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Yellow River State Forest

Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa is home to stunning views, beautiful woodlands and meandering trout streams. Nestled in Iowa’s driftless area in Allamakee County, Yellow River offers numerous outdoor recreation opportunities including camping, equestrian riding, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, and more. Yellow River State Forest was first established in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corp, and is home to Iowa’s only fire tower, built in 1963. Today, the forest is managed for numerous natural resource benefits and recreational opportunities.

Learn more about the forest’s management goals, ecology and history:

Yellow River Forest Management Plan


PLAN YOUR VISIT

Explore more than 8,900 acres across the six units that comprise Yellow River State Forest:

  • Paint Creek Unit is the largest at 5,237 acres and is located 15 miles north of Marquette on State Hwy 76. Look for the brown signs and turn right onto B25 (State Forest Road). This unit offers most of the outdoor recreation opportunities at Yellow River including several campgrounds, marked hiking trails, mountain biking and equestrian trails, trout streams and more.
     
  • Luster Heights Unit is 770 acres and is 5 miles south of Harpers Ferry on the Great River Road (Hwy 364) on the east side of the road. Turn onto Luster Height Road; there is a parking lot 1 mile on the left. This unit has 3 miles of maintained hiking/mountain bike trails with two overlooks of the Mississippi River. In the winter time this trail system is groomed for cross country skiing.
     
  • Yellow River Unit is 1,227 acres and located south of Hwy. 76, 10 miles north of Marquette. Take a left onto Ion Rd (gravel) and at the bottom of the hill before you go over the bridge turn right onto Old Mission Drive. Follow this road until it dead ends. This unit features a canoe launch and take out point on the Yellow River.
     
  • Paint Rock Unit is 864 acres and located 3 miles south of Harpers Ferry on the west side of the Great River Road (Hwy 364). Parking is available here or continue another mile and turn left onto Paint Rock Road, with parking available on the right side. Paint Rock has 8 miles of hiking-only trails, along with a backpack camping area with three sites.
     
  • Mudhen Unit is 196 acres and consists of islands in the Mississippi River. This area is only accessible by boat.
     
  • Waukon Junction Unit is 209 acres and located 4 miles south of Harpers Ferry on the Great River Road (Hwy 364) the area is located on the west side.


Stay overnight in a rustic camping cabin available from April 1st through October 31st each year. With a minimum two-night stay requirement, the cabin has a fireplace, electricity, electric heaters, a coffee maker, toaster, a microwave, refrigerator, a screened-in porch and an open-air porch. Running water and modern restrooms are not available, but an outdoor water hydrant and a vault toilet are nearby. This cabin can be reserved online through the park reservation system.

Camp in one of the four areas in the Paint Creek Unit, all connected to the forest’s trail system and offering serene beauty and tranquil overnight stays. The camping areas include Little Paint campground, Big Paint campground, Creekside equestrian campground, and Frontier equestrian campground. All sites are non-modern with vault toilets. Drinking water is available near the office complex. Advance campsite reservations are recommended and can be made through the park reservation system, and one quarter of the campsites are available for self registration on a first come first-served basis.

Additionally, four back-packing areas along the famous “backpacking trail” are free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. Each area has four individual sites; however, no restroom facilities are available. Please carry out what you carried in. Campers using these sites must sign in at the forest headquarters prior to camping.

Please note: Chainsaws, both electric and gas, are prohibited throughout the Forest. Firewood may be gathered if it is down and dead with hand saws only. Felling of trees is prohibited.


Kayak along the 35 mile Yellow River Water Trail, which meanders into the state forest for three miles of the trail. Kayakers can spend the night at the primitive Ridgetop campsite, only accessible by canoe or kayak. The site is available on a first-come, first-served basis, does not have restroom facilities, and requires “carry in, carry out” of all trash.

Hike and mountain bike on more than 50 miles of multi-purpose trails throughout the forest. Named one of Outside magazine’s Top 50 hiking spots, Yellow River is a popular destination for hikers of all experience levels who want to explore scenic overlooks, mature timber and other natural wonders. More than 40 miles of trails are marked and maintained in the Paint Creek Unit for easier navigation. Trails are also accessible and well maintained for equestrian use. In the winter, trails are groomed at the Luster Heights unit. Snowmobiling is also a popular winter trail activity.

Fish along seven miles of trout streams within the forest. Little Paint and Paint creeks wind along rugged rock outcrops and steep forested valleys. The creeks are stocked with rainbow and brook trout, and also support naturally producing brown trout. Anglers can also fish marshy areas for bass and panfish.

