By: Kristen Morrow, JCC Naturalist
Address: 4045 245th St NE, Solon, IA 52333
Size: 132 acres; 2+ miles of hiking trail
What to expect: This JCC park is truly one of a kind. A visitor can enjoy 2 miles of heavily shaded trails through a mature oak-hickory forest, hike along a small crystal clear stream, or catch tadpoles and fish in the large pond. In addition to the stunning nature, this park also boasts unique architectural features. The 100′ diameter Celebration Barn is one of the first things a visitor will notice as they drive up 245th St. This handmade round barn, built by Dick Schwab using locally sourced materials, is the last-built of several round barns on the property. It is often open for the public to tour during summer weekdays. A stone arch, stone amphitheater, and brick labyrinth, all located just outside the Celebration Barn, round out the uniqueness of this space.
Note: This property is adjacent to Big Grove Preserve, an 80-acre Bur Oak Land Trust property. There are over two miles of trails at Big Grove, and when paired with Cangleska Wakan, makes a 4+ mile trail network. Visitors to Big Grove should park at Cangleska Wakan’s western parking area, located near the three smaller round barns. From there, Big Grove visitors can either walk down Starry Night Lane to the official Big Grove trailhead, or hike through Cangleska Wakan and access the preserve via the interconnected trails.
How to prepare: Print a map to bring along if this is your first visit as there are multiple trail intersections to keep track of.
Where to park: There are two parking areas, one right at the entrance to the Celebration Barn and one further into the park, along the western park boundary. The western parking area is preferred, as it is larger and closer to trail access and bathrooms. Both parking areas are readily plowed in winter months.
Bathrooms: Portable restroom available year round by three round barns; When the Celebration Barn is open, unlocked, and not in use for events, indoor restrooms are available to the public.
Dogs: Allowed, but must be kept on-leash, and all pet waste must be bagged and packed out.
A Brief History of Cangleska Wakan as Public Land
One of the first questions that most people ask in regards to this park is how to pronounce its unique name. The name, Lakota Sioux in origin, is pronounced chan – gle’ ska – wa kan’.
Cangleska Wakan translates to ‘Sacred Hoop’ or ‘Sacred Circle’ and refers to the interconnectedness of all things. The circle or hoop refers to such things as the seasons, cycles of life, the earth, sun, moon and stars, and essentially all things in the universe. With the areas signature round barns, labyrinth, arch, seasonal cycles and circular nature of life, death and recycling of all living things, the name will help all people recognize and connect with their place throughout time. The idea for the name came through the land’s previous owners, Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford, after much thought and consideration. The naming process took more than a year as the Johnson County Conservation Board worked with several indigenous peoples in the Midwest. The cultural affiliations touched with the naming process have included the Ioway, Sisseton and Yankton Sioux, Winnebago and Ho-Chunk nations.
Cangleska Wakan was acquired by JCC in 2018 through both purchase and donation. Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford donated a value of $1.2 million of the property’s assessed worth to the county – the largest donation in JCC’s history.
JCC has been working on a master plan for this park’s public use in regard to staff, modified structures, marketing and philosophy. The public can expect exciting changes and upgrades in years to come.
A Naturalist-led Hike into Cangleska Wakan
Cangleska Wakan has grown to be one of my favorite hiking get-aways, especially during the summer months when I crave respite from the heat. In this grove, I find shade, an endless palette of green, and a leaf-muffled quiet for my often too-busy mind (interrupted only by birdsong and trickling stream).
Of course, a virtual hike here in January presents with a very different feel. Green gives way to blues and whites, the quiet thickens in the snow-covered world, and signs of life are mainly evident only by the tracks left behind.
I generally prefer to enter from the western parking area, as it is much larger. This parking area is also closer to the trails, with the closest trailhead tucked behind the three round barns.
This is the trailhead that JCC recommends using for all hikers starting at the western parking lot, in order to keep hikers off of the road and away from traffic. However, for the purposes of showing more park features, this virtual hike will head down Scotts Lane a little further (Note: Scotts Lane is open to local residents, and all visitors should be aware of traffic while walking along this road, stick to the far side of the road, and be ready to get further to the side if necessary).
A little ways down Scotts Lane, past the picturesque round barns on the right is a cozy little open-air shelter on the left. This shelter is open to the public to use, and it makes for a breezy reading or picnic hangout in the summer or a nice wind block in the winter.
