The days grow shorter as summer slips into fall, but there is still plenty of beautiful weather ahead of us to get out and enjoy the changing of the seasons.
We talked to Mike Wallace, executive director of Dallas Country Conservation, and Chris Adkins, environmental education coordinator and naturalist, for the best ideas for Perry residents looking to get back to nature.
The following highlights some of the best Dallas County has to offer in terms of its parks, trails and special events. There’s a little something for everyone whether you are a backyard gardener or an active day-tripper, so get busy and enjoy the great outdoors before the winter snows start to fly.
Dallas County parks and trails are open throughout the season and ready for hikers, campers, boaters and bikers looking to enjoy the fall foliage.
Sportsman Park, located a half mile northeast of Dawson is one of the most scenic areas in Dallas County due to the 40 acres of mature oak and hickory trees within the park. The park overlooks the North Raccoon River. Cabins are available for rent year-round and make a great location for family reunions.
Canoeists and kayakers can take advantage of the new boat ramp north of Dawson. The stretch of the Raccoon River between the Dawson and Perry boat ramps makes a perfect fall float and is a unique way to enjoy the changing leaves along the river bank.
The Raccoon River Valley Trail is popular among biking and hiking enthusiasts and offers 56 miles of trails for all sorts of recreational use. A permit is required for anyone over the age of 18 using the trail. Permit envelopes are available at the different trailheads or can be purchased through the Dallas County Conservation.
Not far away, near Woodward, is the High Trestle Trail, also a year-long favorite. The trail’s 25 miles take you through five towns (Ankeny, Sheldahl, Slater, Madrid and Woodward) in three Iowa counties (Polk, Boone and Dallas). The trail follows along an old railroad bed previously owned by the Union Pacific Railroad.
“Both of those (trails) you’ll see a lot of traffic on a nice sunny day,” Wallace says. “You couldn’t ask for better scenery in the fall.”
The Forest Park Museum and Arboretum houses the Dallas County Conservation headquarters and is a nice stop along the Raccoon River trail.
“Being an arboretum, we have several different species of trees,” Wallace says. “Plus, we have a nice prairie that is part of our complex that people can make use of. It would be worth coming out and viewing our displays and exhibit buildings.”
The arboretum includes 100 different species of native trees and shrubs and 12 acres of re-established prairie. A gently slopping mowed-grass trail allows visitors a chance to walk the perimeter of the prairie and enjoy the prairie grasses, flowers and wildlife.
Wallace says while Dallas County parks are open year-round, many of the park’s facilities such as public showers and restrooms at Sportsman Park will close for winterizing at the end of October.
If you can’t get out on the trail, you can still bring a little piece of nature home to your own backyard. Operation ReLeaf is a program offered through the Dallas County Conservation Foundation and partners the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry and Alliant Energy Corporation.
Alliant Energy customers are encouraged to purchase trees through the program, which can then be planted as residential shade trees. Trees are $25 each and limited to two per customer. Advanced purchase is recommended as supplies are expected to go quickly. Order forms are available through Alliant Energy or can be obtained from the Dallas County Conservation
“It’s a good opportunity to get a good-sized tree at a discounted price,” Wallace says.
The 16th Annual Prairie Awakening will be held Sept. 7 from 5 – 9 p.m. at the Kuehn Conservation Area in Earlham. This family-friendly event is a celebration of native people and their music, history and dance. The goal of the program is to encourage participation with the performers and reconnect the people with the prairie around them.
The evening will be filled with Native American drumming, folk music, storytelling and traditional dances. This year the Meskwaki Nation will host the celebration with performances by the Brown Otter Drum Singers Song and Dance Group. Jonathan Buffalo, Meskwaki tribal historian, will tell the story of the Meskwaki people, connecting the past with the present. Dallas Chief Eagle, world champion traditional hoop dancer, will also perform during the event.
“It’s been one of the premier things our department has done over the years,” Chris Adkins says. “It’s really been a heck of a lot of fun.”
A guided walk through the prairie will also be offered. Participants will learn to identify prairie plants and which plants Native Americans used for cooking and medicine.
The event is free with no registration required. Participants are encouraged to bring folding chairs or blankets for seating. Pets are also welcomed.
Millions of monarch butterflies are migrating south to their winter homes in the mountain ranges of north central Mexico. The butterflies are expected to arrive in Dallas County between Sept. 9 – 20. To help researchers at the University of Kansas unravel the mysteries of the monarch migration, Dallas County Conservation is once again assisting Monarch Watch as a tagging station.
Volunteers are taught how to safely net the monarchs, record the data and adhere the adhesive tags. The butterflies are then released to continue their trek. Researchers in Mexico collect the tagged monarchs and analyze the data.
“It’s almost akin to winning the lottery when you get a notice back from (the researchers) that the monarch you tagged was found 1,500 miles away from the prairies of Dallas County in this sanctuary in central Mexico,” Adkins says.
Adkins says the World Wild Life Federation has declared the monarch migration as one of the top 10 endangered phenomena in the world. Agriculture and population growth in North America has reduced the number of milk weed plants critical to the monarch’s food supply and for egg laying. The monarch’s winter habitat in Mexico is also threatened by deforestation.
Due to the popularity of the program, volunteers must call the Dallas County Conservation and ask to be put on the waiting list. Adkins says there will be several opportunities to tag the butterflies during the two-week migration window.
Fall Equinox sunrise
You don’t have to fly all the way to Stonehenge in Great Britain to witness the Fall Equinox. Dallas County residents have their very own astronomical clock right in their backyard. The clock, located in Hanging Rock Park in Redfield, is a recreation of an astronomical clock made by an unknown ancient people who lived in the area surrounding Redfield at one time.
Before the invention of reliable time pieces, people used the sun, the stars and astronomical events such as the Fall Equinox to mark the passage of time. The clock at Hanging Rock Park is a collection of stones laid in the prairie sod that mark the precise locations of the sun during the Fall and Spring Equinox along with the Winter and Summer Solstice.
The Fall Equinox will occur at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 22, when Earth’s equator will be perfectly aligned with the center of the sun. Observers will see the sun as it appears to rise directly over the Fall Equinox rock.
Adkins says the simple act of witnessing celestial events such as the Fall Equinox makes him feel more in tune with nature and the world around him.
“To me, that’s a much more beautiful connection to nature — to throw away your watch,” he says.