Contrary to what some people seem to think, the Hawkeye state isn’t all flat cornfields and agriculture. On the contrary, Iowa is filled with wildlife areas, steep bluffs, and scenic vistas, making it a great place to go hiking. This state is often underrated when it comes to its many outdoor opportunities, but we're here to open your eyes to the many great trails in the area. So if you’re thinking of visiting, or simply want a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, read on!
Backpacking in Iowa: Yellow River State Forest Backpacking Trail
Yellow River State Forest is located in the northeast corner of the state near Harper’s Ferry and is a superb place to hike, backpack, or even get in some horseback riding. The Backpack Trail consists of more than 25 miles of trails, winding their way through 8,503 acres of forest, dotted with sandstone bluffs and ravines. You’ll be able to view local wildlife like beavers and raptors, and the chances of seeing anyone else are relatively low (here’s a useful trail report).
The forest is one of Iowa’s most rugged terrains, and is incredibly diverse in that it includes grassy fields, dense forest, and even boasts some great fishing! The forest also has lots of picnic areas and snowmobile trails.
While there are some steep areas of this trail, most parts can be accessed with a relatively easy hike. You can camp at one of the forest’s established campgrounds which charge a flat rate of $9.00 per night during the summer months. There is also a cabin that can be rented out. But if you want a real backcountry experience, throw a camping tarp in your pack and take advantage of the free remote camping.
Central Iowa Trails: Brushy Creek State Recreation Area
Brushy Creek State Recreation Area has over 45 miles of multi-use trails, offering activities for hikers, campers, horseback riders, and skiers alike. It is located in Webster County, smack dab in the middle of the state. If you pay a visit to this park, make sure you set out on The Lake Trail.
This trail is 12.5 miles and starts out near the park’s campground (the equestrian campground is one of the most modern camp facilities in the Midwest!). It skirts around open prairies and agricultural fields before dipping into the forest and crossing over wooden bridges, many of which offer very pleasant scenic overlooks.
There are three campgrounds with excellent facilities. However, the restroom and shower facilities are only available in the summer (the electricity and water can be accessed year-round). If you want to do some winter camping, that is still possible, but the park request you call ahead at (515) 543-8298 to make sure you can access a campground.
Hiking in Des Moines: Ledges State Park
Located near Boone and not too far from the metropolitan areas of Des Moines, Ledges State Park includes a 6.5-mile trail called Canyon Road which takes you along beautiful sandstone cliffs and right up to the “crow’s nest” where you’ll get a great view out to the Des Moines River. It’s also a great place to view local wildlife and plants, such as the myriad of wildflowers dotting the trails. It’s right in the middle of the state and is one of the oldest state parks in Iowa.
Ledges State Park is also unique because it includes archaeological relics dating back nearly 4,000 years. You’ll be able to see Native American mounds and old settlement remains among the many canyons and bluffs of the park. Most of this park’s trails are steep, but there are also shorter interpretive trails where you can view lichens and old stone buildings.
There are a number of campgrounds available with half the sites available for booking and the other half offered on a first come, first serve basis. Restrooms and hydrants are typically closed through the winter season. You can find more information here on IowaDNR.
Loess Hills State Forest
The Loess Hills (pronounced “luss”) were formed 25,000 years ago at the back end of the last ice age. They are named after the ‘loose’ soil that was left behind by melting glaciers and then swept into the hills that now stand in west-central Iowa, straddling Harrison and Monona Counties. This isn’t typical rolling Iowan countryside; they are proper hills!
The park is comprised of a whopping 11,600 acres and includes a small lake with excellent fishing opportunities as well as trails through forests and prairies. Divided into three separate units, there are plenty of places to hike, cross country ski, and camp. The best hiking and camping areas are in Preparation Canyon State Park, which is in the northeast corner of the state forest.
I don’t have any specific recommendations for trails here, but you can check out the maps available here. This is a place to simply exist for a while. It’s extremely secluded and absolutely stunning. I suggest getting your navigation hat on and start adventuring! If you need a bit of inspiration, this is a useful trip report.
What are your favorite places to hike? Drop them in the comments below!
Image credit: Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash