by Seth Brooks
Fall is the best time to hike in the Loess Hills: temperatures are cool, humidity is low, insects are largely gone, and a mosaic of red, yellow, and brown paint the hillsides. According to the Iowa DNR, this week the southern Loess Hills should reach peak color. The forecast for the last weekend of October looks perfect for a leaf-peeping hike on any of the publicly accessible lands in southwestern Iowa. While the wind and rain that swept across Nebraska and Iowa this week will have knocked off some leaves, the precipitation could give rise to another wonder of fall: mushrooms! It will be difficult to keep your eyes on the colorful canopy when fantastic fungi are fruiting from the forest floor. Put on a jacket, grab your hiking boots, bring a basket, and go hiking this weekend!
Waubonsie State Park, named for Chief Waubonsie of the Pottawattamie tribe, is perhaps the best place to soak in the fall forest atmosphere. The park, one hour south of Omaha just off Interstate 29, is divided into two sections divided by Highway 2. The northern section has multi-use trails and is frequented by horseback riders. We will focus on the southern section of the park as its trails are open only to hikers.
Sunset Ridge Trail is the park’s main trail, taking in sweeping vistas of the Missouri River Valley and diving into hardwood hollows. If you combine Sunset Ridge with Mincer Trail, you can make a nice 2.5-mile loop. However, three other trails--Ridge, Bridge, and Valley--are also worth your time. Linking them all together via the Overlook Trail is about six miles round-trip (there are trail maps available at the park, so feel free to make up your own hike).
The ideal trailhead to start at is in the southwestern corner of the park. The trail immediately descends into a hollow only to steeply climb up a ridge. This climb could be slippery after rain. If so, hiking poles are recommended. Follow this ridge north with great views of the Missouri River Valley on your left. Recently installed interpretative panels provide information on the Loess Hills region. The trail turns east after half a mile but continues along the ridgetop.
After a little more than half a mile, you will have a decision to make. Turn south to follow Mincer Trail and then the park road back to the trailhead. If you have more energy—or your mushroom basket is not yet full—continue north following Overlook Trail. You will pass a shelter and viewpoint before reaching a fork: left follows Ridge Trail, right Bridge Trail. Both are excellent choices and mostly shaded, so keep your eyes peeled for mushrooms pushing through the forest floor.
Ridge Trail is exactly that: it stays atop a ridge which gives you great views back towards Sunset Ridge Trail. This is an out and back, so feel free to turn around at any time. Bridge Trail is also a pleasant walk but does have a descent toward the end. However, this area might be prime mushroom foraging. You will have to climb back up the ridge as Bridge Trail is also an out and back.
As you return, you have the option on your left to follow Valley Trail. This trail descends into a hollow and then climbs back up behind the park office before connecting with Overlook Trail. From here, you can follow Overlook and Mincer trails and then the park road back to the trailhead. Whichever trails you follow, Waubonsie State Park will surely provide you a vigorous yet refreshing fall hike.
Another excellent option for fall colors is West Oak Forest, eight miles northwest of Glenwood, Iowa, and managed by the Mills County Conservation Board. While not as large as Waubonsie, West Oak Forest does not lack enchanting woods to explore. The most used and best marked trails are in the southern part of the forest. It is a steep climb from the parking area, but once you reach the top, you are rewarded with typical Loess Hills topography of hilltop prairie, both remnant and restored, and hardwood forest in the hollows and ravines below. As you follow the trail to the south, take the spur trail heading west to a wonderful lookout point with views of the Missouri River Valley. There are some beautiful, twisted bur oaks along the trail to the lookout point. There is a steep path that leads down from the viewpoint, but this would not be recommended after recent rains. Instead, turn around and head back to the main trails along the ridge.
The best part of West Oak Forest, in my opinion, is the trails in the northern section of the park. I wandered this section in May, so my memory might betray me, but there are fewer trail markers here, making it easy to get lost along the several trails that go deeper and deeper into the forest. Just remember how to get back, which includes a nice climb to get your heart rate going after a leisurely stroll in the forest.
Nearby, both Mile Hill Lake and Pony Creek Park are other stellar options to enjoy what looks to be a splendid fall weekend. And if you forage for mushrooms: if you cannot identify it, don’t eat it.