Driftless Stories -

Happy Trails: Eventful tromping in the Driftless Area

By Lauren Kraus
Printed in the May 2008 edition of Inspire(d)

Spring is here and you should be too! The squeals of kids playing ice hockey on Decorah’s flooded and frozen 5th Avenue basketball courts have been replaced by chirping birds eagerly greeting the day ahead. Mammoth mounds of snow have disappeared. The Whippy Dip is open. Daylight is staying with us longer and the many miles of trails that weave in and out of the area’s wooded bluffs are beckoning for exploration. This is the first in a series of articles that serves as a tribute and tutorial of our regions amazing hiking, biking, and walking trails.

We folks in Winneshiek County are lucky for several reasons. One, the Oneota Valley is located within the Driftless Area, a region in the Midwest lacking “glacial drift.” By escaping the glacier’s path in the most recent Ice Age, the Driftless Area was not flattened out like much of Iowa. I often have to remind my Colorado friends and family that I am not living in a giant, flat cornfield, say, like most of Nebraska, but rather am surrounded by deep river valleys, rolling bluffs and pronounced limestone outcroppings that are characteristic of this region.

The fine people behind Decorah Human Powered Trails and Decorah Parks and Recreation deserve praise for helping us take advantage of this geological luck. These two groups are concurrently pushing forward, and with the help of a myriad of volunteers, numerous trails have been constructed and secured since 1991. While talking with Deke Gosen of Oneota River Cycles in Decorah, I was thoroughly impressed with the evolution and documentation of the trails right in or near town. Gosen explained that, in the 80s specifically, only a limited amount of the Ice Cave trails existed. The year 1981 saw the birth of bicycles equipped with fatter tires to ride on terrain more technical than a road. Decorah led the state of Iowa in hosting the first mountain bike race on its (then few) backwoods trails. The rest is pretty much history… and some good organization, solid dedication and mindful trail building.

The current 15 miles of trails are truly something to be proud of. They form a foundation of outdoor life in Decorah that has caught the attention of people from all over the country.

“The incredible variety of trails in Decorah and the ability to totally lose yourself once you’re out there is awesome! The trails keep my running exciting and challenging,” says Yarrow Pasche, Luther College cross country and distance track coach from Bellingham, Washington.

Jesse Reyerson, biking enthusiast and secretary for Decorah Human Powered Trails, says on his website (www.bikedecorah.com), “The biking in Decorah, Iowa, is some of the best in the Midwest. From our gravel and road rides to our miles of singletrack, you’ll have a hard time finding the challenges and fun that our trails offer anywhere else.”

I have to completely agree with these two. While growing up in Denver, Colorado presented an exciting childhood full of all the hiking and skiing I could handle, a vehicle is a vital component in mountain access. The extensive and wide-ranging trails in Decorah are available right out our backdoor. The town is literally bordered by great trails of all sorts and sizes. Throughout my time as a Luther College student and runner, I explored them with utter excitement and awe. I continue to discover more and more accessibility to the peaceful stillness that awaits us in the woods. So, whether you’re clipping into a mountain bike, throwing on some hiking boots or tying a pair of running shoes, get out on those phenomenal trails for front-row access to budding trees, grazing wildlife, and riverside views.

To the trails
If you’re feeling like cruising through a natural-grass prairie while watching the sunset or hurdling fallen trees and large rocks in some rugged woods, we’ve got it all here. Check out the sidebar for a complete listing of trail recommendations.

A few of my favorites are: Twin Springs Park, Upper Ice Cave Hill in Dunning’s Spring Park and Van Peenen Park. All three offer a mix of jagged rock and mud trails that snake though the heavily wooded bluffs, the trickling of natural spring water never far away.

Twin Springs Park
Twin Springs Park is tucked on the west side of Highway 52 past Twin Springs Campground off a road of the same name. You can get there several ways – walk, bike or run from town off the Oneota Trail (Dug Road) below Phelps Park and head west past the campground and under Highway 52. Cross a single-lane bridge and you’re in the middle of the lush foliage and crystal clear water that is Twin Springs. Once you forget about the great grilling smell from the campground, you may almost think you’re on the set of Lord of the Rings – but pinch yourself – you’re still in Decorah. Hop on the trail parallel to the stream and continue west. Eventually you will come to the base of a bluff and have to head up. This portion of the trail is a loop and is roughly three-fourths of a mile in length. You’ll be happy you made the trip and may even work up an appetite to do some of your own grilling later.

Dunning’s Spring Park
If you’re familiar with Decorah, you’re probably familiar with Dunning’s Spring. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a picnic there or climbed the wooden stairs leading to the top of the waterfall to see the natural spring’s source. But did you know that there are several trails in the woods above the legendary spring? Finish that peanut butter and jelly and go east of the waterfall to the trailhead. From that point, you’ll begin on a very steep path that eventually leads to an awesome viewpoint of downtown Decorah. Keep heading up and you’ll find yourself in a wooded area on top of the bluff, east of Dunning’s Spring. These trails form a series of loops that wind through pine groves and other native trees and provide perfect opportunities to spot deer, hawks, bald eagles and other animal friends. On the opposite end or east side of the bluff, there are exit trails marked #36 and 37 that let out onto Ice Cave Road. If you don’t feel like stopping here, head down the north side of Ice Cave Hill on Randy’s Trail or Backside Trail and find yourself in Van Peenen Park.

