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Three Off-The-Beaten-Path Places to Camp in Iowa

  • 6/2/2015 10:14:00 AM
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Three places you didn't know you could camp in Iowa outside of a campground | Iowa DNRIowa’s state parks and forests offer many beautiful and relaxing campgrounds, but if you’re looking to feel like you’re escaping civilization for a while, here are some top places to rough it in Iowa.

Keep in mind that different areas may be privately owned or managed by different entities – think federal, state, county and city governments. Always check with the site manager about rules relating to camping at that specific area before you go. And don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray.

Paddle-in sites Some sites are so secluded that you can only paddle up to them. No cars or trucks are allowed here, meaning everything you need to camp comes with you in the canoe or kayak (although some sites do have fire rings). Try two very remote paddle-in campsites along the Yellow River Water Trail, one of eight first-come, first-served paddle-in sites in the federally managed Hickory Ridge area at Lake Red Rock, the Paddlers Pines paddle-in campsite on Lake Rathbun, or reserve a paddle-in site along the South Skunk River at Polk County Conservation’s Chichaqua Bottoms. Be sure to grab a map of the local water trails before you head out, too.

Wildlife management areas You can get away from it all by camping primitively on state wildlife management areas. Camping in wildlife management areas can’t exceed 14 consecutive days, and is prohibited within 100 yards of parking lots, boat ramps, fishing jetties and other public use facilities. Pay attention to public hunting areas and open hunting seasons. Keep in mind that many public hunting areas are not DNR land, and you’ll need to check with the group that manages the land before camping there. If you have questions about where to camp and local rules, call your local unit manager before heading out.


Sandbars Feel like an old-fashioned river traveler by stopping off for the night on a sandbar. Spend the night under the stars as you listen to the water as it moves by. Be sure to pay attention to water levels before you set up camp, and make sure you’re on a meandered river, where sandbar camping is usually allowed (unless specifically prohibited). In Iowa, the streambeds on meandered rivers, up to the ordinary high-water mark, are public property. If you’re on a non-meandered stream, the banks and streambed are considered part of the privately-owned adjacent property.

To help clarify, a meandered river is one where adjacent landowners own the land above the high water mark. Land below the high water mark is public, allowing paddlers to explore sandbars. Learn more about meandered and non-meandered streams and view a map of meandered rivers and legal boundaries of meandered rivers with our water trails webpages.

For more ideas, check out our Iowa Paddling and Iowa Camping boards on Pinterest.