Adventures in western Iowa, part 3: Hiking the Loess Hills

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I had some other adventures along the way. Here is part 3 of a 4-part series:

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Leaving behind the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway late Saturday morning, I drove west toward the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. I had explored the entire length of the byway back in summer 2014 and blogged about it here.

One of my regrets from that trip was being in such a hurry to see it all that I had little time to truly explore any one area of these beautiful landscape formations. This time, I really wanted to hike in two specific locations along the byway: the Broken Kettle Grasslands / Five Ridge Prairie area and the Preparation Canyon State Park / Loess Hills State Forest area.

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At the northern end of the byway, I took the Ridge Road Loop. This is, in my opinion, one of the most stunning parts of the whole drive. Cruising slowly along the gravelly hills, I tried to find a trail to hike in the Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve. This 4,500-acre preserve is home to Iowa’s largest remaining prairie as well as a large herd of bison (I saw just two animals, below), and it’s preserved by The Nature Conservancy. It’s a truly beautiful place.

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I had found a map online that showed the area with roads and suggested viewing areas – and a small section highlighted as “recommended hiking.” I know I drove through that section. But even with the map, I didn’t find any place to park, much less hike – no trails, no trailheads, no signs, nothing. Most of the prairie is fenced off, with signs that specifically prohibit entrance. I took a lot of pictures from the road. Hiking or no hiking, this place is just spectacular.

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Also on the Ridge Road Loop is Five Ridge Prairie, a Plymouth County park that promises hiking trails through loess bluffs with a mixture of oak-timbered valleys, native prairie ridge tops, and west-facing slopes. It’s not the easiest place to find – there’s a west and an east entrance – but I finally found the west entrance off Hwy. 12. The hiking in that part of the park didn’t turn out to be so great – very open and scrubby and with no signage – and I didn’t want to get lost.

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So I hiked a bit, but after the trail split three times I figured it was time to go back to the car. It was a hot day, and the trail provided no shade. I was glad I had plenty of water in my car.

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I then attempted to find the east entrance, thinking it might be more hiker-friendly, and when I found the road to turn on – the crazy, roller-coaster road (above) – I realized that I had briefly hiked this place before. When I was there two years ago (this very weekend) I drove to the entrance, walked a short distance, and then got back in the car – because I had no idea what to expect from the park and didn’t have time to explore. I was in such a rush to drive the whole Loess Hills Byway. On this visit, I had plenty of time, so I did hike there for an hour or so. It was pretty, but the hiking itself was just OK. Hot and scrubby, with little shade and no spectacular views. Overall disappointing.

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If you want to visit Five Ridge Prairie, it’s officially located 7 miles west of Westfield on Hwy. 12 (west entrance) or 15561 260th St. (east entrance). Blink and you’ll miss either one. Good luck.

I spent Saturday night in Le Mars, but I’ll write more about that in Part 4.

Sunday morning, leaving Le Mars bright and early, I had to drive about an hour to get to my next destination. I took Hwy. 75 to Sioux City, hopped on I-29 south, then got off at Onawa to get back on the Loess Hills Byway.

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Once I got off the interstate, the drive was beautiful. I found the Byway quite easily, but trying to follow the map I once again had a hard time finding what I was looking for. I ended up getting turned around (AKA lost) and taking a different route than I’d planned, but I was loving the show I was listening to on NPR, and the scenery (below) was gorgeous so I didn’t mind at all.

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I finally got on the Preparation Loop road (above) and found Preparation Canyon State Park…but could NOT find a single hiking trail, despite the map’s promise of many, many backpacking trails. (What am I doing wrong? All I found was campgrounds and dead ends.)

The state park is 344 acres with forests, savannas, and prairies. It’s located in Monona County at the north end of Loess Hills State Forest.

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My friend Jim told me that the state forest has a spectacular overlook and some hiking trails. Luckily there was a SIGN that helped guide me to the wooden, easily accessible overlook (above) – finally, the quintessential Loess Hills view! – and I took a short hike on the overlook loop.

