Since moving to Iowa City from Athens, Georgia last August, I’ve spent my free time relaxing in Johnson County’s parks and greenspaces, and my weekends hiking state parks and trails. Here’s a tentative ranking of the five state parks I’ve explored throughout the state so far, plus an honorable Wisconsin mention.
Lake Macbride State Park, Johnson County
I first went to Lake MacBride in October on a second date. We hiked to what she described as a “waterfall.” In reality, it’s a spillway that divides Lake Macbride from the Iowa River. She swore that there’s usually more water in the “waterfall,” and there’s photos online to verify her claim. But during our visit, it was a slight trickle, like a leaky spigot. Still, I enjoyed the large body of water, and the shady trail leading towards it.
Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa
My date and I went in January, under a foot of snow, which I thought would make for great pictures. Unfortunately, the caves were closed when we arrived for bat hibernation. We explored some of the shallower caves that didn’t go underground or require lights, and we walked the forest trails. This was my first real experience with snow. Georgia snow, when it rarely appears, is fine and powdery. This snow was thick, mostly untouched for weeks, and magical. After surviving my first Midwest winter, I’m still in love with snow.
Backbone State Park, Dundee
We hiked the Backbone trail, which loops between Backbone Lake and Maquoketa River. The mile-long tail has jagged rock and overgrown roots. It’s narrow but beautiful. We climbed into a hollowed section of rock to hide from the wind and eat our picnic. It was “spring,” my partner said, which meant bare trees and brown grass, but no snow. Further along, we peered over the ledge to see the river, surrounded by tall, yellow grass. It reminded me of the Dead Marshes. The trail was slightly disorienting. It looped around without us realizing, and we somehow ended back at the parking lot.
Ledges State Park, Madrid
I’d like to come back in late summer or fall, when the trees and flowers are in bloom. My partner and I hiked around Canyon Road and the Table Rock Loop. The paved trail began high above the gorge, and the cold, windy air burned my face. We climbed down and failed to cross a flooded pathway. The winding stairs felt near vertical on the return trip. We stumbled onto a witchy stone house, a flood pole nearby. We’d listened to a horror podcast earlier, and the dead forest began to creep me out as we walked back to the car.
Palisades-Kepler State Park, Mount Vernon
We hiked the Cedar River Trail and Cedar Cliff trail, which began around a beach area. It has a rough texture somewhere between sand and silt, but the dogs didn’t seem to mind. Further along there’s a dam. Water rushed across, so we couldn’t walk along it. There are stairs, carved through the rock, which lead up to the Cliff Trail. We found a nice vantage point to hammock and read. As we left, I saw the American Gothic Barn, a replica of Grant Woods’ famous painting covering the barn’s exterior.
WORTH THE DRIVE
Devil’s Lake State Park in Sauk County, Wisconsin
Devil’s Lake has three things I love: large bodies of water, big trees and big rocks (in that order). The park features the Devil’s Doorway, a rock formation with a tall gap in the middle. The rocks were pinkish red with streaks of pale green. I stopped to take pictures every five minutes. From the overlook, the forest was a sea of vibrant red, orange and yellow. I was awe-struck at the sight of the lake, which covers 374 acres. Even with a wide lens, I couldn’t photograph the entire surface, and my panorama picture was too wide to fit on Instagram. If you make the three-hour drive for a weekend trip, stay at The Birdhouse Inn.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 307.