As travelers, we often seek the thrill of adventure and the experience of exploring new destinations. While often overlooked as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, Iowa boasts a surprising variety of backpacking spots, from rolling hills to pristine lakeshores.

n this article, we’ll explore some of the best backpacking destinations Iowa has to offer, including the scenic Loess Hills. Whether you’re an experienced backpacker or a beginner looking for a new challenge, Iowa’s natural beauty and diverse terrain offer something for everyone.

Why Backpacking in Iowa is Worth Exploring

Just like many places in the US, Iowa has its fair share of stunning natural beauty and a variety of trails that are worth exploring. Here are a few reasons why backpacking in Iowa is worth considering:

  1. Scenic Trails: Iowa is home to several scenic trails that wind through native hardwood forests, limestone bluffs, and along trout-stocked streams. These trails offer breathtaking views and opportunities to immerse yourself in nature.
  2. Abundant Wildlife: While backpacking in Iowa, you may encounter a variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, squirrels, and a wide range of bird species. The chance to see and appreciate these creatures in their natural habitat is an unforgettable experience.
  3. Peace and Solitude: Iowa’s backpacking spots are often less crowded than popular hiking destinations, allowing you to enjoy a sense of peace and solitude in the great outdoors. These trails offer a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
  4. Unique Landscapes: From deep sandstone canyons to rolling hills and prairies, Iowa offers a diverse range of landscapes for backpackers to explore. Each trail offers its unique features and scenery, ensuring a new and exciting experience with every adventure.

To learn more about the best backpacking spots in Iowa, continue reading our comprehensive guide below.

Mississippi River in Iowa

Yellow River State Forest

Overview of Yellow River State Forest

Yellow River State Forest is a hidden gem for backpackers in Iowa. Located around 2 hours from Cedar Rapids, this forest offers a peaceful and secluded environment for outdoor enthusiasts. It spans over 24.59 miles of challenging trails that are suitable for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. The forest is mostly known for its lush greenery, beautiful creeks, and diverse wildlife.

Trails and Camping Options

Yellow River State Forest offers a variety of trails and camping options for backpackers:

Backpack Trail: This 25-mile loop is the main attraction for backpackers in the forest. It features several steep segments, making it suitable for experienced hikers. Remote camping is available in designated areas along the trail, and the sites are large and dispersed, ensuring privacy and a tranquil camping experience.

Forester Trail: This trail is part of the Backpack Trail and covers a distance of over a mile. It offers a gentle incline and is a good option for those who are not ready for a challenging hike.

Brown’s Hollow Trail: Brown’s Hollow Trail is a scenic trail that offers a gentle climb of approximately 300 feet. It passes through Camp John Shultz and leads to Fire Tower Road, where it merges with another section of the trail. This trail is ideal for families with young children or beginners.

Fire Tower Trail: Fire Tower Trail is a rocky trail that ascends quickly from Donahue Road. It offers panoramic views of the forest and is shared by hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers.

Yellow River State Forest provides remote camping areas, and most of the sites are within a half-mile of trailhead parking areas. The absence of crowded campsites ensures a peaceful and serene camping experience. Camping and parking are free in the forest.

So, if you’re planning a backpacking trip in Iowa, Yellow River State Forest should be at the top of your list. Its challenging trails, beautiful scenery, and peaceful camping options make it a perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Loess Hills State Forest

The Loess Hills State Forest is an excellent place for backpacking enthusiasts in Iowa. Located near the state’s western border in Harrison and Monona counties, this unique forest offers stunning natural beauty and a rugged outdoor experience. Here’s what you need to know about exploring Loess Hills State Forest:

Loess Hills State Forest

Exploring Loess Hills State Forest

  • The forest spans 11,484 acres across four units: Preparation Canyon, Loess Hills, Whiskey Creek, and Mondamin. Each unit offers its own distinct landscapes and hiking trails.
  • The forest is known for its unusual terrain, characterized by the remnants of wind-blown soil that formed the iconic Loess Hills.
  • Hiking in the Loess Hills can be challenging, with steep inclines, off-road conditions, and loose dirt. It’s important to wear sturdy shoes and come prepared for a rugged adventure.
  • The main highlight of the forest is its extensive trail system, covering over 60 miles. One popular trail is Brent’s Trail, an eight-mile trek that traverses the ridges and valleys of the Loess Hills, offering majestic views along the way.

