10 Best Hiking Areas in Iowa

10 Best Hiking Areas in Iowa

Posted by Paul Miller on Feb 24th 2018

As surprising as it may sound, Iowa isn’t a flat, endless grassland filled with cornfields. Believe it or not, “The Hawkeye State” has plenty of great spots to enjoy nature on a hike for a day or weekend of backpacking. While there may not be clear alpine lakes or snowy peaks, verdant hills, sandstone bluffs, and sheer cliffs await any hiker who takes the time to explore the natural beauty of Iowa. So, without further ado, here are 10 spots every avid hiker should visit when in Iowa.

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1) Effigy Mounds National Monument

In the northeast corner of Iowa, along the banks of the Mississippi River, is the Effigy Mounds National Monument. This unique area is home to hundreds of ancient dirt and stone mounds, some conical or rectangular, while many others are in the shape of animals, especially bears and birds. Built by the Native Americans of the area more than a thousand years ago, these mounds still baffle scientists to this day. Native lore says these are sacred ceremonial sites while modern archaeologists still have yet to come to a consensus to what their purpose was.

To explore the mysterious history of the area, there are more than 14 miles of hiking and nature trails running through the park. Learn more about the different mounds as you pass by on your way through lush forests and up steep bluffs, offering some of the best views of the Mississippi River Valley found anyway in the Midwest. One of the best hikes is the Eagle Rock Trail, which has views of the river and passes by some of the most famous mounds and is only 3.5-miles long. For nature and history lovers, this park can’t be beat.

2) Maquoketa Caves State Park

For something a little different, explore the unique geology and do some spelunking at Maquoketa Caves State Park. With about 6 miles of trails, there are plenty of opportunities to wander through the caverns along Raccoon Creek. The most impressive cavern is Dancehall Cave. It is more than 1,000-feet long and is well lit, with paths running through its entirety. For the more adventurous, navigate the intricacies of Bat Passage and Steel Gate Passage, both of which branch off of Dancehall Cave. Also be sure to check the 17-ton balanced rock, precariously sitting along the trail, and pass under a natural stone bridge.

3) Wildcat Den State Park

For a bit of history and unexpected stone formations, head to Wildcat Den State Park and jump on the 4.5-mile loop trail which takes you to all the highlights in this small park. Sandstone bluffs and unique rock formations, with creative names like “Fat Man’s Squeeze” and “Devil’s Punchbowl,” are favorites for locals and tourists alike. After enjoying the rocks, learn a little more about the history of the area and visit the Pine Creek Grist Mill, built in 1848 and one of the few remaining 19th century mills in the entire country. The beauty of the area and ability to find some peace and quiet in the natural surroundings bring hikers and campers back to the area again and again.

4) Backbone State Park

For panoramic views of Iowa atop limestone bluffs that are a scramblers dream, Backbone State Park, the oldest in Iowa, is a must visit. While there are 21 miles of trails snaking through the forests and cliffs, the Backbone Trail is the most popular. It is only a mile each way but takes you to one of the highest points in the state. Views of Backbone Lake and the Maquoketa River are lovely. Take some time to wander along the rocky bluffs and explore the many caves at their base. After a day of hiking, settle in along the banks of the river for a relaxing swim.

5) Ledges State Park

For a more difficult hike through a canyon, along a peaceful creek, and under rocky ledges, take the 5-mile loop trail in Ledges State Park. This is a great trail with some good elevation gain, for Iowa anyway, and great views into narrow canyons and Pea’s Creek. From atop the sandstone cliffs, head down to Lost Lake and stroll along its banks and marvel at the Des Moines River before returning to the trailhead.

Another popular route through the park is the Canyon Road and Crow’s Nest Trail. Combined, they are just a couple miles long and bring you under the ledges and up to a vantage point overlooking the park and surrounding countryside. Even though there are only a few miles of trails, think about hiking to the secluded campsite that can only be reached on foot and spending the night camping under the stars.

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6) Pikes Peak State Park

No, it’s not the 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado, but it is named after the same explorer, Zebulon Pike. Just down the road from Effigy Mounds National Monument, this state park has about 10 miles of trails within it and offers some great hiking opportunities. One of the most popular hikes is the Point Ann Trail, which takes you atop a 500-foot bluff and has picturesque views of the Iowan countryside and mighty Mississippi River. In addition, dense forests are especially beautiful in the fall when the leaves begin to change. As you’re walking along the limestone bluffs, keep your eyes peeled to the rocks to see some fossils of ancient aquatic plants and animals, remnants of when the entire area was a prehistoric ocean.

7) Mines of Spain State Recreation Area

Another beautiful area just minutes from the Mississippi River is Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. With sandstone bluffs, rocky outcroppings, nature trails, and tree-filled valleys, this area has everything a hiker could want. There are more than 21 miles of trails in the park, but most are pretty short, less than a mile. For a little longer walk that affords some solitude, the Eagle Scout Trail is a good choice. At 3.5 miles, each way, the trail has some good elevation changes and takes you into the most beautiful areas.

8) Brushy Creek State Recreation Area

Boasting approximately 45 miles of trails, Brushy Creek State Recreation Area is a great place to spend a weekend backpacking. With a mix of forests and prairie, the trails are as diverse as the landscape. While there isn’t much elevation change, there are some small hills that will give you a little workout on some of the longer hikes. For a full day or two, take the Lake Trail and hike 14 miles around Brushy Creek Lake. All the trails in the area are well-maintained and well-marked, making it a popular hiking destination for locals looking for a fix of nature. If hiking isn’t your thing, many of the trails are open for mountain bikes and horseback riding. In the winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular activities in the area.

9) Yellow River State Forest

For some serious backpacking, there aren’t too many option in Iowa, but Yellow River State Forest does have a great trail for a weekend trip. The 25-mile Backpacking Trail leads you through forests, prairies, along the Yellow River, up bluffs, and through isolated valleys. While it isn’t as strenuous as many other backpacking trails, it is still a great option to get away from the city and enjoy nature for a long weekend. There are 4 campsites along the trail, so don’t be afraid to take your time and appreciate the beautiful landscape of northeastern Iowa.

10) Loess Hills State Forest

There are 4 parts to the Loess Hills State Forest. Put them together and there are more than 11,000 acres and 50 miles of hiking trails to explore. In the west of Iowa, these unique geologic formations have been growing since the last ice age, as glacial sediment is picked up by wind and water and deposited into dune-like formations. There are just a few places in the world where such highly developed loess hills can be found, and Iowa is one of them!

As mentioned before, miles and miles of trails crisscross the state forest and run through several state parks. Preparation Canyon is a popular destination, as is Stone State Park in the north of the forest. Both areas offer great trails that take you through forests, prairies, and along the ridgelines of the loess hills. There are lots of fresh water sources and campsites along the trails, so backpacking is a popular activity in the area. So, whether it be for a day, a weekend, or a whole week, Loess Hills National Forest is a great place to experience the beauty of Iowa’s natural wonders.