Wildcat Den State Park, Iowa | Trail of the Week
This week Joshua Sun takes us to a beautiful park full of stunning trails, cliffs and imposing natural rock formations at Wildcat Den State Park in Iowa. Joshua is a trail runner, race director and proud QC-TUR(d)
If you ever travel cross country, more likely than not, you’ll end up on Interstate 80 and pass through the Quad Cities and our beautiful slice of the country right here on the mighty Mississippi River. Fun fact! The region around the greater QC area is the only place in the country where the Mississippi River actually runs east to west!
All trivia aside, if you make your way a little further west along the river towards Muscatine on the Iowa side, you’ll run into a beautiful park full of stunning trails, cliffs and imposing natural rock formations at Wildcat Den State Park. While technically there are only 4ish miles of trail, the natural trail flow, steep climbs and the varied terrain and topography make getting trail time in a real pleasure. Along with primitive camping options, there are also some wonderful historical features to explore including a frontier schoolhouse and the Pine Creek Grist Mill.
Fat Man’s Squeeze and Steamboat Rock – two of the iconic rock formations in the park.
The trails at Wildcat are mostly a mixture of dirt and rocky single/double track with some short grass sections sprinkled throughout. A major appeal of Wildcat for runners is the varied terrain with short steep climbs intermixed into the smooth and ‘cruisable’ sections that are a blast to run! You wouldn’t think you were in Iowa at a number of spots along the trail as exposed sandstone and limestone bluffs soar above you and just as quickly provide exit and usher you into smooth silky trails surrounded by old oak and pine.
One of the best places to start a run-venture at Wildcat is from the parking lot by the Pine Creek Grist Mill on Wildcat Den Road. From there, you cross the road and jump onto the Mill Trail which will immediately climb for a couple hundred meters before leveling off and taking you further into the park and eventually down to the Lower Picnic Area Trail at which point you can either loop around through the Devil’s Punch Bowl or continue on alongside the bluff and to Fat Man’s Squeeze, a steep and narrow climb and descent set narrowly between the bluff and Steamboat Rock. You’ll find plenty of opportunities along the trail to dip off and explore all while keeping the central trail accessible.
The most common route for local trail runners is to start as described above and to take the main trail out to the campground right south of the Upper Picnic Area Shelter and take a loop through the paved lot there and then return the same way back. It’s exactly 5k out and 5k back which makes for a nice 10k route that manages to stay fresh even for longer hauls. With the variety in terrain, easy access to vehicle aid and the two-way flow of the trails, Wildcat is a great location to get long training runs in with friends with everyone able to cruise along at their own pace and never being too far from company and aid.
The “regular” 10k out and back.
Parking & Access
There is parking available by the Pine Creek Grist Mill of Wildcat Den Road as well as within the park at various lots scattered throughout. From the Mill, you can take New Era Road west and then turn right into the park onto 181st St. Most of these lots can be found just by driving north on 181st and are all either directly adjacent to the trails or connected within a short distance by the park road.
There is a small local 5k called the ‘Wildcat Den State Park Ken Hyman Memorial Trail Run/Walk’ held the 2nd Saturday of every September that helps raise funds for the upkeep of the Pine Creek Grist Mill.
There is also fat-ass style 8 hour ultra that’s usually held in early to mid November each year by the local trail & ultra running group QC-TUR aka TUR(d)s. It’s called the Tame Kitty 8 Hour and while a public Facebook event is created for it each year, there is no formal registration. Just show up and run!