Iowa State Parks Activities
Camping in America’s heartland is undoubtedly the experience of a lifetime! Pikes Peak State Park boasts of some of the best campsites in the state with electric and water hookups, as well as showers, trash service, and a market. Slots here fill up quickly, especially in the summertime, so make sure that you confirm your reservation beforehand. Make sure you pack all you need by following our camping checklist.
Ledges State Park is also a favorite camping site due to its impressive landscape carved by glaciers and shaped by ancient seas. Those who want a more modern approach to camping, on the other hand, can opt for several cabins scattered throughout the park.
At Backbone State Park, relax by the water and wake up to incredible views of the area’s towering rock features. Enjoy rustic nature views without having to sacrifice modern amenities and creature comforts.
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Hiking trails at Ledges State Park are simply stunning to behold! Meander through the Lost Lake section of the park, which culminates in a picturesque view of the Des Moines River. The park may only have a total of 4.6 miles of hiking trails but they’re all well worth it.
On the other hand, Maquoketa Caves State Park has over 7 miles of trails, which take hikers through prairies, woodlands, and dramatic vistas. The park also offers visitors the chance to participate in an interpretive hiking program where they can learn more about how the park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
At Wildcat Den State Park, explore approximately 4 miles of hiking trails that will take you to great views of rock outcroppings. Along the way to the Devil’s Punch Bowl, check out the restored grist mill or schoolhouse near the historic Pine Creek bridge. This park is a favorite destination for history buffs from all over the country!
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Iowa’s state parks and forests are home to over 20 scenic backpacking campsites, perfect for those looking for the adventure of a lifetime! With all your camping gear, don’t forget to grab the best backpacking hatchet to get your fires going easily.
The 344-acre Preparation Canyon State Park has 10 backpacking campsites and over five miles of moderately strenuous trails. Here, backpackers can take in stunning views of the Loess Hills, lush windblown knolls found all over the park. From May to September, backpackers can expect to trudge through spacious fields full of colorful and fragrant flowers.
Yellow River State Forest is also a must-visit for backpackers stopping by The Hawkeye State. This rugged landscape in the heart of Northeast Iowa has over 25 miles of hiking trails and is considered by many to be a backpacker’s paradise. Majestic trees, picturesque overlooks, and cold-water streams await those who choose to take on this park.
There are dozens of great fishing holes in Iowa although many anglers claim that Black Hawk Lake at Black Hawk State Park is the best one. The lake is filled with walleyes, crappies, and largemouth bass, making it the ideal fishing trip for many.
Those wanting to bring home some walleye may also do so at Clear Lake, found at McIntosh Woods State Park. The park also features a fish cleaning facility, which makes it an appealing fishing hole for many anglers.
Lake Macbride State Park is another great fishing spot in Iowa with plenty of bluegill, channel catfish, and more. Anglers can also choose to catch-and-release 30-inch muskies, as well as cast for trophy wipers.
Yellow Rock State Forest boasts of a whopping 8,503 acres, all of which is open for hunting. The forest is known for its remote and open locations, which may be explored by hunters and visitors alike.
Day Use Areas
The best picnic areas in Iowa can be found at Ledges State Park where there are plenty of designated picnic areas for visitors to throw their blankets down. After your meal, have some fun on the beautiful Des Moines River or walk off your food baby by taking on the park’s many hiking trails.
At Pikes Peak State Park, head up to the Point Ann Overlook where you can eat under a rustic stone open structure while taking in an incredible view of the Mississippi Valley. This is one of the more popular picnicking spots in Iowa, though, so spots here fill up fast!
Lewis and Clark State Park has over 30 acres of picnic grounds, which feature tables, charcoal grills, and potable water. Find some time during your excursion to check out the park’s impressive keelboat display, which is an exact replica of the barge that the Lewis and Clark expedition used as they sailed down the river.
Bikers looking for a long and fulfilling adventure should take on the 26-mile Neal Smith Trail, which follows Saylorville Lake into Big Creek State Park, ending at its beach. This route may be scenic but it also features some natural challenges, making it perfect for intermediate and advanced riders.
