Nestled in the Cedar River in Waterloo, Iowa, is an unassuming 100-acre landmass called Sans Souci Island. “Sans Souci” is French for “no worries,” but in 2008, the island’s name proved overoptimistic.
That year, Iowa experienced massive flooding. Like many of eastern Iowa’s rivers, the Cedar River, the major tributary of the Iowa River, overflowed. Many homes in the Cedar Valley were underwater, as was Waterloo’s downtown area. Thanks to the establishment of large dikes that were put in place after previous years of extensive flooding, the Cedar Valley was better off than other cities in Iowa, where bridges collapsed and homes were devastated. But Sans Souci Island sustained unsalvageable damage.
Here, the flooding exceeded that of the Great Flood of 1993. Around 50 people lived on this largely wooded piece of land, and in June of 2008, they were forced to vacate due to a breached sandbag dike. This breach likely explains the pockets of sand that are now scattered among the island’s long, flattened grasses on its western edge.
In the mid-1800s, Sans Souci Island, originally called Merwin’s Island, provided timber for bridges that crossed the Cedar River. Gradually, cottages and permanent residences were built on the island, as well as the Sans Souci Hotel and Waterloo’s first golf course. The flood changed everything. No utilities have been present on the island since it was abandoned, and the buildings once there have since been demolished.
When you visit now, you are more likely to see a herd of white-tailed deer than another person. During the cold months, the land feels as though it has been untouched and unexplored for years. The isolated nature of the island makes it a quiet respite, a peaceful, almost eerie place for hiking and observing some of the Midwest’s flora and fauna. Fallen, twisted trees leaning against their straight-backed neighbors give the island an otherworldly vibe. Aside from the entrance area, there are few to no paths to follow, allowing hikers to carefully work through a maze of trees and their vines, detritus, new growth and occasional pieces of concrete, reminders of what was.
Sans Souci Island can be circled on foot in approximately an hour. Search the eastern border for a mysterious wall-like stone structure and ruined, uneven stone stairs that lead down to a narrow river walk, on which you can spot the occasional fisherman. Then, travel to the opposite coast for a view of the wing dam, which whips the water in mesmerizing loops.
Now is the time to experience Sans Souci Island in an uninhabited state. Though it may not happen soon, the city is toying with plans to restore the island to a campground or park.
Know Before You Go
While the entrance is paved, wear shoes you do not mind dirtying, as there are few to no paths elsewhere on the island.