Amie Goes for a Hike: Union Grove’s Lake, Waterfall, and Diverse Flora Draw You In

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Union Grove Falls along Union Grove State Park South Trail in Gladbrook in May 2022.

I hike to every beautiful place I can think of around my home state, to showcase the beauty that Iowa has to offer. Follow here, or on Twitter using #AmieTakesAHike, to pass on your suggestions and see where I go next.

They had me at “waterfall”.

Union Grove State Park, established in 1938 outside of Gladbrook in Tama County, is an easy getaway on US Hwy. 63. It is probably best known for the great Lake Union Grove, around which the park was essentially built, a 110-acre beauty used for fishing, boating and beach swimming.

But nestled along its southeast path where the lake drains is Union Grove Falls, located right next to the dam. You barely need to get out of your car to get a glimpse, though you’re rewarded with the meditative serenity of the sound of falling water as you cross the bridge and down the tree-lined path for a closer look. .

Union Grove Falls, on the south trail.

Hiking

I already wish there was a walking trail around the entire lake like many other parks have. There are local roads, which you can walk or cycle past the lake houses that circle the rim (the park boundaries, with a few exceptions, end where the lake shore meets the road). But it’s still risky when your hike is competing with traffic, not to mention traffic interfering with your wildlife/lake viewing.

Instead, Union Grove has two separate hiking trails – one on the northwest corner, which also serves as a wildlife refuge, and one on the southeast, which has the waterfall and connects to the campground.

None of them loop completely, something else that would be a nice addition and from the trail map at least seems possible. I like full loops so I can find myself back where I parked, without going back.

Anyway, both trails are less than 3 miles combined, so assuming your supposed waterproof hiking boots don’t get in while you get bitten by early summer mosquitoes (she cynically said ), they are both fairly easy to tackle in an afternoon.

A woodchip trail along the south trail.

images and sounds

Woods and water are my favorite hiking combination, and Union Grove has them both.

Pairs of Canada geese had goslings in tow on our mid-May hike, and it was fun to watch the fuzz balls stutter after their parents and swim in a neat line behind them once they have reached the lake on the south trail.

On the North Trail, an official “wildlife refuge”, a white tailed deer showed up among the dense woods after being spooked by us, a pleasure for me to spot him while hiking. (The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says turkeys also populate the park.)

Honestly the best phone photo you’ll get of this distant deer.

And at the South Trail waterfall, the sound of rushing water, which always puts me in a contemplative mood, drops pleasantly several feet from the rocks below.

The trails seem well maintained, alternating between wood chips, mowed grass, rocks and dirt roads depending on where you were. There was some unfortunate vandalism near the dam when we went and hopefully the DNR will clean up soon.

The verdict

Obviously I have lots of free DNR tips on how to improve Union Grove hiking trails – figure out how to loop their north and south trails, as well as how to connect them both and maybe even add a hiking trail around the whole lake that somehow doesn’t involve the road.

But even if it doesn’t happen for a while, Union Grove is still worth the drive. The variety of terrain – from restored grasslands to stands of pine trees to rocky outcrops – provides shelter for a variety of songbirds, waterfowl and wildlife. And official and unofficial trails off the main hikes, with plenty of elevation changes through the area’s hills, give adventurous hikers something to explore.

By Amie Rivers
05/22/22

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