Iowa’s Hidden Gem: Water Trails

By Ben Leal

Iowans are blessed with some of the richest and abundant fishing, hunting, hiking, boating and canoeing opportunities in the country. We can cross this state from north to south, east to west in about four hours. Any activity you’d like to participate in is easily accessible in a short drive. Enjoying Iowa’s water trails are no exception; 18,000 miles of navigable streams await exploration by curious paddlers from across the state.

What is a Water Trail
Water Trails are recreational corridors and routes on rivers and lakes that provide a unique experience to all water users. There are networks of public access points supported by broad-based community partnerships. Water trails provide both conservation and recreational opportunities. They help re-connect Iowans to their waterways’ history, heritage, geology, fisheries, and wildlife. Water trails provide adequate access and can include amenities like riverside camping, wild spaces, picnic areas, restrooms, and watercraft rentals provided by local, state, and federal partners. Coordinated signage and mapping systems guide users toward the types of experiences they seek, ranging from a highly social first-time river experience lasting a few hours to multi-day adventures.

Water trail partners at the local level are encouraged to steward the natural and economic values of their waterways to help boost local economies and give Iowans outdoor experiences just out their back doors. Iowa DNR water trails staff lead through setting standards for planning requirements, providing funding and technical assistance, and maintaining the framework of the overall system.

“The DNR’s Water Trails Program started in 2005”, noted Iowa DNR Water Trails Coordinator John Wenck. “The Iowa DNR hired Nate Hoogeveen (now the river programs coordinator) as the water trails coordinator. There was only one person, and the program only had a budget of $50,000, which was used for water trail project mini-grants that averaged around $7,000 each–not a lot of money”. There wasn’t any standardization, except for a water trail logo signs. As a result, there were inconsistent approaches applied and no maintenance requirements. In 2008 the low-head dam mitigation program was started with a separate budget of roughly $1M. Now Hoogeveen was responsible for both programs and was able to hire two more people.

“In 2008 the legislature appropriated $250,000 for a statewide water trails plan, which produced three publications in 2011: Water Trails Statewide Plan, Water Trails Development Manual, and The Dams Plan. The development manual is crucial for water trails development, as it offers standardization for signage, building accesses, and parking areas, etc. I was hired in 2010 to implement the water trails plan”, added Wenck.

The funding has fluctuated over time and right now the Iowa DNR river and water trail programs are only getting $500,000 in total for both. “The key to sustaining decent water trails across the state is having a maintenance and management agreement, so when high water events drop tons of silt on boat ramps or destroy signs, there is a contingency plan and expectation that water trail infrastructure will be maintained to the level agreed to in the agreement. We are an active partner even after the water trail is developed”, continued the coordinator.

The Water Trail Development Process
There is quite a bit of extensive information on the development process, however here’s a quick snapshot of the process in general. For more information and details visit

Listening and gathering information – A water trail begins by listening to the folks that need to be heard. Landowners that are adjacent to proposed water trails, economic and tourism interests, conservation and recreational agencies along with law enforcement, emergency management, local business owners and the local public.

Assessment and analysis – All comments and concerns are taken into consideration along with an analysis of the framework. This the point where a decision is made to either move forward or back away from the proposed water trail.

Developing the vision of the water trail – A local steering committee establishes a vision using the information provided in the previous steps. The committee focuses on the advantages and opportunities the water trail represents and solving problems as needed.

These are but a few of the steps that are taken in the water trail development process. Additionally, there will be steps taken to determine who will manage the water trail and how, developing the water trail plan, early implementation, designation, and long-range implementation and management.

What do these water trails offer
Water trails offer river users a fairly consistent look and feel they can come to expect across the state. For paddlers and anglers, accesses will likely be maintained a bit better than non-water trail accesses. “The Iowa DNR maintains an online interactive paddling map that gets updated frequently”, added Wenck. “All the dams that we are aware of are also added to the map, along with portage trails around the dams if there are any.”

The interactive map also allows for directional navigation between access points so you can figure out your shuttle route, or use access points as destinations. Should you choose to do so, you can figure out the driving time and mileage of your entire trip. To view the interactive map visit the Iowa DNR website at

Water trails offer, in many cases, some solitude and a way to get “away” from it all. Whether you’re an angler or a canoeing/kayaking enthusiast, these water trails provide ample opportunities to reconnect with nature. “When we plan water trails we try to benefit as many user groups as possible,” continues Wenck. “For instance in large population areas or at access points where there is heavy use, we recommend gateway style accesses that include places for anglers to fish (angler accesses) a distance away from where the boats are launching. We also recommend separating motor boat ramps from canoe/kayak carry-down launches in order to minimize user conflicts. We also incorporate universal design whereby we try hard to make our projects as accessible as possible for folks who are less mobile.”

Paddlers are probably by far the largest group of users of the water trails here in Iowa. The Iowa DNR does have some paddle craft campsites located across the State where the campsites can only be accessed from a waterbody. Anglers are the second biggest group of users and the Iowa DNR tries to incorporate angler access at boat ramps or carry down sites at some of the higher volume areas. “If there are bike or hiking trails nearby we look to cross-promote use”, says Wenck. “In some areas bike trails run right along water trails and some people like to incorporate both sports by locking their bike up at the take out, driving up to the put-in and paddling down to their bike, then riding back to their car. It’s a nice workout that incorporates both upper and lower body.”

Iowa’s outdoor recreational resources abound and are easily accessed. If you’ve never considered getting into canoeing or kayaking then maybe this is your stepping stone. Along with a considerable amount of information for water trail users, the Iowa DNR’s website also has a list of canoe and kayak schools to help get you started. Many of Iowa county conservation boards also offer introductory classes into canoeing and kayaking.

“We work closely with local land managers along water trails to solve problems they may be experiencing. Just in the past two weeks, we’ve purchased four hazard signs to post at access points to alert water trail users of dangerous conditions downstream. We also work to solve other issues related to maintenance, problem users, etc. Once a waterway becomes a state-designated water trail, we give it our full attention”, concluded Wenck.

Iowa’s water trail system is still a work in process and will continue to grow, it is sort of a hidden gem that our great state offers. So if you are up for something different or want to add some excitement to your fishing and/or camping ventures take a look at planning a water trail excursion on the over 18,000 miles of routes Iowa has to offer. For planning and route details make sure you visit the Iowa DNR website: You will find everything you need to know about the trails from difficulty, trail condition or any special announcements, water levels and flow, trail amenities, distance, entrance points, type of trail, nearby towns, etc. The site even has an online safety course as well as information on live courses on how to kayak and canoe.

Remember to always be prepared for changing conditions, tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return should you venture out on your own. The Iowa DNR does an incredible job maintaining these trails, but it’s also up to us as users to help with managing these resources. Pack out what you pack in and even if it’s not yours, pick it up and bring it out. Happy Trails!