It is my honor to bring to the viewers of Puma’s Bluff some information about my favorite town in the Midwest. Below is a list of six must-see parks and a few other tidbits about Decorah that I hope will entice you to traverse the moderate drive down U.S. 52 that takes you directly into this beautiful bluff-laden town. -C.G.
Map for reference
Twin Springs Park. On the west side of Decorah, hidden underneath a curious grove of towering evergreen trees, lies Twin Springs Park. Perhaps the toughest park to locate of the six highlighted parks, Twin Springs is a great and easily accessible example of an artesian well in karst topography…actually two artesian springs within mere feet of each other. Hence the name Twin Springs. Circling up and behind the limited parking is a moderately difficult yet well-groomed hiking trail that takes you from the creek bed to the aforementioned grove of mature evergreens. Finally, don’t be afraid to journey further south on Twin Springs Road, past even where the pavement ends…only two more bends in the road from Twin Springs…to McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita, a gem of a restaurant hidden away from the populace on a quiet country road only minutes from downtown Decorah. I recommend the seafood manicotti.
Stop 2 is Will Baker Park. Known as Pulpit Rock colloquially, this small park’s most prominent feature is the obelisk-like rock formation (known geologically as a “stack”) that stands precariously off of the tip of a small bluff. With a small picnicking area at the parking spot and easy vehicle access there is no reason not to stop and appreciate this natural wonder. A steep yet short climb on impressively constructed steps will quickly take you to eye level with the top of the stack. This overlook allows you to look eastward and over the Upper Iowa River. If you look due east you will see an opposing cliff several hundred yards away. This is a park I will describe later known as Phelps Park.
Stop 3 on our tour: Dunning’s Spring, perhaps the most famous and frequented park in all of Decorah’s parks system. While Twin Springs Park offered a serene pair of artesian wells, Dunning’s Spring’s powerful year round spring flows with ferocity from the base of an 80 foot cliff. Many local “senior pictures” have been taken in front of this majestic spring and waterfall combination. The small park has enough parking to supply demand on most days and there are friendly manmade steps to take you and your companions up to the mouth of the gaping spring. The park also allows for some wading in near-still waters so bring an extra pair of socks! Additionally there is an extensive series of hiking paths up and to the right of the parking area. The trails lead all along the bluff that essentially makes up the northern edge of Decorah often leading to hidden and lesser known overlooks.
Right down Ice Cave Road heading eastward is (surprise) Ice Cave Park. Although on the surface this park may be the least exhilarating, somebody who has as intimate of a knowledge base of Decorah such as myself knows of the secrets hiding behind the actual cave itself. First off the cave is mildly interesting. Bring a flashlight or have a flashlight application ready on your smartphone. The cave only goes about 40 feet in and is not guided in any sense – it’s just for those who want to brave their way into the dark damp depths by themselves. The real excitement awaits those able-bodied enough to work their way up and behind Ice Cave Park.
The area I am about to detail is located above and west of the cave itself. I must take this moment to warn readers that ascending the hillside behind and next to the cave is not an easy task. There are steep, completely un-manicured trails not meant for the general population to ascend. This area is very much inside legal park boundaries and meant to be enjoyed by citizens. For those willing to venture “off trail” awaits a natural playground of cliffside fissures large enough to fit a giraffe, numerous cave vents where one can feel a cool breeze emanating from, limestone cliffs, and even a hidden limestone monolith the size of a small building with a crack in it allowing for an average sized person to summit with ease. Of all of the sights to see within Decorah city limits this is my favorite.
The next to last stop on our tour of Decorah Parks to see is number 5: Palisades Park. Continuing east on Ice Cave Road will take you to a four way stop. Straight ahead of you is a dead end road that will lead you to the Palisades Park loop. This park will require the least of you physically but may be the one that costs you the most breath…the breath you will lose taking in the magnificent overlooks provided at Palisades Park. The most walking you will do from the ample parking space is a level 40 foot walk to a cliff’s edge. There are two one-car parking spots before you get to the main overlook area that are worth their own stop if they are unoccupied, too. From any of the vantage points in this park there are great views and photo opportunities as well as an ability to see main street (Water Street) from an elevated position.
Our final stop on the tour is my personal favorite park: Phelps Park. It is a large park with bathroom amenities, a playground, and plenty of open spaces for picnics. Couple these benefits with the spectacular overlooks and nature trail. Phelps Park is situated on a cliff’s edge that faces west towards Pulpit Rock. The cliffside overlook is adorned with manmade rock walls and even a small pagoda built exhilaratingly close to the 100+ foot vertical drop over the Upper Iowa River. The manicured trail that leads west from the park descends and meanders through the bluffs and across two very impressive pedestrian bridges tucked away in the hardwood forest. You’re sure to cross paths with busy squirrels and perhaps even spook a deer or two along this trail.
There are many ancillary parks in and around Decorah worth checking out too. Malanaphy Springs just northwest of town is an easy but long walk to a remote spring. Upper and Lower Dams are short drives from Decorah. The latter is well worth the rural drive.
The world famous eagle’s nest (http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles) is located next to Siewers Spring State Park, home to yet another scenic and well groomed park with yet another very impressive natural spring as well as a fish hatchery that is open to the public. Decorah is also home to Luther College, a scenic college campus.
Decorah has recently invested in making their town a bicyclist’s paradise. Along with far-reaching, county-crossing trails connecting nearby towns, Decorah now has a very impressive intra-city trail system. With old trails connecting new ones and pedestrian trails repurposed as multi-use trails and the addition of a couple of impressive bicycle bridges, one could conceivably hit all of the aforementioned parks from their hotel without the use of internal combustion engines but with foot power instead.
Most people, when asked about what they think of Iowa, will simply reply with something along the lines of “flat, filled with corn.” Let Decorah shatter your perception of Iowa and cement its place as a jewel of the Driftless Area.
For more about the Driftless Area, check out Landscapes of the Driftless Area, and thanks for reading!