Preparation Canyon State Park

Located within the Loess Hills State Forest, Preparation Canyon State Park is another must-visit destination for backpackers. This 344-acre park offers a unique and tranquil experience in the heart of the Loess Hills.

  • The park was once a gathering site for Mormon settlers in the 1850s and has an interesting historical background.
  • Visitors can explore more than 20 miles of trails throughout the park, offering opportunities to immerse themselves in the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding windblown knolls.
  • Hikers can access eight different primitive campsites within an hour’s hike from the trailhead. These campsites provide a secluded and peaceful place to rest and enjoy the natural surroundings.
  • Spring and summer are the best times to visit Preparation Canyon State Park, as wildflowers bloom throughout the prairies, adding vibrant splashes of color to the landscape.

Whether you choose to explore the Loess Hills State Forest or venture into the picturesque Preparation Canyon State Park, Iowa offers backpackers a unique and awe-inspiring outdoor experience.

Stephens State Forest

Discovering Stephens State Forest

Stephens State Forest is another excellent choice when you are thinking of some backpacking in Iowa. Located in south-central Iowa, it is the largest state forest in the state, encompassing over 15,500 acres. Here are some key highlights of Stephens State Forest:

  • Diverse Recreational Opportunities: Stephens State Forest offers a wide range of recreational activities, including hiking, horseback riding, camping, and hunting. It is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts looking to immerse themselves in nature.
  • Multiple Units: The forest is divided into seven units, each offering unique features and landscapes. Some of the units, such as Lucas, Whitebreast, and Woodburn, have developed facilities and amenities for visitors, including campgrounds and hiking trails.
  • Backcountry Hiking: The Woodburn Unit within Stephens State Forest is particularly popular among backpackers. It features over six miles of backpacking trails and five pack-in (backcountry) campsites. These secluded campsites provide a rustic camping experience surrounded by nature.

Woodburn Unit and Backpacking Campsites

The Woodburn Unit of Stephens State Forest is a backpacker’s paradise. Here are some details about the backpacking campsites in this unit:

  • Primitive Campsites: The Woodburn Unit offers five pack-in (backcountry) campsites for backpackers. These campsites are equipped with a picnic table and fire ring, providing the essential amenities for a wilderness camping experience.
  • Secluded and Serene: The backpacking campsites in the Woodburn Unit are located away from the hustle and bustle of civilization, offering peace and tranquility. With minimal light pollution, you can enjoy a clear view of the night sky and indulge in stargazing.
  • Water Availability: Each campsite in the Woodburn Unit has a water hydrant available at the trailhead, ensuring a reliable water source for campers. It is essential to plan accordingly and carry enough water for your backpacking trip.
  • First-Come, First-Serve: The pack-in campsites in the Woodburn Unit operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is no fee for these sites, making them a budget-friendly option for backpackers seeking solitude in nature.

If you are looking for a backpacking adventure in Iowa, Stephens State Forest’s Woodburn Unit is an excellent choice. The peaceful surroundings, well-maintained trails, and secluded campsites make it a perfect spot for backpackers to reconnect with nature and experience the beauty of Iowa’s wilderness.

Lake Red Rock

Lake Red Rock

Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp at Lake Red Rock

For a true wilderness experience, backpackers in Iowa should consider visiting the Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp at Lake Red Rock. This camp provides a primitive and secluded camping experience amidst the beautiful natural surroundings of Lake Red Rock. Here are some details about the camp:

  • Located on the south shoreline of Lake Red Rock, the Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp spans across 47 acres of forested land.
  • The camp is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and is open to the public for camping.
  • Access to the camp is limited, with visitors required to hike or paddle to their destination. This ensures that the camp maintains its tranquility and natural beauty.
  • There are no costs associated with camping at Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp, but it is recommended to contact the Army Corps of Engineers before your visit for any updates or emergencies.
  • As a reminder, it is important to pack out everything you bring to the camp to preserve its pristine environment.

