Chicago Trails

Dubuque, IA: Call Your Bluff (Yellow River State Forest)

Walk along Paint Creek in Yellow River State Forest on this overnight backpacking trip and you'll know it's true: Iowa is rugged. BY KOREY PETERSON

You might not think of Iowa as rugged, but this trail, cut across bluffs and through rutted bedrock, climbs and drops relentlessly. You might not think of Iowa as pretty, but when Paint Creek glides beneath a gilded canopy of oak and hickory, it feels as if even speaking would mar the beauty. You might not think of Iowa as a place to go backpacking—and that’s why I won’t have to share my waterfront camp with another soul, save a few songbirds, even though it’s just 4 miles into the woods. You might not think of Iowa as wild. That’s your loss.

Trip stats
Distance: 8.9 miles (out and back)
Time: 2 days

From the Backpacking trailhead

(1) Link the White Pine and Forester Trails 1.6 miles to a junction.
(2) Turn east (hiker’s right) onto Brown’s Hollow Trail and take it 1.3 miles to where it merges with Fire Tower Road.
(3) Continue .7 mile on the unpaved road.
(4) Follow Brown’s Hollow Trail as it splits east and walk .8 mile to the grassy clearing of Brown’s Hollow.
(5) Retrace your steps to the parking lot.

Brown’s Hollow (mile 4.4)

Set up a tent (or hammock) in this grove of hickories, oaks, and walnuts north of Paint Creek. On the off-chance it’s taken (there’s room for a few groups), backtrack 1.7 miles to the John Shultz campsite.

Unlike much of the Midwest, the Yellow River area didn’t experience glacial activity half a million years ago. Called a “driftless area,” it was primarily shaped by wind and precip, which is why it has steep bluffs and ravines pockmarked with sinkholes, caves, and springs.

At night, this area transforms into something from a spooky campfire story, with the coyotes yipping and owls hooting year-round. Come daytime, listen for chattering wild turkeys and keep an eye out for white-tail deer and non-migratory birds, such as quail, ring-neck pheasant, and chukar partridge.

DO IT Trailhead 43.170506, -91.248729; 75 miles northwest of Dubuque on State Forest Rd. Season Year-round; foliage peaks in mid-October. Permit Free; self-register at the trailhead. Custom ($15)

Trail Facts

  • State: IA
  • City: Dubuque, IA
  • Distance: 8.9
  • Contact:
  • Land Type: State Forest