When I think Iowa, I think cornfields and Hawkeyes. Neither of which are very appetizing. Decorah, Iowa has neither of those things. And it is wonderful. The town sits on the Upper Iowa River and is nestled in its steep valley walls. If you’re there in the fall, like I was, you’ll see fluorescent sugar maples atop limestone bluffs circled by flocks of eagles. (At least I think the term for a group of eagles is a flock). It’s all quite appetizing.
Phelps Park is on the SW side of town, just a few blocks from Water Street, the main drag. It sits atop a hill with some of the oldest white pines my eyes have seen. The town was established in 1853 and I wouldn’t be surprised if the trees predated that. The gate that welcomes you to the park looks like it could welcome you to a cemetery with its weathered black iron arch. The trees break and you get your first glimpse of the valley below.
Despite the sunshine, it was quite chilly that day. As we descended into the oak and maple forest, I was wearing a t-shirt, a Filson flannel and a Patagonia Nano Puff. After a mile in, the Puff was tied around my torso and the flannel was slowly being unbuttoned. Filson says they make “unfailing goods” and they are not messing around with those words. The flannel is the thickest I know and I own many flannels. Anyone who knows me can attest to that. Durability is a very important quality in my gear. If I were to wear that flannel while blazing a trail through undergrowth, I’m quite certain the brush would be worse for the wear.
The trail rides the edge of a bluff, with a 150′ fall on one side and a steep hill on the other. Some sections have railings, others have nothing. My favorite section had Depression Era stones and masonry guarding hikers from a fall. The fallen leaves, tall trees and limestone gave off a very old-growth feel, like some dead Appalachian historical figure was about to walk across the trail in front of you. I loved it.
Other sections of the trail are just carved into the hill. A sign near the trailhead prohibits bikes. A few steep and loose shale-covered sections are likely the reason, but wow, I would LOVE to pedal a 29er through this forest.
The trail ends with a convergence with the Trout Run Trail, an 11-mile paved loop of the city popular with local cyclists and families. If you make your way to Decorah, bring your bike and an appetite for adventure. I’ll be on a bike the next time I visit.