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I would have taken a much longer hike, but the trail was so overgrown with tall grasses (do you see that adorable baby hiding in the grass above?) that it wasn’t even fun after awhile, so I turned around and walked back. I walked for less than half an hour. I was hoping to hike all day. Fail!

This is a beautiful part of Iowa, and I highly recommend a visit. But if you go,  I hope you have better navigational skills than I do.

Adventures in western Iowa, part 2: Glacial Trail Scenic Byway

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I had some other adventures along the way. Here is part 2 of a 4-part series:

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I’ve been working on a story about Iowa’s geological history for VISIONS, the Iowa State alumni magazine, and I’ve become quite enamored by this state’s glacially carved landscape. So I just was really excited to drive the official Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, located north of Storm Lake and Cherokee and south of Spencer in northwest Iowa. The 36-mile driving loop goes through the towns of Linn Grove and Peterson and very close to Sutherland.

The Iowa Byways brochure says: “Glaciers carved the picturesque landscape of this unique byway. Travelers are treated to spectacular views of rolling hills, forested valleys, and the Little Sioux River.”

Indeed, the byway crosses the Little Sioux River no fewer than four times, and the hills are truly unique and picturesque.

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I started the drive at the northeast corner of this mostly rectangular byway route. Hwy. 10 is the northern anchor. This state highway (along with M12, the western “side” of the route) is the most scenic. I drove it twice and followed two off-shoots to the north, one to the Prairie Heritage Center near Peterson and another gravel road to nowhere in particular that was just so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

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More than a dozen pickup trucks crowded the Prairie Heritage Center parking lot that Saturday morning, but the building appeared to be locked, so I’m unclear what was going on. Perhaps it was a private meeting, or perhaps everyone met in the parking lot and went somewhere else. No matter, the outdoor environment was lovely, with a paved path through a restored prairie and spectacular views of the glacially carved hills. There was even a replica oxen-pulled covered wagon.

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Had it been open, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the center’s information about geology (glacial tills! catsteps!), natural history, and Native American cultural heritage. Artifacts from the Mill Creek culture date back to around 1000 AD.

Other stops along or near the route include parks (Wanata State Park, Buena Vista County Park, Dog Creek Park), a couple of museums, and the historic Inkpaduta Canoe Trail.

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The route is well marked and only takes an hour or so to drive. I’d definitely recommend the drive if you’re headed up to the Iowa Great Lakes or the surrounding areas.

Adventures in western Iowa, part 1: Storm Lake

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I also had some other adventures along the way. Here is part 1 of a 4-part series:

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I started out on a Friday afternoon driving to Storm Lake. Storm Lake is an interesting town. As I wrote last summer when I passed through while driving the RAGBRAI route, Storm Lake (population 10,600 and the Buena Vista County seat) is home to Buena Vista University and a beautiful 3,200-acre glacially created lake but is also the location for Tyson and Sara Lee meat packing/processing facilities, which on the evening of my arrival made the entire town smell really terrible.

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I had a reservation at the Sail Inn Motel at 1015 East Lakeshore Drive (above). I chose Sail Inn for the location, which was really great (right across from the resort and water park). It was smack dab by the lake, and I had a wonderful view out both of my first-floor-room windows. I can’t say much else positive about it; the bed was uncomfortable, the room had a weird smell, the bathroom was icky, and the whole place had a sort of damp feel to it. But you get what you pay for, and I think I paid about $50 bucks and had the lake outside my door. They also had a decent grab-and-go breakfast. So I’m not sorry I stayed there.

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There isn’t a ton of choice of lodging in this town: King’s Pointe Resort (above) is the big one; there’s also a Super 8 and a couple of campgrounds.

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Besides sleeping, I didn’t spend much time in the room, anyway. I walked along the biking/walking path around part of the lake and then walked around to find some food. I ate dinner at a counter-service Mexican restaurant in the downtown area, pictured above. My burrito was actually really great and seemed more authentic to the cuisine than the run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex I’m used to.

