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If you’re looking to blaze a new trail this spring, consider hitting the water for something different. Iowa boasts a number of water trails, which offer a unique perspective on Iowa in spring.
Water trails, or designated routes on rivers and lakes, can provide access to campsites, shelters, restrooms and more. Whether they are used for relaxation, health and fitness, education or just for spending time with family, water trails provide in-state destinations for recreational river users that can even help boost local economies.
If you’re just getting started, consider taking a free online paddle safety boating course and look to a local outfitter to rent a canoe or kayak. Many outfitters also provide a shuttle service.
Maps are available for all of Iowa’s water trails, but consider these for a great spring getaway:
Lizard Creek Water Trail, northwest of Fort Dodge, is a swift-water dream for paddlers.The “Liz,” as it's affectionately called, was designated in 2012 as an official state water trail. This nature-filled stream boasts small rapids and challenging sections, so it’s recommended that only skilled boaters paddle this trail. If inexperienced, go with a group who is familiar with the stream, as it can be technically challenging at most water levels.
The West Nishnabotna Water Trail is the perfect river for beginners and those new to paddling due to its “lazy” nature at normal water levels. The “Nish” is a slow, meandering tree-lined river with no fast water, making for a very relaxing paddle on a typical Iowa prairie stream. Dense concentrations of wildlife can be found along the entire stretch and campgrounds are located in convenient locations. Although not a water trail, the East Nishnabotna is close by and features a section of small rapids for those looking for a little more excitement. This location is great for a family weekend vacation.
Lake Odessa Water Trail Located in Louisa County in southeast Iowa, the Lake Odessa Water Trail takes you through a 6,400 acre wetland complex. Full of twists and turns, you never know what’s around the next bend. Located along the Mississippi River, it provides wildlife viewing at its best. American river otter are abundant here, and so are bald eagles and other migratory waterfowl.
Spend a day paddling, or turn it into a weekend getaway at one of the campgrounds located along the lakeshore. This paddling destination is a true hidden gem. You will want to go back time and time again.
Yellow River Water Trail Yellow River, in northeast Iowa's Allamakee County, is a remote and scenic wonderland. Located near the Yellow River State Forest and ending near the Effigy Mounds National Monument, this water trail takes you through dense forested areas and along historic landmarks not to be missed. The river also features two “paddle-in” remote campsites that you can locate using the water trail map. Expect a challenging paddle in most conditions, as the river has a fairly steep gradient and is swift in higher water. Paddling experience is recommended. The reward is isolation and beauty that you will never forget.
Winnebago River Water Trail The beautiful Winnebago River in Winnebago County is a delight for those traveling near the Iowa/Minnesota border. It starts in the wetlands of Winnebago County, providing a mellow streamflow. The area is a birder's paradise, and there's also a lot of Native American history along this water trail.
The water trail picks up a little steam the closer you get to the Lande Conservation Area and continues down through Forest City. Many areas along the river are heavily tree-lined, so keep a look-out for fallen trees and collected wood debris. A little experience is recommended when it comes to paddling. Expect abundant wildlife and a sense of isolation along most of the trail. Forest City makes a great place to explore with many restaurants.
Lake Red Rock Water Trail At 15,250 acres, Lake Red Rock is one of Iowa’s largest lakes. The lake provides important wildlife habitat and is a birder's dream come true. The Lake Red Rock Water Trail is 37 miles long, but can be broken down into eight different segments. There is primitive camping available at Hickory Ridge, located on the water trail map.
Also, at certain levels, a small sea cave can be paddled through. Keep in mind, this lake can be a challenge in windier conditions. Know your skill level. Waves can be generated that can easily swamp a canoe or kayak, so self-rescue skills are needed and remember, never paddle alone.
Finally, be sure to leave the water trail cleaner than you found it. The Keep it Clean, Keep it Fun campaign aims to reduce river trash and encourage polite behavior on the water and banks. Request a free mesh litter bag from DNR River Programs Outreach Coordinator Todd Robertson.
Learn more about Iowa paddling sports on our Iowa Paddling board on Pinterest.