Itching to get outside? 13 lesser-known local parks to check out

Bellevue State Park offers up a beautiful overlook onto Bellevue, Iowa, and the Mississippi River. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering

The view from Bellevue State Park in Bellevue, Iowa, on Wednesday, March, 2, 2022. PHOTO CREDIT: Stephen Gassman

The entrance to the Butterfly Garden at Bellevue State Park in Bellevue, Iowa, on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

Lily Rupp, 7, and her brother Miles Rupp, 4, both of Hazel Green, Wis., and Addy Schober, an AmeriCorps intern with Dubuque County Conservation, look for monarch butterflies at Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area in Bernard, Iowa. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

People explore Proving Grounds Recreation Area. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

The Motor Mill towers over the Turkey River at the historic site in Elkader, Iowa. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Hurstville Interpretive Center in Maquoketa, Iowa. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

Baileys Ford Park is located in Manchester, Iowa, near the confluence of the Maquoketa River and a trout stream. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR

Lexy Wessels, 9, of Edgewood, Iowa, plays a game at New Wine Park outside New Vienna. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Tom Dietz, of Breezy Point, Minn., takes a photo of a gray wolf at Osborne Park near Elkader, Iowa. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering

From the stone council ring in Horseshoe Mound Preserve in Galena, Ill., visitors can see for miles. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR

Jenny Kane (left) and Kyle Bardo, both of Chicago, walk their dog, at Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve in rural Galena, Ill. PHOTO CREDIT: KATINA ZENTZ

Apple River Canyon State Park is located on nearly 297 acres in Jo Daviess County, Ill. PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Kettering, Telegraph Herald

Wyalusing State Park in Bagley, Wis. PHOTO CREDIT: KATINA ZENTZ

Nelson Dewey State Park in Cassville, Wis. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR

For tri-state residents, the prime season for outdoor fun has arrived.

The area is home to all manner of opportunities to get outdoors, with dozens of county and state parks offering opportunities for hiking, biking, paddling, camping and other activities.

Those opportunities include some of the area’s most well-known natural areas, such as Mines of Spain State Recreation Area and Maquoketa Caves State Park. But there also are plenty of other, lesser-known parks that area residents can enjoy.

With spring just around the corner, here are 13 area state and local parks you can check out as the weather warms (or perhaps even before that, if you can’t wait any longer to get outside).

Iowa Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area

Location: 29912 Ninth Ave., rural Bernard, Iowa.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area offers hiking trails through woods and prairies at one of Iowa’s three true canyons. The area is also a popular spot for hunting and county programming.

Grass trails in the wildlife area lead past reconstructed prairie into a wooded area known as Lost Canyon. The trail is surrounded by rock outcroppings and caves and leads past an old stone dam constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Other areas of trail wind through prairies. Dubuque County Conservation staff conduct controlled burns to coax out native prairie species, and several years ago, they planted oak trees to create an oak savanna in one area.

Other highlights include a scenic overlook near Whitewater Creek. From atop a rocky bluff near the border of Dubuque, Jackson and Jones counties, a scenic vista comes into view as the creek winds through the woods below.

Many of the park’s geological features also are unique among parks managed by Dubuque County Conservation board staff.

Proving Grounds Recreation Area

Location: 10616 W. John Deere Road, Dubuque.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

One of Dubuque County’s newest parks, Proving Grounds Recreation Area boasts broad, grassy hiking trails through a diverse set of environments. Mountain biking trails also wind through the property.

Visitors to the 137-acre recreation area are greeted by a pavilion with picnic tables set alongside a field of prairie grasses planted by conservation staff.

Beyond the parking lot, a paved drive gives way to a wide grassy trail that winds uphill. Those trails came ready-made when Deere & Co. donated the land to the conservation board in 2018.

The park received its name because John Deere Dubuque Works employees previously used the space to test their equipment.

Trails in the recreation area wind through a mix of prairie and forest, which is home to all manner of local wildlife. The park also is open to bowhunters in season.

Motor Mill Historic Site

Location: 23002 Grain Road, Elkader, Iowa.

Hours: Sunrise to 10:30 p.m.