 

 

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I walked back to the motel in time to sit by the water and enjoy the sunset. I left first thing the next morning.

 

Scenes from the Iowa State Fair

The 2016 Iowa State Fair ends today. I visited the fair earlier this week and just wanted to share a few photos:

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Up, up, and away

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For the first 14 years that I lived in Iowa, I thought about going to the National Balloon Classic held annually in Indianola, but I never went. My first visit (with my husband, Dave) was one August evening in 2010, and it inspired me to start this blog. I celebrated by going back the next year, this time to an early-morning balloon flight, again with my husband.

And then I took a five-year hiatus from the event.

But this year I went back at the request of my oldest daughter, who is turning 30 this month. At the beginning of the summer, Katie put together a list of “30 Before 30” things she wanted to do, and the Balloon Classic was on the list.

So we went together on opening night: Katie, Dave, me, and our youngest daughter, Lauren.

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This was Friday, July 29. I’d been watching the forecast all week, and it was calling for a slight chance of thunderstorms. When we left Ames that afternoon to head down to Indianola, the sky was overcast and borderline threatening. I figured the balloons would get grounded, but we took a chance.

We arrived plenty early for the 6:30 p.m. scheduled balloon flight (entrance fee is $5 per person; parking is free). As an event regular now, I know better than to think anything’s going to happen at 6:30. Sure enough, it was around 7:30 p.m. before the pilots were given the green light to drive off into the countryside and launch their balloons. Yay! We were going to see a show after all.

Meanwhile, we were nicely entertained by Bonne Finken & the Collective on stage. She was pretty awesome; I imagined her channeling a combination of Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, and Pat Benatar.

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And, of course, we had to check out the food vendors, which I described in one of my earlier posts as “state fair style.” That hasn’t changed, but I do think the food selection may have improved, with vendors including Hotel Pattee, a wood-oven pizza offering, and roasted sweet corn. But there was still a lot of unhealthy food to be had: blooming onions, funnel cakes, deep-fried mac and cheese, “ribbon taters,” and the like. I ordered a BALT (bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato) sandwich without the “B” from the Hotel Pattee stand, and the guy didn’t even look at me like I was a lunatic. And I got an ice-cold Fat Tire from the beer tent.

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The balloon action was fun, with several of them inflating in the balloon field right in front of us – including a silly pirate-parrot balloon. The competition that evening included trying to tip over an outhouse with the balloon basket after flying in from the countryside. I don’t believe anyone knocked it over, but who really cares?

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The sky was colorless for most of the evening, until the sun began to go down. And the weather was unseasonably cool for the end of July; I was actually chilly, even in a light jacket. It was really fun just to sit there and watch the balloons and the people and enjoy a nice summer evening.

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The National Balloon Classic ran from July 29 through Aug. 6 this year and featured music each night, competitive balloon flights, a parade, and other activities. Morning balloon launches are free (bring your own chair, a cup of coffee, and a newspaper!) If I go again, I want to experience either Dawn Patrol or the Mass Ascension Balloon Flight. And maybe Nite Glow Extravaganza. And fireworks.

OK, I definitely need to go to this thing every year.

By the way, here are links to my 2010 and 2011 blog posts.

The Bridges of Madison County

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Hogback Bridge

Apparently I need to read my own blog before I revisit some of my favorite places in Iowa.

Case in point: My daughter Katie and I took a trip last weekend to Madison County to see the famous covered bridges. I’ve seen all six before, and I blogged about visiting a few of them in the fall of 2011.

Here’s part of what I wrote:

“I started my journey by taking Exit 104 off I-80 about 20 miles west of Des Moines. That led to a long and gravel-y drive to the first bridge: Hogback. (If I do this again, I will take Hwy. 169 off I-80, which provides a more direct route to the bridge. This is what I get for following the tourist map.)”

I laughed when I read this – AFTER we did the EXACT SAME THING last Sunday. Totally missed the turn for the Hogback bridge and ended up going way out of our way to the Roseman Bridge first, which was not our intent.