Hunt throughout the forest for abundant game, including whitetail deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, waterfowl, and upland game birds. Public hunting is allowed in all areas of the 8,900 acre forest except the campgrounds.

Learn about the history and ecology of Yellow River Forest:


Yellow River State Forest has operated a small sawmill since 1947.  This sawmill was originally located at Pikes Peak State Park before being moved to Yellow River State Forest.  Our sawmill provides rough-sawn lumber to various DNR agencies and other political subdivisions.  Some examples of how the lumber is used includes: State Park kiosks, fish bank-hides, submersed fish habitat structures for lake restorations, lumber for repair of old CCC structures, State Park furniture, fishing access stiles and sign posts.

Effective March of 2020:  Due of changes in staff work priorities, Yellow River State Forest is no longer providing lumber for public sale.

The first lands acquired for Yellow River State Forest were purchased in 1935 with funds that were appropriated to support the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.). The original purchase was adjacent to the Yellow River near its confluence with the Mississippi and the name "Yellow River Forest" was appropriate. In 1949, 1500 acres of the Forest was transferred to the National Park Service and became a part of Effigy Mounds National Monument. The larger units of the state forest are now located in the Paint Creek watershed, north of Yellow River. Subsequent land purchases consolidated scattered tracts and today the forest is 8,503 acres in size.

Because most land purchased was farmland and pasture, the early management of Yellow River Forest was concerned with protection from grazing, fire and soil erosion. Timber harvests provided material that the C.C.C. used for construction on state parks and other state areas.

During the 1940s, most of the open land was planted to trees. The plantations of large pines that can be seen on the forest today are the result of these efforts. The extensive system of fire lanes that provided protection to these plantations serves today as part of the recreational trail system for hiking, cross country skiing, horse riding and snowmobiling.

In 1947, a sawmill, which the Forestry Division continues to operate was moved to the Paint Creek Unit from Pikes Peak State Park. All the trees processed at the mill are harvested from state land and the lumber used on state parks and wildlife areas, other DNR areas, sold to other state agencies or sold to private individuals. About $20,000 worth of lumber is transferred each year to units of the DNR and another $10,000 worth of lumber is sold each year to other units of government.

During the 1950s and 1960s, outdoor recreation became more important on the forest. Camping and picnic areas were developed. Access to the area for hunters, fishers and other outdoor recreationists was improved. Trail systems were extended to accommodate horses and hikers. For a time, there was a trail ride concession where visitors could rent horses to ride.


Yellow River Forest is located in a physiographic region called the Paleozoic Plateau. This region includes northwestern Illinois, southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. It covers most of Allamakee County (in which Yellow River State Forest is located) and parts of Clayton, Fayette, Winneshiek, Howard, Dubuque, and Jackson Counties.

In contrast to most of Iowa, which is covered by deep deposits of glacial drift, the dominant feature of the surface of the Paleozoic Plateau is limestone and sandstone bedrock.

For many years, and even today, the term "driftless area" was used, reflecting the belief that this region had never been glaciated. Thin, isolated areas of glacial drift do occur in the area, however. This drift is probably pre-Illinoian in age and approximately half a million years old. The ruggedness and deep dissection of the landscape is due to the elements having been at work for that period of time.

Much of Yellow River Forest is marked by rugged terrain with numerous rock outcrops, bluffs and steep slopes. On the major upland divides between drainages, the bedrock is overlaid to varying depths with pre-Illinoian glacial till and this in turn is overlain with Wisconsinan loess of various thickness.

Valleys are narrow and "V-shaped" except along major drainages where they may be quite wide.

A brief summary of the geology of Yellow River State Forest and surrounding region is presented in a publication titled "The Archeology of Clayton County, Iowa", by Bear Creek Archeology, Inc., Cresco, Iowa. Several useful publications are referenced.

  • For topographic maps of Yellow River State Forest, please contact the Iowa Geological and Water Survey at 319-335-1575. Map titles covering Yellow River State Forest are: Waterville, Harpers Ferry, Giard, and Prairie Du Chien.

The weather has an effect on the activities which can be accomplished in the forest area. There are many days throughout the year which it is impractical to work out of doors. Also, weather affects soil conditions and in turn, the planning of work. The average annual temperature is 45.6 degrees. The average precipitation is 33.71 inches.


The major Yellow River Forest plant communities are maple-basswood, oak-hickory, and bottomland hardwoods. Prairie species may be found on dry bluff tops, rock outcroppings and steep slopes that face south and west.

The maple-basswood forest type is commonly found on north and east facing slopes and is largely comprised of sugar maple, basswood, white ash and red and white elm.

