Tucked away safely in south-central Iowa is the gorgeous Stephens State Forest, spanning over 15,500 acres. If you always wanted to feel like a forest spirit, this is the place to go, so pack up your things, load them up, and park your campervan in one of the most beautiful spots in Iowa. If the road takes you here, you’ll see just how much you can do, and everyone can find something they are looking for, whether it is an active or a relaxing vacation. The forest is divided into seven units and spans over five counties – Monroe, Davis, Lucas, Clarke, and Appanoose, so you can imagine just how big it is!
If you are a hunter, you will enjoy many opportunities to show your skills, and bikers, skiers, and hikers will also have their place in this forest, as it can accommodate a variety of activities that everyone can enjoy. History buffs will have something new to learn as well. The forest was named after Dr. Stephens, a professor of biology at Morningside College, who was advocating for Iowa’s wildlife and chronicled the bird species of the Midwest. So, whether you are a history buff, a hunter, or a nature lover, or if you just want to set up your rig and have a relaxing few days, Stephens State Forest will provide everything you need for a perfect vacation!
Stephens State Forest is southeast of Des Moines. But it is not a straight shot. Most people either go the somewhat direct way (State Highway 5 to State Highway 14) or the rather roundabout way (Interstate 35 to U.S. Highway 34). If you are a novice RV driver or you are going when the weather is a bit dicey, the rather roundabout way is probably the best path.
Some of the nearby cities are Kelley, which is about four miles away, as well as Huxley and Ames, from where you will need to cover around one mile more. Slater and Nevada are a bit further, about eight to nine miles away. Depending on the region of the forest you want to access, you will take different roads, so make sure to get informed before you venture onto your great adventure.
As far as parking goes, it is readily available throughout the forest. If you are coming to the Woodburn unit you will find four parking lots, Whitebreast has five, and the Lucas unit features three parking lots where you can leave your vehicle. The roads that go through the forest are narrow but not impossible to navigate, however, do be careful because the roads are surrounded by trees which can hinder visibility, especially when you encounter a road curve. Driving or parking is not allowed on the hiking trails and grassy areas. ATVs are not allowed anywhere in the forest, and snowmobiles are permitted to be on the designated routes only.
One of the greatest advantages of the Stephens State Forest is the White Breast Equestrian Campground that has 42 sites for all the travelers who love their horses and mares. These sites all have a hitching rail where you can “park” your elegant friend while you are setting up your rig and making a temporary home in the forest. Apart from horses, mares, or donkeys, you can also bring your dog, but keep them on a leash and do not leave them alone, and do try to keep them quiet so as not to disturb other horses and humans who camp here. The maximum length of the rig is 20 – 50 feet in most of these sites, but all of that is worth it when you have a designated place for your horse.
Mine Pond Campground offers five RV spots and several tent-only sites for all their happy campers. The back-in sites allow vehicles up to 40 feet in length, and a maximum of two vehicles per spot. Pets are allowed here as well. The camp pad is made up of grass so you will be able to enjoy softer padding if you decide to pitch a tent next to your campervan. You can enjoy the fire ring on site and spend a relaxing night with friends and family, telling stories around the campfire and enjoying the silence of the forest that surrounds you. In the morning, the trees will provide a slight shade so you won’t feel like you are in an oven.
Middle Campground offers RV sites with no hookups for up to six people per site and up to six visitors at one time. The maximum trailer length is considerably lower here, as the sites allow vehicles up to 25 feet in length to park here. However, this does not mean that you are limited to just your camper. You are free to pitch a tent next to it and enjoy camping just like people did in the old days. Pets are allowed and each site has a fire grill so you can have a nice alfresco dinner with your friends while you are visiting the forest. As always, consider purchasing firewood locally, as you cannot chop down any trees or collect wood from the forest. Bear in mind that these sites are on a slight slope.
The sites at the Lucas Primitive Campground are just what their name says – primitive. Do not expect to have hookups here, and do not expect any luxuries of the modern world. This campground is meant to connect you with nature and take you back to the times when people did not have running water or flush toilets every day. The sites at Lucas Primitive Campground allow rigs up to 55 feet in length and up to six people per site. Fire grills are available at each back-in site, and pets are allowed, but of course, on a leash up to six feet in length and not left unattended. Firewood must be purchased locally to avoid the spread of pests and invasive insects, so do not bring in wood from other states even if you have it.
