By: Kristen Morrow, JCC Naturalist
Address: 5875 Sand Rd SE, Lone Tree, IA 52755
Size: At 380 acres, you could explore this property for hours!
What to expect: This property was acquired by JCC in 2016. It is a former farm site. In future years, it will undergo large-scale ecological restoration. You are likely to be the only visitors there at any given time, and there is plenty of room to really spread out and enjoy the fresh air and bird song away from others. Currently, this would be an overall more primitive adventure, with a 3-mile walking route pieced together from both dirt and grassed roadways and well-established animal trails. Expect parts of the walking route to be more bumpy. “Off-road” strollers are suitable for about 1 – 1.5 miles of the walking route (one-way).
How to prepare: Expect some muddy conditions, especially after rain events, as 1/2 mile of the walking route takes place along a narrow dirt road. There is a roadway that crosses a slough, and after rain events, water can top the road. Your feet may get wet here. See below for more details on flooding and how to check if it’s a good time to visit (Update: 5/7/20 – Water levels are quite low. The crossing is dry.) Spring is a higher tick season, so pants and closed-toe shoes are recommended, as is a post-hike tick check. Hunting is allowed on this property. Be aware of spring hunters, including turkey hunters. Finally, be aware of poison ivy in the forest.
Bathrooms/Shelters: None that are open to the public at this time.
Annotated Trail Map and Scavenger Hunt:
A Deep Dive into Hiking and Exploring Pechman Creek Delta:
When you first get to Pechman Creek Delta, you might drive right by it – it certainly doesn’t look like your typical conservation area, and that’s because it isn’t. Not yet anyway. Johnson County Conservation purchased this 380-acre site in 2016. Formerly, this property was a farm, and much of the land was in crop production. But farming this land grew more and more challenging in recent decades since the Iowa River, which runs along the entire south and west boundary, has been at flood stage with growing frequency. The property has great ecological value; vast tracts of bottomland forest along the river already serve as excellent wildlife habitat, and in coming years, JCC will work on large scale prairie and wetland restoration projects here. Every time I hike here, I look out across the old fields and imagine how they will look with prairie grasses waving across them and with ducks coming in to land on the newly built wetlands. If you can imagine all the great things to come here, I think you will enjoy exploring this property as much as I do.
Follow the driveway around to the side of the long white pole barn. You’ll see a strip designated for parking here. The walking route starts from here along a 1/2 mile dirt road after crossing a gate. Notice how I use the term ‘walking route.’ There isn’t a trail system designed with hikers in mind at this point, but you can still enjoy a 3-mile loop by piecing together this dirt road, a grassed trail, and well-established animal trails. This loop follows the circumference of the old fields, so it’s very easy to stay on track. The public is also free to wander into and through the woods, which would add many more miles of rambling if you so choose.
The dirt road follows the edge of Pechman Creek. This creek can be shallow enough to do some ‘creek-stomping’ in. If you’re unfamiliar with creek-stomping, it’s a term naturalists use to describe walking straight in a creek, exploring along the way. It’s a super fun activity for kids, and can be very educational! The creek here is mostly sand-bottomed, and when it’s a foot deep or less, would be appropriate for a creek-stomp. A smaller channelized creek (straightened for the purposes of humans) dumps into Pechman Creek a short distance down the dirt road.
Another fun activity to enjoy along the dirt road is animal tracking. In my recent visit (3/17/20), I saw the tracks of raccoons, deer, coyotes, pet dogs, pet cats, and a mink. Kids especially can get really into tracking! The pocket guide below is my preferred guide to bring along on hikes with the public.
At 0.5 mile from the parking area, the dirt road will cross Pechman Creek Slough. During some parts of the year, this crossing is entirely dry. During other parts of the year, it is entirely underwater. When I visited on 3/17/20, a small section of the crossing was under about 1-2 inches of water. At this level, it is perfectly safe to cross, just know you might get wet feet! Use good judgement; at flood stage, the water can get to a foot deep or more at this crossing, and it’s obviously not safe to walk across then, as the current at this bottleneck crossing is very strong.
