Looking more like a scene from Costa Rica, the landscape of Maquoketa Caves State Park is one of rugged cliffs, and lush green forest. Containing the most caves of any state park in Iowa, Maquoketa boasts 13 caves along its 6 miles of winding trails. Many caves have tight passages where crawling is a must, while several are large enough for uninhibited walking.
The largest cave of the park, at 1100 feet in length, is Dancehall Cave. A lighting system and concrete path makes this cave one of the most accessible in the park. A steam runs through the cave, and during one of our visits right after a rain, the path was covered in several inches of running water. Dozens of children walked through the silty water to explore the cave, all covered head to toe in mud, as if they were dipped in chocolate.
All the caves are self-guided, and open to the public. Each visitor to the park must stop at the ranger station to hear a bit about white nose syndrome, a fungal disease affecting bats. To keep this fungus from spreading to this cave system, visitors need to wipe their shoes on special mats, and should never wear the same clothes to multiple cave systems.
The caves are spread around the park, so as one hikes through the dense and rocky landscape, they happen upon cave after cave. All are open, but many require one to belly crawl and squeeze into very tight areas. Not being equipped for such an adventure, and because of the storms the night before, we only explored the caves where we could stand or crawl on all fours.
Posted by Tom Gill at Thursday, June 30, 2016
A popular feature of Turkey Run State Park's trail #3 is Wedge Rock. This huge chunk of rock separated from the canyon wall long ago, and rested in this position. The rock is shaped like a wedge, and its position allows hikers to walk beneath it as well as on top of it. While it certainly is dangerous to stand on top close to the edge (it's probably a 30 foot drop), the path up to the edge is rather easy to climb. The rock provides a long, ramp-like approach with plenty of twisted tree roots to gain a foothold.
One can only imagine the noise this must have made when it fell, and it probably shook the ground for a long distance around. As you hike in places like this, it makes you wonder when the next huge chunk of rock will fall.
These winding canyons amaze visitors in all seasons, but the late spring and summer months provide some benefits. The canyons are much cooler than the temperature elsewhere in the park - sometimes 20 degrees cooler, providing welcome relief from the summer heat. The trees are fully developed and shade the canyons, and filter the sunlight through their green leaves. The filtered light bathes the canyons in a wonderful green light, especially in full sun.
An interesting park to visit anytime of the year, Turkey Run State Park really comes to life in the Spring and Summer.
Posted by Tom Gill at Friday, June 24, 2016
One of the appealing things about Turkey Run State Park is the opportunity to hike directly on the canyon floor where at times the stream is the only trail. In parts of trail 3, the canyon narrows to only four or five feet wide, and hikers walk directly in the stream. There is one way around, and it consists of some steps carved into the canyon wall.
At first these steps appear wide enough for a comfortable climb, but at the top, they narrow to the point where only one foot can fit onto a step. People with wide shoulders or large backpacks may find it difficult to walk in this area without turning their shoulders almost 90 degrees. While not too high up, a fall from this 10 foot high walkway would certainly cause injury. Some hikers choose to get their feet wet to avoid the potential danger.
The canyon changes from four feet wide to 30 as you hike along this portion of trail 3. Eventually, it opens up to an expansive area at the base of a gentle waterfall.
Posted by Tom Gill at Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Continuing along Trail 3 at Turkey Run State Park, the level of the canyon changes dramatically, forcing hikers to climb to the next level. Ladders were installed to assist with the climb - they're fitting for this rugged trail, as stairs would certainly ruin the experience. The ladders only allow a single person at a time to move to the next level, so small bottlenecks of traffic occur at this point on the trail. The scenery makes the wait enjoyable.
Water runs next to the ladders, as well as underfoot as you approach them. The small waterfalls flow all around you as you ascend.
Once up the ladders, the canyon below comes into view, and what once appeared quite wide and large, seems tight and narrow when viewed in perspective with the surrounding forest.
The first people to explore this area probably didn't notice these canyons as they walked through the forest, until they almost fell into them traveling between ridges.
Posted by Tom Gill at Monday, June 20, 2016
When we last visited Turkey Runs State Park, it was winter. The canyons and trails were beautiful back then, and we noticed plenty of thick moss on the forest floor. I wondered how it might look in the summertime - the trees must fill out so thick they almost completely block the sun.
