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LENGTH 4 miles of hiking trails
DIFFICULTY easy to moderate, with a few steep hills
DATE VISITED October 9-11, 2020
MAIN FEATURES One of Iowa’s oldest and most popular State Parks, Ledges is a gathering place for many RV campers, picnics and family day trips with views of picturesque bluffs. The main feature is the view of Pea’s Creek Canyon, which is especially scenic in the Fall. Many visitors drive through the park this time of year on the Canyon Drive to enjoy the fall colors. Video from our trip here!
History of the Park
Ledges State Park is on the ancestral Land of the Sauk, Fox (now the Mesqwakie) and Dakota people. The park was established in 1924 and quickly became a major attraction due to the scenic beauty of its canyons and bluffs. Many of the park facilities constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s are still standing today, including an arched bridge made of stone. You can read more about the park’s history and events here.
82 of the 94 campsites at Ledges State Park are geared towards RV camping. Many of the sites had paved or large concrete slabs to park on and would not be suitable for tenting. We saw a wide variety of campers including everything from small pop-ups, up to giant luxury buses with happy campers watching flat-screen TVs outside. This is a popular park, and we got the last available campsite when I made our reservations 2 months ago.
There are 12 hike-in campsites on the north end of the park that have a very different feel. These sites are located a good distance apart from each other and nestled in a forest of oak and walnut trees. These remote campsites can be enjoyed as backpacking or ‘cart-in’ sites, (but bring your own cart). There are no pit toilets or water sources near the remote sites, so be prepared!
We selected this park because it was a nice mid-way meeting point for my friend, April, and I. We would later find out that this is one of the most popular weekends for the park. In addition to being peak Fall color season, the park hosts an annual Halloween themed event where people go ‘all-out’ and decorate their campsites, transforming them with cobwebs, strobe lights, haunted houses, and spooky décor. We kept mostly to ourselves in our remote site but saw some of the campground when we walked the ½ mile or so to the nearest bathroom.
Night of the Raccoons
Our first day at camp was spent catching up since we hadn’t seen each other since our trip to Beaver Creek Valley State Park back in July, so it was great to be able to meet in middle and go camping again! April was warned by the exiting campers that the ‘raccoons were vicious’….more like extremely habituated and well-fed. The previous campers in site #94 had a bag of chips stolen right before their eyes while sitting around the campfire less than 6 ft away…and the rest of their food ransacked overnight. Sounds like they tried to clean it up, but there was still a lot of micro-trash at our site, and chewed up food wrappers in the bushes. I didn’t get to talk to them personally…but it sounds like their food wasn’t secured and the raccoons had quite the party.
Since there are no critter boxes in these sites, we debated hauling all of our food back to the car each night, or whether we could secure it at camp. Each night, as soon as it got dark, the well-fed critters would run into our camp and we’d have to scare them off. They were large and persistent, but they did eventually settle a bit (they were watching and waiting for us to go to bed). Before bed, I hung my snacks from a tree in my trusty Ursack Allmitey. (Fingers crossed)
By the light of my Luminaid solar lantern and Goal Zero Torch 250 Flashlight we then built a fortress around our coolers constructed with an overturned garden wagon, firewood, camping chairs, cinched together with bungee cords – and tightly wedged the whole assembly under the picnic table. We were impressed with our ingenuity and hoped we would not wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a crash and opening cooler lids.
In the morning, my cooler had one, sad little muddy pawprint on it, and my Ursack AllMitey had NOTHING. I was actually kind of interested in seeing if it would pass the raccoon test, since I typically bring the Ursack Major on backpacking trips. The smaller Ursack Allmitey weighs almost twice as much but protects against bears AND mini bears. In addition to the standard kevlar outer, the Allmitey is reinforced with a metal mesh liner, and double closure with velcro and drawstring top. It is specifically designed to resist little critters that like to chew and pared up with an odor proof opsack the voracious raccoons didn’t even seem interested in it. By night 2, they got the hint and scurried off to see if the hundreds of other campers in the park had anything good to eat.
