Iowa’s got more adventure on offer than you think

Iowa gets the most surprising props, like its recent inclusion among the happiest states in America (and the best places to retire). Who knew?

But there’s another thing no one seems to know about the Hawkeye State: It’s overflowing with outdoor activities.

biking in Iowa
RAGBRAI riders roll into one of Iowa’s iconic and affordable Americana towns. Photo: Courtesy of The Des Moines Register

Sure, you might have heard about July’s annual RAGBRAI — the oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world — but did you know you can whitewater playboat (aka freestyle) in Iowa? And hike, rock climb and gravel grind?

Manchester Whitewater Park on the Maquoketa River is just one playboating area that’s popped up around the state. Photo: Courtesy of Travel Iowa

This is a state of rolling hills and hidden gems. A favorite of Jessica O’Riley, who works for the Iowa Economic Development Authority and has lived in the state for more than 40 years, is Devil’s Backbone Trail at Backbone State Park.

“It offers terrain that is atypical for Iowa, which makes it fun,” she told GrindTV.

Another go-to for O’Riley includes the expansive views of the Loess Hills from the tower at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek.

climbing in Iowa
Several parks and nature preserves have both climbing challenges and mellow hikes. Photo: Courtesy of Travel Iowa

And while nature (and many of this state’s under-the-radar activities) are free, it’s nice when the après-adventure food, lodging and other travel-related expenses come cheap too. Even as Iowa attempts to keep up with other travel destinations through efforts like an expanding craft brewery and distillery scene, it remains one of the country’s most affordable places to play.

The Americana feel in small towns throughout the state keeps nostalgia and hospitality high, yet prices attractively low. “We often say the best way to experience Iowa is to get off the interstate and explore the back roads,” says O’Riley.

Interested in this off-the-beaten-path place where you can claim some not-so-well-known adventures for your very own? Give these Iowa finds a try.


Wapsipinicon State Park: Named by Fodor’s Travel as the home of one of the “10 Best Spring Hikes in the U.S.,” Wapsipinicon State Park is located just south of Anamosa, toward the eastern end of the state.

RELATED: ’17 Summer Gear Guide: The Best in Hiking

Ledges State Park: Sandstone “ledges” rise up to 100 feet around Peas Creek in this popular park, which is also home to 13 miles of scenic hiking trails, near Boone, about 50 miles north of Des Moines.

Loess Hills: To the southwest, Preparation Canyon State Park near Moorhead allows hikers to stretch their legs for a day hike or backpack into the hills.


Cyclists ride through the back roads of Iowa during the annual RAGBRAI tour each July. Photo: Courtesy of The Des Moines Register
Cedar Valley Trails: Riders can choose from 11 loops on this 110-mile trail system in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area. The trails also connect to both of the downtown districts as well as museums, hotels, restaurants and bars.

High Trestle Trail: This shady 25-mile trail between central Iowa’s Ankeny and Woodward features the 13-story Trestle Bridge, views of the Des Moines River Valley and fun places to stop like the Whistlin’ Donkey in Woodward and the Flat Tire Lounge or Frontier Shack food truck in Madrid.

RELATED: A complete guide to finding the best bike rack for your car

Wabash Trace Nature Trail: On the edge of the Loess Hills in southwest Iowa, the Wabash Trace is a peaceful, 63-mile crushed-limestone rail trail and dedicated nature preserve.

Rock climbing

rock climbing Iowa
A climber scales the odd formations at Pictured Rocks near Jones, Iowa. Photo: Courtesy of Travel Iowa
Backbone State Park: Challenging cliffs of rugged dolomite limestone are peppered throughout the park in northeast Iowa, near Strawberry Point, with the most popular formations located near the Backbone Trail.

Palisades-Kepler State Park: Along the Cedar River near Mount Vernon in Linn County, this 840-acre park has dramatic river bluffs where climbers can apply their indoor wall training to outdoor rock climbing.

RELATED: A guide to outdoor rock climbing etiquette

Pictured Rocks County Park: Located along the Maquoketa River near Monticello, these steep limestone bluffs provide the perfect climbing environment, plus hiking and paddling options nearby.


kayaking in Iowa
The Elkader Whitewater Park welcomes everyone from kayakers to boogie boarders. Photo: Courtesy of Travel Iowa
Charles City Whitewater at Riverfront Park: Iowa’s first whitewater park (Class II) covers 11 acres of the Cedar River and welcomes kayaks, inner tubes and standup paddleboarding.

RELATED: Why a life jacket and leash are 2 things you need for paddle season; video

Elkader Whitewater Park: Catering to kayakers, boogie boarders, tubers and fishermen, this Turkey River park’s most popular feature is the 22-foot-wide Gobbler Wave.

Manchester Whitewater: This Maquoketa River course for canoeists to swimmers consists of six drops at roughly 18 feet apiece and spans over 800 feet in length. It’s open 24/7/365.

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