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Roseman Bridge

But everything turned out fine. We found all six bridges without getting seriously lost at any point. We had a dandy picnic at the gazebo near the Cedar Bridge. We enjoyed a break in the summer heat wave we experienced all last week.

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Cedar Bridge

Here are photos of the remaining bridges:

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Cutler-Donahoe Bridge

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Holliwell Bridge

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On safari: Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park

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Uganda may not be the first country that springs to mind when you plan an African safari, or any kind of African tour for that matter, but maybe it should be. With 10 diverse national parks in a country roughly the size of Oregon (at 93,065 square miles), you can plan an African safari vacation that spans tropical forests, arid valleys, plunging waterfalls, savannas, mountains, and sparkling lakes. Animal sightings range from lions and giraffes to elephants and hippos to chimps and some of the best gorilla treks on the planet.

I was fortunate in early July to visit one national park in Uganda: Queen Elizabeth National Park. Located in western Uganda, it’s the country’s most popular tourist destination. We started our trek in Kampala, the capital city. We’d taken a leap of faith a few months earlier and hired a safari outfitter called Wild Whispers Africa based only on its listing on the national park website and an itinerary that fit our time and pocketbook. Thankfully, this decision ended up being a good one – our guide, David Kasule, was friendly, punctual, knowledgeable, and a great driver.

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The drive from Kampala takes about six hours – if you don’t stop. Which is pretty unrealistic, because you need a break to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, get something to eat, and gawk at the scenery en route. We stopped several times, including a bathroom break at the equator, but only once for more than a few minutes when we grabbed some lunch at a tourist restaurant at the Agip Motel in the city of Mbarara (with its odd slogan: “Celebrate Novelty.”) With the stops, it took us about eight hours to reach the park.

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You can actually see the parkland before you reach its gates; as part of the Albertine Rift Valley, you approach the park from a higher elevation and experience it as a sprawling vista with the Rwenzori mountain range as a backdrop (above).

 

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Baboon

When we reached the park we were greeted by baboons and vervet monkeys, two of the park’s primate species. By this time it was late afternoon, and our lodge was still an hour’s drive away, so David suggested we do our first game drive before checking in. This was a great suggestion, because it gets dark in Uganda early and quickly – around 7:30 p.m.

After David paid the required fees and we showed our passports, we headed into the savanna. There, in the late-afternoon light from the safety of our pop-top safari vehicle, we saw hundreds of Uganda kob, a lovely and graceful antelope species. We also saw water bucks, two female lions, warthogs, birds, and – from a distance – cape buffalo. Here are some images from our first game drive:

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Uganda kob herd

 

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It was dark when we arrived at our accommodations for the next two nights – the Mweya Safari Lodge. This was absolutely not “roughing it.” The rooms were comfortable (with a functioning shower with hot water!), the views of Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel were spectacular, and the restaurant and bar were outstanding. We ate most of our meals (all offered buffet-style) on a patio overlooking the water. There’s also a pool and spa, which I didn’t use. I am not great at relaxing, but my time spent at the Mweya Lodge was as good it gets.

 

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Elephant statue in front of the lodge

The next morning (our only full day in the national park), we were told to be at the lobby at 6:15 a.m. for coffee and a 6:30 departure (before sunrise). David was right on time. We started our early-morning game drive on the peninsula and immediately began seeing elephants and then cape buffalo among the trees and shrubs. I loved these sightings! We drove back to the savanna and saw more of the same species we’d seen the night before, with the addition of a hippo and (from a distance) a leopard. Here are photos from our morning game drive:

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A lone male cape buffalo, called a “loser” because he has been banished from the herd by the younger males.

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African elephant

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Other safari vehicles, with the tops popped up

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Water buck

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Warthogs

 

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Cape buffalo

 

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Uganda kob

 

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Marabou stork with Uganda kob

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Uganda kob and hippo

 

By the time we got back to the lodge it was already 10:30 and time for breakfast, with made-to-order omelets and pretty much anything else you’d want to eat. Afterwards, I showered, changed clothes, checked my email using the free wi-fi in the lodge lobby, and got ready for the highlight of the safari: a 2 p.m. boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel. On most boat cruises I’ve seen mostly birds and aquatic animals, but this cruise is different. From the vantage point of our two-deck “Hippo” boat, we had a prime view of big game coming to the water’s edge in the heat of the day to drink, swim, or just hang out.

