Driving along dusty arrow-straight roads, passing fields of corn and soybeans that stretch brown and golden to the horizon, it’s hard to imagine that a few turns will bring you to a completely different world at Iowa’s Ledges State Park.
But as many Midwesterners have discovered, the landscape in the plains holds surprising hideaways. Near Ledges, suddenly the road dips and turns, and forests replace fields. Down, down, until you are at the floor of Pea’s Creek Canyon, surrounded by sandstone bluffs up to 100 feet high, wooded hills and meandering creeks.
We drove to Ledges earlier this month for the third time since moving to Iowa six years ago. Each time, we’ve found something new—and something familiar.
We’ve always gone in fall, attracted by the colors of the park’s oak, hickory, maple and basswood trees. My husband and I hike some of the park’s 13 miles of trails, or just sit in the woods or by the creek, listening to the babble of water and the rustling of leaves, sounds we do not hear enough of in our Des Moines-area home.
The first time we visited Ledges, we loved it because it reminded us of the mountains we’d left behind when we moved to Iowa. The second time, we were fascinated by the destruction wrought by 2010 floods that left the one-way road through the park closed to cars for two years. We walked the cracked and sand-covered road, wondering if it would be fixed, feeling a bit like we'd stumbled on a ghost town.
But Ledges, one of Iowa’s first state parks (opened in 1924) as well as one of its most-visited, has weathered many floods, and it recovered from the 2010 waters as well. This year, we crossed a new, sturdy bridge at one end of the canyon drive, and the areas where the stream crosses the road had been repaired up as well.
So like most people, we drove down into the canyon, parked, and hiked from there. We snapped photos both of the fall color and of new discoveries (the bridge!) and stretched our legs on our short must-do walks (Crow’s Nest, Lost Lake).
I was glad to see the park as popular as ever, with its diverse mix of visitors: families with children who wade in the creek; young couples holding hands; older adults toting binoculars and hiking poles.
But I was a little sad, too, because easier road access means more noise and traffic. A few drivers clearly enjoyed trying to speed through the stream crossings and spray water. “Watch out!” one called as I stepped gingerly across stones in the stream next to the road. “You’re in the splash zone!”
Still, we’ll be back. It might be a little harder to find those peaceful places, but I know they’re there.