On this visit, we were treated with a remarkable green light from the canopy. The trails were lined with huge trees, providing lots of shade on the forest floor. The most spectacular thing was how the trees covered the canyons, and the green light they provided in contrast to the dark rock. Standing on the floor of the canyon looking up at the lush green was remarkable - especially when the sun was strong.
It's amazing how the vast forest above dwarfs visitors as they walk through the deep, damp gorge; people seem as small as insects.
Every turn in the trail brings new things to see and experience. The anticipation of what lies ahead drives you to walk further and further, not wanting to wait to compose the perfect photograph. It's always a great idea to soak in the surroundings no matter how much of a hurry you're in - just stop, look around, listen, and try to experience everything nature has to offer.
Posted by Tom Gill at Wednesday, June 08, 2016
Our morning hike began on trail 3, one of the more rugged trails of Turkey Run State Park. On previous visits, we exited the trail at the Ice Box, but this time we decided to begin at the Ice Box. Taking the trail in reverse would give us a different perspective of the trail.
The warm weather allowed us to hike to the bank of Sugar Creek on our way to the canyons. Dozens of canoes and kayaks floated by in the few minutes we explored the bank. Swallows swooped down near us as we walked beneath their mud nests clinging to the underside of the canyon walls.
From the creek, we hiked up the steep bank toward the Ice Box. Immediately we noticed the dramatic drop in temperature, almost as if we were entering a cave system. Only a bit of water flowed from the canyon above, dripping on the logs and rocks below, but enough to get the camera gear wet if we weren't paying attention.
Eager to press on to see the rest of the canyons and waterfalls, we climbed out of the Ice Box. Large, exposed tree roots clung to the rugged canyon walls, creating a makeshift set of stairs for us to use. Because we were taking the trail in reverse this time, climbing up this "staircase" was easier but more dramatic than heading down.
Posted by Tom Gill at Tuesday, June 07, 2016
A hot spring day was perfect for paddling on Sugar Creek. Hundreds of people took to canoes and kayaks, as well as rafts and innertubes, and floated liesurely down the creek, through Turkey Run State Park in rural Parke County, Indiana. A picturesque park located about 40 miles due west of Indianapolis, visitors can float and paddle on the creek, or hike the rugged trails that wind through the canyons.
This spot called the Narrows, is a narrow portion of Sugar Creek, where a covered bridge was built back in 1883. At 137 feet long, the wooden structure is now closed to traffic, but open to pedestrians. Only $3,400 to build, the bridge uses the Burr Arch truss construction, typical of the covered bridges in Parke County.
One of over 30 covered bridges in the county, this bridge is on the border of Turkey Run State Park, and can be crossed by taking trail 1 or 2 from the visitor center. It can also be viewed by driving north along Narrows Road from Indiana 47, just east of the park entrance.
Posted by Tom Gill at Monday, June 06, 2016
Two boys enjoy the colors of spring as they fish in their favorite spot on this small lake in Illinois. The yellow flowers were only around for a few short days, they've since turned as green as the tall grass surrounding them.
It's a shame more of the plants in Illinois don't retain their color for most of the summer, but so many plants flower at different times, there's almost always something in bloom during the warm months.
Posted by Tom Gill at Thursday, May 26, 2016
With warm temperature come spring flowers, and this meadow was no exception. Yellow wildflowers carpet the ground, surrounded by tall grasses and thistle, providing a contrast to the blue skies and plentiful clouds.
This meadow is surrounded by homes and businesses, but it's large enough to provide an escape from the everyday noises and sights. Walk a few minutes into this field, and one can no longer hear cars and trucks on nearby streets, only birds, insects, and the grasses blowing in the breeze.
While I prefer to get far away from urban areas to enjoy nature, I often find small spots like this in the middle of cities are a great alternative if time doesn't allow travel. Some parks and meadows are only a five minute walk from home or work, and they provide the perfect break from the daily grind.
Posted by Tom Gill at Monday, May 23, 2016
The final leg of our trip was the hike to Silver Lake from Lake Michigan. As we approached, we were on top of a tall dune, so at first, we could not see the lake, but as we walked closer to the living edge of the dune, the lake appeared below. I would estimate we were at least 75 feet above the lake, but in photos, the distance isn't as obvious until you study the entire image.
