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Explore This Iowan Urban Sanctuary

  • 7/10/2015 10:51:00 AM
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The state’s fourth most populated county, Black Hawk, is also the home of one of its finest and most interconnected nature scenes. | Iowa DNRBy Jennifer Wilson From the July/August 2014 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine Ask park manager Lori Eberhard what George Wyth Memorial State Park has to offer travelers, and you’d better settle in for a long answer.

You’re standing on the banks of the Cedar River, after all, and in the summer it’s a very pleasant place to have a listen. The Cedar flows lazy and slow and sparkling, except when it doesn’t, and today it’s made even nicer by a slight breeze that rustles towels drying on a makeshift clothesline by a riverside tent. A nearby tree stacked with kids’ bikes stands as evidence that this is a family hotspot in Black Hawk County.

“Well, we have boating. We have camping right on the Cedar River, as you can see,” Eberhard splays a freckled hand toward the flood-prone waterway that defines this park both in recreation and construction—no cabins, sturdy and well-built trails, outbuildings that can withstand flooding. This park staff has learned from experience.

“We have four lakes. Shelters and playgrounds and a lodge with a fireplace for rentals,” she continues. “Bird watching. More than three miles of paved multipurpose trails. Eight miles of multipurpose soft trails. People love them all for cross-country skiing.”

Eberhard takes a moment to let the laundry list sink in, scanning an expanse of the 1,200-acre park, blowing a piece of white-blonde hair from her eyes. It’ll be hot today. The sand swimming beach will be packed.

Perhaps none of this would be particularly notable about an Iowa state park, except that George Wyth is smack in the middle of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls urban center.

Eberhard has to tell disbelieving travelers this stuff all the time, because nobody can fathom that there’s a park like this, in the city. As in, the main highway crosses over one of the lakes, and you can see it from the beach.

“We have really good wildlife viewing. Brinker Lake has the only boating in the county where people can jet ski. We have events here all year long, a few of them nationally recognized. A guy in from Kenya competed in last week’s Park to Park half marathon.”

Funny thing about Iowa: When you want to find the most well-tended nature, you look to the city. The country is mostly gone to farming, but in town, the woods are often protected.

Two guys on mountain bikes make their rugged way along a soft trail. Around 110 miles of paved trails interconnect the county.

“Lots of biking,” Eberhard adds. “People come into the park and stay for the weekend—you can take a different loop every day.”

Yes, when you visit George Wyth State Park in Waterloo, you get this impressive list of nature-based recreation. But you’ll also reap the benefits of its urban anchor, especially in Cedar Falls, a city devastated by the 2008 floods that emerged more vibrant and entertaining than ever before.

The Park

Of the four lakes in George Wyth, three are borrow pits for roadbuilding dredge material. Don’t let it put you off: This is a prime example of the well-oiled workings of urban-wilderness give-and-take. The industrial aspect isn’t intrusive; in fact you probably wouldn’t even know about the dredging if it wasn’t written here.

“You can hear the airport. You can hear the traffic. You’re still in the city,” says Eberhard. “It’s a hybrid life.”

Visitors motor around on 134-acre Brinker Lake, fishing or zipping by on waterskis in cool water on a hot day. Like all George Wyth lakes, you’ll catch anything that’s in the river: black crappie, bluegill, channel cat, largemouth and yellow bass, and walleye. Though 75-acre Wyth Lake is no-wake, its sand beach makes it equally popular, and includes a floating pier that’s ADA accessible. In winter, the lake is scattered with icehouses.

When the 2008 floodwaters rose above the concession building roof, the park was forced to shutdown, and this summer construction of a new facility will occur. The park itself held up in the flood—campground and trails remained intact—but older buildings were ruined by water.

“We flood on a regular basis. If we want to build something, we keep that in mind,” Eberhard says. “If you learn to work with the river, it’s not as devastating as it could be.”

Perhaps for that reason, the water features are the prettiest here. They’re the timeless elements that nature tends itself. The surface of 40-acre Fisher Lake, an oxbow to the Cedar River, is covered in water lilies that bloom white in spring.

“It doesn’t get fished because of the lily pads,” points out Eberhard. “But there are some nice-sized bass in there.”

Fisher is the take-off point for the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail, the first trail to open under the DNR Water Trail grant program and its first looped path. It includes the lakes, the Cedar River and two lakes at Hartman Reserve Nature Center in Cedar Falls. Fisher, along with 60-acre Alice Wyth Lake (electric motors only, good for shore fishing and bullfrog heaven) are nature-lovers’ dreamscapes, ringed with oak, maple, ash, dogwood and willow among the lowland timber.

It’s an exceptionally pretty place to explore wildlife, with 250-plus bird species spotted so far, including the teeny saw-whet owl, about the size of a human hand when fully grown. Turkey, fox and deer also call this riverside woodland park home. Its roads are crowded by deep woods and fringed with brown-eyed Susans.     

The City

Probably the last time you heard news of Cedar Falls, it was about the flooding in 2008. When those devastating waters receded, Cedar Falls put its collective head down and worked for a comeback. The city has become a solidly fun place to visit for a weekend.

“We had sandbags on the flood levee,” remembers Kim Manning of Cedar Falls’ tourism. “I was down there until two in the morning. I think the whole town was sandbagging that night. We had the football team. We had buses running from the university carrying neighbors, students. If the river had gone over that wall, we would have lost downtown, and then the water supply right after that.”

She pauses, thinking about that night, June 10, 2008. “It was touch and go.”

