Friend takes a hike: Gitchie Manitou is more than her bloody story

Where the prairie meets the Big Sioux River.

I hike to every beautiful place I can think of around my home state, to showcase the beauty that Iowa has to offer. Follow us on social media using #AmieTakesAHike to pass along your suggestions and see where I go next.

I don’t ride in far northwest Iowa very often, as it’s four hours and I’m moving to Waterloo. But on the occasion of being up there anyway for a senator’s town hall, I asked my colleague Ty Rushing, who lived up there for a while, where to go.

“Gitchie Manitou!” he said. “That’s where the murders took place.”

Oh. Great.

So let’s get this out of the way first, because I know you’re thinking about it too: In 1973, four teenagers were shot and killed on this state reservation, and a 13-year-old girl with them was kidnapped, raped and tortured. This sole survivor, Sandra Cheskey, was shunned and ostracized by her community, but bravely ensured that the three adult perpetrators who inflicted such horror were sentenced to life in prison.

Because of that, Gitchie Manitou State Preserve is now apparently considered one of the spookiest state parks in Iowa.

If Gitchie Manitou, Ojibwe for “Great Spirit”, is haunted, I’d bet the main reason is that people roam all over millennial burial mounds at the site, as German and European farmers (like my own ancestors) who were promised free land led to the forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their homes and sacred burial grounds.

But despite all that, it turns out that Gitchie Manitou is actually a beautiful, wild place, and one of the quietest places I’ve been to for a hike.

The Old Quarry, or Jasper’s Pool, from above.

The park

Gitchie Manitou is a relatively small (for a hike) 91-acre estate in Lyon County in far northwest Iowa. The reservation itself collides with both the South Dakota border to the west and the Minnesota border to the north.

Its lesser-known claim to fame: The reservation is home to Iowa’s oldest known bedrock, Sioux pink quartzite, which has been dated to an incredible 1.6 billion year. It is so old that single-celled organisms were only then beginning to evolve into multi-cellular organisms.

This color palette!

From the 1890s the site was quarried for this quartzite and the state purchased 47.5 acres of the quarry for its own use (now filled in and called Jasper Pool). In 1969, however, the land was officially designated as a state reserve for its archaeological, geological, historical and biological significance.

About these burial mounds: There are 17 conical burial mounds in the southern part of the reserve. Residents long assumed they were natural or man-made by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, but a 2013 soil survey found them to be true Native burial mounds over 1,000 years old. They are believed to be related to Blood Run to the Southeast, an important Native trading center several hundred years ago that spanned Iowa and South Dakota.


A state reserve is a little less obvious than a state park. There are directions and a sign or two, but for the most part you park on an unassuming gravel lot next to the cattle gate that marks the start of the trail and walk in.

My late summer hike meant the wild prairie that encompasses much of the reserve was tall and bloomed in lots of tall green and brown grass, yellow goldenrod and other purple and pink flowers as well scattered.

Of course, there are also all the colors, in spray paint, covering almost every inch of the exposed Sioux quartzite as well as the crumbling half-structures that remain in the park. It’s a little disappointing to see, but that’s mostly because it’s largely amateurish graffiti – names, dates and swear words just for shock value. (I live in Waterloo, where spray painting artists are getting big, so I guess I have a high bar.)

Another color palette.

Either way, the prairie vandalizes you right away, at least at this time of year with goldenrod pollen scratching you as you walk. Just fair, I guess!

Dozens of grasshoppers, basking in the few square inches of uncovered path, jumped out of my way with every step. That was probably equivalent to thousands of grasshoppers relocating during my hike. Between them and the wild meadow that invaded the tracks, I took a little longer than usual.

The trail barely there.

images and sounds

Native, thick, waist-high or taller grassland made up much of our state’s landscape before farmland took over. And western Iowa, on the edge of the plains states, absolutely excels to this landscape.

It doesn’t take much to immerse yourself deeply in this ecosystem at Gitchie Manitou – just take a few steps.

Besides bouncing grasshoppers, I saw fuzzy bumblebees and paper-thin butterflies fluttering from flower to flower. You’ll also hear crickets and other insects humming their hellos and warnings, and little unseen animals straying from your steps deeper into the brush – a reminder that the prairie habitat is a hidden refuge for little ones. creatures and birds.

About the time you arrive at the graffiti-covered half-structure (clearly still being used as a hangout, given the chimney), the trail passes through a wooded section following the Big Sioux River, which divides Iowa from South Dakota for much of northwestern Iowa. (And here I thought the Missouri River, similar to the Mississippi on the east side, was doing all that work! Sorry, Big Sioux!)

Sorry for the disrespect, Big Sioux River.

The woods provide a nice, shady respite for a while, although there is enough sun to grow black-eyed yellow Susans up to my height. And once you reach the other side of the trail, where three states meet (hi Minnesota!), you can loop through these woods and even spot the old quarry, Jasper’s Pool.

I definitely felt a bit strange and unwelcome in a wooded area on one of the side trails that led to a rocky outcrop that was (of course) covered in graffiti. Otherwise, I didn’t feel any “scary” or negative vibes from the place.

This particular place was not for me.

The verdict

I used to think that only forest or lake hikes were my favorites.

But after visiting Gitchie Manitou State Preserve, I have a new reverence for a walk in the prairies, that wild carpet of hidden nature that I imagine welcomed travelers to this place hundreds, if not thousands, ago. of years.

And while the kind of graffiti gets in the way of a good look at Sioux Quartzite, it also makes Gitchie Manitou a unique, and even beautiful, place to hike.

It’s like that.

By Amie Rivers

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