Sandstone cliffs and dense woodlands make Ledges State Park one of Iowa’s signature parks. Driving in from the east on 250th street you will see the campground. This is a modern full featured campground designed to accommodate campers on busy weekends. Moving past the campground you will start the descent into the park valley. This route offers many car stopping vistas. The stunning park valley is walled in by forest and rocky outcroppings. The park road allows you to drive through the meandering creeks with a dramatic splash at several locations. Children are often playing at the creek crossings so watch your speed. The best way to enjoy the Ledges is to get out and hike. The trail system is well maintained but can be challenging if you’re not in good physical condition. Structures such as a stone bridge and timber frame shelters are 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps projects that can be seen as you hike.
Ledges State Park offers 95 campsites; 40 with electrical hookups (1 of which is fully accessible), 42 non-electric (1 of which is fully accessible), 1 group site and 12 hike-in. Half of these can be reserved online through the Online Reservation System. The camp ground is well designed and spread out. You can find a quiet private spot tucked into the trees or a more public group site next to the playground. Each camp site has a fire ring or grill and a picnic table. The camping pads are gravel and level. Most sites are back-in but a few are pull-through for lager campers.
The entire campground is under a canopy of trees. The trees help baffle the noise and keep strong winds calm at the sites. If you want to get deeper into the woods then you may want to try one of the hike-in tent sites. These are primitive sites that are generously spaced apart. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring. The furthest spots are over ¼ mile into the woods so be prepared to pack-in your gear.
There are two bath houses and they are your typical state park structures. Each facility is well maintained for the traffic they receive in the peak season.
The trails at Ledges State Park are scenic and varied. The northeast area of the park offers level prairie hikes and manageable wooded treks on trails along the canyon ridges. The park valley has an extensive system of trails that allows you to ramble in a maze of rugged paths. The accessible Lost Lake trail on the southwest side of the park has the best views of the Des Moines River valley. Spend an afternoon hiking any combination of the following trails.
– Campground to Canyon Trail
The trail head for this 1.2 mile trail is at the entrance to the hike-in tent sites in the park campground. Walking down the well maintained trail, you may pass tent campers hauling arm-loads of gear into their sites. At .3 miles from the trail head you will come to the last tent site. Here you can take an interesting diversion to the ruins of the old Fowler Homestead. There will be a path that continues to the left for about 300 feet. At the end you will find the remains of a cabin and stone chimney.
When you are done checking out the ruins, backtrack to the last tent site and head down the ravine. The trail here becomes rugged and drops about 150 ft. in elevation. There are no switch backs on this trail so caution is advised due to mud, damp leaves and steep grade.
At the bottom, the trail intersects with a small stream. Glimpses of a trail can be seen on both banks, but, the best route is via the stream bed during dry conditions. The stream eventually drains into Pea’s Creek and this will be the route into the park canyon.
Even on busy weekends, you are likely to be alone in this part of the park. Take your time scrambling and rock hopping your way towards the main park road. There will likely be spots where large downed trees require you to stop to determine the best way to pass. Take note of the many animal tracks, minnows and water bugs.
Distant voices will often signal the end of this trail as you approached the canyon road.
– Crow’s Nest Trail
This 1 mile trail network is on the north side of the canyon road and is named after a scenic overlook. Trail highlights are views of exposed sandstone walls, panoramic vistas of the park canyon, a memorial to M. L. Hutton and the Des Moines River valley framed by woodlands at the Crow’s Nest overlook.
There are four trailheads that access the Crow’s nest system. The two trailheads on the east side are the start of the Old Indian Trail and the most direct route to the Crow’s Nest overlook. These two trailheads merge and begin a 528 feet in distance, and 140 foot in elevation climb, up to the overlook. The first 2?3rds of this route incorporates handrails and a couple benches along the trail. The last 1?3rd does not have handrails and the grade increases on irregular stone steps.
The Crow’s Nest scenic overlook is spectacular. Your hiking efforts are rewarded with a view of the Des Moines River valley and a deck area to sit and rest.
For a less aggressive climb to the Crow’s Nest, start your hike at the center trailhead or the west trailhead. The center trailhead allows you to walk along the sandstone ledges and offers views of the canyon valley. Zigzag on paths east and west to the top of the ridge. Follow the signs at the top to the Crow’s Nest.
The west trailhead is the start of a gentle climb up the ridge through a canopy of trees. Along the way is a memorial to M. L. Hutton. This route seems less busy and has a bench to rest at the top. Signs will direct you to the Crow’s Nest.
If you feel adventurous, the north trail at the top of the ridge is fun to explore. The trail is not well maintained and a little bushwhacking may be involved to find the path.
