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First Day hikers at Wildcat Den State Park will pass by "Devil's Punch Bowl" and other land formations. Natural resources technician Karri Rutenbeck will lead the group in the first year the park has participated in the nationwide outdoor event.

MUSCATINE — The first day of the New Year brings excitement and a little nervousness at what may come in the next 365 days. For Iowa Department of Natural Resources technician Karri Rutenbeck, the emotions come on the cusp of her first big community project at Wildcat Den State Park.

Rutenbeck will guide the park's first hikers of the new year Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. It's also the first time the park is participating in the nationwide First Day Hikes program promoted nationally by America's State Parks alliance.

"I think it's going to be a fun opportunity," she said, "especially for people who have never been to the park."

The moderate 1.3 mile hike will start at the Upper Picnic Area shelter with a warming fire lit at the shelter. Rutenbeck advises hikers bring water and dress appropriately for the weather by wearing warm clothing. The predicted forecast puts the area temperature in the mid-20s. The route is labeled moderate as there are a few steep inclines, Rutenbeck said, and recent rains may also make trails more slippery than usual. Children are welcome on the hike. Pets may be brought on leashes.

From the shelter, hikers will follow the Lower Picnic Area trail along Pine Creek. The trail leads past Steamboat Rock then connects with the Devil's Punch Bowl trail, which will bring hikers back around to the shelter. 

As the guide, Rutenbeck said she will give brief history of the park, point out land features in the limestone and sandstone, and any plants, birds and other wildlife the group may encounter.

The decision to participate this year was two-fold: Rutenbeck said simply, this time of year is slow and it was something for her to look forward to. She also said it gives area residents the opportunity to get outdoors and more involved in the local state park.

"It's a way to get people outside," she said, "and to raise awareness about the park system and healthy lifestyles."

She also thinks participants may be surprised by getting outdoors in the winter months.

"Winter hiking might not be as bad as they think it might be," she said.

Originally from Lost Nation, Rutenbeck started at the park in August and said she was "really glad" to get the job.

"It's a really good park to work at," she said. "I really like the Muscatine area."

The First Day Hike initiative is in its seventh year. According to its website, the hike is one way the organization can promote "outdoor recreation in hopes to help address obesity, especially in children." All 50 states have parks participating in the program by offering free, guided hikes. The organization also reported "last year, nearly 55,000 people rang in the New Year, collectively hiking over 133,000 miles throughout the country on the guided hikes." 

In Iowa, 28 state parks are participating including nearby Lake MacBride in Solon, Lake Darling in Washington County and Maquoketa Caves in Maquoketa. The Iowa DNR reported in a news release, "more than 1,200 people began the year in an Iowa state park, hiking more than 1,100 total miles."

“We are excited to host First Day Hikes again as part of this effort to get people outdoors and into our parks,” said Iowa DNR State Parks Bureau Chief Todd Coffelt in a news release. “These hikes are a great way to get outside, exercise, enjoy nature and welcome the New Year with friends and family.”

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