Reyerson's Woods, Iowa City's Wildest Park

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From The Sierra Club Guide to Natural Areas in and around Iowa City


Reyerson's Woods is a wooded hill at the extreme south end of Iowa City, south of the 4H County Fairgrounds and just north of the interchange between South Riverside Drive and US 218. The park covers 49 acres; it was aquired in 1985; public facilities and an extensive trail system were built with the aid of a state REAP grant in 1992, with much of the work done by Iowa City's Mayor's Youth Employment Program.


There is a parking lot and picnic shelter in the field at the base of the hill, accessable from South Riverside immediately opposite the intersection with old 218; this serves as a trailhead, and by midsummer, 1995, a picnic shelter should be completed.

The trail system includes a trail loop at the base of the bluff that is intended to be wheelchair accessable, a stairway up the steep bluff, and an extensive blufftop trail system, organized as a system of loops. There is also a viewing platform cantelevered out over one of the steep ravanes that cuts into the bluff top.

What to Look For

Reyerson's woods is one of the best sites in Iowa City for viewing early spring wildflowers. The top of the hill is literally carpeted with dogtooth violets, and you'll find dutchman's breeches, wild geranium, bloodroot, mayapple, bluebells and a wide variety of others.

The typical forests found today in the Iowa City area are either savanah remnants or they developed over the last century on land that was once farmed; the variety of trees found in such forests is limited. Reyerson's woods, on the other hand, is a natural woodland; it has been disturbed by timber cutting a century ago, but the variety of trees growing there is typical of Iowa's small native forests. White oak, post oak, shagbark hickory, ash, and a wide variety of other trees are common here.

When to Visit

The display of spring wildflower is at its best in early to mid spring, after the leaves have begun to show on the trees, but before they are fully developed!

Threats to Reyerson's Woods

Archeological evidence shows that Reyerson's woods was a popular campsite long before European civilization reached the area, but no artifacts have been found allowing the area to be dated. The reason for the appeal of these wooded bluffs is obvious.

Timber was cut from Reyerson's Woods towards the end of the last century, when Reyerson's Sawmill was located nearby. You can still find evidence of a road cut through the bluff top, possibly to haul logs down off the hill, and there is some other other evidence of early 20th century disturbance, but the woods have largely recovered from whatever damage might have been done in that era.

A large area of the blufftops to the south was destroyed by the state highway department in order to build the interchange between South Riverside Drive and US 218. Unfortunately, we now believe that the area destroyed may have included a number of indian mounds.

Development of the County Fairground to the north has also severely disturbed the bluffs. The original terrain of the fairgrounds was irregular and divided by narrow ravanes; a considerable amount of earth had to be moved to make the level parking area to the south of the fairgrounds, and much of this was excavated from the face of the bluffs, leaving a bare hillside that is only slowly recovering.

Since the acquisition of this land by the city, further disturbance by excavation and timber harvest is unlikely, but there is a new threat, overuse by park visitors. Today, this is the least disturbed of Iowa City's parks, but it is hard to tell what the future will bring.

The primary threat posed by park visitors is caused by the trampling of their feet. One person walking through the woods and stepping on the woodland flowers will do little damage, but if another person follows, and then another, the repeated trampling will make a path.

Paths on well drained level ground are not much of a problem, but on poorly drained ground, paths tend to turn into mud holes in wet weather, and on slopes, paths channel runoff. The result of this is all too evident in many heavily used parks, where many footpaths have turned into gullies that are sometimes as much as ten feet deep.

To counter this threat, we must see that popular paths are maintained, with "waterbars" across sloping paths to divert runoff and pavement such as wood chips or crushed lime in poorly drained areas. The trail that was developed onto the lower slopes of the bluff should help, in this regard.

Every park visitor has a responsibility to avoid creating destructive paths. When possible, avoid making new paths. Where a mud-hole has begun to develop in a path, take a wide detour around it. Short detours around mud holes usually only serve to enlarge the mud hole! Where gully erosion in a hillside trail is apparent, don't use it!

Irresponsible vistiors have been known to dig up interesting wildflowers for their home gardens. Don't do this! If you see a wildflower you really want, remember where it was and come back when the seeds are ready to harvest, then make a point of sewing at least 2/3 of the seed you harvest on the forest floor near the plant you harvested them from.


Reyerson's Woods is managed by the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department, (319)356-5110. The Picnic shelter may be reserved by calling 356-5100.