The Boy Scout Camp features the standard, non-electric sites you can park your camper in and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. The back-in sites allow up to two vehicles, of maximum 45 feet in length, and up to six people per site. Apart from your RV, you will have enough space to place your tent next to it if you wish to do so, but bear in mind that the camp pad is made up of gravel so this may not be the most comfortable option, of course, depending on your tent and the small luxuries you might carry around, such as a blow-up mattress. All the sites are non-modern which means that they do not have any hookups, but you will be able to find water hydrants nearby. Pets are allowed.
No visit to an iconic forest can go without learning a bit about the history of the region and the forest itself. You will find out that the forest was named after Dr. T.C. Stephens who was a famous professor, conservationist, and ornithologist. Dr. Stephens was an M.D. who shifted his focus on botany and zoology and became one of the greatest advocates for the wildlife of Iowa. He was an avid bird watcher and has chronicled almost all the bird species that resided in the forest during his time. Other than that, this forest used to be a major timber sale site, way back in the 1970s. Stephens State Forest was and still is a prime example of forest management for the citizens of Iowa due to its immense size and variety of plant life, especially trees.
Campers who enjoy exploring the vegetation wherever they stay will absolutely adore Stephens State Forest, as it is brimming with numerous plants and trees as far as your eyes can see. The overall region is covered in tallgrass prairie, which may not be as interesting to a plant lover, however, the forested area is filled with many types of grass, including Indian grass, purple coneflower, big bluestem, and mountain mint, and round-headed bush clover. You will be able to see many types of trees as well, mainly white and red oak, as well as hickory, bur oak, shingle oak, and black oak, but also ash, silver maple, and black walnut. Of course, while you walk you will encounter numerous beautiful wildflowers you can put in your herbarium or just marvel in their unpretentious beauty in the wild.
Humans are not the only mammals that love playing in forests. There are also plenty of the four-legged kind around. Deer are ever present, as are raccoons, squirrels, and other smaller mammals. By the ponds, look for beavers and otters. You may also see a few larger predatory mammals, like bears and bobcats. All these trees also attract lots of native and migratory birds. Most of them are songbirds, so about nine months out of the year, the forest sounds like a symphony concert. Make sure you bring your binoculars in your rig.
If you are looking to spend your time walking around and soaking up the fresh air and all the oxygen the trees provide, you are in the right place. Since you are in the forest, you will find that the pleasant shade of the trees makes hiking a lot easier than you expected. The park offers several miles of gorgeous hiking trails you can venture on and observe the gorgeousness of nature around you. Wildflowers, trees and beautiful butterflies are just some of the things you will encounter while you hike. Bear in mind that Stephens State Forest is quite primitive so you will have to bring water with you as filling up your empty bottle will be a battle. You will truly feel as if you belong in the wilderness and return to your roots, losing a bit of control and comfort, but gaining so much more.
Visitors who love to hunt will be happy campers at Stephens State Forest since this is one of the most popular activities and one of the reasons to visit this gorgeous area. Each year, hunters from and out of state gather to get their prey and test their aiming skills. Hunters said that they managed to take deer, as there are a lot of them in the forest, but you can also find smaller game such as rabbits and pheasants. Of course, you do need to have a license, so get informed before you show up and start shooting, and see where exactly you are allowed to hunt. Generally speaking, firearms are not allowed near the campgrounds, but since the area is famous for hunting, you will find plenty of sources to get informed.
Campers who love horses will have something to look forward to, as Stephens State Forest not only has equestrian paths but also 42 sites suitable for equestrian use. This means that you can bring your horse or mule and they can have their own designated hitching rail. Horseback riding is one of the most popular activities in this forest, as it has over 20 miles of equestrian trails horse lovers can enjoy, but also meet other people interested in these noble animals, or proud owners of horses. You can walk your horse steadily on the path or choose to pace and race with your friends, but whatever you end up doing, you will surely have a great time surrounded by the pristine environment of the forest.