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Get Outside in Iowa

Iowa’s parks, waterways and trails provide residents and visitors with a constant connection to the great outdoors.

By Winona Dimeo-Ediger on January 5, 2021

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Iowa / Catch Des Moines

Imagine, for a moment, a few scenes:

You hike to the top of an overlook on a crisp autumn afternoon, taking in the view of endless miles of golden forest. 

You stand in the sparkling water of a canyon stream and cast your line.

You hop on your bike after work and ride the winding trails out of the city to a small-town brewery with a river view.

Any guesses where you are?

The answer is a place you’re probably not expecting, a place that’s eager to surprise you. 

This is Iowa

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Iowa / Bill Nellans/IEDA

When it comes to natural resources, Iowa may be well-known for its tapestries of cornfields, but according to Brian Button, editor-in-chief of Iowa Outdoors, it usually just takes one visit to open people’s minds – and get them hooked.

“We don’t have mountain ranges or oceans,” he says. “But when it comes to natural resources, there are entry points for people around the country to come to the state.”

Visitors might be lured in by a hunting or fishing trip or to take part in one of Iowa’s famous bike rides, but once they experience the scope of Iowa’s natural beauty for themselves, they can’t wait to explore more. 

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Even Iowa natives are sometimes taken aback at the diversity of the landscape here. Button says when he visits the region of northeast Iowa known as “the driftless area,” he often meets locals staring in awe at the stunning terrain of valleys, canyons and caves. 

“They say, ‘I can’t believe this is Iowa!'” he says.

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Iowa / Bill Nellans/IEDA

State Parks Mean Nature For All

While Iowa has a well-deserved reputation as a leader in agriculture, the state’s farming history means people here are more connected to the natural world.

“For Iowans, because of the agricultural heritage, the culture is more deeply tied to the land,” Button says.

In an effort to honor this bond and ensure its natural beauty can be experienced for generations to come, Iowa established one of the most expansive and beloved state park systems in the U.S.

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“In 1920, Iowa dedicated our first state park,” Button says. “And by the 1930s, we had more state parks than any other state and emerged as a leader in the state park movement.”

Easy access to Iowa’s state parks helps weave them into the fabric of life here, and the same goes for Iowa’s waterways. With the Mississippi River flowing through the eastern part of the state, and hundreds of cities and towns built around lakes and rivers, Button says the state’s waterways are highly used by Iowans. And as word gets out about the kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and fly-fishing opportunities in Iowa, more and more visitors are making these natural resources part of their lives, too.

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Iowa / Courtesy of Greater Burlington Partnership

Take a Ride Across Iowa

Cycling is another outdoor activity that enriches locals’ daily lives and draws thousands of visitors to Iowa each year. Iowa boasts more than 1,800 miles of bike trails, bolstered by a welcoming, enthusiastic cycling community. 

“There are many places across the U.S. that have tried to replicate the Iowa bicycling culture and just haven’t succeeded,” says Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. “The real secret to our success is Iowans themselves. There are trail destinations that welcome bicyclists with open arms. Thousands of volunteers step up to help their local communities during RAGBRAI. It is really the people that bring joy to bicycling in Iowa.” 

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While RAGBRAI, which stands for The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is the state’s most famous cycling event, drawing roughly 10,000 cyclists annually, it only represents a fraction of cycling’s $364.8 million contribution to Iowa’s economy.

“While we might be known for RAGBRAI, the trail networks are also a huge draw to the state,” Wyatt says. “Trails draw bike consumer spending into smaller towns.”

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Iowa / Catch Des Moines

Four Times the Fun

Iowans may experience cold weather – the average winter temperature is 21 degrees – but as Button notes, dramatic seasonal shifts are one of the state’s best assets when it comes to experiencing the magic of its outdoors.

“You get to see all of your favorite outdoor places go through four gorgeously different seasons,” he says. “You see the forest floor alive with ephemeral flowers in spring; the deep intense greens in the summer; the bright warm colors in the fields and prairies in autumn; and the crisp, brilliant white layer of snow sparkling in the winter. To see places change so dramatically four times a year, it’s almost like we have four times the places we really do.”

If you’d like to learn more about Iowa, check out the latest edition of This is Iowa

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