Cedar Falls’ Main Street didn’t flood, but that’s due to a combination of community spirit and luck. The Cedar Falls Historical Society’s Ice House Museum, boat house and everything north of the river, including hundreds of homes, were lost. The Ice House has since been restored with assistance from FEMA and an I-Jobs grant.

These days, they’re raising the floodwall to avert future disasters. Main Street is hopping with fun storefront businesses, from good restaurants to lots of pubs to interesting shops—including a cupcake bakery and brewery. Here, the Blackhawk Hotel is the historic centerpiece, across the street from a well-stocked bike shop, a running store and a solid coffee house.

They’re developing that powerful river—though only new condos are complete, water features, plaza areas and a hotel are on the list, plus possibly a kayaking/whitewater course with spectator seating right by Main Street. From the current park benches and trails, all are being built with flood-friendly construction, taking advantage of what they’ve got, taking it for the good and the bad.

“If you kayak or bike or hike, you will never be at a loss for something to do here,” says Mary Jones, chair of the local trails patrol group that hands out maps, helps fix bike tires and generally watches over well-tended loop trails.

Jones rides her bike alongside Mike “Mac” McCallum, a retired area police officer and founder of the patrol. The two of them are part of a fleet of post-flood volunteers who were inspired to make this city even better.

“You feel like you’re out away from the city, but you’re really just five minutes from downtown, at the most,” Jones says, skimming past prairie and woods and river.

The trails all conveniently lead back to downtown Cedar Falls, with the help of good signage, a well-designed trail map and pedestrian bridges over the Cedar River, where this writer came within a very weak stone’s throw of a hunting bald eagle.

“You can kind of choose your own adventure,” says Manning. “Cycling clubs would have a great time here.”

The Wild

Hartman Reserve Nature Center in Cedar Falls is the most vivid example of urban wilderness in Black Hawk County. The drive to get there is almost eerie, in fact.

First you’re cruising past residential homes, following the reserve’s signs, when you begin to get the feeling that the trees are crowding the car. Next thing you know, you’re in a forest, then a parking lot canopied by mature timber.

In the woods, some of the downed logs look just a little bit odd, or maybe intentionally placed.

Rocks are stacked just so.

Piles of trimmed brush lay here and there almost artfully, attracting all manner of twittering birds that fall hushed with the slam of your car door.

Someone lurks in these woods. Chris Anderson, to be exact. And his assistant, Katie Shelton.They help run the programming at Hartman Reserve Nature Center, sited in an old 1940s YMCA, on what has grown to be 300 acres of city forest. Naturalist and program coordinator Anderson is a ginger giant in dusty Red Wings, with a beard that gives the impression that tiny woodland creatures might be nesting within it.

Anderson’s wilderness classes are not of the usual “Appreciating Raccoons 101” ilk. Weekends, you’ll find him roving the woods with middleschoolers, teaching them stuff like “Escape and Evasion,” and bushcrafting skills via he and Shelton’s “Hunger Games” series.

“You’re actually standing in the Cornucopia,” jokes Shelton in Hartman’s well-used nature center. There’s a bear, fox and bobcat among its fascinating taxidermy displays, plus a shop with interesting handmade gifts the staff make themselves to further draw visitors into the woods, including pocket-sized watercolor sets and walking sticks crafted by, simply, “Kyle’s Grandpa.”

“We get kids from the more urban parts of the Cedar Valley, really urban kids, and they’re terrified they’ll see tigers and leopards out here on a field trip,” says Anderson. “But we’re working hard to get people to be unafraid of the woods.”

Anderson and Shelton say their intent is to repair what scare-tactic shows on the Discovery Channel have broken—a respectful embrace of the wild.

“All those shows talk about is what can go wrong in the woods,” he says. “When there are so many things that can go right.”

With 32 deer per square mile, there are plenty of chances to brush with nature. Red fox, raccoon, possum, skunk and barred owls abound. Anderson and Shelton present programs that could put you into contact with all of them from the property’s former sugar shack—including actual maple syruping in the winter.

“It’s a great place to see a warbler,” says Shelton. “We have a number of Carolina wrens. And one time, I counted 85 turkey vultures on that tree over there.”

When Anderson whips out a piece of steel and some chert, striking sparks on charcloth he and Shelton made in old Altoids tins, he notes that bushcraft is his passion: the artistic side of wilderness survival. It’s a common theme in the outdoor classroom here.

Which explains Hartman’s artful placement of woodsy debris. Bushcraft goes beyond survival skills, Anderson says, creating clever nature hacks to not only survive outdoors, but to thrive.

“Bushcraft is about leaving positive traces,” says Anderson. “Wilderness is not a blank spot on the map. Wilderness is a state of mind. You don’t have to drive halfway across the country and waste who-knows-how-many fossil fuels. You can practice these skills right here.”

Bikers are drawn past the nature center on trails, and can check the preserve website for upcoming classes. Larger groups can contact Anderson to request a bushcraft lesson too (

Looping back to George Wyth at the end of a full day, travelers can fall asleep to the rhythmic gurgle of the Cedar River from their campsites, many of which are in view of the river itself. The 69 sites were upgraded in 2002.

“The Cedar River is usually peaceful,” says Eberhard. “But it can come up with a vengeance and wreak havoc a few times a year. You have to learn to work with it. I think we’ve done that at George Wyth State Park.”

Just ask the birdwatcher, beachcomber, biker, angler, water skier, nature-lover—they’d probably tell you that all of Black Hawk County has done just that, and more.