As cozy as it is sitting inside and watching the snow fall, getting outdoors can be even more fun. Here are a few Iowa state parks that make bundling up worth it for the memories made, whether it's in your hiking boots or snowshoes, or maybe on skis or a snowmobile!
Lakes & Land
Pilot Knob State Park - Forest City
Visit a piece of history at Pilot Knob State Park, one of the earliest parks in Iowa’s park system. Dedicated in 1924, Pilot Knob features sweeping views and one-of-a-kind ecological areas. Its observation tower serves as the Forest City park’s centerpiece and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In winter, the views are unobstructed. Back on the ground, Pilot Knob features a variety of trails fit for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On the eastbound half of the through road, visitors might even see dog sledders. If the cold gets through warm layers, a warming house with heat and electricity is available to reserve.
Pine Lake State Park - Eldora
Trails in Pine Lake State Park take visitors all over, from a paved 2.5 mile trail to Eldora, along the bluffs of the Iowa River and through forest ecosystems. The Pine Lake bike trail is perfect for hiking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, offering an excellent sighting of the lake. Ski down the Wildcat Trail to see the Iowa River and possibly glimpse some winter wildlife. Consider spending the night in a cozy cabin with a full kitchen, bath and heating - including stone fireplaces and outdoor fire rings.
Loess Hills & Beyond
Prairie Rose State Park - Harlan
Take your pick of snowshoeing, hiking or cross-country skiing seven miles of trails through the rolling hills of western Iowa at Prairie Rose State Park - snow permitting. Trails will take visitors to views of the lake, beautiful even when frozen, and more hidden areas that showcase white pine tree stands and native prairie. If you have one, you can also jump on a snowmobile to travel through the Harlan park along paths and over bridges. Contact park staff for information on interpretive programs along the trails throughout winter including snowshoeing, stargazing, and night hikes to hear nocturnal wildlife - all free.
Green Valley State Park - Creston
A popular all-season park in Creston, Green Valley park staff make sure to keep paved trails clear for walking even during the winter. Green Valley Lake is a well-known spot for ice fishing (always check ice conditions first) and a grass trail, ideal for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, goes along the west side of the lake. The park has 3.5 miles of paved trails and six miles of grass trails for any exercise level.
Springbrook State Park - Guthrie Center
Head to Springbrook to view wildlife while snowshoeing or skiing across the park. Twelve miles of trail through rolling timber encourage visitors to keep their eyes out for whitetail deer, eagles, turkey, fox and other woodland wildlife. A few trails lead to small ponds, the Middle Raccoon River and the park’s 17-acre lake. On four miles of specially designated snowmobile trails, visitors can ride over snow-covered prairie. The Guthrie Center park is located at the end of the Des Moines glacial lobe, which created a beautiful carving out of an otherwise agricultural setting.
Ledges State Park - Madrid
See Ledges without any obstruction during the winter months, when snow and ice cover the stones and the trees are bare. Gear up in snowshoes, skis or boots on any of the Madrid park’s 4.5 miles of trails or along snow-packed Canyon Drive to enjoy a winter wonderland. For visitors wary of the steep trails during winter, a looped and flatter trail to Lost Lake is available at the southern end of the park.
Backbone State Park - Dundee
Winter outdoor enthusiasts, look no further than Backbone State Park in Dundee. Twenty-one miles of trails offer opportunities to snowshoe or cross-country ski - especially through the seven miles of winding paths in Backbone State Forest, where there is less traffic from hikers and no snowmobiles allowed. Families can bring their kids to sled at Beach Lodge down the hill, across the beach and onto the ice, providing the ice is thick enough. A few trails for brave winter wanderers include the Bluebird Trail, a flat, easy hike through some upland timber, and the East and West Lake Trails, which are steeper but offer outstanding views of the lake and the rock formations that make Backbone remarkable.
Cedar Rock State Park - Independence
Cedar Rock has a series of grass back trails for hikers, snowshoers and brave cross-country skiers willing to traverse ungroomed paths. Visitors to the Independence park can access trails at any time from the Cedar Rock Wildlife Management Area parking lot and make their way to view the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Walter estate overlooking the Wapsipinicon River. Put the house in your notes to come back to - it’s closed for tours during the winter, but still a unique must-see.
Storied & Scenic
Stephens State Forest - Chariton
Break out the snowmobiles when heading to Stephens State Forest in Chariton. Designated trails that are part of 30 miles of roads and paths are open to snowmobiles (particularly in the Lucas Unit). Those who would rather travel on foot can put on their boots, snowshoes or skis and head out across seven units of forest totaling more than 15,500 acres in five counties and peek through the trees to watch for wildlife. Several ponds also provide opportunities for ice fishing. Visitors should make a plan before venturing out, as some trails are more rugged than others.
Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area - Palo
Pleasant Creek in Palo is an ideal spot for year-round activities. A nine-mile multi-use trail for hiking, snowmobiling or cross-country skiing surrounds the 410-acre lake. Several different access points make it easy for visitors to decide their comfort levels and how long they’d like to hike. The lake is a popular spot for ice fishing, with common catches including panfish and walleye. Pleasant Creek is a state recreation area, so it is open to hiking, hunting and trapping - be aware of any open hunting or trapping seasons and consider wearing safety orange.
Reprinted with permission from Iowa Outdoors magazine, a publication of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. To subscribe or find more information about state parks, visit the Iowa DNR.
Tips for Hiking a Local Trail
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