Outdoor Guthrie County
Tucked away off main roads, often on gravel, are over 20 recreation and conservation areas that are open for public use in Guthrie County.
Whether you are looking for long days on the water, a scenic bike ride, or an adventurous hiking trail -- Guthrie County is a place where outdoor experiences are easily accessible and oftentimes spectacular.
“From a public land standpoint, (Guthrie County) has a lot to offer. We’re fairly unique in our natural resource base,” said Joe Hanner, executive director of Guthrie County Conservation. “There’s opportunities to fish, hunt, (there’s) recreational trails, if you enjoy that kind of stuff, (Guthrie County) is a good fit.”
Springbrook State Park, located just eight miles north of Guthrie Center, is a great area for history buffs, recreationalists and outdoorsmen alike.
“There’s hiking, biking, bird watching, hunting, camping, fishing, kayaking, almost everything you could want to do outside you can find here,” said Carolyn Guttenfelder, Springbrook State Park manager.
The 763-acre park offers 119 campsites, a modern cabin, 12 miles of hiking trails, and a 14-acre lake.
“Physiologically, it provides a place for people to relax and unplug and let go of stress and work out. You don’t have to go to a gym to work out, you can come and use the trails or a paddleboard or a kayak. You want a good workout? Start climbing some of these hills,” Guttenfelder said.
In addition to solo activities, Springbrook also hosts several educational programs and outdoor skills sessions.
Geology, aquatic life, GPS, fire building, kayaking, orienteering, animal tracks, shelter building, fishing and tree identification are several topics that Anne Riordan, training specialist at Springbrook, covers when teaching youth groups.
“One of the things that I think is most important is having kids come out when they’re young,” Riordan said. “Having them realize that its safe to be outside, that it’s fun, that they like it, that they want to do more of it.”
One particular day in early June, a group of eleven kids came to the park to learn how to kayak, Riordan said.
While hesitant at first, afraid of tipping and steering, less then ten minutes later, there were joyful yells of “This is the best day ever!” “Hey Daniel, look at me!” and “This is so much fun, can we do this way longer?”
Summer programs coming up at the park include an orienteering hike on July 8, and kayaking on July 15. All programs go from 10 a.m. to noon, and are free.
In the northwest part of the county just south of Coon Rapids, Whiterock Conservancy provides a unique area for the public to enjoy and learn about nature.
The 5,500-acre land trust was donated by the Garst family in 2004 in hopes of protecting Iowa’s natural areas and encouraging the public to experience the outdoors through recreation, conservation and learning.
Daniel Gudahl, director of Whiterock Conservancy, considers the area to be like “grandpa’s farm,” complete with swamplands, groves, timber, pastures and barns.
“It’s a place where people can come out and experience what I like to say the way things used to be,” Gudahl said. “People that want to go hiking and have a good time can go and not see a cornfield.”
Being third-largest recreational area in the state, Whiterock offers 40 miles of hiking trails, horseback riding, mountain biking, bird watching and fishing.
The conservancy also is home to one of the darkest places in Iowa, making it an excellent area for stargazing.
Guthrie County Conservation manages over a dozen areas, including parks, prairies, and the Guthrie County Historical Village.
Nations Bridge Park, located just five miles north of Stuart, offers picnicking, hiking, fishing, and camping.
Lenon Mill Park, tucked away on a gravel road on the south side of Panora, is right next to a dam, providing excellent fishing opportunities. The park also offers camping and river access.
Sutcliffe Woodland is a 55-acre forest area perfect for a short hike, picnic or fishing trip.
The Guthrie County Historical Village in Panora is home to 12 historical buildings that are reminiscent of the county from 1850 to the early 20th century.
Other public areas in Guthrie County include nine wildlife areas ideal for hunting and bird watching and several prairies, some of which have never been plowed.
The Raccoon River Valley Trail spreads across three counties, but approximately 20 miles of the 89-mile trail are in Guthrie County, passing through the towns of Jamaica, Herndon, Yale and Panora.
The trail, which was built over a former Milwaukee railroad track, makes for a relatively flat and scenic ride.
The stretch of trail between Panora and Redfield is primarily sheltered by a canopy of trees, often making the trail look as though it’s passing through a tunnel.
Since the completion of the northern part of the loop, Hanner has seen an increase in people coming into the county and has seen the dynamic of the trail changed.
“It’s become a destination trail, we hope we draw people in for the day, but we really like the concept of folks coming and staying in a motel or bed and breakfast and spending some money or helping our economy,” Hanner said.
Several years ago, Hanner received a thank you letter in his mailbox. It was from a couple in Kansas City who were writing to express their thanks in maintaining the county areas, and that they had loved the trail. In closing, they mentioned that they just closed on a place at Lake Panorama.
“We’re seeing more people come from a ways away,” Hanner said. By sifting through daily pass envelopes, Hanner is able to see where cyclists come from, and has been surprised to find riders traveling here from as far as Europe.
Fees are $2 per day per rider, or $10 for an annual pass.
The Middle and South Raccoon rivers run through Guthrie County, providing over 45 miles of water trails for fishermen, paddlers, and tubers to enjoy.
The 14-mile section of the Middle Raccoon River between the Lenon Mill access point in Panora and the Redfield Dam access point is one of five protected water areas in Iowa. The river bluffs and thick areas of timber that line the shores of the Raccoon make it one of the most scenic natural areas in the state.
If you launch in the early morning, you’re likely to see a number of different wildlife species, including otters, whitetail deer, bald eagles and turtles.
The river fluctuates with rainfall, so paddlers are encouraged to check levels before launching.
Spending time outdoors is beneficial both physically and mentally.
“Its good for the soul, it’s good for your heart, and it’s good for your health,” Hanner said. “There’s a whole world going on around us outside and it’s important to get out there.”
Hanner suggests that people find their passion, whether it be biking, hunting, identifying birds or wildflowers, or exploring historical areas, and then expand on it.
Those who are suckers for good views are also in luck.
Approximately 12,000 years ago, the Des Moines Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier stopped in the northeast corner of the county, creating a relatively flat landscape much different than what makes up the remainder of the county; the Southern Iowa Drift Plain.
Rivers shape much of the drift plain, leaving behind a landscape painted with hills, valleys and forests that make for beautiful vistas and excellent wildlife habitat areas.
One of Hanner’s favorite views of the county is a bluff overlooking the Middle Raccoon River in the Bennie Hall Wildlife Area.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It looks like the Ozarks. Photos just don’t do it justice.”
The local conservationists say it’s important to explore the outdoors here at home.
Riordan headed to the western part of the country after graduating from college. But her roots and family brought her back to the state.
“I sought beauty somewhere else, and then I saw the beautiful places that are in our state, and I realized it was here,” she said.