Those looking to sharpen their skills can opt for the 12 paved miles from Carlisle, situated southeast of Des Moines, to Indianola through Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park. This cycling trail is extremely easy and straightforward, a favorite for beginners and families looking to bike together.
Sauk Rail Trail, which has over 33 paved miles, runs from Black Hawk State Park to Swan Lake Park in the western region of Iowa. This is another popular biking trail in the state and can be taken on by anyone, regardless of their skill level.
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For an unforgettable boating excursion, head on over to Honey Creek State Park & Resort for a day packed with fun on the humongous Lake Rathbun. This is the perfect playground for all kinds of water vehicles and everything from speed boats to kayaks is permitted on the lake.
Lake Ahquabi State Park is another great boating destination, featuring two boat ramps and the opportunity to explore its amazing wilderness via canoes, kayaks, and paddle boats.
Lacey-Keosauqua State Park is a favorite destination among avid bird watchers in Iowa. The park’s wooded valleys and bluffs are home to hundreds of nesting species, including the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Scarlet Tanager. All can be easily seen with the best binos for birding Those who want to catch a glimpse of spring migrant warblers and other songbirds should also check out this park.
On the other hand, those who want to observe the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the Louisiana Waterthrush in their natural habitats should head over to Waubonsie State Park, situated in southwest Iowa. The park’s hardwood forests and wind-deposited soil habitats are great for Birders seeking more unique bird species.
Bird-watching enthusiasts should also take a look at the many diverse habitats found at Elk Rock State Park.
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Big Creek State Park is considered to be the best swimming hole in Iowa with plenty of sand and shoreline. The park’s cool waters are a great remedy to the scorching heat of summertime!
Another perfect swimming spot is Honey Creek State Park & Resort, which is also a resort and has a ton of fun beach and water activities. An indoor waterpark may also be found here, perfect for high-energy kids and adults alike. After an exhausting day on the water, unwind on the shores of Lake Rathbun.
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Rock Climbing and Mountaineering
Backbone State Park is home to some of the best rock climbing opportunities in Iowa. The park features plenty of routes on huge limestone dolomites that many climbers find challenging. Only the most daring and the most experienced of climbers are allowed to take on the opportunities found at this park!
On the other hand, climbers of all skill levels are welcome to try their hand at routes in Palisades Kepler State Park. There are plenty of easy and beginner-friendly climbing opportunities at this park, providing climbers with a one-of-a-kind and unforgettable experience.
The Preserve on Rathbun Lake within Honey Creek State Park & Resort is an 18-hole championship course designed for golfers of every age and skill level. The scenic 7,000-yard course trails through prairie and oak savannas, making for a picturesque game.
Iowa has an abundance of incredible equestrian trails although the one found at Elk Rock State Park is a particular favorite for many. The 13 miles of multi-use trails take riders through dense woods, lakeside areas, and grassy meadows. The park also features an equestrian campground where horses can be hitched, rested, and fed. This is truly a must-visit for every equestrian visiting Iowa!
Trails at Rock Creek State Park are also in high-demand, trailing around a 600-acre lake and crossing over trickling creeks and streams. Trails at this part are very easy and straightforward, however, riders are urged to refrain from taking them when the conditions are wet.
For a unique caving experience, check out Maquoketa Caves State Park where an abundance of caves connected by bridges and walkways are found. In particular, keep an eye out for the “Natural Bridge” and the “Balanced Rock,” which many consider to be the highlights on the trail.
The bowl-shaped Horse Thief Cave found at Wapsipinicon State Park is also a bucket list destination for many caving enthusiasts. According to legend, this cave was used by horse thieves to set up their camp and stash their loot. The park also features the Ice Cave, which offers cool temperatures even in the scorching heat of summer.
Restaurants and Dining
For a taste of regional specialties made with only the best and the freshest local ingredients, check out Rathbun Lakeshore Grille Restaurant at Honey Creek State Park & Resort where an exceptional dining experience awaits visitors.
At George Wyth State Park, try your hand at windsurfing on each of the park’s four lakes. Keep in mind, though, that this park is a popular summer destination for residents and tourists alike so don’t be surprised by the huge crowds that you’re bound to encounter.