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It was awesome to see the families of elephants getting a drink, plus dozens of cape buffalo and hippos, mostly in the water and very near the boat. We also had views of warthogs, monitor lizards, crocodiles, and Uganda kob. The bird species were spectacular: kingfishers, African fishing eagles, marabou storks, cormorants, pelicans, and many more whose names I can’t remember. I loved how the cape buffalo and hippos hung out together, in kinship because both species are vegetarian, and I loved how the hippos “snuggled” together, with some putting their heads on the backs of others as they cooled themselves in the water. Here are some of my favorite images:

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A smaller cruise boat. Ours was a double-decker.

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Hippos!

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African fishing eagle

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Kingfisher

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Monitor lizard on a tree limb

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Hippos snuggling

 

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Crocodile

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Warthog

 

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So many species together!

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Elephants out for a late-afternoon drink

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The air was cool and the motion on the covered boat was minimal, so this was one of the most enjoyable cruises I’ve ever experienced. The two hours went way too fast.

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The rest of the day was free to relax at the lodge, walk around the grounds, eat, drink, and watch the sunset. We also watched small, fast-moving bats as they gobbled up insects outside the lodge windows at dusk. It was a lovely day.

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Mweya Lodge interior

 

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View of the peninsula from the lodge

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Evening view from the lodge

After breakfast the next morning, our safari was technically over, but David drove the park trail along the peninsula instead of the main park road, so we were treated to family after family of African elephants with their offspring along the path (including a newborn calf), as well as cape buffalo and other mammals and birds.

 

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See the newborn?

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Just crossin’ the road

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At one point, when the adult elephants were clearly irritated by our presence – trumpeting, vocalizing, taking aggressive charging steps toward our safari vehicle, I asked our driver if elephants could do damage to the land cruiser and he said, “Yes, an elephant could destroy this vehicle.” Hmmm. So then I asked him who could move faster, the land cruiser or the elephant. He said, “It depends on the road.” Well, holy hell, we need to get outa here! And we did. (He said the aggressive stances were mostly just bluff, but still.)

Here are a few parting shots:

 

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There are several fishing villages inside the national park

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Sunrise

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Silly yellow birds who try to eat your breakfast

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The end.

 

 

 

Cedar Rapids Art Museum and Baxa’s Sutliff Tavern

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I was back on the road for work late last week, this time for a press check of our university calendar at Cedar Graphics, a printer in Hiawatha, Iowa.

If you’ve never done a press check (and I’m assuming most of you haven’t, because it’s a very specific, weird, print-publications kind of thing), here’s how it goes: You’re looking at a printer’s form (several images on a large sheet of paper, sometimes on both sides of the sheet, sometimes not). You’re checking to be sure that the printed version is the same as the proof you signed off on earlier, and you’re comparing color to make sure it matches. You’re spending somewhere between 10 minutes (if things are going well) and an hour or more (if things are going very badly) on each form. Depending on the project, sometimes there are just three or four forms, so this sounds like a quick, easy thing to do. And sometimes it is. Depending on the press and the quantity, sometimes the time between forms is just an hour or two.

But for this particular project, there are often six or seven hours between forms, and occasionally longer. So my designer, Scott, and I try to find things to do while we’re waiting for the next form, because we don’t love waiting in the printing plant (no offense to the very comfortable customer lounge and its excellent selection of snack foods and reading material). We usually hang out in the Cedar Rapids area or go down to Iowa City. I end up drinking a lot of coffee, and it seems like we always eat too much ice cream. This year I came up with a few new things for us to do.

Based on my recent visit to Cedar Rapids (which I wrote about here), we spotted a few of the American Gothic statues featured in the Overalls All Over project. And we went to the NewBo City Market for lunch.