The sands of the dunes constantly blow into Silver Lake, in essence, moving the dune grain by grain away from Lake Michigan, and into Silver Lake. The shore of the lake must change constantly.
The depth of Silver Lake is around 20 feet, and the sand of the moving dunes can be seen for quite a bit of depth, yet it appears to drop off very quickly. I haven't been in this lake, so I'm not certain if it does indeed drop, or if the optical qualities of the water simply end at a certain point and the bottom cannot be seen.
Homes across the lake give an idea of the height of the dune, they're quite a bit below us. The home closest to the dune appears to have a bit of maintenance necessary to keep the garage from being buried by the sand. In some spots, the sand is about 3-4 feet up the garage wall. An interesting back yard to say the least.
We back tracked a bit to avoid walking on private property to return to the trailhead. This brought us back into the dunes about a hundred meters or so, and over to the area where the dunes are actively burying the forest. Soon, these trees will die as they become part of the dunes of Silver Lake State Park - only to be revealed in a few hundred years.
Posted by Tom Gill at Wednesday, April 27, 2016
On our hike from Lake Michigan, we encountered plenty of interesting things on the Silver Lake dunes. We began our hike in early morning, after a snowfall which covered areas of the dune landscape. Even with the cold weather, as the day drew on, some of the snow melted, and in some areas, the melted snow left moist spots on the dunes.
These moist areas followed the contours of the low areas of the dunes, creating striking patterns meandering the landscape. They changed rather quickly as the moisture absorbed into the sand, and then evaporated in the bright sun.
Broken only by the occasional leafless tree, the patterns seemed to stretch forever in some places, painting the otherwise mundane surface with interesting patterns.
Over time, trees are buried by the shifting sands, and they die in place. Many decades later, the sands move on and the trees are uncovered, these remnants are scattered around the dunes like driftwood cairns marking the way.
Posted by Tom Gill at Monday, April 25, 2016
Once past the stand of conifers, we paused to contemplate our route from Lake Michigan, through the barren dunes to Silver Lake. We also paused to take in the landscape, and realize just how large of an area was in front of us. The image above is a panoramic image stitched together from five individual photographs. It gives an idea of just how vast the area is, and how far away the edge of the dune was. The trees in the woods toward the right of the image, are not shrubs, they are full grown pine trees.
I always find a bit of time to stop in such a remote area and take in the surroundings; look and listen for several minutes just to experience nature. Most of the time, I'm hiking quickly to get from point A to point B, and while I experience and admire my surroundings, it's not the same as stopping and immersing yourself in it.
We found a path of dune ridges that would take us through the woods and toward the most barren portion of the dunes in sight. Traveling from beach, to grassy dune, to conifer stand, and wetland, we experienced almost every micro environment Silver Lake State Park had to offer. Ahead lay the desert-like expanse of sand dunes that, in our minds, conjured images of the Great Sahara.
Posted by Tom Gill at Friday, April 22, 2016
As we drew closer to Lake Michigan, we planned out a route following the narrow ridges of the dunes. The ridge meandered through and above forests and ponds, prairie and sand all the way to Lake Michigan. From this perspective, we could see how stands of trees took root in only certain dune valleys, while just across the dune, nothing took hold.
Some of the different environments were clearly evident from the ridge. Vast areas of sand, grassy prairie and conifer stands were just some of the areas we encountered on this hike. Closer to the lake, the ridge as high enough to see over the adjacent conifer forest. Distant dunes along the Lake Michigan shore appeared like distant mountain ranges due to their sand, forest, and snow patches.
Following a hike of over two hours, we reached Lake Michigan and the Silver Lake State Park foredunes along the shore. Blowouts and ponds dotted the landscape, as we followed the shoreline south for about a half mile. Not a single person was visible from this point, probably kept away by the 30 degree temperature and 30 mile per hour winds.
We pushed south, looking for another dune ridge we spotted in the distance on our trek to the lake. This ridge cut through a large conifer stand, and lead to a huge, open area of sand, and the living dunes which spill into Silver Lake. Our hike was half over.