The oak-hickory forest type occupies drier sites such as ridge tops and south and west facing slopes. Components include red and white oak, red and white elm, bur oak and hickory.

The bottomland hardwoods forest type includes red and white elm, green ash, cottonwood and several other bottomland species.

Prairie sites contain big and little bluestem, needle-and-thread grass, Indian grass, prickly pear, and others. Jeweled shooting star (Dodecatheon amethystinum) is a state endangered species found in the forest.

Many acres have been planted to native hardwoods like black locust and English oak and several species of conifers. Species adaptation plots (trial plantings of conifers) have been established to test the practicability of planting the various species represented.

 

Yellow River Forest is home to many species of wildlife who live in its various habitats. From a recreational standpoint, Yellow River Forest presents opportunities for hunters to take deer, squirrel, raccoon and various species of waterfowl and upland game birds; the trapper to harvest beaver, mink and other furbearers and the angler to take trout and other species of game fish.

The forest has many good opportunities for bird watchers to pursue their interests. Many ducks, wading birds, and other marsh dwelling birds occupy the marshes and beaver ponds on Little Paint Creek. Bald eagles may be seen at any time in the forest and surrounding environs. A threatened and endangered bird of the forest is the red-shouldered hawk.

 

The original parcels of the state forest were located on either side of the Yellow River near its confluence with the Mississippi. The first lands acquired for Yellow River State Forest were purchased in 1935 with funds that were appropriated to support the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.). The original purchase was adjacent to the Yellow River near its confluence with the Mississippi and the name "Yellow River Forest" was appropriate. In 1949, 1500 acres of the Forest was transferred to the National Park Service and became a part of Effigy Mounds National Monument.

This left only 200 acres in the Yellow River Unit and a further 160 acres in the Lost 40 Unit that were actually located within the basin of the Yellow River. This was the case until 1990 when the 880 acre Johanningmeir property was purchased adjacent to the old Yellow River Unit. At the time of transfer to the National Park Service the larger units were located in the Paint Creek watershed, north of the Yellow River. This remains the case at present.

The Paint Creek Unit takes its name from the stream by that name. Most of the area of Yellow River Forest now lays within the Paint Creek watershed. There are two Paint Creeks; Little Paint and Big Paint. These are the streams which figure prominently in recreation such as camping and trout fishing and which are a major feature of the forest. Paint Creek drains all of the Paint Creek Unit and parts of the Luster Heights and Waukon Junction Units.

Paint Rock Unit takes its name from figures painted by Indians on a high, limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi near the south end of the unit. A Catholic parish located nearby is also known as Paint Rock.

The Luster Heights Unit takes its name from the family who owned the property at one time.

The Waukon Junction Unit is named for the once thriving community located at the foot of a bluff at its south end.

The Yellow River Unit, as has been noted, is located on the Yellow River.

The names of the 364 Unit, Lost 40 Unit and North 80 Unit were chosen with a curious lack of imagination. These are in the process of being incorporated into the Paint Creek, Luster Heights and Yellow River Units. Highway 364 ran through the 364 Unit, the Lost 40 Unit was neither lost nor 40 acres and the North 80 Unit was merely an 80 acre tract that happened to be located near the north end of the Forest.

The Mud Hen Unit in named for the duck. It is comprised of Mississippi River islands and sloughs and its exact location is a subject of speculation, there being no easily discernible property boundaries in mid-Mississippi River.

Some of the overlooks are named. The Larkin overlook is located above the farm once operated by the Larkin family. Its barn and granary are the subjects of a rather nice painting by J. Jackson.

The Little Paint overlook, overlooks the Little Paint campground. The Sawmill overlook gives a view of the forest sawmill and headquarters complex and Big Paint overlook commands a view of the Big Paint campground.

On the south side of the Big Paint Creek valley, Cedar overlook has no particular reason for being so named.

 

The Yellow River Forest is managed in accordance with the IDNR Forest Ecosystem Management Guide for multiple benefits. These benefits include the production of wood products, wildlife, water quality, recreation, and protection of plant and animal communities. Forestland is divided into areas that will be regenerated using even-aged silvicultural systems, all-aged silvicultural systems, and limited management systems. Unique areas, such as prairies, will also be maintained.

Contact Information

Yellow River State Forest
YRSF, 729 State Forest Road
Harpers Ferry, IA 52146

563-586-2254
YellowRiverForest@dnr.iowa.gov

The forest headquarters and recreation facilities are located on county highway B25, approximately 4 miles southeast of Waterville or 3 miles west of Harpers Ferry.