Tours: Tours of the mill and nearby buildings will be offered on weekends through September, plus some extra fall weekends. More information is available at Tours also are available by appointment.

Nestled alongside the Turkey River southeast of Elkader, a 19th century limestone flour mill and nearby buildings greet visitors to Motor Mill Historic Site.

Visitors can tour the mill on summer weekends to learn about its history. And on any day of the week, they can hike, fish, camp and canoe in the surrounding acreage.

The site traces its history to 1847, when John Thompson purchased the plot of land in Clayton County. In 1867, Thompson partnered with James Crosby and J.P. Dickinson to build a mill that would open two years later.

Invasions of bugs that devastated wheat crops, flooding that damaged the dam, changing agricultural practices and other issues forced the closure of the mill in 1883. The small town that had sprung up nearby dissolved.

These days, visitors to the historic site can tour the structure, as well as nearby buildings such as the stable and cooperage. Clayton County Conservation officials also are working on renovating the inn at the site to accommodate overnight stays.

The surrounding land includes about 4.5 miles of hiking trails on both sides of the Turkey River. One trail follows a steep incline through the woods to the site of an old quarry used to mine limestone for the nearby buildings. The area also plays host to several campsites, which typically open for the season in May.

A bend in the Turkey River at the historic site also provides a good spot for fishing, and a nearby canoe landing is a popular spot for paddlers to get out on the river. The southern portion of the park also is accessible to horseback riders.

Hurstville Interpretive Center

Location: 18670 63rd St., Maquoketa, Iowa.

Hours: The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday year-round and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday from April to October. The center is open noon to 4 p.m. on weekends in November. There is no cost to enter the center. The grounds of Hurstville Interpretive Center are open to the public from dawn to dusk.

Located just north of Maquoketa, Hurstville Interpretive Center allows visitors to learn about and experience nature both indoors and outside.

Inside the center, visitors can check out small exhibits about local habitats and about the history of the Hurstville area. There also are displays with turtles, snakes, salamanders and various insects.

In the surrounding nature area, visitors can roam through the habitats they learned about indoors. The site features about a half-mile of grass walking trails that route visitors through prairie landscapes and along the nearby marsh. A short, paved, Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible trail also runs through the prairie.

Other opportunities to explore at the site include a bird blind on the marsh and a fenced-off area where visitors can view two trumpeter swans who live at the site as part of a state rehabilitation program.

The center’s complex also continues on the other side of U.S. 61, where visitors can access a fishing pond with a dock or take their kayaks and canoes out on the water.

Baileys Ford Park

Location: 2379 Jefferson Road, Manchester, Iowa.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Walk-in access available year-round, but vehicle access restricted until mid-April.

Located a few miles southeast of Manchester, Baileys Ford Park offers visitors opportunities for camping, hiking, fishing, boating and other outdoor activities.

A gravel road that winds through Baileys Ford Park leads visitors to various amenities.

Campsites in the southern end of the park run alongside a trout stream and toward the Maquoketa River. Anglers also can put small- and medium-sized fishing boats into the river at access points in the park.

The river is also a popular spot for paddlers, who often take their kayaks and canoes out at Baileys Ford at the end of the Maquoketa River Water Trail.

Baileys Ford features about 80 campsites spread throughout the park, and visitors also can access a shower facility with restrooms. The shower facility opened for the season in early May.

Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. A youth group camping area is available for reservations.

The site contains a mix of wooded areas and grassy clearings, along with playgrounds, picnic shelters available for reservations and a sand volleyball court, among other things. Markers at various points off the road mark access points to hiking trails.

New Wine Park

Location: 15971 New Wine Park Lane, New Vienna, Iowa.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

New Wine Park features hiking trails, campsites, playgrounds, disc golf and other opportunities in a wooded area along the western edge of Dubuque County.

Near the park’s entrance is a clear area with a playground and a pavilion with picnic tables. Holes for the park’s disc golf course also dot the landscape nearby.

Just a short walk away are spaces for nearly 30 campsites, with a shower house, restrooms and another playground on site. Modern amenities at the campsite typically open in April, though camping is allowed in the winter.

The North Fork Maquoketa River also winds through the park, and children who visit enjoy playing in its waters. Paddlers also can access the river.