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We also visited the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, because I wanted to see the Rodin exhibition that just opened on June 4. The exhibition, “Rodin: Portraits of a Lifetime,” is at the CRMA through Sept. 11. It features 20 selections from the collections of Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, including portrait busts and full-length sculptures of famous authors and composers and other “19th century luminaries.”

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I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Rodin Museum in Paris twice, and I absolutely love the sculpture garden. I could just lose myself in there. I also loved the museum itself. My husband, Dave, and I also visited a Rodin museum in Philadelphia recently. I’ll admit, this CRMA exhibit kind of pales in comparison because the scope is just so much smaller. But I enjoyed it, and I especially liked the photographs of Rodin himself.

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It was an exhibition that I wasn’t even expecting that really wowed me, though. “Diego Lasansky: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is incredible. Lasansky is the 21-year-old grandson of the famous printmaker Mauricio Lasansky. Both have Iowa City ties: the elder as an art faculty member and the younger as a student and recent graduate. This kid’s stuff is amazing. Take a look at this resume! He’s only 21! This CRMA show is his first solo museum exhibition.

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I thought his paintings and prints were just wonderful, and I loved the little video that was running in the gallery that showed the printmaking process in his studio – which was also his grandfather’s studio.

Check out his website and the CRMA website to learn more.

After this cultural interlude, we headed east to Mount Vernon, one of my favorite small towns in Iowa, where we wandered through a few antiques shops and stopped for coffee at Fuel (101 1st St. E). I love this place.

I discovered Fuel (“art and espresso”) last summer when my friend Jim and I drove the RAGBRAI route (I wrote about my experience here). After Scott and I fueled up on coffee (pun intended) and a yummy ginger cookie we headed to another place Jim and I discovered on our RAGBRAI adventure: Sutliff Bridge and Baxa’s Tavern, just south of Lisbon.

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I loved this old metal bridge (built in 1898) over the Cedar River – now for pedestrians only – when I saw it for the first time last summer. And I thought, wow, the patio of Baxa’s Tavern would be one fine place to sit and listen to music on a summer evening and watch the river flow.

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It was a hot, sunny afternoon instead. Scott and I spent about an hour there before we needed to head back to the printing plant. But we enjoyed talking to the musicians who were getting warmed up for their performance that evening.

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The Baxa’s Tavern menu includes things like corn nuggets, mac-n-cheese bites, tenderloins, catfish, burgers, and chicken strips. We didn’t order anything to eat (this isn’t really my kind of restaurant), so I can’t tell you how the food tastes, but we saw others eating, and it looked (and smelled) pretty good if you like fried food. I recommend this place for the location and atmosphere for sure.

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You can find Baxa’s Sutliff Tavern on Facebook, where you can keep up with daily food specials, live music schedules, and pretty pictures of the bridge.

 

Decorah & the Trout Run Trail

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I visited Decorah back in 2013, an adorable town in northeast Iowa, and wrote on this blog about my experience. I spent that fall weekend shopping, dining, visiting the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, and taking a short walk on the 11-mile Trout Run recreational trail.

My biggest regret on that trip was not being able to secure a room in the Hotel Winneshiek. And, in hindsight, I definitely wimped out on the Trout Run Trail.

Last weekend, I headed for Decorah again to meet with a handful of Iowa college and university alumni magazine editors on the lovely Luther College campus. Although I was primarily there for work, I was also determined to do this visit right.

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So I made a reservation at the Hotel Winneshiek months in advance, and I was not disappointed by my stay there. The historic hotel, built in 1905, is every bit as friendly and grand as you would hope. The lobby is enthralling, with a three-story atrium, cozy seating, dark wood, and marble fireplace.

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My room was not overly posh; instead, it was comfortable, charming, and exceedingly clean, with a gleaming and well-lit bathroom and a big, cushy bed. The hotel has both a restaurant (Restauration), in which I ate a simple breakfast one morning, and a bar (the Tap Room).

