Updated: Feb 10, 2022
Picking up the walk across Iowa to follow the 1835 Dragoons at Big Creek State Park, I headed north in the early morning toward Boone County. Before I crossed out of Polk County, I crossed over both Big Creek and Little Creek as they individually meandered toward the Des Moines.
From the earliest research into the journey, Boone County stood out as an important and interesting location as I made my way up the Des Moines. The county features several bona fide Dragoon sites, as well as many other sites highlighting Iowa's historical and environmental past. I crossed into the county near Madrid.
Once known for extensive coal mines, the southern Boone County area today boasts a primarily agricultural landscape. For the first time since leaving the Mississippi River a month prior, the landscape gave me the familiar feeling of home. Flat corn and soybean fields stretched in all directions, an effect of my crossing out of the southern drift plain and onto the Des Moines Lobe over the preceding days.
Wandering up Highway 17, Madrid itself stood on the horizon for the early part of the morning. The town of roughly 2,500 people at the time of the 2010 census celebrates past legacies of mining and agriculture in the Madrid Castle and Historical Museum. Madrid initially struggled to attract railroads, failing in both 1865 and 1881, before eventually becoming a stop on the Milwaukee Railroad's east-west line in the final years of the 19th century. Today the famed High Trestle Trail occupies the former rail-line, a major draw for bicycle enthusiasts throughout central Iowa. I passed through on an early Sunday morning while the town still largely slept. A park on the northside of town grew busy with preparations for an early morning little league baseball game as I made my way to the Rose Road.
The Rose Road, a meandering, largely north-south gravel road, brought me past the ghost town of Belle Point. Marked by an Iowa 150 Marker, the early (1849) Boone County town failed to grow as other communities developed throughout the county. I continued on, following the curves of the road toward the Iowa Arboretum & Gardens.
Founded by the Iowa State Horticultural Society to celebrate its 100th birthday on a 40-acre tract in southern Boone County, today the arboretum stands on 160 acres and contains over 6,000 plants. In addition to flora, the site contains a variety of buildings, including one celebrating Iowa's country schools.
The lingering legacy of the August 2020 Derecho weather event stood out as I wandered through the grounds. The ferocious storm damaged over 200 trees throughout the arboretum, and staff worked to remove over 130. However, clear evidence of restoration and recovery efforts greet visitors in each section of the site. Newly planted trees, piles of landscaping materials, and other indicators point to a bright future for the Iowa Arboretum & Gardens.
After enjoying the brief respite at the arboretum, I retraced my tracks back up Peach Avenue toward Ledges State Park. Hot on the trail of the Dragoons, I noticed several of the Iowa DOT signs as I trudged through the increasingly hot day.
Eventually I arrived at Ledges State Park (founded 1924), perhaps the most visited state park in all of Iowa. The park features a canyon formed by sandstone cliffs harkening back to Iowa's deep geological past under the Western Interior Seaway, a body of water stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean during the late Cretaceous and early Paleogene periods. Dividing North American into two halves, the sea may have reached 2,500 feet in depth and 600 miles wide.
Today, visitors flock to the canyon, spreading blankets for picnics while children eagerly await splashes from vehicles passing through shallow streams.
The park also features a variety of trails. The Lost Lake Trail, located in the southern portion of the park, provides glimpses of the Des Moines River, while many other trails throughout the park traverse the bluffs to climb well above the floodplain.
On many trails, large stands of diverse woods containing basswood, oak, maple, and hickory block any views of the Des Moines River. However, Inspiration Point overlooks the valley spreading below. Interpretive panels feature information on a variety of lichens found throughout the park to provide interesting insights into a form of vegetation often overlooked.
The canyon and other low-lying portions of the park continually run the risk of inundation whenever the Des Moines River rises, especially since the construction of the Saylorville Dam. Prior to completion of the dam in the 1970s, the park rarely flooded. Due to the consistent flooding over the past five decades, the flora of lower-Ledges has shifted dramatically from the earlier era of the park. The rising waters also prohibit maintenance on several buildings located in the lower-portion of the park.
After extending my walking for the day to traverse many of the park's trails, I loaded up and headed out to Mitigwa Scout Reservation on the west side of the Des Moines River. Founded in 1923, Camp Mitigwa rests on 460 acres of rolling hills and plays host to scores of Iowa's Boy Scouts each summer.
Nestled in the grounds stands Dragoon Field, an alleged camping site of the 1835 Expedition on the return trip downriver. Cautious of overstepping, I checked in at the camp office and inquired about the Dragoon related realities related to the camp. The camp director chauffeured me on a golf cart out to the field, and we speculated about if the site really hosted the 1835 Expedition. We know from the journals they camped somewhere very close to the location, however, the director suggested the exact site the Dragoons camped proves difficult to determine given the available sources.
I soaked in site and reflected back on my journey to follow the Dragoons. Since leaving the Mississippi at Montrose, I walked over 200 miles to arrive in Boone County at Dragoon Field. Over half the journey behind me, I looked forward to the next few days deep in Dragoon territory on the road from Ledges State Park to Dolliver Memorial State Park and beyond.