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Yellow River State Forest
Yellow River State Forest

Yellow River Forest is located in Allamakee County in northeast Iowa.

The Paint Creek Unit is of primary interest to the recreationist. It has the Big Paint Creek, Little Paint Creek and equestrian campgrounds with capacities of 48, 80 and 40 sites respectively. It also contains 6 miles of trout stream stocked from April through October and a marsh from which bass and panfish may be taken.

Camping fees are $9.00 per night during the summer and $6.00 per night the rest of the year. An additional $3.00 per night is charged for equestrian campgrounds. Advance campsite reservations can be booked through the park reservation system. One quarter of the campsites are available for self registration on a first come first-serve basis. See maps for campground and trail locations.

One camping cabin is available to rent from April 1st through October 31st of each year.  There is a minimum stay requirement of 2 nights for this cabin.  This rustic cabin has electricity, microwave, a full sized refrigerator, and two porches, where one of them is screened in. Visitors must provide their own bedding, towels, cooking utensils and other essential items. The cabin is located near the back pack registration parking lot and the forestry office.  There are no modern showers or restrooms available at Yellow River State Forest. This cabin can be reserved online through the park reservation system.

Firewood is available for purchase near the sawmill area.  Campers may also collect dead and downed wood in the forest for campfires by hand and/or folding saws.  Chainsaws are strictly prohibited for gathering wood for campfires.

Hiking, snowmobile and horse trails and several picnic areas are located on the Paint Creek unit. Several scenic overlooks are accessible by horseback, foot or auto and a large portion of the cross country ski trail system is found here.

The entire forest is open to hunting (except for campgrounds), hiking and cross country skiing. However, designated hiking trails are maintained only on the Paint Creek Unit and designated cross country ski trails are maintained only on the Paint Creek and Luster Heights Units.

Yellow River State Forest also features 3 miles of the 35-mile long Yellow River Water Trail. There is one established primitive campsite in the State Forest which is only accessible by canoe or kayak. The site is available year round on a first come-first serve basis. The site called "Ridgetop" is marked by signage blue sign along the river. The only amenities are a fire ring, tent pads, and benches. The site is checked by DNR staff on an annual basis. Campers should bring their own water and practice "Leave No Trace" ethics by packing out solid waste and any trash.

The Friend's Group for Yellow River State Forest may be contacted at www.facebook.com/FreindsofYellowRiverStateForest/

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.

Yellow River Unit Information

Yellow River's backpacking trails were featured in an article which appeared in the April 1996 edition of “Outside” magazine entitled “America’s Top 50 Hikes--The Finest in Every State”. The best hike in Iowa was chosen to be the Backpack Trail at Yellow River State Forest. We are honored to have been given this distinctive endorsement, and anticipate lots of usage on the backpack trails as a result.

Incidentally, if you haven’t had the opportunity to hike our trails, they are open year ‘round. Degree of difficulty ranges from relatively easy to moderate. If you have a scout or other youth group looking for a backpacking experience, or if you are planning a “real” backpacking trip out west and need some place to train, this is for you.

There are over 25 miles of marked & maintained trails in the Paint Creek Unit alone. We have four camp areas along the trail which are not accessible by vehicles so you can really “get away from it all”. If you plan on staying overnight during your backpacking trip, you must sign in at the forest headquarters prior to your departure.  These campsites are free of charge and offer you the feeling of complete solidarity.  If you are looking for something in particular in a day hike or an overnight stay give the office a call to get some ideas on places to go.

Our backpack areas are large enough to support a large group or several small groups. They are not organized areas so you can spread out if you arrive to find a group or individuals already at the site. On nice weekends, slight but not overwhelming traffic can be expected. Our backpack trail is also part of our equestrian trail for some of its length, so horses may be encountered. On weekdays, you will seldom encounter other users.

We have a public water supply at our sawmill/headquarters areas. Water from springs or streams should be suitable for bathing but not for drinking or brushing teeth.

Camp fires are permitted. Please practice fire safety and be sure your fire is dead before leaving the site. Do not use a camp fire during extremely dry conditions.

No reservations are necessary, nor do we accept them. Facilities at the forest are on a first come basis.

Contact Information

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


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.

Luster Heights 770 acres
Mudhen 196 acres
Paint Creek 5,237 acres
Paint Rock 864 acres
Waukon Junction 209 acres
Yellow River 1,227 acres
Total 8,503 acres
Yellow River Maps
Yellow River State Forest Road Map

Yellow River Unit
Yellow River Unit Map

Luster Heights Unit
Luster Heights Unit Map

Paint Creek Unit
Paint Creek Unit Map
Equestrian Trail Map

Paint Rock Unit
Paint Rock Unit Map




Aerial Maps provide information regarding boundary lines and trails.