The state of Iowa might best be known for its cornfields, but amidst all that agriculture is also some premier natural spaces and designated hiking trails. Expect to find some big views and steady inclines on Iowa hikes, as well as sandstone bluffs and limestone cliffs, plus flora, fauna and plenty of colorful foliage. Whether you are an experienced outdoors-person, or you’re looking to tackle your first hike, Iowa has something for you. So get your compass pointing in the right direction and check out these 15 best hiking trails in Iowa.
In total, Backbone State Park has over 21 miles of multi-use trails to explore, but while you are there, it’s essential to traverse the 0.84-mile Backbone Trail which takes you to one of the tallest spots in the state of Iowa, providing some of the biggest views you’ll ever see in the Hawkeye State. After you nab that quintessential Backbone Trail, be sure to spend some time exploring everything else offered in Backbone State Park.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is one of four National Park Units within the state of Iowa, and offers some of the best views of the Mississippi Valley anywhere in the country. On the 3.5-mile Eagle Rock Trail (one-way), you will not only pass alongside limestone outcroppings and access amazing overlooks of the Mighty Mississippi, but you’ll see the Native-American Effigy Mounds, large rock outcroppings precisely laid out over a millennium ago, that give this significant cultural landmark it namesake.
Whether you go to the Crow’s Nest Loop Trail or the Table Rock Trail and Inspiration Point at Ledges State Park, which you should really do both, you’ll quickly see why this is one of the most popular State Parks in Iowa. Featuring elevation you’d never expect to see in Iowa, everything within the total four miles of trails at Ledges State Park will leave you with a long gaze and unbeatable views of sandstone gorges.
Situated within the wild and scenic Loess Hills State Forest of Iowa, Preparation State Park hosts many of its multi-use, cross-country skiing and hiking trails for you to explore. Not only do the Loess Hills provide dramatic ridge features to hike on and supple water sources to sip from, but Preparation State Park itself has a unique history as well, once being an entire Mormon settled township, until inner-turmoil tore the community apart.
For some of the best caves you can find in the state of Iowa, look no further than Maquoketa Caves State Park on the eastern side of the state. With over six miles of trail in total, the eastern portion of the trail system gives access to the amazing and plentiful caves found in the park, including the 50-foot tall, lighted and graded, Natural Bridge cave that anyone can easily walk through.
Pikes Peak State Park is just seven miles downriver from Effigy Mounds National Monument, and offers rivaled views atop great bluffs overlooking the Mighty Mississippi River. It’s worth exploring all 11 miles of trails at Pikes Peak, including the Weeping Rock Trail and the Chinquapin Trail, but for the exemplary experience of Pikes Peak State Park, head for the Point Ann Trail which will lead to you the top of a 500-foot bluff with sweeping views of the Eastern Iowa countryside and Mississippi River.
The 21-mile trail system at Mines of Spain State Park in Dubuque are designated as a National Recreational Trail, and includes trails for all abilities and hiking experience. If you want something a little low-key but with great views, Mines of Spain offers over 10 nature walks with low incline, including the snapshot-worthy, three-quarter-mile Horseshoe Bluff Trail. If you want a little more of a challenge, and a lot more solidarity in the beautiful Mines of Spain State Park, the 3.5-mile Eagle Scout Trail will be more of what you’re looking for.
For another way to explore the Loess Hills of Iowa and some of the largest natural prairie remnants in the state, the entire 10-mile trail system within the Hitchcock Nature Center provides some of the most peaceful hiking you’ll find anywhere in the Midwest. Maybe it’s the way the prairie grass sways in the wind, or the magnificent colors found throughout the 1,200+ acre Hitchcock Nature Center, but something about the Loess Hills will always have you coming back for more.
Dedicated in 1929, Pine Lake State Park in Eldora is one of the oldest State Parks in Iowa, and although much of the geography has subtly changed over the years (including the loss of many great pines in a 2009 hailstorm), the trails have always offered a great way to view the natural landscape surrounding the Iowa River. The Pine Lake Recreational Trail is a multi-use path that will take you throughout the entire park, but if you want a great single-use hiking trail and amazing view of the lake itself, the 1.4-mile South Trail is right for you.
Wildcat Den is one of the top gems in the Iowa State Park systems, combining an abundance of natural beauty and historical artifacts into an engaging outdoor experience. The single trail in Wildcat Den State Park, the four-mile Wildcat Den Trail, takes you past picture-worthy outdoor features such as the Devil’s Punchbowl and Fat Man’s Squeeze, as well as historical fixtures like the 1848 Pine Creek Grist Mill, one of the last mid-19th century mills left standing in the country.
While backpacking trips aren’t as common in the state of Iowa like they are out west, thanks to the Yellow River State Forest Backpacking Trail, you can get a healthy dose of “getting away from it all” without having to leave state lines. With over 25 miles of marked trails available, and plenty of room to camp overnight, whether you are planning and testing out for a bigger trip, or you’re just looking to touch back in with nature, the Backpacking Trail in the Yellow River State Forest will lead you the right way.
For a heavy abundance of multi-use trails, the Brushy Creek State Recreation Area in the North-Central Iowa has you covered. With over 45 miles of trails, all open to hiking, cross-country skiing, mountain biking and snowmobiling, it will take you more than a weekend to explore them all. An ambitious place to start is the Lake Trail, a 14-mile trek that takes you along the entire perimeter of the Brushy Creek Lake.
Lake Macbride is a popular place year-round with bird-watchers, bicyclist and snowshoes sharing many of the trails. Among the most popular trail, and arguably the most scenic, is the 4.7-mile North Shore Trail which connects the park’s entrance to the town of Solon. On this scenic path, you can expect great views of the water, probably some company, and a reminder of why life in Eastern Iowa is always good.
Palisades-Kepler State Park in the eastern portion of Iowa is centered upon the Cedar River, which gives this outdoor space much of its character and dramatic views. The 1.4-mile Cedar Cliff Trail is the best way to see all that Palisades-Kepler has to offer including deep river bluffs, an array of wildlife and the steady-moving currents of the Cedar River.
Serving as a sight on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Waubonsie State Park not only serves as a border between Iowa and Nebraska, it showcases the beauty that can be found in Southwestern Iowa. With eight miles of equestrian, multi-use trails available, plus seven miles dedicated to single-use hiking only, you won’t be disappointed whichever direction you go. A good place to start however? The 1.4-mile Sunset Ridge Trail loop that gives you some of the best views in the whole park.