Ledges State Park | Ups and Downs

by Jim and Melanie

A sea covered the midwest region of North America about 300 million years ago, eventually forming a deep layer of sandstone in what is now central Iowa. Several past glacial eras carved out diverse landforms across the state. Between 12,000-14,000 years ago, a lobe of ice pushed south from the northern plains and stopped near present day Des Moines. Melting and runoff carved out steep canyons in the sandstone bedrock below, forming what is today Ledges State Park. It is one of Iowa’s favorite parks offering hikes with elevation changes of 150 feet in several places. This topographic map illustrates the rugged terrain. Many people think of Iowa as flat farmland. Most of Iowa isn’t flat.


USGS | The National Map

Iowa weather changes a lot, especially in the spring. This week included sunshine and chilly Sunday and Monday, mostly cloudy and in the 60s on Tuesday, plus a snowstorm for Wednesday and Thursday. We Iowans take advantage of good days on short notice when we can. We chose Tuesday as the best day to visit the park.

The river at left in the image is the Des Moines. Ledges is west of Ames and south of Boone near the center of the state. We accessed the park from the east-west county road in the upper right of the image.

We entered the park and proceeded to drive along the one-way road that winds through it. There were places to park along the road and hike the many interconnected trails. We decided to drive all the way through to get a better sense of what was available since this was our first visit. At five or six places, Pea’s Creek flowed across the road as shown below. Blocks lined up along the side of the roadway next to that car allow hikers to cross and stay dry at each of the crossings. Heavy rains could make these crossings a challenge.



We reached the end of the one-way road as it left the park and joined another county road. It was a T-intersection. We looked at each other and wondered which way to turn and get back to the park entrance so we could go through the one-way again. We were too far from the trails now. There were no signs for guidance.

We chose to go left. It was the correct choice. Less than a mile down the road we turned left away from the river and headed uphill. Another left turn had us back to the park entrance. The entire round trip was almost 4 miles. If we had turned right at the T-intersection, it would have been over 11 miles to get back to the entrance. We shook our heads and wondered why no signs.

Part way through the park a second time, we parked the car and set out on a trail. It started on high ground and soon descended down steeply. Only one trail we hiked was level. All the rest involved many steps of either stone blocks or pieces of railroad ties. Though we prefer more natural footing, the constructed trails are used to manage erosion, which can be severe with the sandstone. Some parts of the original CCC work were still in use. From where we first parked, down to the level of the stream, was an elevation change of 150 feet.

This picture shows a small section of steps hidden in the trees at lower left. Also, there is a rocky overlook at upper right. The sandstone in the park is soft and crumbles easily. Rock climbing was not allowed. Many rock faces had names and initials carved into them.



After two exploratory hikes in the morning, we stopped to eat our lunch. Surrounding us were the canyon walls eroded long ago by the melting glaciers. Click a picture to see the gallery.


Since it was still early spring, not much new vegetation was growing. Grasses were greening. Trees and shrubs were showing some early leaf buds. A few wildflowers were emerging on some sun-warmed slopes.


We moved the car after lunch to a different location and laid back the seats for a quick nap. A man walked by alone talking loudly. He was on his cell phone. Two young women stood by their car and talked loudly to each other and a third person on their phone.

The final trail was level and marked wheel chair accessible. It took us to Lost Lake. Along the way were signs pointing out the birds, plants, and animals one might see. The lake had a school of gold fish.


On our way back to the car, we noticed a short side trail that led to this rocky ledge. It overlooked the Des Moines River and valley. The view was a fitting end to a good day of hiking. We were tired from the many steps up and down. We were stronger and ready for another day of hiking soon.


21 thoughts on “Ledges State Park | Ups and Downs

  1. Eliza Waters

    I love spring walks when you can see the bare landscape before the trees leaf out and it is warm enough to enjoy a hike. Your mystery plant’s leaves look like primrose (which are green in my experience). You’ll have to check it out in a month or two and give us a follow-up!

      1. Jim Ruebush Post author

        It is quite varied. It has been approached and ground up by glaciers several times. It is one of the reasons we have the worst radon levels in the country. Uranium is decaying in that glacier rubble beneath us.

        1. Jim Ruebush Post author

          It is suggested a reading of 4 is the action level to have mitigation installed. Our level was over 13. After mitigation, two tests showed our level at 0.4 and 0.6. Those are essentially fresh air values.

  2. BJ Good

    I had a good time being a desk chair traveler with you on your visit to Ledges. [’tis the season of the year when my chair & I are very good buddies] The park reminds me of Palisades Kepler, probably because of the CCC work.

  3. Mrs. P

    I love the pictures. Spring walks are wonderful as the weather is not too hot. I Can tolerate cool as long as the wind chill is not present. I was able to take a couple hikes this week while visiting in California…exhilarating ! Somehow Florida’s flat landscape just isn’t the same.

  4. Debra

    Yipes! That picture of the car is scary! How nice to have a trail that is wheel chair accessible. That isn’t as common as it should be probably.


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