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Whether you’re looking to get away from civilization for a weekend or just take in some beautiful scenery for an hour or two with the family, Iowa – yes, Iowa – offers some incredible hikes in our state parks and forests, especially in fall. One of the best places to take in Iowa's gorgeous fall colors is in our state parks and forests!
Yellow River State Forest For backpackers looking for a backcountry experience, head straight to northeast Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest. At Yellow River, you can enjoy long hikes with varying elevation, and even camp primitively. With about 32 miles of trail, it’s easy to feel like you’ve escaped it all in this gorgeous setting.
Loess Hills State Forest and Stone State Park Locals say you can hike and camp primitively for three days in this unique landscape without covering the same ground twice. If the 50 miles of trail in the state forest aren’t enough, you can find more just an hour up the road at the historic Stone State Park on the outskirts of Sioux City.
The Loess Hills – a landscape rare in the world – afford vistas not often seen in Iowa. Loess soils are highly erodible but when left undisturbed, they hold solidly, forming tiers which follow the contours and are a sight to behold. Add in the native prairie that abounds in the area and you have a great place to wander while taking in sweeping vistas and discovering precious rare plants.
Ledges State Park Steeped in natural history, Ledges is known for its picturesque canyon that leads to the Des Moines River. Climb the trails in the canyon area to get a bird’s eye view of picnickers and kids splashing in the creek below.
Or wander through the Lost Lake section of Ledges to find a serene overlook of the Des Moines River. While Ledges has just 4.6 miles of trails, the scenery makes it feel like much more. Finish off the day by heading to a secluded hike-in only campsite.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
A trip to Maquoketa Caves isn’t complete without exploring the park’s 15 small caves, connected by boardwalks and bridges. Head to the 7 miles of trails to traipse through prairie or woodlands and take in dramatic vistas.
Make a weekend of it and bring the tent with walk-in sites just off the main campground. Take part in an interpretive program to learn more about the park and its Civilian Conservation Corps work.
Waubonsie State Park Steal away to the far southwest corner of Iowa to take in majestic views of ridgetop prairie and mature woodland along the southern tip of the Loess Hills. Waubonsie offers 10.5 miles of trail in a unique setting.
Lacey-Keosauqua State Park Set out on gently sloping trails, including a path around a small swimming lake in this relaxing and peaceful park. Stay over in a cabin for more trips on the 12.5 miles of trail. Day trippers can make a quick trip back to civilization to enjoy restaurants and shops in the villages of Van Buren County.
Wildcat Den State Park The trails are all about scenery at Wildcat Den, just a mile upstream of the Mississippi River. Explore almost 4 miles of trail, including a short hike with great views of rock outcroppings on your way to the Devil’s Punch Bowl.
Check out the restored grist mill or schoolhouse near the historic Pine Creek bridge. Camp at the park, or head over to the Fairport State Recreation Area, just two miles away, to camp along the mighty Mississippi.
Perched atop limestone formations that resemble backbones, it’s not hard to see where the Backbone trail at Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point gets its name. A trail of moderate difficulty for persons with good mobility, it’s a blast for scrambling!
The trail is “there and back” from the main road to scenic points overlooking Backbone Lake and the Maquoketa River. There are several cabins available for rent near the beach. Good for hikers, the trails also serve snowmobilers well in the winter. The state forest trails adjacent to the park on the north are an equestrian favorite.
Palisades-Kepler State Park is a must-visit for hiking and history bluffs alike, with great examples of Civil Conservation Corps and Iowa DNR AmeriCorps Trail Crew stone and native timber work incorporated throughout the trail system.
Perched above the Cedar River just a few miles west of Mount Vernon and east of Cedar Rapids, hikers can rest in the cool air of a 1930s era gazebo, gaze at the river below from a scenic stone and cedar overlook, and hike along a cliff-line trail embedded with limestone steps. The Cool HollowTrail, which traverses the interior woodland of the park, boasts a brand new 60-foot-long black locust log bridge built by the trail crew.
An Iowa favorite, Pikes Peak State Park offers spectacular views from the trail of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers converging. Trail types at Pikes Peak run the gamut from natural surface, which wander through old growth woodland, to board-walked and stair-stepped surfaces that take hikers to sensitive natural rock and water features such as Bridal Veil Falls.
There’s also paved surface and scenic overlooks, including a platform specially designed for wheelchair access. Northeast Iowa land formations differ from the rest of the state, and bedrock close to the land surface makes for great views and variable terrain that is especially alluring to hikers.
Nestled alongside the quaint town of Eldora and the Iowa River, hikers will love north central Iowa’s Pine Lake State Park. The Lake Trail on the south side of the lower lake, though not remote, sports trail bridges, steps and retaining walls built by the Civil Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps trail crew, making it fun to traverse.
This trail provides direct access to the water for fishing or bird watching, and a paved trail on the north of the lake passes by the beach and a CCC-built beach house. Another trail in the park, Wildcat, follows the Iowa River and leads to a pristine natural area of bluffs and ferns. Pine Lake is a great hiking park for the leisurely day user, and if you’d like to stay over, the cabins and lodge are among the best in the state.
You can hike 12 miles of woodland and ridgeline at Stone State Park, located in western Iowa’s Loess Hills and overlooking Sioux City. Adjacent to the park and accessible by trail is the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, managed by Woodbury County Conservation.
Equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers share many of the trails at Stone. Its proximity to the city and beautiful views make it a popular place to recreate. A beautiful Civil Conservation Corps stone lodge is available for private gatherings and camping cabins are for rent seasonally.
With 40 miles of trails, Brushy Creek State Recreation Area is second only to the Loess Hills State Forest in terms of total trail miles on DNR-managed land. For hikers, arguably the best hike at Brushy - a reclaimed 6,000 acre natural area in the heart of Iowa - is through the preserve atop the bluffs looking down on Brushy Creek.
Even when conditions are wet, Brushy’s 12 mile all-weather trail loop around the lake is open for business. A new trail bridge over the spillway allows safe access over sometimes very fast moving water. Trails in the southern-most portion of the park follow the Des Moines River.
Make a day or weekend of it by heading next to Dolliver Memorial State Park, just 15 minutes west from Brushy Creek by car. Though a mere 5 miles of trail exist at Dolliver, those trails meander through an area rich in history and natural resources.
There are the copperas beds, unique sandstone formations towering 100 feet above Prairie Creek. Beyond this point, the trail gains elevation into oak-covered hillsides and then slopes down past Bone Yard Hollow, Indian Mounds and up more wooded hillsides. Views along the Des Moines River add to the richness of the park.
For more ideas, check out our Iowa Trails, Iowa State Parks and Take It Outside boards on Pinterest.