Conservation crews replanted thousands of trees in the park after a tornado ripped through the area in 2008. Their efforts in the years since have focused on re-establishing an oak hickory forest at the site.

Wild animals also are abundant in the park, with deer migrating there in the fall and winter and bald eagles roosting on winter evenings.

Osborne Park

Location: 29862 Osborne Road, Elkader, Iowa.

Hours: Sunrise to 10:30 p.m.

Located southwest of Elkader, Osborne Park boasts a wide variety of offerings across its 300 acres. Visitors can hike, play disc golf, visit a nature center and historic village, go kayaking and canoeing and view exhibits with animals native to the state.

Visitors to the nature center — which also is an Iowa welcome center — can view small exhibits as well as live animals such as turtles, snakes and salamanders.

One of the park’s biggest draws is located outside in the nearby wildlife exhibit, which houses a variety of animals native to Iowa that otherwise could not be released into the wild, such as a mountain lion, a bobcat, foxes, a raccoon, a black bear, owls, an eagle, a wolf and a turkey.

Several small buildings mark the park’s pioneer village, which aims to give people a look at what life was like in the town of Osborne, which sprung up in the late 1800s.

A short drive away from the nature center along Iowa 13, visitors can access the northern part of the park, which includes hiking trails, a disc golf course and archery ranges.

A canoe access point along the Volga River also is a popular spot for paddlers.

Bellevue State Park

Location: Nelson Unit: 24668 U.S. 52, Bellevue, Iowa; Dyas Unit: 21466 429th Ave., Bellevue.

Hours: 4 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

At Bellevue State Park, visitors can hike, camp, look for butterflies and catch multiple views of the Mississippi River at two sites spread over nearly 800 acres.

The park’s Nelson Unit includes a butterfly garden. The garden — marked by a pond, plots of grass and benches — is particularly popular with visitors and school groups. The Nelson Unit also is home to a playground and picnic shelters.

Elsewhere in the park, a paved road winds its way up to a scenic overlook, from which visitors can see the river, Lock and Dam No. 12 and lines of buildings that fill the city of Bellevue.

The changing of seasons means the view from the overlook changes throughout the year. In the fall, the scene is dominated by orange and red leaves. In winter, the Mississippi River freezes, and visitors can catch sight of eagles nearby.

About two miles south along U.S. 52, visitors can access Bellevue State Park’s Dyas Unit. The space features about 45 campsites, many of which have electrical hookups.

Shelters in the Dyas Unit provide space for picnicking near the river, as well as a small playground. The area also features multiple hiking trails.

Illinois Horseshoe Mound Preserve

Location: 1679 N. Blackjack Road, Galena, Ill.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Check the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation’s website to see when the preserve is closed in April and May for turkey hunting season.

Set high above Galena, Horseshoe Mound Preserve offers multiple scenic overlooks, along with hiking trails, a butterfly garden, activities for children and opportunities for watching birds.

Just a short walk from the preserve’s parking lot is a large stone council ring. From there, visitors can see a view stretching on for miles. The church steeples down in Galena rise in the foreground, and Sinsinawa Mound in Wisconsin and Balltown, Iowa, are visible on the horizon.

Visitors willing to take a short hike also can reach other overlooks featuring views of rolling hills and the Mississippi River. In a secluded area on the north end of the property, visitors can sit and watch for wildlife.

Last fall, Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation staff opened a trail extension that winds through an oak savanna the foundation is working to restore.

A “children’s adventure” also leads the preserve’s younger visitors through different historic and geological features of the space.

Bird-watching enthusiasts also can find plenty of wildlife at Horseshoe Mound. The preserve features a trail with bluebird boxes along its path, making spring a good time to view bluebirds.

Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve

Location: 870 S. Pilot Knob Road, Galena, Ill.

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

Located south of Galena, the 121-acre reserve offers visitors the chance to hike through restored prairie and oak savanna while learning about the Native Americans who built a series of burial and ceremonial mounds there.

A grassy trail winds through a restored tallgrass prairie, at one point opening up to a clearing from which the Mississippi River comes into view, with Iowa visible on the other side. Trails also connect to Casper Creek Natural Cemetery, which opened last year.

