1. Backbone State Park, Dundee
Iowa’s first — and widely considered best — state park has far more going on than any non-local would guess. There’s excellent trout fishing, rock climbing and rappelling on sheer cliffs of dolomite limestone, boating, swimming, hiking, cave exploring, and camping. Yep, we’re still talking about Iowa.
The park was originally named “Devil’s Backbone” for the steep and narrow ridge of rock that was carved by the Maquoketa River. It might not match the cable stairs in Yosemite, but if you’re up to it, attempt to ascend the “devil’s staircase.”
There are two campgrounds and 16 cabins in the park, four of which are deluxe and another 4 that are two-bedroom. This state park definitely deserves more than one day of exploring.
2. Ledges State Park, Madrid
Four miles of trails that go up and down (but seem to always be going up) will lead you to overlooks of the Des Moines River and the surprisingly impressive Pea’s Creek Canyon. Somehow this place seems to have some serious elevation.
As you drive into the park you’ll pass the large, shaded campground and descend a winding road that brings you to Pea’s Creek. You’ll then proceed past the park’s iconic “stone bridge” and then to the stunning canyon walls. These walls, or “ledges,” are 100 feet above the creek bed and date back 300 million years. 13,000 years ago melting glacial water cut through the sandstone to create the cliffs and valleys.
The hiking in this area is especially challenging — at least in comparison with the rest of the state. However, for a nice hike with much easier going find the Lost Lake trail (the walking path is smooth and level). Take time to find the rock platform that overlooks the Des Moines River, and back on the trail you’ll shortly reach Lost Lake.
3. Pike’s Peak, McGregor
Pikes Peak State ParkMcGregor, United StatesProbably best views in the state (Mississippi River valley). Close to Effigy Mounds NHS and beautiful drive through the bluffs to get there. Not cornfields like you’re thinking. #hiking #camping
Ask anyone from the state where the best scenic views are, and they’ll probably say Pike’s Peak State Park. In 1805, Zebulon Pike explored the Mississippi Valley for possible sites of military posts, and this was his pick. He clearly got to a lot of places first, as he has one in Colorado named after him, too.
From the modern overlooks, you’ll get spectacular views of the Mississippi River, the town of McGregor, and the suspension bridge that connects Iowa to Wisconsin. You’ll also see the Wisconsin River empty into the Mississippi — there’s a lot of water here.
The hiking trails go past sheer limestone walls and also lead to Bridal Veil Falls. While at Pike’s Peak (the campground has 77 sites close to the bluffs), make plans to visit the nearby Effigy Mounds National Monument and Yellow River State Forest.
4. Waubonsie State Park, Hamburg
The southwest Iowa counterpart to Pike’s Peak, Waubonsie State Park is situated in the scenic Loess (pronounced “less”) Hills. The views of the Missouri River and countryside from the trails are unequaled in western Iowa. This park is also on the Lewis and Clark historic trail.
What’s unique to this park is the equestrian campground with 32 campsites and a separate trail for the horses. The trails for both hiking and horseback riding are equally scenic, winding down ridges into valleys and gorges.
5. Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa
With 16 caves to explore, hiking trails that lead you beneath the “Natural Bridge,” squeeze you past the 17 ton “Balanced Rock,” and alongside rugged limestone bluffs, this park can be as adventurous as you can make it.
But the caves are the star attraction here. From the 1100-foot Dancehall cave to Rainy Day cave and Ice Cave down to smaller ones that you have to crawl into, these caves are a minefield of things to do — especially for kids.
The hiking trails — with tons of wooden walkways — are beautiful in any season. Other features here are the campground with 29 sites, a circular stone picnic area with views of the valley, and an Interpretive Center. Grab a bright flashlight, some old clothes and shoes, and have yourself a modern-day adventure.
6. Lacey Keosaqua State Park, Keosauqua
We could talk about Lacey Keosaqua State Park being part of the Mormon Pioneer Trail, or that the park is the largest in Iowa at 1653 acres, or that it was named after Civil War officer Major John Lacey who is considered the father of the Iowa state park system, but what we’ll talk about is that this park may be the most beautiful state park in Iowa.
With 200-year-old oak trees providing shade and colorful plants and shrubs everywhere, this is the perfect place for a picnic and relaxing afternoon. The scenic tree-lined hiking trails follow the valleys and cliffs of the Des Moines River, and you’ll probably spot deer, raccoons, red foxes, gray squirrels, and many different birds.
There are six cabins and 76 campsites, a 30-acre lake with a beach, two lodges and two picnic shelters. Didn’t think you’d have to bring your water wings to Iowa, did you?
7. Palisades-Kepler State Park, Mount Vernon
The best state park near a major city, Palisades-Kepler is a few miles from Cedar Rapids and deservedly so gets a lot of visitors. The rolling hills and valleys are beautiful all year long but especially so in autumn. The park is ultra popular with photographers for senior and family photos — odds are on any hike you’ll run into a professional camera or two.
A long, scenic drive eventually brings you to the Cedar River. The bluffs of the river provide the path for the hiking trails, with WWII-era stone gazebos and scenic overlooks.
A unique feature of the park are the many small fossils to be found in rocks on the sandbar near the Cool Hollow Trail parking lot. A molar from a Mammoth was discovered here years ago — who knows what you’ll find today?
8. Lewis and Clark State Park, Onawa
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, carving out America’s frontier? Well, when you do, go to Lewis and Clark State Park. The expedition stopped on this exact spot on August 10, 1804. And now you can stand on an exact replica of their keelboat, though Sacajawea won’t be there to guide you.
The park is located 40 miles south of Sioux City and is on 250-acre Blue Lake (excellent fishing and swimming). There are nice hiking trails and it’s popular with families, especially — and history buffs, too, of course.