When you think of whitewater rafting, rock climbing and breathtaking views, there’s a Midwestern gem you may be overlooking – Iowa. This beautiful state offers numerous outdoor recreation opportunities to experience, including an expansive parks system.
“There is this network of parks in Iowa that really provides a great quality of life,” says Thomas Hazelton of Iowa’s County Conservation System. “We have 99 counties in Iowa, and there is a park board in each one. So no matter where you live, you have a local parks department working to provide natural areas and connecting trails.”
As a result, along with more than 80 state parks, Iowa is packed with a total of more than 2,000 county parks, city parks, natural areas and trails, many within a few hours driving distance from one another. Factor in the recreational opportunities found along the state’s surprising number of waterways, and Iowa provides residents and visitors with a constant connection to the great outdoors.
“No matter where you are in the state, you have access to these tremendous areas with water recreation, trails, cabins and campsites,” Hazelton says. “It’s pretty amazing that all this is literally out your backdoor in every county.”
Trails lead the way, with over 1,800 miles of them reaching all corners of the state. Highlights include the 89-mile Raccoon River Valley Trail (running northwest from Des Moines through 14 towns), the 68-mile Cedar Valley Nature Trail (Iowa’s first rail-trail, built in the early 1980s and linking Cedar Rapids to Evansdale), and several trails that connect to the cross-country Great American Rail-Trail.
“The state legislature created (the County Conservation System) in the 1950s, and it’s done nothing but blossom and expand over the decades,” Hazelton says. “There’s been an awesome job done of tying together the parks with a trail network that shows off Iowa’s scenic beauty.”
While Iowa might be well known for its land, water recreation has a prominent presence in the state as well. After all, two of America’s most prominent rivers help shape the state, with the Missouri River running along much of the western side of Iowa and the mighty Mississippi forming the eastern border.
“Don’t ever discount the magic of those rivers,” Hazelton says. “You have these beautiful small river towns that have done a great job of developing attractions and natural areas.”
For example, within a 50-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, you can enjoy both the endless fun at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark in Dubuque and the natural beauty along the numerous hiking trails at Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor.
In between the two border rivers are dozens of lakes scattered throughout the state.
This includes the Iowa Great Lakes, a group of seven natural lakes in the northwestern part of the state with a combined 70 miles of shoreline. Visitors flock to this region for boating, fishing and swimming, as well as the amenities found at such locales as Bridges Bay Resort and Fillenwarth Beach Resort.
Other popular destinations include Lake Red Rock outside Des Moines (Iowa’s largest lake with 15,000 acres of water) and Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs (part of Lake Manawa State Park, the state’s most visited park with nearly 3 million annual visitors).
And for something unexpected, Iowa offers three whitewater parks for kayaking, paddleboarding and leisurely tubing. Charles City Whitewater Park runs along a 1,000-foot-long section of the Cedar River, Manchester Whitewater Park spans 1,200 feet of the Maquoketa River, and Elkader Whitewater Park offers two wave features and a fish/canoe passage on the Turkey River.
“These communities took dams that no longer were serving a purpose and had them professionally converted into whitewater parks,” says Hannah Ray J, an Iowa native and outdoor enthusiast. “They saw the potential of returning recreation to the river, while also restoring natural aquatic habitat.”
“There are so many places like that in the state where people say, ‘This is Iowa? How cool is this?’” she says. “We have all sorts of hidden outdoor gems that you can discover.”
This story was developed for the 2023 ‘This is Iowa’ statewide guide published in partnership with Livability.