Yellow River State Forest: An Iowa State Park With Secluded Valleys and Spectacular Bluffs

Hogs and corn are the hallmarks of our state, along with the quiet rural life. But the Yellow River State Forest is something really different, one of the most remote wild stream areas to be found anywhere in the Midwest.

Located on Highway 76 in Northeastern Iowa, the Yellow River State Forest offers excellent fishing and hiking trails through an environment of dense forests and high bluffs. Like us, you may become so enchanted you won’t want to leave: we planned to stay five days but ended up staying ten. And all the other campers we met at Yellow River had been coming there for many years. Here’s how Dorothy and I ended up there.

Dorothy: It was the last day of March that my friend and husband, Mr. Beal, announced, with great formality, “In early May we will go on our camping trip for a week.”

This trip had been the subject of debate for some time. Now that we have a motor home, Bill argued, why sleep in a tent? And since the motor home has a kitchen, why cook over an open fire, that producer of smoke-filled and reddened eyes? In the end, though, Bill gave in to my enthusiasm for experiencing the great outdoors in the most primitive way possible.

“This will be your trip,” Bill announced. “We’ll do it the way you like it.”

Yellow River State Forest was the only state park listed on the road map I could find that was designated primitive, with no electricity. I imagined we would pack our equipment in and forget about roads, motor homes, and civilization.

But that was not quite what we found. We drove right into this lush green valley with designated campsites and iron rings to contain the fires. Initially, I was disappointed, which astonished good husband. But when I awoke the next morning in our dear little tent with the see-through top, listening to birds singing with voices that were new to me, I realized I was in heaven. Mighty trees surrounded us. The odor was fragrant with their white blossoms. Little Paint Creek told its story nearby. From then on, it was one delight after another.

Bill: Our camp hosts, Charlie and Grace Clancy from Dubuque, went out of their way to make sure we had everything we needed, including plenty of firewood for a big roaring fire every night. The Clancys had spent nearly 50 years camping and fishing at Yellow River before Charlie retired and they became camp hosts. Now they spend their summers there, living in their comfortable motor home.

I like to run around photographing things and writing stories on places we visit, but this time our trip was dedicated to Dorothy’s passion for the great outdoors. And yet a story also presented itself—one that we decided to write together.

Soon it became apparent that our story needed an interesting character. He materialized in the form of Vern Hagen, master fisherman. With everyone else catching only recently stocked little fish, Vern came walking by our camp area with a gorgeous 20-inch trout.

Vern, who has come to the Yellow River Forest for the past 20 years, is the ultimate sportsman. He fishes about once a week in different places, using a barbless hook so that he can release most of them without damage. This increases his challenge, because as the fish darts in different directions, he must keep a perfect tension on the line; otherwise, the fish will throw the hook. He was bringing this one home because he and his wife had decided that it was time for a good fish dinner.

Dorothy: Bill wanted to photograph Vern with his fresh catch, but Vern wasn’t sure and allowed as to how he should first talk it over with his wife. Bad news. They decided that it was tantamount to boasting, and he shouldn’t do it. Bill was crushed, and gloom descended upon our campsite.

Later in the day, Vern returned carrying his fish. He had told the wife about Bill’s crestfallen face, and she relented. Bill took the picture and all was well again.

Bill: Hiking, fishing, swimming in the stream (brrrrr), renting a canoe for a day all make for quite an experience at Yellow River. But there is still more to see in the Effigy Mounds National Monument five miles to the south.

Human occupation in eastern Iowa dates back almost 12,000 years. These ancient people buried their dead in conical mounds. The effigy mounds built in the shape of animals about 1,400 years ago appear to be clan symbols or religious sites for seasonal ceremonies.

Some 19th century beliefs held that the mounds were built by advanced cultures from the Middle East, China, or Europe, but Smithsonian Institute research provided conclusive proof that the mound builders were prehistoric American Indians. So, you see, the Indians encountered by the first Europeans ettlers were actually latecomers.

It is quite a hike to get up to the mounds but beautiful beyond description.

Dorothy: How glad I was that our motor home was right beside us at Yellow River. We had stocked the refrigerator with a five-day supply of organic vegetables and the cupboards with our other necessities. There was our sink for washing up, and our own toilet to use instead of the stinky outhouse. Our books, writing materials, and art supplies that we used daily were at hand.

At the end of five days, with our food supply depleted, we looked at each other and agreed to five days more. We drove the few minutes north to the village of Waukon to use the dump station in their park. Then, traveling on to Decorah, we stocked up on our favorite organic foods at the Co-op across from the Vesterheim Norwegian Museum. After enjoying a splendid Norwegian lunch next door at the Dayton Café, we headed back to the Yellow River Forest.

All our needs were met, and I was still able to sleep under the stars. It was sheer bliss.