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Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Iowa’s 7 National Parks and State Forests That One Must-Visit (2023)

Iowa is a landlocked state dominated by agriculture. However, beyond its corn and soybean fields, Iowa also has millions of acres of woodlands and forestlands. Iowa’s National Parks and State Forests are some of the most serene and beautiful parts of the State. The primary goal of these regions is protecting nature and ensuring that the growth of woodlands always increases. Though following that, the secondary goal is to provide individuals with countless opportunities for outdoor fun. Iowa State forests call up for endless recreational options, be it hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, camping, or more. It entertains guests with a wide array of recreational and adventure opportunities throughout different seasons.

Iowa doesn’t have a dedicated National Park; however, this fact must not disappoint you. The National Park Service operates two national historic trails, a national monument, and a historical site that are worth a visit. Though they can’t make up for what a National Park could have, they can definitely make up for all claims. Besides that, four major State forests in Iowa cover roughly 3 million acres of land. Besides the major ones, it has six smaller state forests ranging in size from 34 to 314 acres. Spending a day at any one of these places is sure to be memorable.

Iowa’s National Parks and State Forests- A Must-Visit

Here are some great Iowa Woodlands that you will love exploring. Have a look:

1. Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge

The Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge is a special management area and an IUCN category IV habitat. It was established back in 1989 for the preservation of Flora and Fauna. It is located in northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, and southwestern Wisconsin. The refuge is home to the curious topography of steep slopes and cliffs. The Iowa Pleistocene Snail and Northern Wild Monkshood plant are some popular species you can find here. Although the idea was to preserve only snails and flowers during its initial years, later, it became a hub of entire rare plants and animals. The refuge is popular for wildlife viewing and nature gazing opportunities mainly. In addition, nature enthusiasts often visit here for wildlife observation and photography. Other popular recreational activities to try here include seasonal hunting for white-tailed deer and turkeys and fishing in the Fern Ridge Unit. The temperature here during the summer range from 6 to 13 degree Celcius, making it a hot spot for tourism.

2. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is 197 acres of outdoor space often recognized as Iowa’s National Park. It is Iowa’s only National Historic Site and is dedicated to the life of the first U.S born president, Herbert Hoover. This historic site was established back in 1965 and was a plan by President Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry. Today, this landmark consists of a museum dedicated to Hoover’s life and his presidentship. Additionally to that, it has a presidential library and a visitor center. Visitors can see the gifts the president received, his original speech papers, his personal belongings, and things about America’s past. There is even the cottage where Hoover was born, along with graves of him and his wife. The National Historic Site allows for self-paced as well as guided tours. There is also a tallgrass prairie with several short hiking trails for visitors who want to go a little beyond.

3. Effigy Mounds National Monument

The Effigy Mounds National Monument is a huge wilderness known for preserving over 200 prehistoric mounds that are known to be left by Native Americans. These mounds are in the shade of birds and animals and are known to be built by people of the Woodland Culture. This popular Iowa National Park has a north and south unit offering two different sections to the visitors. The former unit is popular for the Great Bear Mound Group, whereas the latter is popular for the famed Marching Bear Group. Individuals from Iowa and states often visit the park to observe these over thousand-year-old settlements. While you are just beginning to explore, visit the park’s visitor center first. It is in Harper’s Ferry and has a lot of useful information about the park and its rich and unique history. Further, while exploring the site, it is common for visitors to find artifacts or bones lying down on the way. However, respect the region and avoid bringing them home.

4. Loess Hills State Forest

Loess Hills is Iowa’s newest State Forest and is located on the State’s western border, within the Harrison and Monona counties. The park covers nearly 11,484 acres of land in four units (Little Sioux, Mondamin, Pisgah, and Preparation Canyon) and gives the visitors a taste of prairie before European settlement. Its four units are also known as individual state parks of Iowa and are quite popular amongst outdoor and nature enthusiasts. What’s unique about this natural wilderness is the geological ridge formed by wind-blown soil, which today is known for unusual terrain and scenic natural areas. Loess Hills State Forest is popular for camping, backpacking, and woodland hiking. In addition, visitors can explore 60 miles of trail throughout the forest units.

The State Forest is also popular for hunting, and some of the popular prey here include white-tailed deer, turkey, and small game. The Monona County’s Savery Pond in the State Forest facilitates fishing. Anglers can try their hands at catching catfish, bluegill, bass, and crappie. Its visitor’s center, too, is a great stop for learning about this area’s geology and unique flora and fauna.

5. Shimek State Forest

Shimek is one of the largest contiguous forests in Iowa. The forest is named after Dr. Bohumil Shimek, an early conservationist, and is a part of Lee and Van Buren Counties in Southeast Iowa. It contains five smaller units, including the Lick Creek Unit, Keosauqua Unit, Croton Unit, Farmington Unit, and Donnellson Unit. While the four former units are popular for their hiking opportunities, Donnellson, the last unit, offers some great fishing opportunities. The State forest is also home to 3 to 4 campgrounds that offer advanced camping opportunities. One-quarter of the sites here are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, whereas the remaining are open for reservation. Shimek is quite popular for fishing recreation, and spots like Black Oak Lake, White Oak Lake, Bitternut Lake, and Shagbark Lake facilitate the same. All of these lakes are open for walk-in fishing; however, swimming here is not encouraged. The State forest also draws in hunters, especially for numerous game species.

6. Yellow River State Forest

One of the best State Forests in Iowa, the Yellow River State Forest is truly an undisputed natural beauty. First established in 1935, the State Forest is home to the only fire tower (1963) in Iowa. It is owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and has mostly undisturbed forest lands. The forest is in the most northeasterly part of Iowa in the bluff region of the Upper Mississippi River. The pure vibes and silence of the forest are truly awe-inspiring. The region is blessed with over 50 miles of undisputed trails, and it doesn’t often happen that you will find many fellow hikers here. Since most outdoor enthusiasts choose the usual Iowa State Park trails, this region of the State remains less populated and serene throughout the year. The Yellow River Forest is quite a fascinating place for hunters, hikers, horseback riders, backpackers, and mountain bikers. Its Yellow River Water Trail’s 35-mile-long spread also offers kayaking and canoeing opportunities. Kayakers can spend their days and night at Ridgetop campsite (primitive), a sight accessible only by a kayak or canoe. For fishing, one can access the seven miles of trout streams (Little Paint and Paint creeks) within the forest.

7. Stephens State Forest

The most popular and must-visit State Forest in Iowa, Stephens State Forest, is truly incredible. Spread into 15,500 acres and split into 7 separate units, Stephens makes up the largest state forest in Iowa. The forest covers a considerable part of four Iowan counties, including Lucas, Clarke, Monroe, Appanoose, and Davis. The major role of this wilderness region is forest management for Iowa woodland species. However, it for secondary exposure works as an outdoor recreational ground inviting enthusiasts for hiking, biking, horseback riding, hunting, picnicking, and camping. The forest offers 30 miles of multi-purpose trails and roads that meander through multiple small units. While some routes are on the outer zone, some dive deep into the wilderness providing exclusive wildlife viewing opportunities. Outdoor enthusiasts also choose the Stephens State Forest for non-modern camping opportunities. Since it doesn’t have electricity or a proper restroom facility, it is truly a hot spot for wanderers and adventurers. It is ideal for groups of adventure seekers and families who want to spend some time in the peace of nature.

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