Backpacking Through Iowa’s Beauty

World traveler takes on Iowa’s state forests

Jacob Nanke loves having an adventure on the horizon.

He taught in Kuwait after college and played Gaelic football across the Middle East. Summers in his twenties were spent backpacking through Europe and in Southeast Asia and Japan . Jacob also lived for a time in Costa Rica while his wife-to-be finished student teaching requirements.

Hiker and his dog smile at the camera from atop a riverside hill.

Returning to live and work for an adaptive technology company in the Waterloo area prompted a period of “nesting,” but Jacob always loved getting outside. Until recently, the Iowan had spent more time hiking in Europe than in his home state.

When the travel restrictions of 2020 made exploring abroad impossible, Jacob challenged himself to look locally. He set out to explore Iowa’s major state forests: Loess Hills State Forest, Shimek State Forest, Stephens State Forest and Yellow River State Forest. Iowa’s state forest system includes 43,917 acres that provide multiple benefits. They feature rugged recreational opportunities and preserve wildlife habitat while demonstrating sustainable woodland management.

“It’s about trying to find adventure where you live,” Jacob said. “That’s been a big part of the push to get out and see more of the state.”

Jacob systematically planned his trips, prioritizing trips by proximity and intensity. Within a year, he’d gotten to all but Shimek State Forest near Farmington.

Adventuring in Iowa

Red leaves frame a river scene cutting through the hilly landscape.

“Strapping on a backpack and having everything that you need with you speaks to me,” Jacob said. “Especially having a desk job, finding those little opportunities to get outdoors can be a challenge.”

Jacob grew up camping in Yellow River State Forest with his grandfather and father, and the nearly 9,000-acre northeast Iowa expanse near the Mississippi River remains one of his go-to hiking spots. Lately, Brent’s Trail, an eight-mile hike through the Loess Hills State Forest has become one of his favorite places to get a little altitude and train for his next trip abroad, trekking the Italian Dolomites.

“I went in with the goal of not just being at the park but trying to hit the ones with backpack-in and camping type of experiences,” Jacob said.

Preparing for his Iowa state forest visits started with a trip to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website for PDF maps and information. Jacob packs minimally, preferring to sleep in a hammock instead of pitching a tent when he’s on his own. He likes to select an audiobook to listen to on the drive out and incorporates camping rituals—like foil packet dinners prepared over the fire—to look forward to.

Related: Discover Iowa’s state parks and forests system, track your progress and qualify for prize drawings by downloading the Iowa State Park Passport.

Crossing Iowa’s state forests off his list doesn’t mean Jacob is finished adventuring in Iowa. He’s already excited about hitting more of Iowa’s bike trails and paddling local waterways. And with access to Iowa’s 71 state parks, forests and recreation areas, he’s unlikely to run out of options any time soon.

“One of the things I like most about traveling is the anticipation and getting ready for a trip,” Jacob said. “Get online, look at pictures to figure out what you want to do. Get stoked about it.”

In fact, cycling the state during RAGBRAI is what helped attune Jacob to the beauty here. He recalled a moment when a large group of riders had paused at the top of the hill to snap pictures of a quintessential Iowa vista. The morning sun was rising, mist still covering the valley. A red barn and silo were perfectly framed. Although this was a sight he’d seen so often, the landscape’s ability to inspire awe made him take a longer look.

“It was a wild realization that we have we have certain things here in the Midwest that are beautiful,” Jacob said. “I’ve certainly taken them for granted.”

Published July 25, 2023

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