Friday, August 6, 2021

Back Country Basecamp Campground Reconnoiter

Eden Valley County Refuge
The exploration bug bit me on this next leg of my Iowa state park tour. Since I had just 70 miles to travel from Wildcat Den State Park to Maquoketa Caves State Park, why not check out some county parks on my way over? There were four campgrounds that I had starred on Google Maps: Buena Vista County Park, Sherman Park, Walnut Grove County Park, and Eden Valley County Refuge. Three were situated on the Wapsipinicon River and one on Bear Creek, a tributary of the Maquoketa River. My wanderlust made for quite a different trip than if I had just taken the fastest route--state and interstate highways.

Wildcat Den State Park to Buena Vista County Park Buena Vista Public Use Area (28 miles)

The interesting characteristic of this leg of my day's exploration was that it was mostly on gravel. Up to this point, I'd only traveled a couple of miles on gravel with my brand-spankin' new 2021 Airstream Basecamp 16-footer. The good news is that the trailer weathered the washboard well, no problems. Iowa is a rural state, but if you take off into deep gravel country, it gets really rural really quickly. There's a whole different vibe when you get out onto gravel roads which are almost completely traveled by the folks who live on them. On this leg, I don't remember seeing another car on the gravel, and the area kept getting more and more remote with fewer fields and homesteads and more river scrub and yards full of abandoned cars. "Banjo country," if I wanted to be prissy.

Finally, after a long gravel straightaway I ended at a tee, the road too narrow to turn around. Ahead was thick river bush with a fence comprised mostly of rusty corrugated tin roofing sheets. Beyond lay a field of weeds and rusty hunks of cars. The road to the right was narrow and disused, punctuated with a sign that read "Road Ends Ahead." To the left, the mixture of gravel and red dirt meandered off into a distant horizon of corn and bean fields. I turned left, figuring I would end up somewhere.

Further research after my arrival at Maquoketa Caves was quite interesting--and a learning experience for me. I came to find out that Google Maps had identified the area incorrectly; it was not a county park with campground but a public use area, part of the Wapsipinicon flood plain. "Buena Vista County Conservation Park" was a camping area clear across the state. The area I drove by, Buena Vista Public Use Area, has walk-in access only, no roads and no camping. I discovered this by referencing my old paper book of county recreation areas in Iowa. No wonder I couldn't find the campground! My mistake was that when Google Maps identified the site, there was no contact information, just the location. I searched for more information and came up with the conservation park across the state; not looking closely at the address and location on the map, I just assumed I had the right place because of the name. Wrong! My lesson is to check more closely.

Via my Google Maps account, I suggested a name edit for the location to correctly identify it. A Google Maps pop-up told me that Sorry! Google Maps can't edit that portion of the map. Ah, well . . . glad I chose to turn left at that tee intersection.

The shaded, modern camp area at Sherman Park
Primitive camping at Sherman Park, photo by Lei Lania
Buena Vista Public Use Area to Sherman Park (6 miles)

If I remember correctly, this leg was entirely on gravel. Deeper into the boonies, on roads that were on a first name basis with the cars (well, probably pick-ups) that traveled them. Sherman Park was a hoot. A small sign on a non-descript gravel road marked the park, and the entrance road was a fairly long one-lane gravel and dirt route notable for its potholes. The park was quite nice, though, with small but well-shaded electric sites and with some great primitive campsites on grass along the river. My preference would be to stay here in the fall--past mosquito, chigger, and tick season--in a primitive site right along the river. Cellphone signal is nil, so the reviews that call this campground "secluded" ain't kidding. The county has really spent time, funds, and energy on the area, though.

Walnut Grove along the lazy Wapsipinicon
Walnut Grove Campground, a camper with a view . . . and neighbors, photo by Mark Pearson
A view and a disc golf course, photo Disc Golfing Truckers group
Sherman Park to Walnut Grove County Park (14 miles)

This park and campground is also right on the Wapsipinicon River, right across the river from Toronto, Iowa, most of the route being on blacktop. The cellphone signal was good; at least it passed the test of FaceTiming my wife to check for lag. This park was kept up, but it had that funky vibe some river campgrounds (and towns) have, smelling of river and mud and fish--in a good way, really. Some care had been put into the park, but it still had that kicked back "Anything bitin'?" feel. The individual sites along the river had a great view, but maybe retained a few memories and scars from the last flood. There are newer camping sections a bit away from the river, but this county park has obviously not been "upgraded" using an Army Corps template. The campground is probably crowded on summer weekends, but hitting the park in the off-season would most likely yield a quiet few days.

Eden Valley, a corridor campground with creek belong and paved highway above
Creek below, photo Jay Saxon
Highway above, photo Jay Saxon
Walnut Grove to Eden Valley County Refuge (10 miles)

Eden Valley is really a beautiful little campground right along Bear Creek. Unfortunately, it's also right along the road. Now, it's not along a big highway, but the road does run along the campground, defining the upper boundary. The campground has large, mature trees, grass that is beautifully manicured, and is defined at its lower edge by the creek. There is a refined feeling to this campground, lovingly maintained. Of all four of these parks, this one had the cleanest campsites. If I were a grandpa that wanted that safe, kicked-back, backyard feel for camping (wait a minute--I am a grandpa!), then this would be a relaxing place to stay. I'm going to have to research more to see what hiking possibilities are nearby. There are lots of great trail photos on the Google Maps site. The cell signal was weak but the blend of boonies and the efforts of some inspired county employee with a kick-butt lawnmower is an enticing combination.

After scoping out Eden Valley, it was nine miles to Maquoketa Caves State Park. My navigator wanted me to take to the gravel roads again, but I decided enough was enough and insisted on the fastest route, which was on county and state roads. I later found out that the gravel would have been fine, but I just wanted to get to my campsite and cook a late lunch. 

Thus ends my back country Basecamp campground reconnoiter, which was a bit fun, a bit trepidacious, and a bit of an eye-opener. Experiences like this remind me that what I like most about camping is not the drive. Today's drive also reminded me that each campground and park has its own personality, and there's nothing wrong with mixing up the destinations occasionally. All these parks--even the one I never got to see--all have the river experience in common. If I want to see some new country while hanging out by the water, then this recon expedition certainly has provided me with some new camping possibilities. 

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