– Hog’s Back Trail
This .59 mile route connects the upper east end of Ledges State Park to the Reindeer Ridge and Mesquakie trails at the Council Ring intersection. The trail makes for a leisurely stroll through the woods on relatively level terrain.
There are three trailheads that access the Hog’s Back trail. The main trailhead is at the eastern picnic area. You will know you’re on the right path when you see a footbridge soon after starting your hike. The second trailhead is at a hairpin turn off of the canyon road at the scenic overlook.
The third will be the first trailhead you see on the left as you drive into the park canyon. This little connector trail makes for a rugged climb at 528 feet in distance and 80 foot in elevation up to Hog’s Back Trail. It would be a great place to start a trail run or cross fit workout with a challenging nonstop rock step incline to the top.
– Lost Lake Trail
The 1.1 mile Lost Lake Trails are part of the Makoke birding trail system. The Makoke Trail is a driving route that links prime birdwatching spots across eight central Iowa counties. Approximately half of the Lost Lake Trails include a fully accessible route for people that cannot hike the more difficult areas of the park. The only trail head is in the parking lot off of 255th street.
The trail starts off with the accessible portion. It’s a level and wide gravel path that winds its way .4 miles to Lost Lake. Along the way you will see markers that note various flora and fauna in the area. There is also a footbridge over a small damn at Katina Pond and several benches on the way to the lake. The accessible portion of the trail ends at Lost Lake; however, there is a rugged trail around the entire lake. Mosquitos can be thick around the water in the summer, but fall is a beautiful time to visit.
Some of the best views in Ledges State Park can be seen from the ridge trail above the Des Moines River. You can access these trails from several side paths west of the main Lost Lake accessible route. A signature view of the Des Moines River valley can be seen 140 feet to the west of Katina Pond. Caution is advised due to the height.
– Mesquakie Trail
The Mesquakie Trail starts in the lower west end of the park canyon and ends at the Council Ring for a total distance of .25 miles and 200 feet in elevation. This short trail can be used to get to Table Rock or Council Ring and it links up to Hog’s Back and Reindeer Ridge trails.
There are two trailheads for this section. Each is close to a parking lot on the east side of 255th street. The route is wooded and full of steps.
– Oak Woods Trail
You might have to work a little to find this path, but the Oak Woods Trail rewards you with a quiet walk in the woods. This .92 mile route runs along a secondary ridge that is south of the main park canyon and the trailheads are not close to the main roads. You can usually be assured of a peaceful trek, even on busy weekends and holidays.
There are two trailheads on the east side of the park. Both intersect with the Prairie Trail, so you might as well walk the Prairie restoration loop while you’re there. The quickest access can be found south of the shelter in the upper park picnic area. The north trailhead is not marked well and there are a couple dead ends. Keep pushing in and you will eventually find a lesser maintained trail. This section is not heavily hiked and at times it’s hard to distinguish the hiking trail from the deer trails. Ultimately, this section traverses around a couple ravines. There is a rotten footbridge that’s fun to discover and is a sign of an older abandon path. Soon after the old footbridge the trail opens up.
The second trailhead is in the middle of the Prairie Trail on the west side. This path is very obvious and leads from the grasslands into the trees. As you walk west from the prairie you will run into the Oak Woods Trail. Turn left and head south on this level and well maintained section. There will most likely be deer in this part of the park so tread lightly if you want to see them.
The path will eventually become narrower and start to descend abruptly. This is where the Oak Woods Trail Becomes the Waterline Trail. You can choose to continue on to the Shelter in the lower area of the park or turn around and retrace your steps back.
– Prairie Trail
The Prairie Trail is a .8 mile multi-use loop route through native Iowa prairie plants. There’s a lot to see here if you take the time to look. An informational sign describing many of the plants is located at the main trailhead south of the park road. You can find a second trailhead south of the shelter in the upper picnic area. This trail is perfect for birders and is part of the Makoke birding trail system.
– Reindeer Ridge Trail
These trails are .35 miles of meandering paths on the south side of the park canyon. There is one trailhead about halfway through the lower park area on the south side of the road. These trails are fairly rugged and are the best way to gain access to Table Rock overlook and Council Ring from the canyon area.
– Waterline Trail
This .33 mile connector trail gains 105 feet in elevation up to the Oak Woods Trail. It’s a step climb but not rocky. There is an old unmaintained trail to the north that intersects with the Waterline Trail near the top. Add the old section to the Waterline if you feel like a little bushwhacking.
Ledges State Park has a place for everyone. The park valley is suited for large gatherings and family outings. If you’re looking for a solitary adventure then take a creek walk deep into the park or paddle by on the Des Moines River.
Unique terrain and access to water and wildlife are features that drew native people to this area for thousands of years. Those same assets are what continue attract people to Ledges State Park today.