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If you’re looking to blaze a new trail this fall, consider hitting the water for something different. Iowa boasts a number of water trails, which offer a unique perspective on Iowa in autumn, from changing fall colors to wildlife.
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 fall getaway:
The Turkey River, Fayette and Clayton Counties The 98-mile Turkey River Water Trail begins on the Little Turkey River at Gouldsburg Park in Fayette County, merges with the Turkey River near Eldorado, and flows southeast toward the Mississippi River. The water trail features beautiful scenery and numerous historic landmarks. Look for eagles, hawks, great blue herons, river otters, beavers, deer, coyote and more.
The Middle River, Adair and Madison counties Cruise underneath two of Madison County’s famed covered bridges, while taking in the calm scenery featuring rolling hills and limestone bluffs. Take a break to fish for flathead or channel catfish. Keep an eye out for hawks, eagles, herons, owls, muskrats, foxes, bobcats, mussels, turtles and more. The Middle River Water Trail begins at Middle River Forest County Park in Adair County and ends 45 miles later at the historic Holliwell Covered Bridge, located about 3.5 miles southeast of Winterset.
Des Moines River, Webster County While the Des Moines River is the longest in Iowa, the stretch in Webster County may be one of its most scenic runs. Take in views of rugged sandstone cliffs and high wooded ridges, and consider taking the pole along to catch channel catfish or smallmouth bass. Check water trail maps for the area best suited for your ability and for access points.
Red Rock Water Trail, Marion County Enjoy gorgeous fall colors and the picturesque rocky cliffs at Elk Rock, including a sea cave, and keep your eyes open for eagle nests and lots of migratory birds on this 36-mile water trail loop. Make it an overnight trip with paddle-in campsites at Hickory Ridge.
Middle/South Raccoon Water Trail With high bluffs and dense wooded areas, the Middle/South Raccoon Water Trail is one of the best streams in central Iowa for viewing fall colors. Watch for playful river otters and take a break to fish for catfish, smallmouth bass or walleye. Be sure to stop off at Hanging Rock Park, where you can see historic pictographs.
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.