At the base of the hill, you can look up towards the Celebration Barn and stone arch.
Thick stands of cattail line the edges of the pond. If you are hiking with kids (or even just adults), explore the cattail seeds! Take a pinch from one of the more bursting and fluffy seed heads and observe the seeds up close. Then, blow them towards the pond and watch as they float in the wind.
Further east on the road is the next trailhead. When I park at the northern lot, I usually head down the main lawn, and carefully hike the short distance of road up to this point. This trailhead sits near the top of a hill. A large tree with a thick horizontal branch over the entire road marks the entry.
The trail heads down towards a stream that dissects the park. Smaller tributaries run through the gently rolling terrain. A covered bridge over one of these tributaries is a thrill for little hikers to encounter.
The trail eventually cuts sharply west, and you can see a wider stream to your left. You’ll follow this to an intersecting trail, which climbs up the hill and ends at the three round barns. To the left of this intersection is another exciting bridge, this one made of concrete and stone. When the snow thaws and the surface of the bridge is revealed, a hiker can enjoy large fossils of ancient sea creatures that dot the surface, primarily from colonial coral and brachiopods. Such fossils are found in many parts of the state, and are a remnant of this landscape’s history under an inland sea, over 350 million years ago! It is well worth it to pause and observe these fossils and ruminate on the astounding changes that this planet has undergone.
More trail awaits on the other side of the bridge. An immediate left provides a trail that follows the stream once again, while another fork, marked currently with a huge cut log of a wind-blown oak lies a little further on. Going to the right (west) at this fork will take a hiker quickly into Big Grove Preserve. White posts with the Bur Oak Land Trust logo serve as a barrier-free property border, allowing for free passage of both humans and wildlife amongst the two preserves. Together, Cangleska Wakan and Big Grove Preserve provide 212 acres of protected high quality woodland. Even better, much of Big Grove Preserve is bordered by public lands held by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Altogether, these protected lands serve as a vital habitat corridor for local wildlife in a part of the county facing high development stress. Connected habitat such as this is a huge priority for all conservation groups, and will be ever more important in the face of climate change.
To stay on Cangleska Wakan trails, take the left (east) at this fork.
Animal tracks are plentiful throughout this woodland. Practice seeing and IDing these and other wildlife signs. You can print out some JCC-made resources to bring along with you, including an animal tracks pocket guide, a Iowa wildlife scat guide, and an animal tracks and signs scavenger hunt.
After climbing and descending some gently rolling hills, you’ll cross a small tributary and find more trail intersections. To the right (east), a labyrinth of trails crisscross around the curvature of a hill, some leading to a small woodland pond filled with frogs in the spring, and others climbing up to the eastern fence line before dead-ending. To get back out to Scotts Lane, keep heading straight; you’ll again cross the wider stream, now marked with a huge fallen oak, snapped clean during the 2020 derecho (along with much of the other tree damage scattered throughout the forest).
This last stretch back to the road follows the stream for a while, and is gorgeous any time of the year. Look up while you hike, too, to take in the silver gray branches of majestic white oaks still standing. Their branches curve and arc toward the sky in spectacular serpentine fashion.
One final tree that I always enjoy passing is unique bitternut hickory. A narrow cavity 15 feet up the trunk makes this tree stand out to me. The cavity appears to be slit open part way, with a thick layer still attached and pushed down perpendicular to the trunk. I like to imagine a little squirrel living in this cozy home, complete with a front porch to relax on and watch the forest below.
Before long, you’ll see a shelter filled with wood and Scotts Lane. The loop described in this virtual hike, from the trailhead to this point, is approximately one mile. From here, we’d recommend turning around and completing the hike on trail back to the west parking area or crossing over Scotts Lane and hiking back to the north parking area on the trail across the road. Again, Scotts Lane is open to local traffic, and in winter, the road is more narrow and more slippery than other times of the year. Please stick to the trails whenever possible.
Before leaving, check out the features around the Celebration Barn. A stone amphitheater outside of the barn drops down to a brick labyrinth. When free of snow, walk the labyrinth from start to finish for a practice in mindfulness. The stone arch is also worth marveling. This arch is free of mortar or additional supports and is held up by gravity alone. It is one of the largest free standing arches in North America.
We’re excited for you to get to know this park! With so many unusual features, we’re confident it will be a community gem in no time.