Van Peenen
In my opinion, the Van Peenen trails are the most astounding of them all. I get giddy every time I’m up there. You can access Van Peenen from the backside of Ice Cave Hill, near the intersection of Quarry and Ice Cave Roads or further up on the Quarry Road. If you’re ready to jump right into what Van Peenen has to offer, I recommend starting on the south side either from Ice Cave Hill or off of Quarry Road. Get on the trail marked #1, stay right and you will eventually be led into what the biking community calls “Death Valley.” It’s the valley between the Ice Cave Hill bluff and the bluff Van Peenen is situated on. From here, the only way to go is up. Hang a sharp right in Death Valley on a trail marked #3 that skirts around the bluff and is a little bit more gradual in elevation gain. You’ll cross two wooden bridges and notice a small spring to your left. Continuing up the hillside, pay attention to the trees above as I’ve spotted a large Barn Owl as well as several hawks on that trail. Back in Death Valley, if you take the other right turn at #23, you’ll find yourself on Fred Trail, a pretty direct ascent up the side of the bluff. With either route, you’ll be led to the main set of trails that make up the Van Peenen system.

On top, you will be off the jagged, wooded trails and into a rolling mix of open prairie and deep pine sections. Pines West and Pines East are beautiful pine groves that Decorah Parks and Recreation planted nearly 20 years ago. Now, they have grown enough to walk, run, or bike through the thick of them on a soft, narrow, winding trail covered in pine needles. At this point, sometimes I forget I’m still in Iowa, as it smells just like a pine forest in Colorado. From the Pines, you can continue north down the other side of the bluff onto the Dust Bowl Trail that eventually leads to the exit on Quarry Road. I promise, a thorough exploration of Van Peenen is well worth a Saturday afternoon.

So get out there! May is here and summer is just around the bend. Later sunsets leave plenty of time to get off the pavement, get dirty and check out the terrific trails I’ve mentioned here. Let us know which one is your favorite. And check back next month as I head north of Decorah to explore some other trails…

Lauren Kraus loves her family and friends, is stoked about the transition into warmer weather, and was most definitely a mountain goat in a previous life. This is evidenced by her need for climbing steep surfaces and maybe a correlation to her frequent cravings for chèvre. Goats don’t ride bicycles though.

Here are some details on other great Decorah trails:

College Ridge Trail: two miles of several loops of wide, grassy, rolling trails through beautiful pine area. Bring a picnic and enjoy the great view from the top. Access off of Pole Line Rd. west of Highway 52

Decorah City Prairie: two miles of awesome, flat, wide trail that winds through natural prairie grass alongside the Upper Iowa river. Access it from Ohio Street and make sure to check out the old oak tree.

Luther’s Cross Country course: a great two-mile loop on Luther’s lower campus. Walk over the dike toward Highway 52 into Gateway Prairie. Another flat, soft prairie trail to extend your mileage while you’re out on the course.

Van Peenen Park: see article for description and directions.

Upper Ice Cave Hill: see article for description and directions.

Lower Ice Cave or River Trail: an awesome, rugged trail that runs next to the river off of
Ice Cave Road. Check out the newest additions adding great variety to the trail. About _ mile in length.

Palisades Park: There is something for everyone here! Continue west on Ice Cave Road until you hit the gravel. Head up on the paved road or stay low on the gravel road. Either grants access to the great trail system that meanders through Palisades Park. Hilly, wooded and beautiful views of Decorah.

Oneota Drive Rec. Trail or Dug Road: paved path that provides a great look at what Decorah offers- limestone bluffs alongside the Upper Iowa River. Access on the west end off Hwy 52 on Oneota Drive or at the west end of Main St. (Dug Road portion closed until further notice due to large cracks in the trail.)
Twin Springs Park: see article for description and directions.

Other trails to check out:
Anderson Prairie and the Hickory Ridge Trails: located next to Luther’s Baker Village and across from the Decorah Pool, Anderson Prairie leads up to the trees where you can access the secluded Hickory Ridge trail system. Great for an evening stroll in the woods.

Upper Phelps Park Trail: Access from Phelps Park off of Upper Broadway. The wooded trail leads you west of the Park along the ridgeline and offers an awesome view of the river and town. Come up the backside near Twin Springs Campground. Cross the “Cut” and take a right up the hill to the trailhead.

Pulpit Rock: At Will Baker Park located on Pulpit Rock Rd., head up on the trail. Take a break at the awesome lookout spot and then continue onto a great trail system that borders the ridge of the bluff. Beautiful place to watch the sunrise!

Sites worth mentioning: