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Explore the Great Outdoors in Iowa

Don't overlook this Midwestern gem, which is full of spectacular surprises around every corner.

By Cary Estes on April 4, 2023

Sundown Mountain Resort in Dubuque
Sundown Mountain Resort

When you think of whitewater rafting, rock climbing and breathtaking views, there’s a Midwestern gem you may be overlooking – Iowa. This beautiful state offers numerous outdoor recreation opportunities to experience, including an expansive parks system.

“There is this network of parks in Iowa that really provides a great quality of life,” says Thomas Hazelton of Iowa’s County Conservation System. “We have 99 counties in Iowa, and there is a park board in each one. So no matter where you live, you have a local parks department working to provide natural areas and connecting trails.”

As a result, along with more than 80 state parks in Iowa, residents can enjoy a total of more than 2,000 county parks, city parks, natural areas and trails, many within a few hours driving distance from one another.

Factor in the recreational opportunities found along the state’s surprising number of waterways, and Iowa provides residents and visitors with a constant connection to the great outdoors.

Loess Hills State Forest in Pisgah

“No matter where you are in the state, you have access to these tremendous areas with water recreation, trails, cabins and campsites. It’s pretty amazing that all this is literally out your backdoor in every county.”

Thomas Hazelton, Iowa’s County Conservation System

Trails lead the way, with over 2,000 miles of them reaching all corners of the state. Highlights include the 89-mile Raccoon River Valley Trail (running northwest from Des Moines through 14 towns), the 68-mile Cedar Valley Nature Trail (Iowa’s first rail-trail, built in the early 1980s and linking Cedar Rapids to Evansdale), and several trails that connect to the crosscountry Great American Rail-Trail.

“The state legislature created (the County Conservation System) in the 1950s, and it’s done nothing but blossom and expand over the decades,” Hazelton says. “There’s been an awesome job done of tying together the parks with a trail network that shows off Iowa’s scenic beauty.”

Fishing is a popular pastime in Iowa.

Making Memories Along the Waters of Iowa

While Iowa might be well known for its land, water recreation has a prominent presence in the state as well. After all, two of America’s most prominent rivers help shape the state, with the Missouri River running along much of the western side of Iowa and the mighty Mississippi forming the eastern border.

“Don’t ever discount the magic of those rivers,” Hazelton says. “You have these beautiful small river towns that have done a great job of developing attractions and natural areas.”

For example, within a 50-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, you can enjoy both the endless fun at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark in Dubuque and the natural beauty along the numerous hiking trails at Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor.

In between the two border rivers are dozens of lakes scattered throughout the state. This includes the Iowa Great Lakes, a group of seven natural lakes in the northwestern part of the state with a combined 70 miles of shoreline.

Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone

Visitors flock to this region for boating, fishing and swimming, as well as the amenities found at such locales as Bridges Bay Resort and Fillenwarth Beach Resort.

Other popular destinations include Lake Red Rock outside Des Moines (Iowa’s largest lake with 15,000 acres of water) and Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs (part of Lake Manawa State Park, the state’s most visited park with nearly 3 million annual visitors).

And for something unexpected, Iowa offers three whitewater parks for kayaking, paddleboarding and leisurely tubing.

Charles City Whitewater runs along a 1,000-foot-long section of the Cedar River, Manchester Whitewater Park spans 1,200 feet of the Maquoketa River and Elkader Whitewater Park offers two wave features and a fish/canoe passage on the Turkey River.

“These communities took dams that no longer were serving a purpose and had them professionally converted into whitewater parks,” says Hannah Ray J, an Iowa native and outdoor enthusiast. “They saw the potential of returning recreation to the river, while also restoring natural aquatic habitat.”

“There are so many places like that in the state where people say, ‘This is Iowa? How cool is this?’” she says. “We have all sorts of hidden outdoor gems that you can discover.”

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is organized by The Des Moines Register and is known popularly as RAGBRAI.

Bicycling Across Iowa

Cycling for pleasure and sport is baked into the DNA of Iowa. A good example is the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, organized by The Des Moines Register, and known popularly as RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI is a seven-day event staged during the last full week of July that draws about 20,000 bicyclists who peddle across the state. The 2022 excursion spanned 462 miles. RAGBRAI celebrates its 50th anniversary in July 2023.

“It is the largest, oldest, longest weeklong touring event in the world,” says Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. “It’s like a state fair of bicycles. You ride at your own pace and have a really good time.”

Wyatt says cyclists who complete the entire state-long excursion have a tradition of dipping their front tire in the Missouri River on Iowa’s western border, then they dip their back tire in the Mississippi River on the state’s eastern border.

Ride the Wabash

One top bicycling destination is Wabash Trace Nature Trail, the first Iowa pathway to be voted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Wabash Trace spans 62 miles and passes through the counties of Fremont, Mills, Page and Pottawattamie in the southwestern corner of the state, and the pathway is made of crushed stone.

“Riders visit seven or eight cities across the state during the week, and every year features a different route,” he says. “Each day of RAGBRAI, there are bikes ahead of you as far as you can see, and bikes behind as far as you can see.”

But RAGBRAI is by no means the only way to harness your pedal power in Iowa. There are trails in larger cities like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, but also nice routes in rural communities such as Madrid, Sheldahl, Slater and Woodward.

“Iowa has a great trail system, with more than 2,000 miles of bike trails,” Wyatt says. “One of the most popular destinations is High Trestle Trail, a 25-mile stretch highlighted by a High Trestle Trail Bridge that measures a half mile long and is 13 stories tall. The bridge has beautiful artwork and is lit at night.”

Meanwhile, besides traditional bicycling, the state also has several excellent mountain-biking venues, including Creekside Park in Coralville, which hosts the annual Iowa Mountain Bike Festival in October.

“Iowa is an ideal state for bicycling,” Wyatt says. “There are so many beautiful places to get outdoors and just ride.”

MidAmerican Energy Company RecPlex in West Des Moines

Fitness Spotlight: The RecPlex

It is easy to be a good sport in West Des Moines, home to the 300,000-square-foot MidAmerican Energy Company RecPlex. The complex includes an indoor full-size turf field, four basketball courts, three pickleball courts, four baseball/softball batting cages and an E-sports center.

Also on-site are two indoor ice arenas: Abel Ice Arena, with seating capacity for 1,500; and Patty & Jim Cownie Family Ice Arena, which seats 350. The arenas include nine locker rooms, an officials’ room, state-of-the-art sound system, scoreboards and wireless internet.

The new RecPlex can accommodate ice hockey, soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, rugby, pickleball, curling, broomball and figure skating. There is also an athletic training area, a physical therapy center, adaptive sports for athletes with disabilities and three outdoor turf fields.

RecPlex officials say the complex greatly increases year-round access to sports programs for a growing youth community and several adult leagues. In addition, multipurpose space is available that can be used for corporate meetings, smaller conventions and trade shows.

Officials add that the RecPlex will deliver a major economic benefit to the area by drawing visitors for sports tournaments staged there.

West Des Moines has many hotels to accommodate visitors as well as several restaurants and retailers located only minutes from the complex.

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