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Preparation Canyon - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 56


Located near Pisgah in the heart of the Loess Hills on the border between Monona and Harrison counties, a 334-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Preparation Canyon State Park.


Encompassing a portion of the Loess Hills, a distinct geological formation formed along Iowa’s western edge by windblown soils in the distant past, the 200-mile stretch of hills features deep valleys featuring silt-rich deposits of soil created by glacial outwash. The scenic hills enticed Iowa’s Indigenous peoples who named the area around Preparation Canyon “Monona,” or beautiful land according to oral tradition. American settlement arrived in the are during the mid-1800s, and the beautiful landscape of the area enticed early arrivals. In 1853, Mormon leader Charles Thompson, better known as “Father Ephraim” and fifty families of Latter Day Saints broke off from the broader westward caravans taking the Mormon Trail West. Claiming divine inspiration, Father Ephraim selected a site of several thousand acres during 1854 including the site of Preparation Canyon. While the Saints prepared for the afterlife, they built a town named to voice their intentions called “Preparation.” Although conflict related to land titles between Father Ephraim and his followers proved contentious enough to make its way to the Iowa Supreme Court, the small settlement bloomed to nearly 600 residents while other American settlers also arrived in the area to supplement the Mormon enclave.


Although nutrient rich, the fragile nature of Loess soil deposits made farming the steep topography a challenge. The town of Preparation dwindled over the early 20th century, and by 1946 the site effectively registered as a ghost town. The Perrin family arrived, but by the early 1930s Martha and Walter Perrin decided to deed 82 acres to the Iowa Conservation Commission. The state officially elected to create a ‘forest preserve’ with the lands in 1935 in order to protect the fragile ecosystem. The Civilian Conservation Corps arrived during the same year to start work on create trails, picnic areas, an entrance road, and a concrete cattle pass. Habitat management and soil projects focused on limiting erosion also kept the CCC busy. Intentionally left with limited development, Preparation Canyon State Preserve welcomed visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of Iowa before American settlement.


In the 1960s, change and expansion came to Preparation Canyon when the state reclassified the lands as a state park in 1964 before purchasing an additional 167 acres from Marth Perrin in 1969. The land acquisition included the site of the town of Preparation and the original Perrin homestead. Although momentum built locally for a possible National Park encompassing the Loess Hills during the 1970s the efforts stalled. However, starting in the early 1980s the state acquired additional lands eventually totaling 11,484-acres to create the Loess Hills State Forest in 1985. Four units spread across the border of Harrison and Monona counties, including sections adjacent to Preparation Canyon State Park.


Today, Preparation Canyon State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in western Iowa. Visitors enjoy taking in scenic Loess Hills views while picnicking at the park’s shelter. Miles of rugged trails winding through forest and grasslands landscapes provide opportunities largely unrivaled in Iowa. The hike-in, non-modern campsites in the park’s southeastern corner provide an option for those hoping to lose themselves in one of Iowa’s most rugged landscapes. The nearby Loess Hills Scenic Overlook features an observation deck and easy access to a ridgetop trail. Wildflowers and wildlife also offer great chances for exploration at Preparation Canyon. The Friends of the Loess Hills and Preparation Canyon group provide a chance for people to get involved with preserving one of Iowa’s most iconic landscapes.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Preparation Canyon State Park. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Preparation Canyon State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Preparation Canyon State Park.


Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.


I hope I’ll see you out there!

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