Exploring the gorgeous Wildcat Den State Park (SE IA)


Location:  Wildcat Den State Park, Muscatine, IA

Distance- 1.70 Mile loop, (2.9 miles if including the out and back to the grist mill)  

Difficulty- Easy-Moderate  (A few sets of steps but nothing too crazy)

Description- This  1.7 mile loop begins and ends at the State Park campground along 181st St.  This route will take you down into the gorgeous Devil’s Punch Bowl, past a few streams that flow gracefully in the shadows of the tall canyon walls, past a gloriously fun swimming hole, through a perilously narrow gateway called Fat mans squeeze and past the parks namesake Wildcat Den.

Maximum Elevation:  719 feet

Minimum Elevation:  574 feet


Map of Wildcat Den State Park Trails

Tucked away off a series of gravel roads less than 30 minutes from Muscatine and the Quad Cities in SE Iowa, lies a surprisingly scenic little pocket of land which provides a stark contrast to the myth that Iowa is just a series of cornfields next to the Mississippi River.    If you’re an Eastern Iowan who hasn’t yet toured the towering confines of the Devils Punchbowl, squeezed through fat mans misery, frolicked in Pine Creek or visited the scenic grist mill and 1 room schoolhouse then what are you waiting for?  Bring your visiting friends in to show them what the area has to offer hikers, maybe even shatter some pre-conceived stereotypes in the process.


Our hike begins in the campground in the Western section of the park on 181st St.  Fans of wooded private campsites will be disappointed but that’s not the strength of this park.  The campground is fairly small and they haven’t made a ton of effort to appeal to the camping crowd.  The sites are open and close together but if that’s unimportant to you there is excellent access to the beautiful Devils Punchbowl that might make up for the camping aesthetics.

Next to campsites 5 and 6 you will notice a trail head into the woods.  You might feel a bit conspicuous if those sites are occupied but you are on the right track.  The so called Campground trail heads downhill from here with a gravel surface.  A short distance down the trail you will encounter some steps that lead further into the belly of the beast.  Go right and down the steps into the gorgeous glen.  On a hot day the sudden coolness of the air is a wonderful respite.  After an observation platform that allows you to take in the scene down below, (only 1/4 mile from the campground) you will find yourself at the intersection of different drainages.

Heading down the campground trail towards Devil’s Punch bowl.

It’s clear that when spring floods and heavy sudden rains have their way, the Punchbowl comes to life.  Big logs and huge boulders are caught up in the stream beds that come in from different directions.  Here in the Punchbowl you’re in the middle of it all.     You can easily tell where there is a tall waterfall here even in the dry season.  Remnants of the flood season (which occasionally pours over the ledge with authority) usually still shows some signs of life even in the height of summer.  Timely visitors will see a higher volume of water which can be simply breathtaking while at other times of the year the plunge pool and trickling ledge are still pleasing to the senses.  Along the .4 mile Punchbowl Trail you will see another path go off to your left which leads to the Upper picnic area.  Our itinerary will ignore that left turn and continue straight on the Punchbowl Trail.  This is an area of astounding scenic beauty as you can take in the canyon walls from every direction.  The lush greenery and countless nooks and crannies invite you to linger here.  The rest of our route is beautiful as well but it would be a shame to rush yourself.  Kids enjoy exploring the small creeks (or creekbeds) and will not be at a loss for things to do.  You could very easily spend an hour here and well…. you probably should.

This is where Devils Punchbowl is filled. This is the site of a beautiful waterfall early in the season or after an exceptionally rainy period.
Down in the Devil’s Punchbowl.

At .4 miles you will find another rock shelter near a foot bridge.  An island of ferns populates the middle of the trail while a small waterfall cascades over a log.  In another .1 mile you will encounter a straight corridor which might be wet underfoot depending on season.  A stream (which could be dry) rushes in from left.  You will notice a bridge at right when you reach the T-intersection.  This is the end of the Punchbowl Trail so you will have a choice.  You can either turn right to proceed down the .6 mile Mill Trail.  That option leads you past a scenic overlook of Pine Creek and ultimately to the Grist Mill and 1 room schoolhouse.  You could go that way and extend our itinerary by 1.2 round trip or you could turn left here towards the lower picnic area (not to be confused with the upper picnic area).

Crossing a small feeder stream that feeds Pine Creek. During the middle of summer this may be a dry stream bed.
What a fun place to wade or cool off on a hot day!

Once you’re heading toward the lower picnic area you will notice the pretty Pine Creek at right for the first time which flows over rocks and almost has a tropical like feel with the lush thick greenery around the trail, the many chirping birds overhead and the sound of the Creek rushing through the rocky creek bed.  A staircase goes up on your left (to the upper picnic area) but we will continue straight.  A popular swimming hole is on right and will most likely tempt you to at least wade into the waters after a short detour off the trail.  A tall sandstone bluff at left provides a dramatic backdrop.

You’ll want to turn up this alley when you reach it. At the top you’ll take a right through the exceedingly narrow “fat mans squeeze”.

At .85 miles you will go up the alley at left which will lead up to Fat mans Squeeze.  Once you test the limits of sucking in your belly at the narrow passage near the top of the alley you will emerge atop a rocky overlook with a further option to climb even higher.  The views are stunning as you look out over the Lower picnic area and Pine Creek.  A ramp will lead you back down to some steps and towards a cave (perhaps THE Wildcat Den???) that screams “climb me”.  Many hikers will scramble up to the entrance of the cave for a nice photo op.   The lower picnic area is just below you off to the right.  I had a shuttle waiting for me but to complete a loop you will only need to continue on the lower picnic area trail which will cross the main park road you came in on before heading back south towards the upper picnic area.  You will reach the intersection with the park boundary trail (which turns right) just before you reach the picnic area.   Once at the picnic area just go right onto the main park road and you will reach the campground within about a half mile.  The total distance would be only about 1.7 miles or 2.9 miles if you added on the round trip to the grist mill.

Making our way up towards fat mans squeeze.
Site of a cave near the lower picnic area.
KIds love exploring all the nooks and crannies in and around Devil’s Punch bowl.
Deep within Devil’s Punchbowl.
There are a million places to explore on this hiking route. This hiker found a great lookout spot near fat man’s squeeze.



You could come in on Hwy 22 from either Muscatine or the Quad Cities.  Hwy 22 follows the river and brings you almost all the way to the park.  From Muscatine you will travel about 15 minutes from downtown until you reach Wildcat Den Rd.  Turn left onto Wildcat Den Rd. then turn left onto New Era Rd.  (near the site of the grist mill) after only about a third of a mile.  An equal distance on New Era Rd. will bring you to 181st St.  Turn right onto 181st and follow the park road until you see the campground on your right.

If approaching from the North or on Hwy 61 turn South onto Vail Rd. (about 5 miles West of Blue Grass, IA.  Follow Vail Rd. about 1 mile then turn left onto 180th St.  After about a half mile turn right onto Verde Ave. then right onto 181st St.  The route is well marked at each intersection.  181st St. is the main park road where you can gain access to the campground along with both the Upper and Lower Picnic areas.

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