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Trail Tales

Hiking Iowa

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The fertile rolling plains of Iowa provide a wide variety of trails and contrary to what many of my east coast friends think, it’s not all hiking through cornfields. Although, on many of my hikes I’ll pass within view of working farms with acres and acres of fields of grain and corn I’m often reminded of Kevin Costner’s famous response to Ray Liotta in the movie Field of Dreams. Liotta asks “Is this Heaven?” and Costner replies, “No, it’s Iowa”.

Over the last year I’ve logged more than 1,000 miles on the trail and I’m proud to say all the miles in the last 10 months have been done in Oboz boots and shoes. Most of those miles have been in my home state of Iowa where I set out on day hikes 3 to 4 times a week, unless I'm traveling further afield—to Oregon or Colorado, where I go frequently, or with my friends for one of our annual week-long backpacking trips in different national parks.

Hiking in Iowa is quite a different experience than hiking in Colorado or Oregon. For one, it’s pretty flat. But not as flat as Nebraska!! (yes, that’s a dig at my Cornhusker neighbors).

Most of the trails I hike in Iowa are in wildlife preserves managed by local conservation boards or the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) which also manages our state park system. Many of these preserves have been established to reclaim Iowa’s native prairie look with prairie grasses and wildflowers that offer a look back at what the earlier settlers and explorers experienced in their journeys across the Mississippi river into the Great Plains.

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A typical trail view in Iowa. Photo: Rich Van Antwerp

Hiking in Iowa offers some very startling contrasts as well. In particular there are several trails I hike that are in close proximity to three of the nations busiest commerce routes: the Mississippi River, Interstate 80 and the Union Pacific Railroad. In northeast Iowa many of the trail systems I hike have cliff-side views of the Mississippi River, home to the largest system of barge traffic in the country.

When I’m hiking the trail near Interstate 80 I have several hilltop views of the interstate and I’m always amazed at how far away I feel from the real world on the trail, only to realize how close the interstate is. On the trail near the Union Pacific Railway line, I often count the number of trains that go by during my hike and often stop just to watch what kind of cargo is being transported.

While I love hiking in Iowa, the rolling plains just don’t offer much in terms of elevation challenges. In fact, most of my hikes average less than 500 feet in elevation and there are some trails I regularly hike where I loop back and forth up and over hills just to keep adding to my elevation total. I’m always keeping track of my elevation gain because I know I need the training for my big hikes in the mountains and my backpacking trips.

When I do get to Colorado or Oregon, hiking takes on a whole new look—not just in terms of landscape and scenic mountain views, but elevation change. My 500-foot elevation daily treks in Iowa turn to 2–4,000 foot elevation change hikes in the mountains. And, when it comes to Colorado, it’s not just the elevation gain on the trail, it’s also a big adjustment getting used to altitude when starting a hike at 9-10,000 feet and ending up at 12-14,000 feet.

That said, Iowa hiking has plenty of its own own rewards: beautiful native prairies that bloom with the vibrant colors of its wildflowers in the spring. And fall brings the vast array of colors as the leaves turn red, yellow and orange.

But, the best part about hiking in Iowa is that it’s my home and it has a variety of trail systems to keep me in shape for whatever trip or adventure that lies ahead.

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