I spent much of my time on the Luther campus, and some meals were furnished by our college hosts. But I managed to sample a number of other Decorah bars and restaurants during my stay.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon and met my new Luther College friends at La Rana for dinner. La Rana is a small bistro with a menu built around fresh, locally sourced ingredients. I enjoyed a hummus-and-pita appetizer, a glass of pinot noir, and a spring salad with fresh strawberries and sliced almonds. Everything was delicious.

Afterwards, we met other editors at Toppling Goliath Brewing Company’s taproom. I’m told that this brewery is raking in the awards; I was recently introduced to its Dorothy’s New World Lager at the Iowa Taproom in Des Moines’ historic East Village. On Thursday night we sat on the brewery’s comfortable patio, where I drank a pint of Murph’s Irish Red, the heaviest Irish amber I think I’ve ever tried. It was good…but very heavy. I’m told the PseudoSue (with a label featuring the famous T-Rex) is another good one to try.

After a full-day conference on Friday, another editor and I – on the advice of several locals – set out to eat dinner at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita Italian restaurant. I was told it had the best wood-fired pizza in the most unique setting in town. Both of these things were true. Also, the restaurant was incredibly hard to find. Even with a map, we got lost, hit a dead end, nearly drove down a bike path, and had to flag down a local cyclist who, when we told him where we were headed, laughed. Because it’s that confusing. But he gave us great directions, and we found the place. (Turn right in two stop signs, turn right on Hwy. 9, turn right on Hwy 152, turn right and then a very quick left onto Twin Springs Road – don’t blink or you’ll miss it! – then go under the bridge and up the winding lane through a park and onto a gravel road. When the road ends, you’re there. Trust me.)

At McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita you can sit inside, but why do that when you can dine on the covered porch, or be really adventurous like us and sit outside under a tent decorated with Christmas lights? On Saturday nights, this area is said to be packed with people enjoying live music. We didn’t get live music – just a thunderstorm, which was sort of fun in its own way. And the thin-crust margherita pizza, side salads, and glasses of wine were enhanced by the restaurant’s woodsy atmosphere. It was worth the trip.

Afterwards, since it was only 7:30 and we had nothing else to do, we drank more wine in Rubaiyat, the restaurant across the street from our hotel. I had dined here in 2013 and thought both times it was a very nice place with friendly servers and a classy, old-world atmosphere.

To round out my restaurant recommendations and before I talk about the Trout Run Trail – I swear I’m getting to it! – let me just mention a couple of other places in Decorah that are worth a shout-out.

First, Java John’s coffeehouse has awesome coffee in a comfortable setting. I went there both Thursday and Saturday for decaf café Americano, artfully prepared by the same barista both times. The Oneota Community Food Co-op is also worth a visit. I only went there for bottled water and a cookie, but one could do some serious food shopping there, including picking up fully cooked meals from the deli. Last but not least, the Sugar Bowl ice cream store is a locally owned shop serving the creamiest hand-dipped ice cream I’ve tasted in years. (The website says the shop is for sale, so you might want to go there soon.)

All of these shops, bars, and restaurants are located in downtown Decorah (except Dolce Vita, which, as noted before, is god knows where).

 

OKAY, I really just intended to write about my experience on the Trout Run Trail, so here we go, 858 words later. (Sorry about all the restaurant reviews. I couldn’t help myself.)

When I walked on this trail in 2013, I made the comment that “walking the entire 11-mile trail would have killed me.” This year when I was planning my return trip to Decorah I desperately wanted to prove that, three years later and three years older, I am in better shape. Except, well, maybe it would take too long. Maybe the weather wouldn’t cooperate. Maybe my feet would give out, so I’d definitely need to bring along spare shoes. And snacks. And lots of bottled water. In short, I was looking for an excuse not to attempt this walk.

I was thoroughly unconvinced that I had the stamina to walk 11 miles on a trail that is described as “challenging” in parts. I didn’t want to get halfway through and poop out, with no alternative way to get back to my car.

