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Iowa Trails

Explore a Midwestern Jungle in Iowa’s Waubonsie State Park

Spring rains turn this swath of forest in the Loess Hills into a natural paradise.

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The forest around me is green, lush, and very, very wet. Raindrops splash through the canopy above me, pitter-pattering on the leaves of red oak, walnut, and cottonwood trees and mixing with the songs of thrushes and wrens. We push past wildflower fields scattered through the glades where fat bumblebees probe for nectar. With temperatures climbing into the high 70s, the cooling rain is welcome, and we don’t even bother putting on our jackets.

This isn’t a coastal rainforest or a trail in the tropics: It’s just spring in Iowa. We spent an hour driving through just-sprouting soybean and cornfields on our way to Waubonsie State Park, located just over the Missouri River from Nebraska. Perched in the Loess Hills, an improbable range of bluffs built from wind-deposited soil after the last Ice Age, Waubonsie feels like a little island of nature in the plains of southwestern Iowa. The park packs everything from quiet draws to overlooks that perch 200 feet above the flatlands below into its 3.1-mile footprint.

Today, with the spring rains coming down, it’s transformed into another world. A toad hops out from beneath the leaf litter, pausing before it disappears into the underbrush; my son and I crouch down to take a look at a giant millipede trucking along the trail. Right now, the Midwest is a good place to be.

Hike: Valley and Bridge Trails

The best parts of this pocket-size park: the forested valleys and the soaring (for the plains) views. See both on this 2-mile dayhike that links up the park’s Valley and Bridge Trails. From the trailhead near the park headquarters, follow the Valley Trail, turning right at the junction shortly after the parking lot. Drop beneath the canopy, winding down into the valley bottom past patches of pale-purple phacelia and drooping red Canadian columbine, and turn left at the next junction. The path climbs back toward the ridge, eventually reconnecting with the Bridge Trail; turn left at the junction and follow it back towards the parking lot, keeping an eye out for turkey vultures soaring on the thermals below.

Geology

Glaciers deposited loess, a type of loose, rich soil, as they moved through Iowa during the last Ice Age. Once they melted, strong prevailing winds piled up the soil into dunes near the Missouri River, where they eventually stabilized into the hills you see today.