I’ve probably never done so many stairs on a single hiking trail before. My calves and the pads of my feet are sore. My dog has never slept so well in his life.
But MAN, that VIEW!
Palisades-Kepler State Park in Mount Vernon may be an 840-acre M.C. Escher painting. But just like that painting, there are plenty of places to stop, rest and take in the dramatic views of the limestone cliffs abutting the Cedar River, which winds north to the southeast along the western edge of the park and is its focal point.
To be sure, there are easier hikes at “the Pal” than the one we did this week. But if you’re going to hike here, and you have the stamina, you simply must hike the 2-mile Cedar Cliff Trail. It’s the whole point of the park!
The trail (which, unfortunately, like many in the park, simply dead-ends rather than loops) gives the best views of the palisades, a noun meaning “line of cliffs,” I learned.
Native Americans frequented the area for hundreds of years and built mounds, until a European man—James Sherman Minott—claimed 180 acres of the timber in 1890 in order to host vacationers, according to a history of the park.
Palisades State Park was established in 1922 after the State Board of Conservation acquired most of his land. It then got a gift of another 100-some acres from the estate of Louis H. Kepler in 1928, after which Kepler’s name (but not Minott’s, burn!) was added. Another 700 acres were added in the years to come.
There are six official hiking trails at P-K, four of them labeled by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as “hard.”
Four of the trails are short, though some are steep, and simply connect campsites or buildings to the river or lead to overlooks. Cool Hollow Trail, a 1-mile “hard” trail, cuts through the heart of the park.
Cedar Cliff is the longest of all the trails and also “hard.” I didn’t look any of this up before I parked and followed all the other hikers into the woods.
The trail starts easily enough, winding around large rock formations that were apparently ancient reefs from 450 million years ago, then follows those formations up and down through the dirt and rocky trail.
To say Cedar Cliff is challenging is probably an understatement. My dog was frequently pulling me down steep embankments way too fast, in my estimation, and of course not returning the favor on the way up. And we definitely passed a hiker using actual hiking poles, which indicated to me that this is probably not your average walk-in-the-woods hike.
Still, I’m no hiking expert nor in any sort of actual exercising shape, but I made it to the end and back in 80-degree heat without complaining TOO much.
The sights and sounds
Immediately, though, I was rewarded for my efforts. You’ll forget you were just on a StairMaster when you get to an overlook.
Though there wasn’t much blooming in the shade in late June, wildlife was in abundance:
Two white-tailed deer crashed through brush mere steps from the entrance to the trail, adding to the thrill I already felt after seeing not one, but two fawns walking around near the entrance road.
I saw my first mayfly of the season and spotted a daddy longlegs and a chipmunk skittering across the trail. We also watched a number of large black turkey vultures soar over the Cedar River while Canada geese cooled themselves in the shallows below and some type of sandpiper birds ran across the beach.
We were even rewarded with a mockingbird, or perhaps a catbird, mimicking several different bird calls in a row in an adjacent tree. (Apparently, several types of birds in Iowa can do this!)
I wouldn’t be too intimidated by Cedar Cliffs or Palisades-Kepler in general. You can always just drive there, park, and walk a short distance to the beach, where we spotted a few people catching rays on a nice, sunny day in the 80s. You can do plenty of palisade marveling and wildlife-watching from there.
Should you venture in, keep in mind many of the trails dead end anyway, so there’s no “finish line.” Just remember to turn back once you’ve gotten halfway tired (ha!).
And if you’re up for the challenge—including plenty of side trails and even some actual rock-climbing—Palisades-Kepler holds a forest of rewards for you.
By Amie Rivers
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