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7 Best Iowa State Parks for Adventurers

Are you hearty, healthy and raring for some fun? Check out these state forests, recreation areas and parks for some challenging and rewarding adventure ideas right here in Iowa.

1. Backbone State Park Hit the trails of Backbone for one of the most exciting hikes Iowa has to offer. The park’s namesake ridge of dolomite limestone gives a great view of the Maquoketa River and surrounding valley. If you want to make the adventure more challenging, try climbing or rappelling in the same area after registering with the park office. (Remember, rock climbing is not legal in every park, so check with the park office before you go.)

Top parks for explorers and adventurers | Iowa DNR

2. Yellow River State Forest This adventure caters best to paddlers. While it’s definitely not the easiest water trail to paddle in Iowa, the Yellow River is a crowd favorite for its rapids and the scenic surrounding bluffs and forests. There are put-in and take-out points approximately every 4-6 miles along the State-designated water trail, part of which runs through the Yellow River State Forest. This forest clocks in at a whopping 8,503 acres, all of which is open for hunting, hiking and skiing. There are some maintained hiking trails, but the adventurer in you will love the remote, open options for exploration. As always, be aware of others and dress appropriately for adventuring.

3. Mines of Spain State Recreation Area Dedicated in 1981, the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area is a must-see for wildlife lovers and trail enthusiasts alike. The 1,380-acre area near Dubuque is known for its pristine, rugged scenery and trails, as well as rare habitats that draw bobcats, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks and many others. As a recreation area, Mines of Spain allows trapping, archery, and limited shooting in season. Mountain biking is also popular in this part of the state, so try part of this adventure on two wheels (and a trail) if you can.

4. Lacey-Keosauqua State Park If education is your preferred adventure, don’t miss Lacey-Keosauqua State Park. This scenic, 1,653-acre park includes a historic site where Mormon pioneers crossed the Des Moines River, 19 Native American burial mounds, and wildlife habitats with trees in excess of 200 years old. The park also includes a 30-acre lake where you can cool off after a long day’s hike.

5. Springbrook State Park This destination encompasses 920 acres of prairie and woodlands, and is one of the best wildlife viewing sites in Iowa. Twelve miles of winding trails lead you to look for beaver and seasonal waterfowl in the interspersed ponds and beautiful 17-acre lake, as well as deer, muskrats, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and turkeys throughout the area. Although not necessarily a physically taxing adventure, you may have to be quick if you want wildlife pictures from your visit. 

6. Elk Rock State Park For an extended water adventure, explore Lake Red Rock and its backwaters at Elk Rock State Park. As the largest lake in Iowa, Lake Red Rock can take many weekends to see fully, and its shallow backwaters only allow for travel by paddle. Visit and revisit this park to see an abundance of ever-changing wildlife, including migrating waterfowl.

7. Waubonsie State Park Located in the scenic Loess Hills, Waubonsie State Park is a haven for hikers and horse riders. Seven miles of hiking trails and eight of equestrian trails take visitors through windswept gorges and valleys that don’t look like any other part of the state. The park is also a site on the national Lewis and Clark Historical trail, with interpretive paths to point out the area’s rich wildlife, landforms and history.

For more adventurous ways to explore Iowa, visit our state parks webpages or our Iowa State Parks and Take It Outside boards on Pinterest.

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