One of the great things about this trip, was bringing fresh food in a small cooler. It was nice to take a break from the dehydrated food and cook fresh over a fire.
Each evening started with an early fire, so we could cook over the coals. My family just purchased our first Axe after much debate at last month’s trip to Lake Bemidji State Park. I have very little axe experience, but chopping wood each night ended up being kind of fun, and combined with the log cabin fire building technique, the flames lit right up!
Check out our video for my 1 match fire, a GIANT NOCTURNAL STICK BUG and more campfire cooking.
On our first night, I brought ingredients to make pie iron chicken & black bean quesadillas. I slow cooked the chicken at home, and brought black beans, cheese, tortillas, lime chips and fresh salsa from this year’s garden. MMM!
On night 2, April brought ingredients for pepperoni pizza pockets in the pie irons. I usually make them with bread, but we got fancy and used crescent roll dough to hold all of the goodness together. We had to adjust them frequently in the coals to find the sweet spot between burning the outside to a crisp while having uncooked dough in the inside.
For dessert, we made a concoction of leftover dough, marshmallows, chocolate and peanut butter…that ended up coming out of the iron tasting like a huge cookie! Im glad I seasoned our cast iron pie irons before the trip, or we would have had a big mess to clean up later.
It was also down right luxurious to have yogurt and fruit for breakfast and cream in our coffee!
Saturday’s visit to the main feature of the park was short, calculated, and not very relaxing. Maybe in non-covid times, this would be a fun place to gather and enjoy the energy of a crowd…but these times we were living in, just made me want to get out of there and sit in my comfy chair in our quiet little campsite.
We explored a little of the area, marveled at the multiple parking lots that were FULL of cars, droves of people mulling around, and tried to guess how many people were in the park that day. The Covid-19 regulations are different in our home states, so it felt strange that masks were not required in bathroom buildings or crowded areas where distancing is not possible. We found ourselves taking our masks on and off a lot, and just kept them on as families rolled in closer to the main feature of the park.
Eventually, we found ourselves concentrating more on keeping distance than enjoying the scenery of the park. So, back to camp we went… I took a nap!
Our Favorite Hike
Our favorite hike ended up being a lesser used trail that continues north from our campsite. It passed an old homestead where the chimney still stands and a long steep trail down to the creek.
We had the trail to ourselves Sunday morning and sat by the water, enjoying a long, peaceful moment before chugging back up the long hill back to our cars. It was a relaxing way to end our weekend and we were thankful to have found it before our long drives home.
Overall, the hike in sites at this park were a nice break from the busier areas but could use some food boxes and a pit toilet. Our favorite parts of the trip didn’t have much to do with the main features of the park, and we enjoyed our quiet little campsite and hanging out together.
This was a great location to meet up at, but we decided that for our next trip, we’d try to find a new spot. Maybe one with a lake or river for kayaking!
In addition to my little yellow garden wagon (which hauls AND protects!) Here are a few more faves from this trip. I’m working on a Wandering Pine Gear Page that is under construction at the time of writing this, check it out and let me know what you think.
Nemo Fillo Elite – My new backpacking pillow! Its a neck saver. It came highly recommended and I’ll probably write a dedicated review on it – I like it that much. Available at Nemo, REI, Moosejaw and Campsaver
As I wrap up this post, a couple of weeks after our trip…I’m feeling grateful that I got to experience a long colorful Fall this year, starting in the BWCA and working my way south to Iowa. Minnesota has had 3 days of unusually early snow this week (about 10 inches total in our area). Its 25 degrees outside this morning and our yards are still blanketed in white. The garden is cleaned up and I can’t decide if I should be raking leaves, carving pumpkins or just going straight to putting up the Christmas tree. As much as I love this season, the early snow has got me looking forward to winter and digging through the snowshoe , winter camping and winter skills blog archives. This led to some category reorganizing on the page header (above) that will hopefully make things easier to find – check it out and let me know what you think.
Are you ready for winter? Have you camped or backpacked in Iowa? Have any good recommendations or places we should check out? Tell us about it!