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Camping Stephens State Forest in Iowa

Camp Iowa had the chance to speak with Jessica Flatt, the area forester for Stephens State Forest. We talked about hunting on Iowa public lands, remote wilderness camping and the Cinder Path. Listen to our full interview with her here:

Stephens State Forest Camping

Camp Iowa: Talking with Jessica Flatt today. She’s the area forester for Stephens State Forest in Iowa. How’s it going today, Jessica?

Jessica: Going well, thank you.

CI: Stephens State Forest is a fairly large area at 15,000 acres, and it looks like there are a lot of different types of camping spread out among that acreage. Can you tell us a little bit about the types of camping that are available there?

Jessica: Sure. We have 42 sites that are available for equestrian use, which means that you can bring in your horses, mules, and they have a hitching rail. We have one youth group site, which can have up to 60 people in that one site, and that’s for organized youth groups or other organized groups. We have some other what’s called non-modern camping, primitive camping, and five pack-in sites, which are like backpacking sites where you can hike into the site. All of our camping in the state forest is considered non-modern, with no running water, quick flush toilets, that type of thing.

CI: Do they have pit toilets, though?

Jessica: Yep, some of the campgrounds do have pit toilets; some have Port-a-Potties. But most of the campgrounds have at least a hydrant.

CI: How far is the hike into the backpack sites?

Jessica: The closest one is about a mile, and then the furthest would be I think about two and a half miles from the trail head.

CI: I like that. That’s the ones I usually go for. A little more secluded.

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Stephens State Forest in Iowa

Jessica: Yeah. They’ve actually started to get more use in the last couple years. Right now, the pack-in sites just have a fire ring and a picnic table at each site, and then there’s no water available in that unit, but we’re actually working with the local rural water association. We’re going to be putting in a hydrant either this fall or early next spring so that we have water available for the campers too.

CI: What are the most popular activities within the state forest?

Jessica: Definitely hunting. All of the state forest is open to public hunting except for within the general vicinity of the campgrounds and then any buildings or homes nearby. We’ve got a lot of hunters that come, in state and out of state. A lot of camping, a lot of equestrian use, actually. We’ve got 20 plus miles of equestrian trails, and a lot of times in the fall and spring, those equestrian sites fill up on the nice weekends. So we get a lot of equestrian users. A lot of just wildlife watchers and birdwatchers too. We also have ponds that are stocked with fish. But I’d say probably hunting and equestrian are our two highest users, along with general wildlife watchers.

CI: Do any of the Stephens State Forest campgrounds have spots for RVs? Are there any hookups, or it’s all more pull-in car camping?

Jessica: Right, it’s all considered non-modern, pull-in car camping. There are some sites that are big enough for RVs, but there aren’t any hookups.

CI: Okay. But they would still be able to pull in – I mean, generally, they can be self-sufficient for a couple days, right?

Jessica: Yeah. We don’t have a dump station here, though, either, but there is one at a state park that’s not too far away from us, and they can pay $2 and use their dump station if they leave the forest and need to dump before they head home.

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The Cinder Path, which is one of Iowa’s first rails-to-trails trails, and it runs from I believe Chariton down to Humeston

CI: What are some of the other attractions in the area worth checking out, if somebody were camping in Stephens State Forest and they wanted to venture out for an afternoon?

Jessica: Well, in town there’s some nice little shops. There’s a place called Piper’s Candies, which has been here forever. They make homemade candies. Kind of a neat little place. We do have a few cool shops on the square. Like I said, Piper’s; there’s also a bike shop that’s pretty amazing on the square. There’s a lot of wildlife areas around here, too, that are managed by the Wildlife Bureau. They’re, again, more wilderness areas; no designated trails or anything.

There’s the Cinder Path, which is one of Iowa’s first rails-to-trails trails, and it runs from I believe Chariton down to Humeston. It extends along that way. So you can hit up that trail and do some hiking or biking there.

CI: Just two more questions for you. If you could spend just one hour in Stephens State Forest, how would you spend your time?

Jessica: I would check out the backpack hiking trails and pack-in sites. Right now, we’ve got two 3-mile loops over there with those pack-in sites. We’re hoping to add another 4 miles on that in the coming years. But it’s a really, really nice hiking trail. It’s a wilderness feel over there, and it’s a beautiful unit. Really nice oak hickory timber and you see lots of wildlife there. That’s how I would spend my time.

CI: And which specific campsite would you camp at?

Jessica: Ooh, I like Bottom Oak Camp.

CI: How come?

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There are a lot of wildlife areas which makes for great bird watching

Jessica: It’s kind of down by the creek a little bit, and it’s a bigger site, so you can kind of spread out. There’s some little prairie plants down in there. It’s a little bit more open. Still surrounded by the woods and you still have a lot of privacy. And I will mention, all those pack-in sites are off the trail, on like a little spur trail, so when you’re in your site, if somebody hikes by you on the trail, you’re not going to be able to see them. You may be able to hear them, but it’s still tucked away in the woods. I like that one, though, because it’s got some diversity with that little bit of prairie, that little open area down there, so it’s kind of interesting.

CI: Are any of those reservable, or are they all first come, first served?

Jessica: No, all the pack-in sites are just first come, first served, and they are free also because of that.

CI: Because it’s a state forest, is dispersed camping allowed?

Jessica: No. On all state land, you can only camp in designated camping areas. If there are designated areas, you can, but here on Stephens, everything has to be in the campgrounds or in those pack-in sites.

CI: That’s about all I have for questions for this morning. That gives people a good idea of the different activities that you guys have there, and the different types of camping that’s available. Thank you so much for talking with us this morning.

Jessica: Yeah, I hope everybody can come out and visit us sometime. It’s a really beautiful place.

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