I’m hiking every beautiful place I can think of around my home state, to showcase the beauty Iowa has to offer. Follow along on social media using #AmieTakesAHike to pass along your suggestions and see where I’m headed next.
I don’t get up to far northwest Iowa very often as it’s four hours and change away from my home in Waterloo. But on the occasion of being up there anyway for a senator’s town hall, I asked my colleague Ty Rushing, who lived up there for a while, where to go.
“Gitchie Manitou!” he said. “That’s where the murders were.”
So let’s get it out of the way first, ’cause I know it’s on your mind too: In 1973, four teenagers were shot and killed at this state preserve, and a 13-year-old girl with them was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. That lone survivor, Sandra Cheskey, was shunned and ostracized by her community, but bravely made sure the three adult perpetrators who inflicted such horror got life in prison.
Because of that, Gitchie Manitou State Preserve is now apparently considered one of Iowa’s creepiest state parks.
If Gitchie Manitou, Ojibwe for “Great Spirit,” is haunted, I’d bet the main reason is people traipsing all over thousand-year-old burial mounds on the site, since German and other European farmers (like my own ancestors) who were promised free land led to the forcible removal of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their home and sacred burial grounds.
But despite all of that, it turns out Gitchie Manitou is actually a beautiful, wild spot, and one of the quieter places I’ve been to for a hike.
Gitchie Manitou is a relatively small (for a hike) 91 acres in Lyon County, the far northwestern corner of Iowa. The preserve itself actually bumps right up against both the South Dakota border to the west and the Minnesota border to the north.
Its lesser-known claim to fame: The preserve is home to the oldest-known bedrock in Iowa, pink Sioux quartzite, which has been dated to an astounding 1.6 billion years old. That’s so old, single-cell organisms were only then starting to evolve into multi-cellular organisms.
Starting in the 1890s, the site was mined for this quartzite, and the state purchased 47.5 acres of the quarry for its own use (now filled in, and called Jasper Pool). By 1969, however, the land was formally dedicated as a state preserve for its archaeological, geological, historical and, biological importance.
About those burial mounds: There are 17 conical mounds in the southern portion of the preserve. Residents long assumed they were natural or man-made by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, but a 2013 soil study found they were actual Native burial mounds more than 1,000 years old. They’re thought to be linked to Blood Run to the southeast, an important Native trading center several hundred years ago that spanned Iowa and South Dakota.
A state preserve is a bit less obvious than a state park. There are directions and a sign or two, but mostly you park in an unassuming gravel lot next to the cattle gate that marks the trailhead and head in.
My late-summer hike meant the wild prairie that encompasses much of the preserve was tall and blooming in a lot of tall green and brown grasses, yellow goldenrod, and some other purple and pink flowers also scattered about.
Of course, there’s also all of the colors, in spray paint, covering nearly every inch of the exposed Sioux quartzite along with dilapidated half-structures that remain at the park. It’s a bit disappointing to see, but that’s mostly because a lot of it is amateurish graffiti—names, dates, and curse words only for the shock value. (I live in Waterloo, where spray-paint artists go big, so I suppose I have a high bar.)
In any case, the prairie vandalizes you right back, at least this time of year with the goldenrod pollen scraping onto you as you walk through. Only fair, I guess!
Dozens of grasshoppers, sunning themselves in the few square inches of trail not covered in plants, were jumping out of my way at every step. That probably amounted to thousands of grasshoppers relocating themselves during my hike. Between them and the wild prairie taking over the tracks, I took my time a bit more than I normally would.
The sights and sounds
Native, thick, waist-high-or-higher prairie was a lot of the landscape of our state before farmland took over. And western Iowa, on the edge of the plains states, absolutely excels at this landscape.
It doesn’t take much to get yourself deep into this ecosystem at Gitchie Manitou—only get a few steps in.
Besides the bouncing grasshoppers, I saw fuzzy bumblebees and paper-thin butterflies flit from flower to flower. You’ll also hear crickets and other insects buzz their hellos and warnings to each other, and unseen small animals skitter away from your footsteps deeper into the brush—a reminder that the prairie habitat is a hidden haven for small creatures and birds.
Around the time you get to the graffiti’d half-structure (clearly still used as a hang-out spot, given the fireplace), the trail hits a wooded portion as it follows the Big Sioux River, which splits Iowa from South Dakota for a good portion of northwest Iowa. (And here I thought the Missouri River, similar to the Mississippi on the eastern side, did all that work! Sorry, Big Sioux!)
The woods provide a nice, shady respite for a bit, though there’s enough sun peeking through to grow yellow black-eyed Susans to my height. And once you hit the other side of the trail, where three states meet (hi Minnesota!), you can loop around through those woods and even catch a glimpse of the old quarry, Jasper’s Pool.
I really only felt a bit eerie and unwelcome at a wooded space on one of the side trails that led to a rock outcropping that was (of course) covered in graffiti. Otherwise, I wasn’t feeling any “creepy” or negative vibes from the place at all.
I used to think only forested or lake hikes were my favorites.
But after hitting up Gitchie Manitou State Preserve, I’ve got a newfound reverence for a prairie walk, that wild carpet of hidden nature I imagine greeted travelers to this place hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
And though the graffiti kind of distracts from getting a good look at the Sioux quartzite, it also makes Gitchie Manitou a unique, and even beautiful, place to go for a hike.
By Amie Rivers
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