This crossing divides Pechman Creek from Pechman Creek Slough. A slough can be described as a backwater; usually there is very little flow. This makes for a unique habitat to enjoy – the corridor of this waterway is narrow like a stream or river, but the water is flat like a lake. The slough meanders north and continues on outside of the property’s boundaries.
Just about every time I hike here, I hear the load call of one of the Belted Kingfisher’s that lives here, and often I get to watch her zip by in a flash of blue. Listen for her call, she sounds like a loud squirrel chattering. I didn’t see or hear her when I visited on 3/17/20, but I did find other cool wildlife signs – or, I should say, my dog did. He threw himself down to the ground to gleefully roll around. I always cringe to see what he’s found when we’re hiking around water bodies since he especially loves to roll in dead fish (dogs are the best). This time it wasn’t quite a dead fish, but rather what I think is likely otter scat. River Otter scat is often composed of fish scales and fish bones, as you can see in the photo below. We found more otter scat later in the hike as well, and JCC staff have witnessed otter living here previously. As for my dog, dead fish or not, it still made him smell terrible.
After the slough crossing, the property opens up to a large tract of land and open sky.
I like to turn right here and follow a wide grassy trail. This trail hugs the west side of the slough. It’s bordered by a thin strip of switch grass (and a few other prairie species) that served as a buffer between the crop ground and the other habitats.
This trail will eventually curve to the right. When it does, keep a look out for a trail that cuts through the woods to the edge of the slough. You can walk right up and get a glimpse of what we call Button Bush Bay. All of the shrubs that are growing at the water’s edge, or even in the water, are Button Bush, a lovely wetland shrub that pollinators love. Looks like the beavers have loved them too, and had a busy summer and fall. Many of the shrubs have been pretty dramatically cut back.
Back on the trail, it’ll curve back around until you’re heading west. The trail comes straight up to the edge of the slough, and one of my favorite views on the property. The slough makes a sharp turn here. I often accidentally scare up small teams of ducks that are enjoying this wide space on the water.
At this spot, where the trail meets the bank of the slough, there is more otter scat. It would be easier to find than the one at the crossing (I found it without my dog rolling his body in it!). The bright white stands out against the grassy trail as well.
After this point, the wide grassy trail ends, and you’ll transition to a well established animal trail through the switch grass. It’s easy to follow, and simply hugs the circumference of the old field. But if you’d rather stick to the wide trail, an out-and-back from this point would be around a 2.5 mile hike.
This section will bring you back towards the Iowa River. Along the way, you’ll see evidence of the changing courses of the Iowa River and Pechman Creek over time. Old channels, that are sandy-bottomed and dry much of the year, scroll through the woods. They accumulate more water in the wet seasons, and can be a great spot for wildlife.
You can keep following this animal trail until you make a full loop back to the slough crossing. If you want a shorter hike, there is a grassy roadway that divides the old fields and cuts off an additional 1/2 mile of hiking, making a 2.5 mile loop. If you finish off the whole 3-mile loop, you’ll also find yourself next to a large old channel in the woods. This one is cool to explore, and many of the trees along the edges of it show that a beaver started to work on cutting them down (my phone died by this point of the hike, so no photos). You can walk straight in this old channel and follow it back towards the slough crossing. It’s easy to follow, but the last 30 feet or so have a lot of short vegetation you’ll walk through to connect back to the slough crossing. From here, you simply follow the dirt road back to your car.
For those looking for other activities aside from hiking, the woods at Pechman are vast, and you could spend hours exploring the forest alone. I think that a great activity here for pent-up kids is fort-building, and these woods are perfect for that! There is tons of movable sticks (brought down and deposited through all of the floods) to build with, and endless space free for you to ramble in.
Last thoughts: For two glorious hours the other day, I lost myself along the trail and got swept up in the songs of birds and the search for cool nature details. I really did forget for a time all else that is facing us right now. I think all of us could use that respite, so go, explore somewhere new! Pechman is a great place for solitude and big skies. It has an exciting future ahead, and truly will only get better from here. Remember to look out across the property as you hike and imagine the renewed life to come.