I’m hiking every beautiful place I can think of around my home state, to showcase the beauty Iowa has to offer. Follow along on social media using #AmieTakesAHike to pass along your suggestions and see where I’m headed next.
I hadn’t been venturing around Wildcat Den State Park near Muscatine since I was a kid.
So, on the occasion of my 20-year high school class reunion, while I was already having fun seeing how my classmates have fared over the years, I thought I’d do the same with the state park. (Spoiler alert: You haven’t aged a bit!)
This time, I’m not being dragged along on a class field trip to the Pinecreek Grist Mill (no shade! Check it out, it’s one of the oldest working mills this side of the Mississippi). Nor was I running ahead, annoyed that my parents were taking so many photos along the way and slowing me down.
Nowadays, I’m the one taking my time, enjoying the rock formations, walking slowly enough to spot the animals and plant life. Funny how you can always appreciate new things about an old familiar place.
One of the things that I always remembered about Wildcat Den State Park, located about halfway between Muscatine and Davenport and near the Mississippi River, is the stairs. It turns out that’s because they’re pretty unavoidable here.
Like most natural areas along the Mississippi, the terrain gets quite hilly. All Trails says some can climb about 500 feet, and some of that is steep enough that there are warnings about unauthorized climbing or rappelling.
You find out why when you hit the bottom of the Punch Bowl Trail, follow the creek, and see the smooth curves water-carved through 312-million-year-old sandstone.
The sights and sounds
Seven official trails form a few loops and cover most of the park, all of it in less than 4 miles. But you’ll feel that elevation: Two of the trails are rated “moderate,” while four are “hard” and the 0.4-mile Cave Trail is the first I’ve encountered rated “expert” (bring those hiking poles!).
But if you’re just looking for the quintessential and photographable Wildcat Den experience, you can make it nice and easy on yourself and do the Punch Bowl loop.
We parked at the campground and took the Campground Trail down to the Devil’s Punchbowl, which loops around to take you down into the belly of the sandstone.
Sandstone is a cool rock—hard enough to climb up, but soft enough you can scrape sand off of it with your hands. Its color is dependent on the minerals it collects along the way, which in Wildcat Den’s case is anywhere from gray to red (read more about the sandstone and how it formed here).
On a hot summer day, these shady trails aren’t too bad at all. You can sit near the bottom of the bluffs to further cool off, listening to the cicadas call each other through the trees and watching a chipmunk or two skitter by.
They say you can’t go home again, and it’s true. I’m not the same kid, getting yelled at for trying to climb the slippery sandstone or running way ahead of everyone. I’m a bit slower, more contemplative, and more mindful about what and who is around me. (And I actually bothered to figure out how old the rock I was looking at was!)
But I think that also proves that Wildcat Den State Park has something for all ages: Gorgeous views, well-marked and looped trails, decent climbs, and fantastic rock formations.
I still love exploring, but like a looped hike, where I don’t have to worry about how far I am from my parked car. I still love climbing to the top of a bluff, taking in the scenery below.
Wildcat Den is a reminder of everything I love about places like this: Snapshots in time, yet a reminder that time always marches on.
By Amie Rivers
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