Iowa’s state parks


It’s the time of year when I just can’t wait to dust off my hiking boots and head outside. Actually, it’s usually earlier than this time of year when I get that feeling, but we’ve had a crazy-cold, wet spring that’s really looked and felt a lot like winter.

Even today, when I went for a short hike at Ledges State Park (above), the woods look pretty much the same as the last time I saw them – in November. The trees are still in hibernation, but you get the feeling that we’re just on the cusp of spring. In another couple of weeks, I’m sure there will be wild flowers and budding trees.

Iowa has a fine system of state parks. I know that the state has been criticized for not spending more money to acquire new land and for not maintaining the current parks well enough, but I think they’re pretty great. Spring and fall are the best times to visit, in my opinion. The summers are too crowded, too hot, too buggy, and too humid.

I haven’t visited nearly all of the state parks, but I definitely have my favorites:



Ledges is the state park closest to my home in Ames, and boy am I lucky. It’s a fantastic place in which to disappear. I love hiking the wooded trails, climbing to overlooks, and walking into the canyon. I’m not a fan of walking across the streams on the concrete boulders; I’m always sure I’ll fall in. But if you want to walk the length of the canyon, you’ve gotta cross the boulders.

Ledges was one of the first parks in the Iowa state parks system, opening in 1924. Go there to camp, hike the 13 miles of trails, or picnic in one of the many shelters.


I’ve spent many, many happy hours walking the bike trails at Big Creek State Park. It’s popular park due to its proximity to Des Moines and its large recreational lake. The bike trails through the park are part of the 91-mile Central State Park Bike Route and also connect, through Saylorville, to downtown Des Moines.

Go to Big Creek for boating, fishing, picnicking, biking, or walking.


Located in eastern Iowa near Strawberry Point, Backbone State Park was dedicated in 1920, making it Iowa’s first state park. Backbone is named for its narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the Maquoketa River. Folklore named this high ridge of rock the “Devil’s Backbone.” I have only hiked in Backbone a few times because it’s none too close to Ames, but it’s worth the drive. Besides really great hiking, you can also fish, swim, boat, climb, picnic, camp, or stay in one of the park’s cabins. Cyclists will enjoy the bike path that is part of the 130-mile Northeast State Park Bike Route.



I visited Swan Lake most recently last May and posted a blog about my experience there. The best thing about Swan Lake, to me, is the wonderful walking/biking trail around the entire perimeter of the 110-acre lake.

Though it is a state park, Swan Lake is managed by the Carroll County Conservation Board. The park is located just south of the town of Carroll. The park features a Conservation Education Center, shelter houses, a large cabin you can rent, and a campground with more than 100 sites. The campground always seems enormous to me; I park my car nearby, walk around the lake, and when I get back to the campground I think I’m almost back to my car. But it’s still a long walk!


Springbrook State Park seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s really only about an hour west of Des Moines. I’ve gone to Springbrook to hike a couple of times – there are 12 miles of trails. Others might want to camp in the large campground (120 campsites, 81 with electrical hook-ups), swim, boat, or fish. Like Big Creek, bike trails in Springbrook are part of the 91-mile Central State Park Bike Route.


Pine Lake is another of my favorite parks, just up I-35 from Ames and east across Hwy. 20 (near Steamboat Rock and Eldora) – I can get there in an hour. As with many of the state parks, a lake is obviously the centerpiece of Pine Lake. It’s really gorgeous, with lots of water fowl when I’ve been up there. As always, I just like to hike and walk the trails, and there are plenty of them. But there’s also a lodge, campground, cabins, and a connection to yet another bike trail: the Lake-to-Lake State Park Bike Route. If I biked, I think I would really love to try out these trails.

If you go, be sure to stop at Eldora for a milkshake at the Ahoy Fountain on the square. It’s like a step back in time — in a good way.



And finally, there’s Pikes Peak State Park (not to be confused with Pikes Point State Park, also in Iowa), located near McGregor on the Mississippi River. My first encounter with Pikes Peak was in peak fall foliage season, and the entire place was gridlock. There were about 10 cars to every parking place. You couldn’t get in or out. Not my idea of fun. So I went back the next morning and had the place to myself. I also had one of the most spectacular views of anywhere I’ve ever visited in Iowa: fog rising off the Mississippi River, its banks covered with red-leafed trees. I wrote about my visit in this blog.

Besides the incredible view, Pikes Peak has hiking trails, camping, and picnic shelters. The bike trail connects with the Northeast State Park Bike Route (along with Backbone). If you go, be sure to also visit Effigy Mounds National Monument, with more hiking, more views, and a unique piece of Native American history.


Iowa has about 70 state parks and state recreation areas. I’ve visited several more: Lake of Three Fires, Stephens State Forest, Palisades-Kepler, Lacy Keosauqua, Lake Ahquabi, and Lake Anita all come to mind as pleasant spots to take a walk. There are many more I’d like to visit – Mines of Spain, Waubonsie, Honey Creek – and others that, frankly, I just don’t know very much about. Someday I’d like to visit them all.


1 comment so far

  1. Ellen Frantzen on

    If you haven’t visited the Maquoketa Caves State Park 7 miles from Maquoketa, Iowa then you will be in for a big treat. There are 13 caves to explore along with campgrounds, hiking trails and a visitor center. It is one of the most beautiful state parks in Iowa-beautiful wild flowers in the spring, cool caves and hiking paths in the hot summer, and beautiful colored leaves in the fall.

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