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Packed with historical, geological and natural wonders, Wildcat Den State Park near Muscatine has surprises around every bend. Here are the can’t-miss features and some finds you may not know about from park staff:
Launch your exploration at this sandstone rock formation along the Lower Picnic Area trail that resembles a river steamboat, just one of the many rock features from the park’s 300-million-year-old sandstone. Just north of Steamboat Rock is Devil’s Lane, a narrow passageway with carvings dating back 150 years - but know that carving in the rock is not allowed to protect the delicate sandstone.
Wildcat Den had a long history with the locals before it became a state park in 1935. Nearby Steamboat Rock in the Lower Picnic Area, a bronze marker thanks sisters Emma and Clara Brandt for preserving the astounding natural beauty of the area by donating their land and working for it to become a state park to be enjoyed by all.
Pine Creek Grist Mill
Before the Brandt sisters, there was Benjamin Nye, the first European settler of what’s now Muscatine County, who built the Pine Creek Grist Mill in 1848. While not much of a “hidden” surprise, it’s definitely a must-see site. Restored to working condition in 2002 by the Friends of Pine Creek Grist Mill, it’s said to be the only functioning grist mill remaining west of the Mississippi River.
Benjamin Nye's Marker
While Nye accomplished much in the area that’s now the park, building the mill and also opening the area’s first store and post office, he also met his end there. An engraved rock placed by the Friends of Pine Creek Grist Mill, located just outside the park boundaries, marks the location of Nye's death. Nye was killed by his son-in-law, George McCoy, who was said to have fought Nye in self-defense in a custody dispute over his children (Nye’s grandchildren).
Devil’s Punch Bowl
Less spooky but with a still nefarious-sounding name, the Devil’s Punch Bowl is a “hidden” waterfall, in that it only flows after heavy rainfalls or in especially wet seasons. The Natural History of Wildcat Den State Park explains the natural feature received its odd name because of its "bowl-shaped feature that was sculpted by the erosive forces of the intermittent creek and its sediment load cascading over the escarpment from the bluff above." Adding to its unique appearance, iron deposits in Liesegang rings give the rocks green and red hues.
Pine Mill Bridge
The best spot to line up an Instagram-worthy shot or just take in the views of the grist mill and dam, the Pine Mill Bridge has connected the area since 1878. Built by an Ohio contractor, the bridge connected the east and west banks of Pine Creek, allowing early settlers to get their grain to the mill without having to ford the stream or travel miles around the creek. The bridge officially closed to vehicular traffic in 1963 and has served as a footbridge and spectacular outlook since.
Melpine Schoolhouse and Pioneer Cabin
As home to the historic grist mill, it only made sense that Wildcat Den should welcome additional historic structures. That includes a one-room schoolhouse built in Montepelier Township moved to the park in the 1960s, and a cabin discovered on neighboring property in 1995. Aged by a dendrochronologist (someone who dates events by looking at growth rings in trees and aged wood), the cabin was likely built between 1857 to 1858. Now owned by the Friends of Pine Creek, the cabin’s since been moved and reconstructed on a lot adjacent to the park.
Learn more, find maps and campsites, and plan your visit to Wildcat Den State Park at iowadnr.gov/WildcatDen.