5 Favorite Campgrounds Across Iowa

By Jessica Graham

When summer rolls around, campers emerge and begin looking for new camping destinations. Some stunning campgrounds are hidden across Iowa and closer to home than some may realize. Camping is an activity that will fit you, regardless of you interests and current chapter in life. And since the Covid pandemic, camping and finding respite outdoors has been as popular as ever. For a beautiful destination, check out these 5 campgrounds located in Iowa.

1.) Ledges State Park
Located near central Iowa, Ledges State Park has been an Iowa favorite since its original debut in 1924. Since it is one of Iowa’s oldest state park, it is packed with history and is a must-see for those interested in viewing historical areas. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal and aided in employing Americans who were out of work due to the Great Depression. The CCC used surrounding materials found in the timber and bluffs to create a stone bridge, stone steps, and various shelters (www.boonecounty.iowa.gov).

The park is a favorite for hikers, and thanks to the efforts of the CCC, the stone steps make hiking possible for kids and older adults as well. While hiking through Ledges State Park, you can enjoy views of the Des Moines River and will climb steep rocky bluffs. The views showcase some of the prettiest views Iowa has to offer. The campgrounds are clean and offer access to water and modern facilities. Camping at Ledges State Park is a necessity for hikers and history enthusiasts.

2.) Preparation Canyon State Park
In western Iowa, you will find a natural phenomenon found only in the Midwest and China, the Loess Hills. Loess is a collection of soil particles deposited by wind. It is highly fertile, and highly erodible. The Loess Hills State Forest comprises over 11,000 acres, and Preparation Canyon State Park is approximately 344 acres of the forest (Iowadnr.gov).

Preparation Canyon State Park is for serious hikers, as you must hike to your campsites, driving is not permitted to them. Ten campsites have a table and fire ring, there are some shelter houses, but the campsite lacks modern facilities. Throughout the park, you will find hiking trails, scenic overlooks and beautiful landscape. At Preparation Canyon State Park you can view a pleasant mixture of prairie, timbers, and river bottoms. Hikers can enjoy these view as they hike over the 60 miles of trails located through out the State Park and State Forest. Maps of the hiking trails can be found by visiting the Iowa DNR website (Iowadnr.gov).

3.) Elk Rock State Park
For some Iowans, camping revolves around finding a big lake and enjoying the water with friends and family. Lake Red Rock, located in southern Iowa, is Iowa’s largest lake. For the boating family, this is one of the best lakes to go skiing and tubing on since it is so large. Jet skis and sail boats often frequent the lake as well. For anglers, lots of coves offer ample fishing opportunities and several boat ramps are available for use. The lake is truly set up for the whole family to enjoy some time on the water.

If you enjoy horses and trail riding, Elk Rock State Park has an equine only campground. The campground has a hitching post to which horses can be tied, as well as horse stalls. Shelter houses are available as well as fire rings for enjoyment. Both the equine campground and regular campground have electric and non-electric sites with modern bathrooms, showers and facilities. Seventy-five percent of the campsites can be reserved, but the remaining are non-reservable. The lake truly has a lot to offer campers and is a spot the whole family can enjoy together (Iowadnr.gov).

4.) Backbone State Park
Like Ledges State Park, Backbone state park was established in the 1920s and the CCC worked on creating structures for public use in the 1930s. Primitive areas still exist with non-electric camping and pit latrines for campers. Through out the state park, there are 21 miles of hiking trails available for use for hikers and bikers. Because of Iowa’s limestone, climbing and rappelling is scarce in Iowa. However, these activities are commonly practiced in Backbone State Park. The park has rocky cliffs towering over 80 feet tall. One of the highest points in Iowa can be found in Backbone State Park.

Anglers and fly fishermen recognize Backbone as one of the best areas for trout fishing. Trophy sized brown trout thrive in Richmond Springs. Brook trout and the beautiful rainbow trout are also common throughout the stream. The tricky part is catching them. There is generally easy access to the stream and a pair of waders can help fly fishermen travel through the water. Backbone is a beautiful park pack full of adventure for the family (Iowadnr.gov/dnr/fishing.where-to-fish/trout-streams/stream-details?lakecode=TRS28).

5.) Maquoketa Caves State Park
In eastern Iowa, you will find Maquoketa Caves State Park. The park offers camping with both electric non-electric campsites with modern showers available. The natural geological terrain of the area is the most notable attraction for campers. Some of the more famous attractions include a natural bridge overlooking a creek and a huge rock balanced on a rock formation.

Wooden walkways allow tourists to travel form cave to cave, and other trails are available throughout the state park. The walkway makes cave exploring leisurely for kids and older adults, so the whole family can enjoy a relaxing walk through the caves. While some caves are shallow, others take tourists deep into the limestone bedrock and have been equipped with lighting for convenience. Iowans should explore the natural caves and geological formations located in our state and Maquoketa Caves State Park allows families to camp and explore Iowa’s largest cave system (Iowadnr.gov/places-to-go/state-Parks/Iowa-State-Parks/ParkDetails/ParkID/610127).

Iowa offers a plethora of hidden camping spots. There is much to explore and an endless amount of activities to enjoy. Whether you are looking for a place to hike, horse-back ride, bike, or swim, Iowa offers opportunities for Iowans to enjoy the outdoors together. Iowa parks are often overlooked, but you can enjoy a variety of geography from rocky bluffs, to caves and loess hills without leaving the comforts of the state.