Adventuring Close to Home - Decorah Day Trip - Malanaphy, Dunning's, & Siewers Spring Waterfalls
“The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”
– William Least Heat Moon
When we returned from vacation in Hawaii, Zac started getting Wednesdays off from work. Luckily for me, my birthday fell on a Wednesday this year. Naturally, I took the day off so we could spend time together doing something fun to celebrate my birthday.
I knew we couldn’t do anything extravagant in one day, but really wanted to have a fun day trip. I had recently been researching the best hikes in Iowa, which sent me down a rabbit hole to find what kinds of waterfall options there were in the state. Although I had decided earlier I wanted to focus on seeing more of our state parks this year, the general idea behind that was to see more of our state.
With that, I crafted a plan for a day trip to the Decorah area to cross at least three of Iowa’s waterfalls off our list. As the day got closer and closer, the weather got nicer and nicer too. By the time my birthday came around, the highest temperature expected was over 70°F. I was ecstatic because I’ve always preferred warmer weather for hiking.
The day started early – we were out of the house just before 7 AM – to make sure we had as much time to explore in Decorah as possible. On our way out, we stopped for coffee because I am a firm believer that no road trip is complete without coffee. Then, we were ready for the 3.5 hour trip to Decorah.
Malanaphy Spring Falls
Our first adventure of the day was at Malanaphy Spring Falls. To be honest, I hadn’t checked out the trail prior to our trip, so I had no idea how long the hike would be. We came across a handwritten sign that shared the hike would be around 30-45 minutes to the waterfall. With that, we headed that direction. It was immediately obvious the hike was going to be either icy or muddy at all times.
Having an ankle that always seems angry with me, I took my time on the icy sections and sloshed right on through the muddy sections to make up time (although I was not happy about getting mud on my freshly cleaned On trail shoes). There was only one other vehicle at the trailhead, and we came across a mother with her son very early on in the trail. The mother shared that it was too icy for them and they were turning back.
Thankfully, we proceeded further along on the trail and the ice pretty much completely gave way to mud only. Eventually, we got to some sections that were less tree-covered that were actually fairly dried out, which was even better news. I wasn’t even sure the falls would be thawed out yet, so I was excited when we finally heard the flowing falls. In no time at all, we had made it to our destination. We explored around the falls and took in the beauty of the area. To be honest, I was shocked at how amazing the area was, even after coming out of a cold winter.
Once we decided to trek back, we lured Buzz along with his squeaky ball (it really does do wonders for his recall), but were not able to stop him fast enough from finding a deer carcass and trying to drag along a full deer leg (!!!). I’m a little grossed out about it still, but also just majorly impressed that he was able to find it so quickly. He truly is the teeniest (and best) little hunter I know.
We eventually found out that the trail was about 1.8 miles long, and I was pleasantly surprised that our distance actually matched the AllTrails map of the hike too (which I checked into after we had already hiked it). For the record, the advertised “30-45 minutes to the fall” was pretty accurate due to all of the ice and mud, but I think could be much shorter in better trail conditions.
Good Times Grill
By the time we got to Decorah and got our first hike in, it was time for some lunch. I like to always find local places for food, and stumbled across Good Times Grill as something close by, well-rated, and local. We were not disappointed! Their cheese curds were to die for, my chicken wrap was delicious, and Zac’s burger looked amazing. The only issue about our lunch there was that we had to then go out to find another few waterfalls. We were stuffed, but ready for more exploring.
Dunning’s Spring Park
After lunch, we went on a short drive to Dunning's Spring Park. I was immediately blown away by the park. Not only did it have some beautiful falls, but it also had miles of singletrack trails, a beautiful river view, and an ice cave all right in one small area. We were first drawn to the singletrack trails for a short hike.
Honestly, we had read the sign incorrectly and thought that taking the singletrack trail was the way to the ice cave. However, as we walked switchback after switchback, we realized we were continuing further into the park with no sights of getting closer to the ice cave. In fact, it felt like we were getting further away. Zac pulled up Google Maps, and found that we were, in fact, nowhere close to the ice cave.
With that, we took a shortcut from the singletracks onto Ice Cave Road, which was the best way, according to Google Maps, to get to the cave. The road was blocked off from cars, so only people (and dogs!) were traveling to and from. It made the entire walk very peaceful. Later, I found a trail through All Trails for the Upper Ice Cave Hill Trail, but we did not ever see the trail it referenced. I would definitely say that the road was the best route to take.
The ice cave was so cool. The temperature immediately dropped when we got inside, and we could easily see the frost on the walls of the cave. This was the exact moment we found that Buzz did not appreciate being in the pitch black of the cave, so I picked him up before heading just a bit deeper into the abyss. Not long after, the cave came to an end and we headed back out.
We walked back along Ice Cave Road toward the parking lot. Once we got there, we turned north to head toward the falls. The falls were a very short walk from the parking lot, so there were quite a few people in that area. We headed all the way up to the falls to take in the beautiful views. It was within minutes that Zac snuck out of the railing to explore more area. He went just far enough away from where people typically do that he stumbled across a bat, which flew in circles above our heads.
We also spotted someone building their own carin and doing what appeared to be yoga, right on the falls. We attempted to wait around a bit to grab a picture without her on the falls, but she stayed there much longer than we did. That complete stranger will forever be a part of our Dunning’s Spring pictures.
After the cave and falls, we were off toward our next adventure - Siewers Spring at the Decorah Fish Hatchery. I couldn’t find much about the spring or fall itself when searching, aside from information that shared it to be one of the “prettiest cascades in Iowa.” (Source: OnlyInYourState). That site was the only one I could find that called out where to find the springs, stating that it was hidden toward the back of the park.
I actually enjoyed the fish hatchery portion of the park more than I anticipated in our search for the springs. We learned a lot about local trout and laughed as the fish jumped toward us when we walked by (they are used to children and other people feeding them as they walk past). The set-up was really fun, and I could see it being a great place to bring children.
Although for our day trip, we didn’t have time to do much more exploring of that area, the fish hatchery was right at an entrance to Trout Run Trail, a local 11-mile paved bike path that loops all around Decorah. I found a great map for the entire area, sharing the Trout Run Trail, other trails, and the locations for sites to see here. I also found additional information for other ideas for recreation around the Trout Run Trail and the Upper Iowa River, such as kayaking and bird watching.
The Rest of the Day
I did have a few extra adventures planned along the route home, had we had the time: Fort Atkinson State Preserve and George Wyth State Park. Fort Atkinson would have been a really quick stop, and George Wyth State Park would have been an excellent place to stretch our legs mid-drive (they seem to have a lot of options for really short hikes). By the time we had completed our adventures at the fish hatchery and Siewers Spring, though, it was just after 3:00. With a 3.5 hour drive home, we decided to head straight back toward Des Moines.
Overall, it was a wonderful day, and I had such a great time exploring more of Iowa. In one of my previous jobs, I traveled to Northeastern Iowa frequently, but never got a chance to explore. I was excited to take the time to find some adventures out there on Wednesday. It was a great way to kick off what I hope will be a summer full of short Iowa travels to new state parks and places.