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.
It’s been a minute since my last hike.
But as the leaves are beginning to really peak here in Northeast Iowa, I couldn’t help getting back out for (say it ain’t so!) one of my last hikes of the season.
And if you’re looking for a place to go leaf-peeping, you could do worse than Hartman Reserve Nature Center near Cedar Falls. It boasts 340 acres of hardwood maples, oaks, and other deciduous greenery that turns many glorious shades of yellow, orange, and the occasional red come autumn.
Because it’s practically in my backyard (and backs right up to George Wyth State Park), I’ve been lucky enough to traipse around Hartman Reserve, a county-owned park, probably a dozen times or more.
Situated about on the dividing line between Cedar Falls and Waterloo, it doesn’t have the signage of a state park to be sure. A small brown sign off of Rainbow Road lets you know to turn, and from there you follow a couple of winding, forested neighborhood streets before coming to a parking lot and the trailhead.
And if you’ve never been, that’s exactly where you should start—where the trail meets up with the Interpretive Center, which then allows you to choose your own adventure among the trails cutting through the 46 hilly acres actually designated a state preserve for its unique “upland and lowland forest.”
Lovely any time, it’s truly gorgeous (and ‘Gram-worthy) this time of year, with the inclines and stairs providing dramatic, colorful views.
But since that’s where I frequently start my hike, I decided to take a different road through the yellowed wood, parking on the eastern edge of the park’s South Riverside Trail.
The trail is precisely named: It leads to the southern bank of the Cedar River, and you can eventually even walk to and along the water’s edge, something I very much like to do on a hike. (Woods are great, but so is open sky, sunshine, and soaring birds overhead!)
The great thing about Hartman Reserve is there are lots of choose-your-own-adventure trails, many of them cut through the forest by a local off-road bicycling group and are helpfully labeled with their difficulty levels. Most of those trails are across the river at George Wyth, but the group has cut a few in Hartman. Also, if you’re on the South Riverside Trail, you can take Bullfrog Bayou, Houli Hoop, or the long, twisty Sherwood Forest for an added challenge.
But you can also take the easy paved trail that leads to gravel that leads to the existing trail to get to the river, and that’s what we did this time around.
The sights and sounds
At the time, probably about half of the trees were green and half yellow. Yellow seemed to be the dominant color right now, perhaps because the redder oaks won’t turn for a while yet.
But the yellow and green were definitely supplanted by the Virginia creeper vines climbing up many of the tree trunks, which provide a nice, red contrast.
Once you hit the Cedar, it seemed like a bigger percentage of trees had turned, and it turns out there’s some science behind why that is. The color palette is STUNNING by a river in fall.
As an added bonus, the river walk makes it easier to spot wildlife, like swooping hawks and honking Canada geese irritated you’re walking down the beach they’re foraging on.
We also spotted lots of open and cracked mussel shells on the banks; they’re a tasty food for ducks, otters, muskrats, raccoons, and other wildlife found around here. (Native freshwater mussels are a great way to keep a river healthy because they filter the water, and the DNR keeps tabs on the dozens of populations.)
It can be easy to bemoan the loss of summer’s long days and warm weather (believe me, I’m right there with you). But the best antidote to the changing seasons, perhaps, is experiencing them. And any deciduously forested area, like Hartman Reserve, is a perfect place to do so.
Sure, a fall hike can be a bit cooler, with not as many blooming things, and a lot more sticky-burr-heavy (my poor dog didn’t appreciate that last part).
But if a tree can face winter head-on every year, I think to myself as I’m watching the leaves drop, surely I—with my central heating and my hot tea and my slippers—can as well.
By Amie Rivers
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