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Paddle Up To These Secluded Campsites

  • 6/19/2015 11:02:00 AM
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Pack all you need in your kayak, because that's the only way to reach these secluded Iowa campsites. | Iowa DNR

From the July/August 2011 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine

The self-reliant can take advantage of several remote paddle-in primitive campsites, get surrounded by nature and leave other humans behind. The locations make for a Boundary Waters-like experience in Iowa.

“A paddle-in campsite is one you can’t get to by road. You kayak in all that you need,” says Todd Robertson, a DNR water trails outreach coordinator. “These are for people that want solitude and to truly get away from it all.” Many relish in being self-reliant for their own water, food and shelter, temporarily doing without modern conveniences and distractions.

For reluctant first-timers, two Polk County Conservation Board parks offer semi-secluded, less primitive and reservable paddle-in sites at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt and Yellow Banks parks.

Known for vistas overlooking the river valley and exceptional bird watching, Yellow Banks Park has a site on the Des Moines River close to a boat ramp with toilets, mini shelter, fire rings and tables. Hike up the path a quarter-mile to showerhouses. The Chichaqua sites are on the Skunk River’s east bank, upriver from the bridge on 118th Ave NE. Sites have mowed grass, fire rings and showerhouses a mile north at the main campground.

Yellow Banks Park, 6801 SE 32nd Ave., Pleasant Hill, 515-266-1563. Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt, 8700 NE 126th Ave., Maxwell, 515-967-2596.

For adventurers seeking bigger challenges, isolated sites at Lake Red Rock and Rathbun Lake offer true primitive paddle-in camping. Kayakers must be comfortable with large water, as wind-induced high waves and swells are possible. Two sites in rugged northeast Iowa on the Yellow River test abilities on a narrow, twisting river that demands solid command of your craft.

Yellow River: Paddle Iowa’s longest coldwater trout stream with its rapids, heavily forested towering bluffs and boxcar-sized boulders. Not for beginners, the rocks, heavy current and downed trees dot the narrow, twisting river. The Ridgetop campsite is roughly 3 miles downstream from the Ion Bridge access in eastern Clayton County. The Prairie campsite is another 1.5 miles. Both non-fee, first-come-first-serve primitive sites are marked with signs. Amenities include fire rings, tent pads and benches. For a map or more information, contact Allamakee County Economic Development at 800-824-1424 or

Paddler’s Pines Camp at Rathbun Lake: “I camped here and felt like I wasn’t in Iowa with the large pines and eagle nests. It feels isolated,” says Robertson. The reward? “The sun sets perfectly from the campsite,” he says. Find the primitive camp nestled in a pine forest on the west side of Prairie Ridge peninsula on the lake’s east edge. Leave your vehicle overnight at Buck Creek Marina or Honey Creek State Park’s boat ramp.

Hickory Ridge at Lake Red Rock: Most will reach the oak-hickory forested camp by venturing past Elk Rock State Park and crossing Whitebreast Bay. The sites are on the northeast tip of the Whitebreast Recreation Area peninsula. A well-marked path leads to an ample number of campsites. No fee, reservations accepted. For details, visit or call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 641-828-7522.

For more ideas, try our Iowa Paddling board on Pinterest.