Iowa’s Top Six Hiking Trails

By Candace Weis

Some of the best times to be had are exploring the outdoors. When most people think of wilderness and exploration they picture Yellowstone or Yosemite. However, it seems the more famous the park, the more people observe from within climate controlled cars. Like a drive-through zoo, people are missing out on the true majesty of the outdoors. Maybe it’s the size that frightens them or the unknown.

Iowa’s landscape does not awe an audience from within cars. Here you have to make an effort to connect with the natural world. Many of our state’s parks offer hiking trails for the beginner or the expert. All hold a chance to see things you’ve never witnessed before in your life. You just have to get out there and discover them.

Brushy Creek
Length: 50 Miles
Size: 6,000 Acres
Trail use: Hiking, Equestrian, Mountain Biking, and Cross country Skiing
Location: Webster County, IA
The name Brushy Creek is somewhat deceiving. The main attraction is in fact a man-made lake. Bare, sculpture-like trees emerge from the water along the banks. There’s evidence of what was once a creek bed outlined in towering trunks. Through the woods and around the hills are extensive multiuse trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross country skiing. All 50 miles of path are very well maintained for all uses.
The scenery around Brushy Creek is impressive, with trails taking your from the creeks’ confluence with the Des Moines River, all the way up to the North head of the park where the creek flows into the beautiful clear water lake. Brushy Creek is the largest equestrian park in Iowa and you could ride horseback or hike all day long without seeing the same patch of trail twice if you so desired.

Backbone State Park
Length: 21 miles
Size: 2,001 acres
Trail use: Hiking, Mountain Biking, Cross country Skiing
Location: Delaware county, IA
Backbone State Park is the oldest state park in Iowa. Stone shelters, bridges and trail stairs constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps still remain. The dolomite/limestone ridges make for a very unique Iowa experience. Rock ledges adorned with plant life and cedars crisscross the hiking trails. A stocked trout stream flows through the valley fed by Richmond Springs which is one of the only locations in Iowa where visitors to a public park can see the beginning of a native Iowa spring fed stream. Anglers from all over the state come to enjoy the prospect of catching brown, rainbow and brook trout.
Backbone also has some amazing rock formations and caves that have been carved out of the limestone cliffs by water and erosion over time. This park is a photographers dream with abundant flora and fauna and interesting landscape features. It truly feels like you aren’t in Iowa while hiking through the hills of Backbone.
Yellow River State Forest
Length: 25 miles
Size: 8,503 acres
Trail use: Hiking, Horseback riding, Cross Country Skiing
Location: Allamakee county, IA
In this “driftless area” glaciation has not smoothed out the land like much of Iowa. Instead deep canyons and limestone rock faces remain. Yellow River State Park has been rated as one of the top 50 backpacking destinations in the United States. Steep terrain and winding trails make this a great getaway close to home. With over 8,000 acres to roam there’s plenty of plants and wildlife to encounter along the way. Other ways to enjoy the trails include trout fishing, horseback riding, and cross country skiing.
The campgrounds of Yellow River State Forest are well kept, nestled in amongst high hills and bluffs where the stars at night are bright and the whippoorwill’s song will put you to bed. This park is the ideal place for a family excursion or the adventuresome hiker and fisherman.

Ledges State Park
Length: 13 miles
Size: 1,200 acres
Trail use: Hiking
Location: Boone county, IA
People have been visiting Ledges State Park for over 4,000 years and early natives saw the beauty in the wind swept sandstone canyon. Now named Pea’s Creek Canyon, there are over 13 miles of trails to explore including scenic overlooks to the valley below. A creek winds through the valley and across the road where multiple picnic areas are set up. Above the canyon there is a campground with both primitive and camper hookups. Or for the more adventurous camper there are a handful of hike in campsites.
Ledges is nestled along the banks of the beautiful Des Moines River and offers explorers a chance to see more than just the unique landscape. A canoe access and artifact hunting opportunities abound in this little corner of the Des Moines River Greenbelt, not to mention world class fishing for catfish, smallmouth bass and walleye. Hikers will find many things to explore including a hidden pond on the south end of the park.

Pikes Peak State Park
Length: Size: 960 acres
Trail use: Hiking and Mountain biking
Location: Clayton county, IA
Pikes Peak State Park is similarly named after the famous park in Colorado. Although you will not find intimidating rock faces here, there are beautiful limestone formations untouched by glaciation. Fossil remains of brachiopods, gastropods, and cephalopods can be seen along the Decorah limestone. Trails to platforms and a 500 foot bluff provide spectacular views of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. You can also visit “Bridal Veil Falls,” a natural spring located on the trail system.

Maquoketa Caves State Park
Length: 6 miles
Size: 323 acres
Trail use: Hiking
Location: Jackson county, IA
Maquoketa Caves State Park contains the largest number of caves of any state park in Iowa. The curious formations can be accessed by walking or crawling. The “Dance Hall” cave includes walkways and lighting, while other caves will require you to bring a flashlight of your own. Other interesting formations include the 17 ton “Balancing Rock” and above Raccoon Creek the “Natural Bridge” towering over 50 feet. These sights combined make for one of the most geologically interesting hikes in Iowa.
Iowa is not known for its hiking appeals yet many do not even realize the abundance of beautiful trails in Iowa that offer just that. From novice to expert, there are places for everyone to enjoy and get out to see the true native Iowa landscape. Instead of driving hours upon hours to reach more “classic” hiking destinations in a far away state, plan a trip alone or with friends and family to explore one of these cool locations on our own home turf. You may just be surprised to find that Iowa becomes unlike itself in ways that only exploration can discover.