Interpretive signs in the park mark the location of Native American mounds believed to have been built in the Late Woodland Period from 700 to 1,000 A.D. Not all of the mounds are visible, however, because foundation staff members do not mow them on the advice of tribal groups.

One effigy is shaped like a bird with a 216-foot wingspan. Foundation staff mow around the thunderbird effigy — the last known bird effigy in the state — in the southern end of the park, so the outline of the mound is visible to visitors.

Other amenities include a pavilion with benches and a fire pit, as well as a connection to Galena River Trail, which links the city of Galena to Chestnut Mountain Resort.

Apple River Canyon State Park

Where: 8763 E. Canyon Road, Apple River, Ill.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

It only takes a short walk at Apple River Canyon State Park to reach trails winding through woods, atop bluffs and along the park’s titular river.

Indeed, all five of the park’s trailheads are easily accessible from the parking lot in the middle of the nearly 300-acre area.

Located southwest of Warren, Apple River Canyon State Park offers visitors opportunities for hiking, fishing and camping along the river.

The Apple River flows through the park, with rocky bluffs set alongside the water. One spot where forks of the river meet boasts particularly deep water, a good spot for novice anglers. Other, more shallow parts of the river are good for more experienced anglers.

Smallmouth bass are particularly big catches in the park, and staffers stock the water with trout in the spring and fall.

The park also boasts 50 campsites set atop the river bluffs. Most of those sites are set back into wooded areas and largely are secluded from one another. Those campsites open for the season on April 15.

Another area of the park has a campground available year-round for youth groups to take trips. Those sites are located closer together, allowing campers to connect more easily.

The park also is a big draw for stargazers because it isn’t near any large cities and, thus, doesn’t have much light pollution.

Wisconsin Wyalusing State Park

Location: 13081 State Park Lane, Bagley, Wis.

Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Cost: $8 daily for vehicles with Wisconsin license plates, $11 for vehicles with out-of-state plates

Wyalusing State Park, located near Bagley, offers visitors opportunities for hiking, canoeing, stargazing and camping along the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

Paved roads and trails wind along the contours of the bluffs that tower over the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

Park visitors can access more than 14 miles of hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty, including paths that lead up and down the bluffs and others that are more level.

Visitors wishing to camp at the park can pay for more secluded spots in the southern part of the park as well as for campgrounds along the edge of the bluffs near the Wisconsin River. From about 500 feet above the water, campers can see across the river to Prairie du Chien.

Not far from the park’s entrance is an astronomical observatory that boasts a pair of large telescopes and several smaller ones. A local nonprofit group hosts programs during warmer months for visitors who gaze at the night sky.

Visitors to the park also can access a two-mile canoe trail along the backwaters of the Mississippi River. The Friends of Wyalusing State Park operate a concession stand from which visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to take out on the water.

Nelson Dewey State Park

Location: 12190 Grant County VV, Cassville, Wis.

Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Cost: $8 daily for vehicles with Wisconsin license plates, $11 for vehicles with out-of-state plates.

Stonefield Historic Site: Opens for the season in June.

By walking just a few miles, visitors to Nelson Dewey State Park can traverse bluffs, a prairie and a farming village designed to transport visitors back to the 1900s.

Nelson Dewey State Park offers hiking and camping opportunities just a short distance from the estate of Wisconsin’s first governor.

A road at Nelson Dewey emerges into a clearing along a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Behind the scenic vista, Native American burial mounds dot the landscape.

A paved road winds through a forested area out to quiet campgrounds, which are open May through October. Campers seeking a particularly good view can reserve walkout sites and carry their gear to secluded campgrounds overlooking the Mississippi River.

The park is a short drive from Cassville, where visitors can stock up on groceries and take advantage of amenities such as the city pool and a boat landing.

Visitors to the park also can access about 1.5 miles of short hiking trails.

Park visitors also can tour the site of inaugural Wisconsin Gov. Nelson Dewey’s house and learn about life at the turn of the 20th century at the nearby Stonefield Historic Site, which opens for the season in June.

Allie Hinga writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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