Located in Iowa’s northeastern corner of Allamakee County, a seven-unit, 8,584-acre state forest holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Yellow River State Forest.
Today’s Yellow River State Forest consists of the 5,237-acre Paint Creek Unit, the 770-acre Luster Heights Unit, the 1,227-acre Yellow River Unit, the 864-acre Paint Rock Unit, the 196-acre Mud Hen Unit, and the 209-acre Waukon Junction Unit, and the 160-acre Lost 40 Unit. Extensively covering portions of eastern Allamakee County, the state forest started with the acquisition of the Yellow River Unit during 1935. The significance of the area, however, stretches back much deeper into the past.
Throughout the units, visitors can view the dominant feature of the surface of Paleozoic Plateau: limestone and sandstone bedrock. Often described as the ‘Driftless’ region of Iowa, due to the belief that the region never experienced glaciation, small, isolated areas of glacial drift did occur throughout Northeastern Iowa during the pre-Illinoian time-period roughly half a million years ago. Narrow V-shaped valleys flanked by steep-sloped bluffs and numerous rock outcrops comprise the geographic landscape.
Archeological evidence points to human occupation of the area dating to at least 12,000 years ago in the Paleo-Indian period. Burial mounds, petroglyphs, and other evidence demonstrate a long and robust Indigenous past in northeastern Iowa. Home to the Hopewell civilization, famous for extensive trade networks and conical burial mounds dating to over 2,000 years ago, the Dakota, Ioway, Winnebago Ho-Chunk, and Oto, as well as the Sauk and Meskwaki, came to occupy the area prior to Euro-American colonization. Many Siouan speaking peoples maintain links to the area, including formal recognition of ties to the nearby Effigy Mounds National Monument.
The first European visitors to Iowa, the Frenchmen Marquette and Joliet, undoubtedly passed near the more easterly units of the YRSF in 1673, and the area saw intensive interaction between native peoples and early Euro-Americans centered at Prairie du Chien. The first mission school built west of the Mississippi, created for the education of Ho-Chunk children as the tribe was forcibly removed from Wisconsin was located within the bounds of today’s state forest. As America expanded beyond the Mississippi and into Iowa, the hardwoods forests of the driftless fell to provide fuel and shelter. The state’s first sawmill in Iowa thrived within the bounds of today’s state forest as hardwoods fell during the era of initial settlement. Farmers experimented unsuccessfully with plowing and the steep landscape, but extensive erosion plagued their efforts.
As the public lands era of Iowa dawned, funding came together between state and federal sources in 1935 for an initial land purchase focused on the Winnebago Ho-Chunk school site at the entrance of the Yellow River into the Mississippi. For $9 per acre, the state acquired an initial site during 1936. Later acquisitions focused on lands further north in the Paint Creek watershed using state fish & game funding, the Paint Creek Trust Fund, Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson federal wildlife funding, as well as some land forfeitures from tax delinquency. By 1940, Yellow River Forest had grown to almost 4,000 acres including portions of all seven units. Civilian Conservation Corps workers arrived and sought to create and implement land management plans to provide for erosion control, grazable pasture for livestock, and fire control on reforested lands. The CCC harvested timber from the Yellow River State Forest for use on state parks throughout Iowa. As the state expanded the state forest through land purchases, the US Forest Service provide for the seeding of lands at a rate of between 25,000 and 30,000 trees per year. Large stands of pine throughout the forest today as a testament to the seeding program of the 1940s.
With the close of the CCC era, the Yellow River Forest continued to develop with the establishment of a prison labor program during 1946. The following year a sawmill started at the park, utilizing inmates from the Anamosa State Penitentiary. In the 1960s, a minimum-security facility at Luster Heights Unit added to the corrections program at the Yellow River State Forest. The prison labor program provided inmates with tasks including fencing, tree planting, harvesting, and operating the sawmill. All the trees processed at the mill are harvested from state land and the lumber used at state parks and wildlife areas, or sold. The Luster Heights Correctional Facility closed in 2017.
1949, the state of Iowa transferred 1,500-acres of the original Yellow River Unit to the National Park Service for the creation of Effigy Mounds National Monument. In the wake of some lands departing, the 1950s and 1960s saw extensive expansion of lands through purchases made from willing landowners by the Iowa Conservation Commission. The ICC used the lands to expand amenities at the site, starting with camping and picnic areas, and even operated a rent-a-horse operation during the era. The 1960s also saw the implementation of multiple use management concepts for the various units, as representatives from Fisheries Management, Game Management, and Forestry convened to help guide programming and development while coordinating with other area lands including Effigy Mounds National Monument and the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
Fire management also provided a focus for officials at Yellow River. In 1962, the US Forest Service gifted the state forest with a 10-story fire tower featuring a 7’ x 7’ cab built by the Aermotor Windmill Company of Chicago during the 1950s. The only fire tower in the state of Iowa, many locals fondly remember climbs to the top. Due to safety concerns, the tower is no longer open for climbing.
The 1970s saw renewed interest in forestry demonstration, and the Yellow River State Forest started to serve as an outdoor classroom to private landowners and forest industry people throughout the Midwest. Following several problems with lack of supervision as a state forest, the state redesignated portions of Yellow River units to state park status. However, after public discussion, the state reversed course and kept the totality of the holdings as state forest while creating new camping regulations.
Today, the Yellow River State Forest offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northeastern Iowa. Extensive opportunities to explore more than 50 miles of trails by foot or on horseback pair with miles of water trails open to canoeing and kayaking. Iowa’s anglers enjoy the far-famed trout streams for rainbow and brook trout. The Paint Creek Unit features four campgrounds for those hoping to spend the night. Visitors still love checking out Iowa’s only fire tower or taking in majestic views of one of the state’s most incredible natural areas.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Yellow River State Forest. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Yellow River State Forest shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Yellow River State Forest.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!