River, you and your paddling partner will also enjoy historic man-made features that provide an unforgettable cultural experience. You might even feel like you’ve paddled into a romantic movie site, because spanning the river just happens to be two of the famous Bridges of Madison County—the Roseman and Holliwell covered bridges, both which offer convenient water trail access points.
Picnic In Beautiful Pammel State Park
When you get to Madison County’s Pammel State Park, you’ll have the perfect chance for a picnic after portaging around its historic river ford built in the early 1900s. After a picnic in a 1930s-era shelter built by the CCC with timber and stone on site, don’t forget to inspect the Harmon Tunnel constructed in 1858 and later enlarged to become the first vehicle tunnel on a state highway in Iowa. Then hike above the tunnel and take in the fall color and woodland beauty highlighted by the park’s signature limestone ridge known as the “backbone.”
The park has been managed by the county since 1989. Get maps, directions and park amenities at madisoncountyconservation.org or call 515-462-3536.
Iowa’s quaint small towns welcome visitors near and far for weekend festivals and outdoor adventures. Here is one fall expedition that mixes paddling, hiking and small town attractions found nowhere else. Head to Winterset to explore charming downtown shops, a cafe with the best blueberry crisp and a fall festival. But unlike other places, Winterset has a romantic touch of Hollywood wrapped around it.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Covered Bridges of Madison County feature six wooden bridges that were the prominent setting for the Robert James Waller novel The Bridges of Madison County, plus the movie and now Broadway musical of the same name.
Constructed between 1870 and 1884 (yes, more than 135 years ago), the historic covered bridges have inspired professions of love, heartbreak and even rumors of ghosts. The “haunted” Roseman Bridge has various mysterious stories surrounding it, including a bride left at the altar and a jailhouse escapee’s disappearance in front of two county sheriffs. Today, the bridge is a popular put in point on the water trail for paddlers heading downstream to take out at Pammel State Park. The Holliwell Bridge, the longest at 122 feet, remains in its original site over the Middle River. Seeing the bridge from the vantage of a kayak or canoe affords a unique perspective. The Cedar Bridge is the only one still open to vehicles. In the movie, it provides the scene where Francesca (played by Meryl Streep) goes to meet Robert (played by Clint Eastwood) to help him take photos.
After your paddle or hike, you’ll be hankering for something to eat, so stop at the Northside Café for homemade lunch, dessert and a quick selfie where Clint Eastwood sat during the filming of the movie. It is on the town square.
A two-minute walk away you’ll find the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum. The $2 million museum opened in 2015 just steps away from his birthhome, an homage to the American icon, Academy Award winner and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
Colorful Fall Festivals, Wines and Ciders
The annual Madison County Covered Bridge Festival (Oct. 8-9, 2016) offers the perfect escape from big city life where you can slow down and appreciate the tart sweetness of a caramel apple on a stick. The festival features a parade, arts and crafts, vendors and more. (Mccoveredbridgefestival.org or 800-298-6119 or 515-462-1185.)
The county is also becoming known for its wineries and hard cider. So after paddling or hiking, tour wineries such as the Madison County Winery, Covered Bridges Winery and Two Saints Winery. A new venture, The Cidery, is the first of its kind in Iowa built in a post and beam building adjacent to its apple orchard with more than 30 varieties of heirloom, cider and dessert apple trees used to make hard cider. (For locations and hours visit Madisoncounty.com or 515-462-1185).
Five fantastic fall fishing spots
One of Iowa’s best kept secrets is excellent fall fishing. Many anglers love to fish in autumn, simply because it’s a relaxing time on the water with smaller crowds and picturesque views. Much of the intense summer heat and humidity has passed, but days are still warm, making time outdoors magical. But just as importantly, cooler temperatures trigger fish to actively search for food, and that means tons-o-action on lakes, rivers and streams. Here are five fall fishing destinations:
1. NW Iowa—West Okoboji in Dickinson County
West Okoboji Lake, a popular tourist destination during summer, becomes an angler’s paradise in the fall. Catching a fish is truly a bonus while visiting this beautiful lake. It offers great opportunities for panfish, walleye, smallmouth and largemouth bass and muskie. Take advantage of incredible aquatic vegetation lines, many rock reefs, points and dropoffs.
Others to consider: Silver Lake in Dickinson County and Storm Lake in Buena Vista County, both for fall walleye fishing.
2. SW Iowa—Little River Lake near Leon
Just an hour south of Des Moines, Little River Lake is a gem for fall fishing. The lake was recently renovated and is now in its third year of producing healthy populations of walleye, bluegill, largemouth bass and channel catfish. The lake has a small campground along its shore and is on the outskirts of Leon for easy accessibility to convenience stores and eateries.
Others to consider: Twelve Mile Lake and Green Valley Lake near Creston for crappie and bluegill.
3. NE Iowa—Decorah
Check out Trout Run Trail near Decorah for several easy-access fishing spots. Start in Decorah at the Bow String Bridge Park along highway 9 and cast your way all the way to the trout hatchery. Bring the kids and take a walking tour to view tens of thousands of trout raised here for stocking area streams. Take along a pocket full of quarters so the kids can use the coin operated dispensers to get handfuls of fish food. Then they can watch the water surface “explode” as trout hit the floating pelleted food. Various trout waters, city and private campgrounds, small shops, restaurants, bike trails and the hatchery are all located within a short distance.
Others to consider: The DNR stocks trout in 50 eastern Iowa trout streams in September and October. See the stocking calendar at iowadnr.gov/trout.
4. SE Iowa—Mississippi River
Fall is a tremendous time for fishing anywhere along the entire 312 miles of Iowa’s “east coast” formed by the Mississippi River. Although most sites require a boat, the diversity of fish makes outings worthwhile. A couple of perennial fall favorites are south of Muscatine near Lock and Dam 17 for a secluded place to cast for walleye, or Sylvan Slough at Lock and Dam 15 near Davenport. Boat ramps are available near both locations.
Others to consider: Lake Belva Deer in Keokuk County for crappie, bluegill and bass, and Lost Grove Lake in Scott County, a newly renovated lake aggressively stocked the last two years.
5. Central Iowa—Banner Lake South, Summerset State Park
Trout fishing is not just relegated to northeast Iowa. The DNR stocks trout in Banner Lake South in Summerset State Park north of Indianola come colder fall weather. About 18 other urban lakes across Iowa are also stocked during the fall and winter months as a way to introduce more Iowans to this enjoyable fish to catch. Banner Lake South is admired for its clear water and is located on Highway 65/69 between Des Moines and Indianola.
Others to Consider: For complete cold-weather trout stockings across Iowa, visit iowadnr.gov/trout. For a complete list of places to fall fish in Iowa, including lake maps, directions and amenities, visit iowadnr.gov/fishing. A 2016 fishing license is valid through Jan. 10, 2017, and is a bargain for your leisure time at $19 for residents, $41 for nonresidents. Three-year, seven-day and one-day licenses are also available. Purchase online at iowadnr.gov/license or 700-plus vendors statewide.