Burn Holiday Calories at these Local Parks

Let’s face it, most of us tend to over-indulge a bit during the holidays. All that good food. Your mom’s secret recipe. And pie. So much pie. 

Don’t even bother counting all those calories. Like your credit card bill after Black Friday, you can work it off later. But unlike that credit card bill, working off those calories can be a lot of fun, especially when you take your winter workout to your nearest county park.

So today I’m going to help you get your fitness budget back on track by highlighting some close-to-home parks that are perfect locations for some post-holiday outdoor recreation and exercise. These are all within five or so miles of what I consider Burlington’s city center (the intersection of Agency and Roosevelt) so they’re quick to get to even with all the holiday traffic.

Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve

At 3.1 miles from the city center, Starr’s Cave is literally at the edge of town (11627 Starr’s Cave Rd., Burlington). The park offers three miles of trails to explore, 1.8 miles of which is the brand new segment of the Flint River Trail that just opened to hikers and bicyclists last month. The trails at Starr’s Cave are some of the most scenic you’ll find anywhere in this neck of the woods. Starting at the nature center, a paved trail segment follows Flint Creek through bottomland forest. The concrete ends at an impressive bridge that crosses the creek ending at the entrance to the actual Starr’s Cave, which, unfortunately, is closed indefinitely due to a nasty disease called White Nose Syndrome that really wreaks havoc on bat populations. 

The bridge at Starr's Cave
Opposite the bridge is a long, gradual climb up the bluff on the new lime-chipped trail. Here’s where the scenery gets really impressive. As the trails wind through the upland forest, the view of the creek valley far below is absolutely stunning. About a mile in, the trail drops back down into the bottoms and turns to concrete again, winding around the edge of a couple reconstructed prairies and cutting through some more bottomland timber containing some enormous cottonwood trees.
Currently, the trail dead-heads on the east side of Highway 61 but as the DOT finishes the four-lane project, they’ll extend our trail under and then over the highway bridges up to Flint Bottom Road on the west side of the highway and north of the creek. From there, you’ll be able to pick up the rest of the Flint River Trail route that takes you all the way up to Big Hollow Recreation Area by Sperry.

A couple things you might not know about this spot: First, you can rent cross-country skis, poles, and boots from the nature center when there’s at least four inches of snow on the ground. Second, even though Starr’s Cave itself is closed, you can still access Crinoid Cavern, a man-made cave a little upstream of the bridge with a great view of the creek. Just follow the trail along the creek shore. It takes you right to it.

Hunt Woods Forest Management Area

A mere 3.6 miles south from the city center is a 56 acre park with over two miles of hiking trails called Hunt Woods Forest Management Area (12412 65thSt., Burlington). This wildlife-rich oasis is an active timber and woodland management demonstration area. This park has seen regular timber management practices including harvests, timber stand improvement, prescribed burning, and the planting of thousands of seedlings over the years.

In fact, the park will be closed for a bit here between the holidays so contractors can complete another management harvest. So maybe wait until after Christmas to hit up these trails.

The hidden gem at this park is the little pioneer cemetery tucked back in the woods with headstones dating back to the early 1800’s.

North Gorge Trail

Make use of Burlington’s natural topography on the zig-zagging trails of North Gorge just across the road from the fifth hole of Flint Hills Golf Course (9831 Golf Course Rd., Burlington), 5.5 miles from the city center. This four-plus mile trail system spans both city and county properties (it uses a portion of the Leopold Recreation Area on the north side of Flint Creek). While some of the crazier routes are for mountain bikers only, hikers can still burn plenty of calories switch-backing up and down the steep bluffs on the designated multi-use trail loops.

What you might not know about this park is that it was conceived, designed, and built almost exclusively by volunteers. They’re always looking for help to grow and maintain the trails there. What a great way to give back while enjoying the outdoors.

Want to know more about your local county parks? Visit www.DMCconservation.com or follow Des Moines County Conservation or Starr's Cave on Facebook.

This piece was originally published in The Hawk Eye as part of my monthly "Living Land" column.