When I woke up Saturday morning, I had a sore throat and didn’t feel the greatest. I almost decided to scrap the whole thing. But then I decided I’d just grab a bottle of water at the co-op and walk a couple of miles. Easy peasy.

It took me about 15 minutes walking from the hotel to the western edge of the trail, which coincidentally is the official beginning of the trail according to the maps and all the signage. I walked south through woods and bluffs and zig-zagging switchbacks. I saw artwork and overlooks and a few cyclists enjoying what turned out to be a really beautiful day. I was having such fun! After about two miles, I checked the trail map and decided I needed to go about two more miles to see some of the trail’s best features. And then it hit me: I loved this trail. I was hooked. So I decided, what the hell, I’ll just walk the whole thing.

So I did. Without my trail snacks or my change of shoes and socks, without extra water or my cell phone or emergency cash, without anything except one bottle of water, my camera, and my map. It was a spectacular experience. Here’s a chronological gallery of my favorite scenes on the trail:

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The “challenging terrain” is not difficult at all if you’re a walker. I’m sure these sections are tough on a bicycle, because there are a lot of ups and downs. I saw a cyclist or two walking their bikes and looking pretty winded. But I loved the hills, loved the bridges, loved the views. The section from Mile 5.5 to Mile 11 (or Mile zero, depending on how you look at it) on the west and south side of Decorah is the most scenic and has the most variety. There’s a park around Mile 5 with restrooms and water, so I took advantage of the facilities and filled up my water bottle.

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Also around Mile 5 you pass by the Trout Hatchery and the famous Decorah eagles’ nest. I’d walked this section (Mile 5 to about Mile 3) before, and it’s mostly farmland, but the trail does cross a stream where people are fishing. And this is the section with the archway sculpture that’s become the trail’s main icon. Here are the highlights of this section:

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Miles 2 and 3 are unpleasant, because they go through town where the trail is located directly beside busy streets and then briefly near an unattractive industrial site. But eventually I got back into a somewhat scenic area before ending where I started just west of downtown.

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I’m happy to report that I still had a spring in my step after 3 hours and 35 minutes of walking. I felt absolutely victorious. I spent another half-hour or so in Decorah, finding food and more water and coffee for the road (thank you, Java John’s). I would happily walk this trail again. And I’m guessing I will.

Gitchie Manitou State Preserve

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Say the words “Gitchie Manitou” to folks in central Iowa and you’ll be mostly met with blank stares. Say the words to people in northwest Iowa and they’ll tell you about the grisly murders that took place there in 1973.

Say “Gitchie Manitou” to geologists and they’ll go bonkers with excitement.

It turns out that this small state preserve, located in Lyon County in the way northwest tip of Iowa, is home to Precambrian Sioux Quartzite outcroppings that are about 1.7 BILLION years old – the oldest surface bedrock in Iowa – as well as the scene of a tragic crime.

The state first purchased the land in 1916 for use as a quarry but later transferred the area to the Board of Conservation, which turned it into a state park. In 1969 it was dedicated as a geological, archaeological, historical, and biological preserve to honor the unique pink bedrock and the Oneota people who lived in the area for 8,500 years.

But in 1973, five friends went into the park and only one came out alive. Historians say that nightmare forever transformed Gitchie Manitou from a backwoods setting where people hiked and held underage beer parties to an unholy ground that many insist today is haunted.

Sandra Cheskey was 13 years old in 1973. Three brothers confronted the teenagers, gunned down Cheskey’s four friends, raped her, and later set her free. You can read a story about the quadruple murder here.

I visited the preserve last summer with photographer Jim Heemstra and again a few weeks ago (that’s me in Jim’s photo, above). Jim and I are working on a story for the fall issue of VISIONS magazine about the geological history of Iowa. On our latest visit we took along Jane Dawson, a senior lecturer in geological and atmospheric sciences at Iowa State. Jane was incredibly enthusiastic about seeing the Sioux Quartzite in Gitchie Manitou, and I have to admit I thought it was pretty cool, too.