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Road Trip Diary: Pilot Knob State Park, Forest City, Iowa

Dan checks out some scenic northwest Iowa desinations.

Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures is a new series produced by Iowa Public Television that highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see, and taste, right here at home. Below are excerpts from Dan's journal of his travels in the state.

Road Trip Diary: Pilot Knob State Park, Forest City, Iowa

…Wow! It’s a real Iowa summer scorcher of a day: The heat index is headed for the century mark this afternoon! But I’m thrilled to be cruising past lush, green fields and basking under the bluest of skies en route to a state park I’ve often driven by on State Highway 9, but never stopped to explore (my bad)....

... The “knob” itself is Iowa’s second highest point, a huge pile of glacial debris used by pioneers as a landmark as they traversed a sea of tall grass prairie. I’ll enjoy getting acquainted with this woodsy preserve (especially the fantastic view from atop the stone tower). The history buff in me is struck by a then-and-now contrast: Those early Iowa settlers creaked along rutted trails so very slowly in their covered wagons, while many of today’s “adventurers” roam on modern superhighways in luxury recreational vehicles manufactured in nearby Forest City....

… My enthusiastic guide is Park Ranger Deb Coates, a onetime six-on-six basketball star from Mediapolis who has been here for 22 years. On Deb’s ATV (what fun!) I get an escorted tour of this 500-acre wooded jewel, including the natural-bowl amphitheater that seats up to 1,000 for performances and weddings; 13 miles of trails that attract hikers in the summer and snowmobilers in winter; a spaghnum(moss-covered) bog called Dead Man’s Lake that’s unique in Iowa; and the fabulous, 30-mile  panoramic view from that Rapunzel-like, fieldstone tower built by the CCC in the 1930s….

…Tonight, it’s on to a perfect sunset cruise on 7-mile-long Clear Lake and another eye-opener for me. This is an Iowa community I’ve only visited briefly (mainly the famous Surf Ballroom, site of Buddy Holly’s last performance) or driven through on my way to other destinations. In many respects, I’m a lake person. I was born near Seneca Lake in Upstate New York and now I spend a lot of time with my family at Spirit Lake here in Iowa....

... Clear Lake itself turns out to be as charming and welcoming as it can be (especially the Scenic Walkway and City Park downtown), and I love my shoreline view of the community from the Lady of the Lake excursion boat. Built in Dubuque, this Victorian-looking paddlewheeler (with a John Deere engine) served for many years as a Missouri River ferryboat at Yankton, South Dakota, before it landed here in 1987. Now it’s operated by my hosts, Mike and Marlene Royer and Rodger and Dotty Nordman, sort-of-retired types like me who are fulfilling a longtime dream.…

… It’s fun mingling with the other passengers (the boat can accommodate up to 150), as well as waving at other boaters on this mellow evening. Some I talk to are local and some are vacationing hereabouts from as far away as California. Several of the passengers and I happen to have friends in common, which reminds me that Iowa really is one big small town, wherever you happen to find yourself in our state....

... We stick to the east side of the lake, relishing the cooling breezes on the upper deck and admiring the homes and condos along the shore. The best part: Mike lets me take the big wheel for a few minutes, so I get to play Mark Twain, including tooting the horn….

Tags: boats Clear Lake Forest City Hancock County history Iowa IowasSimplePleasures lakes parks tourism travel


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