For more information about the Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp at Lake Red Rock, you can visit the Red Rock Lake Association website.

Paddle-In and Hike-In Camping Experience

Lake Red Rock also offers opportunities for paddle-in and hike-in camping, allowing backpackers to immerse themselves in nature and enjoy a more adventurous camping experience. Here are some key points about paddle-in and hike-in camping at Lake Red Rock:

  • Paddle-in campsites are available at Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp and Paddlers Pines Campsite, offering a unique opportunity to camp along the shoreline of Lake Red Rock. These sites are accessible only by canoe or kayak.
  • Hike-in camping is also possible in certain areas around Lake Red Rock, providing backpackers with the chance to explore the wilderness on foot and set up camp in secluded locations.
  • It is important to check with the site manager or local unit manager before embarking on a paddle-in or hike-in camping trip to ensure adherence to specific rules and regulations at each location.
  • Backpackers should come prepared with all necessary camping equipment, including appropriate food, water, and safety gear for their chosen camping experience.

For more suggestions and information about off-the-beaten-path camping spots in Iowa, visit the Iowa DNR website

Hitchcock Nature Center

Located in the heart of the globally significant Loess Hills in Iowa, Hitchcock Nature Center offers a unique and peaceful backpacking experience. The park provides nearly 1500 acres of pristine prairie, savanna, and woodlands for visitors to explore and enjoy. Here are some reasons why Hitchcock Nature Center is worth considering for your next backpacking adventure:

Hitchcock Nature Center
cassi saari, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Backcountry Camping at Hitchcock Nature Center

At Hitchcock Nature Center, backpackers have the opportunity to experience backcountry camping in a beautiful and natural setting. The park offers several primitive campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. These sites provide a rustic camping experience, allowing backpackers to truly immerse themselves in nature. The campsite amenities include fire rings, picnic tables, and access to satellite restrooms and shower facilities nearby.

Solitude and Nature Experience

One of the highlights of backpacking at Hitchcock Nature Center is the solitude and tranquility that can be found in the untouched wilderness. As you hike through the trails, you will have the chance to observe and appreciate the diverse flora and fauna that call this area home. The park boasts stunning views of the Loess Hills, which were formed thousands of years ago by glaciers and winds. This unique landscape provides a backdrop for a truly immersive nature experience.

For more details about Hitchcock Nature Center and its backcountry camping opportunities, visit the park’s official website: https://www.pottcounty-ia.gov/93/Hitchcock-Nature-Center.

Conclusion

Choosing the Right Backpacking Destination in Iowa

Iowa may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of backpacking, but it offers some hidden gems for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, there are backpacking spots in Iowa that can provide a memorable adventure. Here are some factors to consider when choosing the right backpacking destination in Iowa:

1. Distance: Consider how far you’re willing to travel and how much time you have for your backpacking trip. Iowa has backpacking spots that are within a few hours’ drive from major cities like Des Moines and Quad Cities.

2. Trail Difficulty: Determine the level of difficulty you’re comfortable with. Some backpacking spots in Iowa have steep segments and may be more suitable for experienced hikers, while others offer easier trails that are great for beginners and families.

3. Camping Facilities: Check if the backpacking destination has designated camping areas or if remote camping is allowed. Consider the availability of amenities such as picnic tables, fire rings, and water sources.

4. Natural Beauty: Consider the scenic views and natural features of the backpacking spot. Look for opportunities to see wildlife, unique landscapes, and beautiful flora.

5. Activities and Amenities: Think about other activities you might want to engage in during your backpacking trip. Some spots in Iowa offer opportunities for fishing, birding, cycling, and horseback riding.

Remember to check current trail conditions, pack appropriate gear, and leave no trace during your backpacking adventure. Iowa’s backpacking spots may not be as well-known as some other destinations, but they offer a chance to explore nature in a unique and less crowded setting.