Holiday Hiking in Stephens State Forest, Iowa - Backpacker

Holiday Hiking in Stephens State Forest, Iowa

Enjoy fall leaves and wildlife on this Midwestern getaway.
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Sure, hiking season in the Midwest may be winding down come the end of November, but it’s not over yet. I know it as I walk beneath a canopy of gilded oaks and hickories on a short, 3.4-mile loop an hour outside Des Moines. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the Woodburn Unit seems dressed for the occasion. Wild turkeys even flutter across the path. Tomorrow, I’ll be sitting around a long table with friends and family celebrating a great American holiday, but when you can sneak in a quick overnight in these fall-perfect woods, it makes for a festive start.

Turn-by-turn from the Woodland Unit trailhead

Cross unpaved 330th Ave. and pick up the Turkey Foot Trail to tackle the East Loop counterclockwise. Take it roughly .8 mile to a river crossing.

Cross Arrowhead Stream (likely only a trickle in November) and continue north-east on the Blackjack Trail to a junction
at mile 1.2.

Turn northwest onto the Buckeye Trail and go another .2 mile to an intersection.

Veer northwest toward signs for Longbeard Camp at mile 1.6.

Back on the Buckeye Trail, continue .2 mile southwest to the Broken Bone stream crossing.

Rock-hop through the trickle and keep going 1.4 miles on the Twin Oaks Trail to the parking lot. (From there, you can tack on the 2.7-mile West Loop to make a longer figure eight.)

Campsite: Longbeard Camp (mile 1.6)

Find this shady spot a short jaunt off the main trail. Set up your tent in the small clearing of oaks and hickories. A number of unnamed streams run by, but they’re unreliable in fall, so pack in your water. (It’s just 1.6 miles, after all.)

Wildlife

Turkeys, cottontails, squirrels, and white-tailed deer roam through the forests here in fall. (November is hunting season, so wear blaze orange.) Keen-eyed hikers may spot foxes or coyotes.

Flora

Red and white oaks, along with shagbark hickories, thrive in the upland flats. Foliage here tends to peak in late October, but the color often lasts well into November. Ashes, cottonwoods, hackberries, and elms along the ravine bottoms change color earlier in October.

DO IT Trailhead 40.964067, -93.576785; 15 miles east of Osceola on 330th Ave. Season Year-round; November is best for solitude and foliage. Permit None Custom map ($15) Contact

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