Updated: Jun 24, 2021
The following is a portion of an article just published in the summer edition of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Iowa Outdoors Magazine by Fayette County Naturalist Brian Gibbs.
“When I am surrounded by rooted friends and winged travelers, my hand holding only a graphite fishing wand, I am eternally grateful for life. If I should ever feel scared and alone, or undefinable in a world of 7 billion humans, let me always remember the natural friends found living along the Turkey River.”
These are the leading words of the first article I submitted nine years ago to the Iowa Outdoors Magazine for publication. At the time, I was a young single bachelor living footloose and fancy-free, fishing nearly every day after working as a naturalist for Clayton County. A lot has changed since then, including relocating to Montana and northern Wisconsin for jobs. Marriage and fatherhood have also blessed my life, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is my love and vital connection to the Turkey River.
I’m not the only one who loves the river; its scenic beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year and it has become a hub of recreational opportunity, thanks in part to the efforts of the Turkey River Recreational Corridor
A Recreational Movement is Born
The Turkey River Recreational Corridor (TRRC) in Fayette and Clayton counties was an idea inspired by local leaders in the rural communities of Elgin, Clermont, and Elkader in Northeast Iowa’s bluff country. The group was looking for a common, yet vital strand to hold their rural communities together into the future. With support from both their county supervisors and conservation boards, the group went through an intensive visioning process in 2009 and quickly identified the Turkey River as the thread that connected all three communities. With the Turkey River as the centerpiece for recreation and tourism, the communities officially formed the TRRC and in 2010, became the first regional river corridor designated as an Iowa Great Place.
Today, the mission of the TRRC is “to connect Clermont, Elgin, and Elkader to develop and enhance the existing natural resource base through the creation of land and water trails to catalyze economic growth and development.” Turkey River Recreational Corridor Chair, Rod Marlatt, has worked diligently to make sure the TRRC has completed almost all its original projects, including streetscapes, river accesses, the designation of the Turkey River Water Trail, two pedestrian bridges over the river, bicycle signage, and several miles of additional land trails. According to Marlatt, “The Turkey River Recreational Corridor is an active idea and a vision that has come to fruition and is embraced as the economic future of the region.”
The Turkey River is more than just a natural attraction for humans though; it is also a thriving ecosystem that supports a variety of different animal species, which only enhances its natural beauty. A total of 74 species of fish have been documented in the river. Primary game fish include smallmouth bass, rock bass, and walleye. Several fish species such as channel catfish, flathead catfish, and sauger only occur downstream of the dam at Elkader. Other game fish that are occasionally caught include northern pike, white bass, and three species of trout. With all these fish species around, it’s no wonder that the Turkey River Valley is home to a thriving Bald Eagle population with just under 100 reported nests! The surrounding forests also contain deer, coyote, wild turkey, beavers, muskrats, and river otters. Chances are, you’ll encounter several animal sightings as you enjoy the recreational opportunities the river has to offer.
Clermont to Elgin
Today, visitors to the area can start their journey on the TRRC at the charming town of Clermont. Nicknamed the “Brick City” due to a thriving brick industry that lasted for nearly 100 years, Clermont is a quaint community brimming with lots of history. The most popular destination in town is Montauk State Preserve. Managed by the State Historical Society, the property sits atop a picturesque bluff overlooking Clermont and preserves the famous estate of Iowa’s seventh Governor William Larrabee; the site includes a twelve-room Italianate house made of local brick and limestone.
Visitors can tour inside the mansion and experience the lifestyle of the affluent Larrabee family, including seeing the original Victorian furniture and belongings. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preserves other historic aspects of the late 1800’s farm, including the caretaker's house, creamery, barn, vegetable garden, and orchard. Don’t forget your walking shoes! The property has a scenic trail that visitors can take to soak up the views of the Turkey River Valley and hike under some of the tallest trees in Iowa; a grove of 140 foot tall White Pine trees planted by the Larrabees in the 1800’s.
After visiting Montauk, consider driving back to the center of town to walk or bike the 3.5-mile paved path from Clermont to Gilbertson Conservation Education Area outside of Elgin. The path crosses two new pedestrian bridges and gives recreationists an opportunity to soak up the beautiful scenery of the Turkey River Valley. Along the way, trail users can also visit a metal art installation of a bald eagle nest that is part of a statewide effort to expand public art along Iowa’s Byways. A spotting scope overlooks an active eagle nest over the Turkey river here too.
Water enthusiasts can begin their adventure by putting on the river in Clermont as well. This busy section of the river is part of the 98-mile state-designated Turkey River Water Trail that runs through Fayette and Clayton Counties, eventually ending at the Mississippi River. The public put-in for this stretch is on the east side of the river, directly across from Skip-Away Resort, a family-friendly resort that offers full-service outdoor amenities and a variety of activities for kids.
The float from Clermont to Gilbertson Campground in Elgin, is five miles but can be shortened to two miles by taking out at the Valley Bridge Access along with the bike trail. The river after the Valley Bridge features numerous bends and riffles that can make for challenging conditions to paddle in high water; be sure to always check local water levels before heading out. This stretch of the river after the bridge also has some great fossil hunting; gastropods, brachiopods, horned corals, and cephalopods are all the remnants of ancient marine life that once lived here over 400 million years ago.
The final takeout point is at Fayette County Conservation’s Gilbertson Campground. The campground features semi-primitive campsites along the river as well as modern sites that have electricity and a bathhouse. The back of the campground features a primitive equestrian campground with several large cottonwood trees for shade. Both campgrounds are part of the larger 1000-acre complex known as the Gilbertson Conservation Education Area that features almost ten miles of trails and seven hike-in overnight campsites that all have a picnic table and fire ring.
To access the majority of the walk-in campsites, visitors should take the lane back to the equestrian campground. Hikers can choose to stay at the nearby W4 and W3 campsites or take the barn and picnic loop trails to campsite W2. This site overlooks a bend in the stream and is in the shadow of some ancient white oak trees, making it the perfect spot to get away from it all.
Visitors to the park can also visit the Gilbertson Nature Center which is open every day from 11 am-7 pm Memorial Day thru Labor Day. Accessed via a paved bike path from the campground, the log cabin nature center has a variety of live animals and features an observable active bee colony. Behind the nature center, a certified nature playscape can be explored by children. The playscape is a popular place in the summertime, complete with musical instruments, a splash pad, and an archaeological sand dig site where kids can use tools to uncover the cemented remains of a model prehistoric dinosaur.
As a registered Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Partner Site, the Gilbertson Nature Center offers several opportunities for visitors to connect with Iowa’s rich farming history as well. Park guests can tour the Mavis and Conner Dummermuth Historical building that preserves thousands of pieces of antique Iowa farm equipment and other collectibles. Children will enjoy visiting the petting zoo where they can get up close to domesticated farm animals, such as goats, baby pigs, and chickens.
Located across from the petting zoo is a 4-acre pond that is stocked with panfish and features a recently completed kayak launch. Looking for a quick dinner to take back to your campsite after a long day of exploring on Turkey River Corridor? Check out TJ’s Pizza in Clermont where locals prefer the Buried Taco or TJ’s Special.
To read the rest of this article you can visit your local library to look for the Iowa Outdoors Magazine or you can subscribe to the magazine here