• Jessica Stough

Adventuring Close to Home - Walnut Woods State Park & Iowa’s Best Hikes

“Hiking is a bit like life: the journey only requires you to put one foot in front of the other … again and again and again. And if you allow yourself the opportunity to be present throughout the entirety of the trek, you will witness beauty every step of the way, not just at the summit.” – Unknown


I had every intention of going to Union Grove State Park yesterday with the group I met through Facebook and TikTok mentioned in a previous post (here). The drive, though, would’ve been an hour and a half one way on a good day, and the roads were still somehow a bit nasty after the snow Friday night. Then, I woke up with a migraine so I knew it just wasn’t happening.


Instead, I did a mini meal prep in the morning, then did some writing and lounging around until about lunch time. We grabbed some lunch, then we headed out for a mini adventure to the local REI and Walnut Woods State Park with Buzz.

We have been working to slowly cross National Parks off of our bucket lists, but I never really had my eye on the state parks. However, thanks to my recent realization that we have visited nearly none of them, I have now decided I want to start checking them off our bucket list too. I figured heading out to Walnut Woods for a short afternoon hike in the snow was a perfect way to get another one crossed off, without much time or effort involved.

Once we were out there, though, I remembered very quickly that it was the park I visited with a good friend at the start of 2020 for the “Iowa First Day Hikes” event. No matter whether I had already been there or not, we decided to venture on anyway. The hike was short and sweet, but so beautiful after the snow from Friday night. The airport nearby measured that they got 14 inches of snow. I imagine in the park, there was probably about seven or eight inches of snow.

Thankfully for us – the two people who decided to trek in the 7+ inches of snow without snowshoes – others had been out repeatedly on skis to pack down the snow already. I will admit that we discussed the pros and cons of purchasing snowshoes while walking, but decided against that (for now).


I also realized, upon just a small amount of research, that we only saw a small portion of the trail while there. I knew that our hike had been longer in 2020 (once, of course, I realized that was the park we had visited), but couldn’t seem to find the rest of the trail yesterday.

Find the full map of the Iowa State Parks Trails (arcgis.com).

 

Since our short hike on Christmas Eve, I have been itching to get out and hike. I think that may be part of why I wanted so badly to do that trail run last weekend as well – just being out on the trails has been on my mind, no matter whether I’m walking or running. With that, and with my new goal to look into more state parks, I decided to look into the “best trails in Iowa.” I found a lot of different lists. Surprisingly, most of the lists did not have common trails on them – more to explore!


Starting with a website that I feel is typically a very good indicator of popularity, All Trails had their own list of the Best Trails in Iowa. Their top trails are as follows:

  1. Dozer Cut, Bunker Hill, Badger Ridge Trail Loop – Hitchcock Nature Area – Honey Creek

  2. Maquoketa Caves Loop – Maquoketa Caves State Park – Maquoketa

  3. Wildcat Den Trail – Wildcat Den State Park – Muscatine

  4. Brown’s Woods Trail – West Des Moines

  5. Horseshoe Bluff Nature Trail – Mines of Spain Easement – Dubuque

  6. Squire Shore, Weasel Run, Mushroom Forest Trail – Coralville Dam Recreation Area – Coralville

  7. Blue Heron Lake Loop Trail – Raccoon River Park – West Des Moines

  8. West Lake and East Lake Trail Loop – Backbone State Park – Dundee

  9. Canyon Road and Table Rock Loop from Canyon Road – Ledges State Park – Madrid

  10. Cedar Cliff Trail – Palisades-Kepler State Park – Mount Vernon


I was impressed to see that TripAdvisor actually had their own list for Iowa hikes too, as they typically share more of the guided excursions than independent hiking spots. However, I’m not complaining! The top ten of their list includes (but they had a lot more too!):

  1. Trout Run Trail – Decorah

  2. Des Moines River Trail – Des Moines

  3. Cedar Valley Nature Trail – Hiawatha

  4. Weed Park – Muscatine

  5. Sugarbottom Mountain Bike Area – Solon

  6. Cedar Bend Park – Bremer

  7. Veterans Trail – Iowa City

  8. Hartman Reserve Nature Center – Cedar Falls

  9. Brown’s Woods – West Des Moines

  10. Honey Creek State Park – Moravia


Finally, the Iowa DNR even had their own list of the seven best hikes in Iowa:

  1. Yellow River State Forest – Harpers Ferry

  2. Loess Hills State Forest and Stone State Park – Pisgah / Sioux City

  3. Ledges State Park – Madrid

  4. Maquoketa Caves State Park – Maquoketa

  5. Waubonsie State Park – Hamburg

  6. Lacey-Keosauqua State Park – Keosauqua

  7. Wildcat Den State Park – Muscatine


I have bolded the three hikes that were repeated at least once, as I imagine those are probably the three best routes since they are discussed in multiple lists. Brown’s Woods is spoken really highly of from those that frequent it, but I honestly have never hiked or ran out there to this day. Apparently, it should be higher on my list. A few other sites had their own lists, which had even more trails to choose from, deemed “Iowa’s top.” TravelAwaits had 8 more trails, TravelIowa had 9 more, and OnlyInYourState had another list of 8 (but I did not cross reference these three lists to see if there were duplicates).

 

Now, the real question is, without snowshoes, should we start crossing these off now or wait? I did get the coolest reusable hand warmer for Christmas this year, so I wouldn’t mind testing it out on more hikes – because I already know it does an awesome job for winter running and shoveling the driveway!

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