How to Explore Cedar River Crossing: South Half

By: Kristen Morrow, JCC Naturalist

The Basics

Address for South Entry: 5398 160th St NE, Solon, IA 52333 (a wet meadow close to the entry makes this harder to access unless the ground/meadow is frozen, or the visitor expects very wet conditions)

Size: Total acreage of CRC presently is 560 acres, including both north and south halves

What to expect: The south half of CRC is a place with a terrifically wild feel. There is abundant wildlife here and it seldom has any other visitors. This half of the property is even more saturated than the north half, making it trickier to access. In the summer, expect to get wet, at least for the first 1/3 mile, while you’ll trek through a wet meadow, often knee high in non-flood conditions. The winter, after most hunting seasons wrap up, is the easiest time to enjoy this part of the property. If the wetland is completely frozen, traveling across this section is a breeze. If there has been some freezing and thawing, be sure to have solid waterproof boots to cross that area. This property is best suited to adventurers who are more comfortable with rogue and primitive adventures and more ‘extreme’ conditions.

How to prepare: In the summer, expect to potentially get wet to knee height or possibly higher. Wear boots or old shoes that can get wet and muddy. Mosquitos are abundant here. Ticks are present, but they are not as thick here as in other areas. In the winter, be prepared with waterproof boots if the ice is not certain to be thick and stable over the first wetland section. Yaktrax, microspikes, or trekking poles can be helpful crossing wetland sections when icy. Bring a map to help navigate this more primitive space.

Bathrooms/Shelters: There are no bathrooms in this half of the property.

Dogs: Allowed, but must be kept on-leash, and all pet waste must be bagged and removed.

Trail Map (Total CRC Map):

A PDF of the map can be found here.

A Naturalist-led Hike into Cedar River Crossing

Mid January to late February (after hunting season and before most of the ice thaws) is my favorite time to enjoy the southern half of Cedar River Crossing. If it is cold enough, I can easily cross the wet meadow (all locked up in ice) that otherwise keeps this wild area pretty closed off to humans in other parts of the year. Usually, this area is filled with animal signs of all kinds, from otter and mink to beaver, pheasants, deer, foxes, coyotes, and more. Frequently, pileated woodpeckers zip around swooping overhead towards the canopy beyond. This abundant life plus the quiet remoteness of this place makes me feel like I am in bigger wilderness than I really am.

Though the sign says 405 acres, this property is now 560 acres. Cedar River Crossing is a popular hunting area.

The parking area is small on the south end, and it is not guaranteed to be plowed out. Usually, there is a small road pull-off that is easy to park in, but be extra careful in the winter, as the edges of the road can be harder to make out. This parking area is next to a farmhouse, and a beagle will probably watch you with interest as you trek into her territory.

After hiking down a road-like stretch from the parking area, the route turns at a right angle, skirting around a hillside that is often filled with tracks.

Just around the bend from this prairie is the wet meadow that serves as a property moat for most. Cattails and willows fill this space. Look carefully at the vegetation here – you’ll probably spot several nests built into these plants, mostly the nests of red-winged blackbirds, who gravitate most to wetland spaces to raise their young.

To cross this meadow, you can either trek diagonally across it, or stick to the edges of the thick copse of willow. If the temperatures have been above freezing, be careful crossing this section; you may punch through the ice in areas, possibly up to ankle-high water this time of year. Overall, the wet meadow is perhaps half a football field in length. Once past this area, the adventure is pretty smooth sailing.

The wet meadow is lined by trees on all side. At the northern line of trees, an open trail cuts towards the river. A little ways down this trail, a limestone rock serves to honor some of the history of this land: near this spot, the Cedar River could be forded, and this fording site was used by Native Americans and pioneers up until the first bridges were built over the Cedar. Around 1840, Mr. Sutliff opened a ferry upriver at the town of Sutliff. Changes in the river prevented Sutliff’s Ferry from operating and in 1898 the Sutliff Bridge was built, which can still be accessed and enjoyed today near the northern boundary of this property.

Once past the first line of trees, the view opens up to a big open stretch of prairie to the west, and a riparian forest with backwater channels scrolling back and forth to the east. Backwater channels are a characteristic feature of Cedar River Crossing. They are formed over thousands of years of the river’s changing course, leaving little ephemerally-saturated scars each time the river moves. The habitat they create is a haven for ducks, geese, beavers, otters, mink, turtles, and heron – all animals frequently spotted throughout the property.

The backwater channels also can help absorb floodwater, and floods are another major characteristic feature of this property. At least a few times a year, Cedar River Crossing in inundated with floodwater. The wetlands, wet meadows, and prairies all soak up floodwater like a sponge, helping to decrease the effect of flooding downstream. These effects would be much more significant if more of our state’s riparian areas were protected and restored to native habitats.

Silver maples are abundant throughout the bottomland forests of Cedar River Crossing. This tree is well adapted to the floodplains, and its roots can handle the high moisture conditions here. In the winter, look for their clusters of bright red buds. They always remind me of jingle bells.

As you hike, look to the west: terraces rise up along the boundary line. These terraces, which are also formed over thousands of years of the Cedar River’s changing path, make this space feel more private, secluded, and wild to me.

Halfway across the first big open prairie area, another trail opens towards the river. The trail is buffered on each side by extremely thick willow stands. Beaver signs are everywhere throughout here. Dams are built in the channels and in some areas, industrious beaver left clear cuts of their handiwork.

Eventually, this spur trail ends at the edge of the Cedar River. Look for ice chunks flowing downstream, and an eagle or two perched in a nearby tree. Otter slides can sometimes be seen over patches of ice along the stream bank, sliding right into the river!

Back on the main trail, keep heading north until you reach the large pond that cuts the property in half. When the ice is solid (over 4 inches thick), you can cross over into the northern half of the property for more exploration. In the summer, be prepared to walk through water at least waist deep to get to the other side.

In the winter, this pond doesn’t look like much, but in the summer it is breathtaking. The entire shoreline is crammed full of rose mallow. A dry brown crown-shaped seedhead is all that remains in January, but when they bloom in August, huge pink flowers cover these shrubby plants. All together, tens of thousands of these blossoms surround the pond at peak.

From the southern parking area up to the pond, with the spur trail to the river and back, the hike is around 2.5 miles. To get in more distance, the borders of the large prairie areas are easily traveled in the winter months.

Happy adventuring!

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