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Stephens State Forest

Stephens State Forest in south-central Iowa is Iowa’s largest state forest, with seven units totaling more than 15,500 acres in five counties. The forest’s primary function is to provide an example of forest management for Iowa woodland species. First established in the 1930s with tree plantings by the Civilian Conservation Corp, Stephens State Forest is also a backcountry destination for outdoor enthusiasts interested in hiking, horseback riding, camping and hunting.


PLAN YOUR VISIT

Explore the seven units within Stephens State Forest, offering diverse recreational opportunities.

  • Lucas, Whitebreast, and Woodburn Units are located southwest of the town of Lucas, Iowa. Most recreational development can be found in this area, including fishing ponds, picnicking, camping, hunting, hiking, equestrian riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and wildlife watching.
    • The Lucas Unit has two small ponds and three campgrounds. Five miles of trails are ideal for hiking, snowmobiling, and cross country skiing.
    • The Whitebreast Unit has two stocked ponds, three equestrian campgrounds, and one group-camp area. This unit also has 20 miles of multi-use trails for hiking, mountain biking, cross country skiing, and equestrian riding.
    • The Woodburn Unit has more than six miles of backpacking trails and five pack-in (backcountry) campsites. Parking and trailhead for the backpack trail system is on 330th Avenue in Clarke County.
       
  • Cedar Creek, Chariton and Thousand Acres Units do not have developed facilities, but are well suited for hunting, backcountry hiking and wildlife watching. Roads in these units are not all-weather roads. The Cedar Creek unit is about five miles southeast of Williamson, Iowa; Chariton Unit is six miles east of Williamson; Thousand Acres is northeast and contiguous to the Chariton Unit.
     
  • Unionville Unit comprises 11 separate parcels in northeast Appanoose County and northwest Davis County. There are no developed recreational facilities. Several tracts are served by all-weather roads. This unit offers backcountry hiking, hunting, and wildlife watching opportunities.


Camp year-round in the forest’s non-modern campgrounds in the Lucas and Whitebreast Units. The campgrounds do not have electricity, but do have pit toilets either in the campground or in the vicinity; several sites are set up for equestrian use. Advance campsite reservations can be booked through the parks Reservation System. One third of the campsites are available for self registration on a first-come, first-serve basis. Additionally, five backcountry pack-in campsites in the Woodburn Unit have picnic tables and fire rings at each campsite, along with a water hydrant available at the trailhead. There is no fee for these pack-in sites and they are first-come, first-serve. They do not have modern restroom facilities or electricity.

Hike, mountain bike or ride horses on more than 30 miles of roads and trails throughout the various forest units. Many of the trails travel deep into the woods with excellent wildlife watching opportunities and few other people. Snowmobiling is popular in winter on designated trails throughout the forest.

Hunt on more than 15,000 acres of public land. The diverse habitat is especially good for deer and turkey hunting.

Learn more about Stephens State Forest’s history and ecology:


Stephens State Forest

The forest's original and most important function is to serve as an example of forest management for Iowa's citizens. In the late 1930's the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established hardwood and conifer plantings throughout the forest and many of these plantings can still be viewed today. During the 1950's recreational demand began to grow and multiple-use management became a priority. The first forest inventory and timber sales were conducted on the forest in the 1970's. Today Stephens State Forest continues to offer multiple resources such as forest products, wildlife, and recreational opportunities. Ongoing cultural practices improve the forest ecosystem for wildlife habitat, forest products, erosion control, and watershed protection.

The forest was named for Dr. T.C. Stephens, a prominent educator, ornithologist, and conservationist. The forest area was named and dedicated to Dr. Stephens in 1951. Prior to that time the area was loosely referred to as the Lucas-Monroe Forest Area. Much of the original land was purchased in the 1930s by the Forest Service to create a national forest but instead the lands were sold to the state in the 1960s.


The flora of the region consists of the tallgrass prairie association, upland hardwood association, bottomland hardwood association, and their transition zones. Since the forest area is located mainly on soils which formed under forest vegetation, plants of the prairie are not common. However, big bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, prairie cordgrass, purple coneflower, round headed bush clover, lead plant, mountain mint, and various other native grasses and forbs do occur in open, non-forest areas. These non-forest areas are also managed in accordance with the Stephens State Forest Management Plan.

On the more productive upland sites, white oak, red oak, and hickory are common. The less fertile sites contain more black oak, bur oak, shingle oak, and hickory. The bottomland timber type includes red and white elm, cottonwood, hackberry, ash, silver maple, and black walnut.

Many areas around the forest had been planted to coniferous trees and non-native hardwoods. Many of these plantings were completed by the CCC in the early days of the forest or, more recently, by state forest staff for reforestation, research and demonstration. These plantings include a variety of pines, spruce, black locust, tulip poplar, and many others.


The forest is home to whitetail deer, gray and fox squirrels, raccoon, cottontail rabbits, woodchuck, muskrat, skunk, red and gray fox, coyote, beaver, opossum, and many other small animals.

Non-venomous snakes are common but the two venomous snakes, rattlesnake and copperhead, are very rare.

Numerous songbirds utilize the diverse habitat. Game birds include pheasant, quail, and wild turkey. The woodcock is a seasonal visitor to the forest. Stephens State Forest was designated as a Bird Conservation Area (BCA) in 2008 and the Thousand Acres BCA was dedicated in 2014.