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States on the U.S. $5 Bill

Yellow River State Forest

Harper's Ferry, Iowa

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- Thursday, May 15, 2003 -

On May 15 - 17, 2003 I visited Yellow River State Forest (YRSF) for what was planned to be a four-day backpacking trip (I cut the trip a day short). I arrived at YRSF after a 7.5 hour drive from Omaha, Nebraska. Knowing that I would be arriving late in the afternoon, I planned to camp at Glen Wendel campground, about 2 miles from the trailhead. I parked in the backpacker's parking area near the ranger's office, grabbed a trailmap at the trailhead, and was on my way soon after arriving. The trail to Glen Wendel is uphill from the parking lot. According to my GPS, the hike was about 1.8 miles, including some backtracking while navigating a confusing area very close to the campground.

On my way to the campground I met John Leathers, who was also taking a long weekend and trying out some equipment he said hadn't been used in a number of years. Expecting no water at the campground (according to the map and a discussion with the ranger), my dog Everest and I each carried 4 liters of water. However, it was not necessary to carry all of the water because there is a pond at Glen Wendel, and a water purifier or filter will save some weight.

One of the first things I do after arriving at a campground is brush the ticks out of Everest. While I found none on him, I did find six crawling on me; not a pleasant welcoming. After that, we took a short walk around the area and encountered an opossum on the trail. He played dead, we went around. It was the first of the wildlife to be encountered.

My first night in YRSF was spent trying to take pictures of the lunar eclipse that night. The night was clear, and the view of the moon was perfect. Unfortunately, I'm not practiced at taking pictures of the moon and didn't get many good shots. But the weather was great, and I was serenaded to sleep by the LOUD croaking of the frogs at the nearby pond.

- Friday, May 16, 2003 -

John Leathers rose a little sooner than I and bid farewell. I expected to meet him again sometime during my stay. I finally got moving in order to begin a long, 9-mile hike to Heffern's Hill Campground. Friday started out with a downhill stroll from Glen Wendel to the highway. After a brief walk along the road (1/4 mile?), the trail turned into the woods for about a half mile. Then it was out onto a gravel road in order to use the bridge to cross Paint Creek. Once across the bridge, it was back into the forest for an easy stroll on the trail as it paralleled the creek.

After a while, the trail turned UP from the creek. This was a steep and strenuous climb, too steep for this early in the season. Ugh! There were plenty of rest stops and plenty of spots to take in the scenery. Once at the top the the bluff, the views were spectacular. But, I was disappointed at listening to the park staff mow the public grounds during the entire hike. That's probably the one bad thing about YRSF -- much of the time sounds of civilization can be heard, be it traffic along the highway, the ranger mowing, etc. But, there was plenty of nature to be encountered as well.

While at the top of the bluff I ran into John L. again; sans backpack. After leaving Glen Wendel, John headed back to his car and went into Harper's Ferry for what sounded like a wonderful breakfast. He then returned to YRSF and drove to the scenic areas at the top of the bluff. After declining a ride that would have shaved a mile or two from our trek, Everest and I moved on. It was discouraging at the top of the bluff that much of the trail used the road (mostly gravel). I would find out later that this was affecting Everest more than I expected, and his paws would be red and swollen at the end of the day.

But, the hike on top of the bluff was nice, offering many encounters with various songbirds. The trail was well marked and well travelled, though I didn't encounter any other hikers. I did, however, encounter numerous fallen trees over the trail that had to be walked around.

As the trail (road) turned downhill, I encountered more people hiking up to the scenic overlooks from Little Paint Campground. The trail flattened out and turned into the forest again. It was wide, well travelled, and flanked with bluebells as far as the eye could see. I continued on for more than half a mile when the sounds of children playing got louder and louder. I turned towards the creek on an unmapped branch of the trail, and encountered a school group playing in the water where the creek crossed the road. Everest and I had been hiking for hours, and it was time for a break. I took off my shoes and socks and removed Everest's pack, and we waded in the cold water. The kids were having fun running and sliding on the algae, and were giving Everest lots of attention. I learned that the kids were on a fieldtrip and had spent the morning in a session with one of the forest rangers. The afternoon was for a picnic and to play in the water. I also learned that this was an annual event for the teacher, who had taught the mothers of some of the current students.

The break was welcome, but I still had about four miles to go before getting to the campground. I dried my feet, put Ev's pack back on him and hoisted my pack, and was on my way again. This part of the trail was flat and paralleled the road, passing by Little Paint Campground and Frontier Campground. At Frontier Campground, the hiking trail turned left, went briefly through a valley, and then UP again. This trail did not appear to be as well travelled as the other trails, but was still easy to follow and was quiet. It was another strenuous uphill climb, and I was regretting it this early in the season with a full pack (45 lbs.). I took my time, and Everest took every break that I would let him have. At the top of the bluff, there were some extra trail branches that were not on the map, but I was still able to find my way. Then it was downhill (yeah!) to Heffern's Hill Campground. The campground was huge, and empty. I had heard from the ranger that boy scouts were due to camp here on Saturday night, but I would be gone by then. I found a nice spot on a rise, pitched my tent, and took a nap. Everest was more than happy to join me.

After a brief snooze, I took off in search of water. The ranger had indicated that the creek was near the camp, but was not as close as I expected (based on the conversation, not the map). Looking at the map, I determined the creek to be about a quarter of a mile away, and went down to pump the water filter for a while. Then it was back to camp, eat dinner, and sleep; it had been a long day.

- Saturday, May 17, 2003 -

Originally I planned on going to Camp John Schultz on Saturday. But, after Friday's nine mile hike, Everest's paws were very red and swollen. Because I did not expect to find water at John Schultz and would have had to have Everest carry some, I decided not to put the load on him and headed towards the car. It was a short, two mile hike along the creek. The trail was wide (an equestrian trail) and flat. Along the way I encountered some mushroom hunters who were having some luck, and one of two groups of boy scouts headed to Heffern's Hill Camp. Then it was back to the car. Not ready to head home, I took Everest to Mequoketa Caves State Park, south of Dubuque, Iowa.

- Summary -

Yellow River State Forest offers some very challenging trails, and some very easy ones. I don't know if Camp John Schultz or Brown's Hollow Camp have water nearby. In speaking with the ranger earlier in the week, he indicated that Brown's Hollow did have water nearby. But, he had neglected to mention the pond at Camp Glen Wendel, so I'm not sure what to think. YRSF offers plenty of nice scenery, and lots of wildlife to see. Some of the trails are crowded (near the campgrounds) others offer solitude (the hiking trail between Frontier and Heffern's Hill campgrounds). Highway traffic can be heard from many of the trails, but eventually it becomes unnoticeable, except for the occasional Harley passing through. I cut my trip short, but this leaves me a lot of trail to explore on my next visit. There will be a next visit.

signature - John


Photo Gallery

YRSF Photo Gallery

GPS Tracks & Data

May 15, 2003 (pdf) - 333 kb
May 16, 2003 (pdf) - 503 kb
May 17, 2003 (pdf) - 405 kb
May 15-17, 2003 (pdf) - 517 kb


Trail Map (pdf) - 698 kb
USGS Topo Map (zip) - 3.6 MB


Yellow River State Forest
Official Site
Best Backpacking Spot In Iowa
Backpacker Magazine
Yellow River State Forest
by Brian Simon