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paddling in iowa
Water Trail Development Tools

Water Trails are recreational corridors and routes on rivers and lakes that provide a unique experience for canoeists and kayakers and provide adequate access points that can be used for planning your trips at various lengths and difficulty. 

A water trail may also provide access to riverside campgrounds, primitive campsites, amenities such as shelters and restrooms in city, county or state parks. A water trail will have a detailed map showing access points and river mileage and may even provide information on history and area culture, wildlife viewing opportunities and more. 

They can help re-connect Iowans to their history, heritage, geology and wildlife. A water trail promotes an ethic of caring that makes us more aware of our surroundings and environment and can be thought of as educational venues. 

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.

Developing Water Trails in Iowa

The statewide water trails plan Iowa Water Trails: Connecting People with Water and Resources identified the need for good initial planning. The first planning phase (pre-planning) generally requires 6 to 12 months. After this phase we require the project manager file a letter of intent with us in order to help us assess, advise, and prioritize future projects. This is a new process change that will be required for all new projects.

After you have finished your initial planning, please file a letter of intent, which includes the following:

  •  Name of the waterway and the county or counties where the trail is proposed, as well as the beginning and end points of the trail.
  • Identify any barriers or known problems.
  • What is the main purpose or purposes of the water trail?
  • Describe what planning has been done, and if a professional planner was involved.
  • List the stakeholder groups that are in support of your project and how many meetings you have held. Stakeholders might be conservation staff, volunteer groups, paddlers, and local law enforcement, to name a few. The broader the support for your project the more likely your success.

Send your letter of intent to:
John Wenck
Water Trails Coordinator
Iowa Department of Natural Resources
502 E 9th Street
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0034

Water trails guidelines for creating various forms of brochures, electronic media, kiosks, and display panels.

Adaptive paddling can open a whole new world for people with mobility impairments. Appropriately designed accesses can add help establish freedom and independence for a whole new set of Iowans. While there are no official Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for typical river access launches, Iowa DNR encourages water trail developers to be inclusive for varying abilities as possible, so long as the setting needs not be substantially altered.

In addition, a new priority is the creation of paired "Universal Design" launches and landings, which are hoped to provide freedom and independence for a variety of users (See Chapter 3 of Developing Water Trails in Iowa)

The only type of access that must meet ADA design specifications are ones that include boarding piers. All other types of water launches are exempt from ADA guidelines.

See ADA water access design guidelines and http://www.americantrails.org/resources/accessible/index.html for more details.

Iowa's State Water Trails Plan

The state water trails plan documents the historic and present day importance of Iowa's navigable waters. The plan focuses on the types of activities people are participating in on Iowa's rivers along with outlining different things to take into consideration when planning a new water trail.

Economic studies
The statewide plan supported two surveys on rivers and on-water recreation. A report on the Survey of Liveries (Iowa Canoe, Kayak, and Innertube) is available, as is statewide river corridor use survey conducted by ISU's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Water Trail Plans

West Fork Des Moines Water Trail Plan (20MB)
Emmet County

iowa river water trail plan
Iowa River Trail Plan (34MB)
Johnson and Louisa Counties

lower des moines water trail plan
Lower Des Moines River Trail Plan (32MB)
Van Buren County

maquoketa water trail plan
West Nishnabotna Trail Plan (28MB)
Pottawattamie County

maquoketa water trail plan
Maquoketa Water Trail Plan (48MB)
Delaware County

South Skunk water trail plan
South Skunk Water Trail Plan (33MB)
Story County


A major revision to our water trails and dams sign manual was released in the Spring of 2010. The new manual addresses a number of issues and includes many updates.

The sign manual  contains guideline for the standard statewide water trails way-finding and informational signage system.