83 Ways to Explore the Outdoors in Iowa

Sally Ortgies just completed a two-year quest very few could match: She and her husband visited all of Iowa’s 83 state parks and recreation areas.

As the director of parks and recreation for the City of West Des Moines, parks are both a passion and profession for Ortgies. One of her favorite memories is falling asleep to the whisper of Little Paint Creek in Yellow River State Forest.

“The parks give little glimpses of what used to be here – millions of acres of prairie filled with waves of grasses as high as your head, pothole prairie wetlands filled with migratory waterfowl and woodlands carpeted with wildflowers. These are precious places in this highly altered state of ours.”

Sally Ortgies

She and her husband are avid hikers, but, while not everyone is quite up to visiting every park, each region of the state has spectacular places for an outdoor adventure, from snowboarding in the winter to canoeing on a quiet lake in the summer to taking a walk along a forest path in autumn.

“Parks are for everyone, so whatever your level of fitness, we can offer you an experience you will enjoy and give you an opportunity to connect to Iowa’s outdoors in a way that is unique and special,” says Julie Tack, communications specialist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Take Julie’s statement to heart and go on an adventure in one of the recreation areas and state parks in Iowa. It will result in a fun, unforgettable experience.

People exploring caves.

East Central Iowa

Maquoketa Caves State Park in Maquoketa has been luring visitors since the 1860s with its forest trails, fascinating caves, tall bluffs and a 50-foot-high natural bridge. The park offers more than a dozen caves, many of which can be accessed by the casual visitor – others only by experienced cave explorers. Visitors are advised to bring a flashlight and good hiking boots. Hike-in camping and newly renovated, more accessible campsites are available.

Group of people overlooking the view from the Pikes Peak State Park octagon.

Northeast Iowa

Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor is breathtaking, offering some of Iowa’s most gorgeous views. From a 500-foot-high bluff, visitors can gaze down on the meeting of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. But that’s not all – among the park’s many things to see are the fascinating effigy mounds. Shaped like animals, these burial mounds were constructed by the Woodland Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Plus, discover the past in the fossils that can be found in the park’s quarry. By the way, explorer Zebulon Pike visited this site long before he discovered Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Hikers overlooking the Yellow River.

Bonus Expedition

While in the northeastern part of the state, be sure to explore the Yellow River State Forest, a pristine landscape that offers stunning views, rustic cabins, camping, hiking, kayaking, fishing and so much more.

Northwest Iowa

Stone State Park in Sioux City proves that even in the city, nature is still close by. The park offers hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails, picnic shelters for group gatherings and cabins for overnight stays. A wildlife sanctuary, this park is home to a number of critters that can be observed. And the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center offers interpretive displays, such as a “walk-under” prairie and hands-on experiences the kiddos will enjoy.

Central Iowa

Clear Lake State Park in Clear Lake is a water-lover’s dream. Its nearly 4,000-acre lake is one of the state’s most popular destinations, and it boasts 900 feet of sandy beach. Boaters, kayakers, jet skiers, windsurfers, sailors and canoers thrive here. Fishing is bounteous (fish-cleaning stations are available), the hiking is superb, and campers can reserve electric and non-electric campsites.

Families playing on the Dream Playground in Council Bluffs.

Western Iowa

Lake Manawa State Park in Council Bluffs could be the site of a perfect summer day, complete with hiking, swimming, fishing, paddleboarding, sand volleyball and an overnight at one of the campsites. Picnicking is also an option – a PBJ sandwich paired with Iowa’s scenery sounds pretty great. And then there’s fishing, where anglers of all ages can try their luck with crappie, bluegill, bass and more. For the young, the park’s 18,000-square-foot Dream Playground is the largest ADA-compliant playground in Iowa.

With all of these great parks available in the state, countless adventures await.

This story originally appeared in the ‘This Is Iowa’ statewide guide published by Livability  

To request a physical copy of  the guide visit HERE. A digital version of the guide can also be found HERE.

Published October 5, 2022

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