Posted by Tom Gill at Thursday, April 21, 2016
Hiking the vast Silver Lake State Park dunes, we encountered so many interesting things, and ghost trees were among them. Located about half way through our journey to Lake Michigan, the remains of a small stand of trees came into view. Probably buried in sand hundreds of years ago, they've been uncovered again by the same force that buried them.
Upon close investigation, the remains are filled with interesting texture, probably created by insects, animals, and the fact they were underground for so long. One of the taller ghost trees served multiple purposes for us during our hike. It was like a sign post, or milemarker, since we could see it from a long distance away. And when Chris climbed up, he managed to get a great view of what was ahead for us.
The expanse of dunes was unlike any we've visited along the shores of Lake Michigan. To give an idea of the size of the place, the photo above shows two hikers in the distance. At the center of the image, on the horizon, is a small dot. This dot is actually two hikers, and the photo below shows them up close. In this image, we were almost half way to Lake Michigan, looking back to the trailhead and parking area. These hikers are about half way between us and the parking area.
Certainly a great place to hike in a dune landscape.
Posted by Tom Gill at Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Looking a bit like a miniature view of the western United States, the view from the dune ridge was quite different than the surrounding areas. That was the theme of this day's hike, take a few steps in any direction, and the environment changed. While the majority of the dunes at Silver Lake State Park were vast and barren, there were countless areas where the vegetation differed dramatically from any we've encountered previously on the hike.
Steps out of the conifer stand on our way up the dune ridge, we found ourselves in what appeared to be the dry western US. Low growing evergreens and old trees dotted the dune landscape. Somewhat of another micro environment, where certain plants take hold due to conditions just right for them. A few meters over the ridge, and the conditions no longer suit the needs of the plant, and it doesn't survive.
Once to the top of the ridge, we could look down at one of the interdunal ponds we passed on our hike. Water from rain and snow filters its way through the surrounding dunes and collects here in these low areas between dunes. Most ponds harbor plenty of life including grasses, trees, and shrubs, providing places for small animals to live and hunt. We encountered signs of deer and plenty of water birds on this cold morning.
The top of the dune offered great views of the pond below and the surrounding area. We paused to take in the view, and to plan the next part of the hike. We also took note of a distant dune ridge that appeared to pass right through another conifer stand - that would be our target for our return trip after we reached Lake Michigan.
Posted by Tom Gill at Monday, April 18, 2016
A half mile or so into our hike across the barren dunes of Silver Lake State Park, we encountered one of many stands of conifers. Situated in a dune valley, the stand was an island of green surrounded by empty sand- an oasis. Dense stands of Jack pine and grasses made our hike a little more difficult, a stark contrast to the rolling sand dunes just a few yards away.
These valleys harbor water and vegetation, creating micro environments within the park. We came upon several interdunal ponds (ponds between dunes) with clear evidence of deer and other wildlife. A sleeping area for deer was the perfect spot for a view of the pond, which was greening up from a long winter.
Seen from a dune ridge, the conifer stand and interdunal ponds appear as an island within the vast expanse of the dunes.One encounters so many different types of environments on a hike here. The landscape often appears so different than Michigan.
We were almost half way from the trail head to Lake Michigan at this point, with much more to see.
Posted by Tom Gill at Friday, April 15, 2016
Our hike began at Silver Lake with a view of the expansive dunes between us and Lake Michigan. The dunes make a beautiful backdrop to Silver Lake, and Lake Michigan is just about a mile over the dunes.
We climbed up the first living dune and found plenty of dead trees - buried by the shifting sands as they move inland driven by winds. We were amazed at the size of this place, nothing but rolling sand dune for miles left and right, and at least a mile in front of us. Dotting the dunes were small interdunal ponds and areas of conifer forest, just waiting for exploration.
One could barely see Lake Michigan on the horizon from out vantage point, but it appeared every so often as we climbed the taller dunes. We spent hours exploring the small ponds and forested areas on our way to the lake.
Here, we were almost half way to Lake Michigan. Just after exploring a frozen pond, we looked back to see how far we walked. Silver Lake was beyond the farthest dune, and most features we encountered were now tiny dots on the landscape.
Posted by Tom Gill at Wednesday, April 13, 2016