The steep climb got us huffing and puffing until we crested the hill and looked around.  Beneath us was a spacious pond and on the far hillside cattle grazed in the evening’s dwindling light. Oncoming darkness, combined with tired leg muscles, encouraged us to circle back to the historic farmhouse where we overnighted.

It sounds like a Montana adventure, perhaps at the spacious American Prairie, but it isn’t. We were at Iowa’s Whiterock Conservancy, a remarkable landscape just south of the tiny town of Coon Rapids in the west central part of Iowa.

What IS Whiterock Conservancy?

Trail through prairie

Bike or hike or ride your way along miles of intriguing trails.

Whitrock defies the norm in a state short on places big enough for outdoor enthusiasts who love spaciousness. Winding through its 5,500 acres are about 40 miles of trails that welcome hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians or folks just wishing to walk away from the noise and distractions of modern life. Whiterock is a place to enjoy the quiet and the dark sky of this lightly settled region.

There’s more. Whiterock Conservancy, named for an outcropping rising above a campground, is a testament to the formation of modern agriculture. Roswell Garst farmed the land and enthusiastically promoted hybrid corn. He was a force enabling the land to dramatically increase its production of food.

Entrepreneur, Ambassador, Visionaries

Garst was also an ambassador of sorts and invited his friend, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to visit in 1959. The Russian was eager to find ways to expand his country’s food production. For a day the world came to the Garst Farm and Coon Rapids, Iowa. Dignitaries, reporters, and even some possible Soviet Spies were everywhere.  The story is that one could tell the “spies” because, in this decidedly farm community, they were the only ones dressed in suits.

The Garst Family was visionary. Rather than sell their land for massive modern agriculture they encouraged the development of the land trust that combines agriculture and outdoor recreation in creative mosaics.

What’s There

After our walk and a picnic dinner, we settled down for the night in the old Garst Farmhouse, marveling at the collection of books, vintage furniture, and artifacts from Khrushchev’s visit inside. Its style was reminiscent of old-time New England homes  – low ceilings, a newell post at the end of the stairs, wainscotting, tiled bathrooms, wallpapered ceilings, drapery on the windows, period cookware, and elegant teacups nestled in a corner cupboard. A swing-through door led to the well-equipped kitchen that looked out over a play yard and firepit.  We could almost hear Roswell Garst talking up hybrid corn.

How It Came About

The Whiterock Conservancy was created as a nonprofit land trust about 20 years ago.   Today it’s a progressive, innovative, and fascinating organization that combines agriculture, ecological restoration, lodging, and outdoor recreation spread over more than 5,000 acres.

We watched the cattle graze, listened as a flock of goats “baaahed” in anticipation of their dinner, drove miles of gravel roads through the property, and walked several trails. Perhaps our favorite was admiring the winter worn prairie grasses and forbs still standing sturdily in a brisk spring wind that rippled the pond’s water.

Things To Do at Whiterock Conservancy

Our short visit just whetted our appetite for the outdoors, and we plan to return. Here are some of many activities welcomed on the land:

Camping:   Several smallish and rather rustic campgrounds invite overnighters seeking quiet and gorgeous star viewing.

Trails:   Well planned and maintained trails wind through hills, prairies, wetlands, and ravines. Hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers are all welcome.

Home and cabins:  Several indoor lodging options range from staying in one of many rooms in the historic farmhouse, to a nearby cottage. There’s even a walk-in cabin.

Activities:  Staff and volunteers sponsor periodic programs to help visitors enjoy and appreciate nature and the Conservancy.

Fishing and Hunting:  Visitors bearing an Iowa fishing license are welcome to try catching dinner from a dozen ponds scattered about the land. Check with headquarters about bowhunting.

Learn More and Visit!

The Whiterock Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust, funded by donations and grants.  A list of fees and information is posted on their website.  Donations are suggested for trail users and can be put in convenient boxes near trailheads. We so enjoyed the stay and visit with the staff.