Are you ready for some nature exploration in Iowa? Join us as we explore the top state parks in Iowa that you can visit. Enjoy a day out in the sun and within nature.

Iowa is a great place for low-key state parks. It is not a super popular tourist destination which means you’ll usually avoid the crowds. This allows for a more straightforward experience and it allows you more time to connect with nature.

So, get your hiking shoes on, grab a few sandwiches and water, and get ready to explore some of the best state parks that Iowa has to offer.

The Beauty and Importance of National Parks in Iowa

While Iowa may not have any designated national parks, the state still offers several points of interest that are run by the National Park Service.

These sites showcase the natural and cultural heritage of Iowa and provide opportunities for visitors to explore and learn about the state’s history and natural beauty.

From Effigy Mounds National Monument to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, these sites offer a unique glimpse into Iowa’s past and its role in shaping the nation. 

1. Effigy Mounds National Monument

Effigy Mounds National Monument is a place of historical and cultural significance in Iowa. Here is a brief overview of the monument.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

History and Significance of Effigy Mounds

Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by pre-Columbian Mound Builder cultures, mostly in the first millennium CE.

These mounds were created by the Eastern Woodland people and provided an insight into their social, ceremonial, political, and economic life. The monument contains nationally significant archaeological resources and surviving examples of earthen mound groups, including 31 effigies in the shape of bears and birds.

The monument is a sacred site for the modern descendants of the mound builders, and access is offered via fourteen miles of hiking trails.

Learn more about the historic and cultural significance of Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Trails and activities at Effigy Mounds

Effigy Mounds National Monument offers several trails and activities for visitors to explore and enjoy the natural beauty of the area. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Hiking Trails: The monument has 14 miles of hiking trails that showcase the mounds and lead visitors through forests, tallgrass prairies, wetlands, and rivers. These trails provide opportunities to appreciate the diverse flora and fauna of the area.
  • Ranger-Guided Activities: Visitors can join rangers for guided hikes, walks, talks, or historic demonstrations. These activities provide educational insights into the history and natural features of the monument.
  • Wildlife Viewing: Effigy Mounds is home to a variety of wildlife. Visitors may spot birds, deer, squirrels, and other animals during their visit. Wildlife viewing opportunities are available along the hiking trails and in scenic areas of the monument.
  • Picnic Areas: There are picnic areas within the monument where visitors can enjoy a meal surrounded by nature. These areas provide a peaceful and scenic spot to relax and recharge.

Whether you’re interested in hiking, wildlife observation, or learning about the history of the area, Effigy Mounds National Monument offers a range of activities for nature enthusiasts and history lovers alike.

2. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Located in West Branch, Iowa, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site offers visitors the opportunity to explore the life and legacy of America’s 31st President.

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Exploring the Life of America’s 31st President

  • The site preserves the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience the humble beginnings of the future President.
  • The park showcases the values that guided Hoover throughout his life, including hard work, honesty, and community service.
  • Visitors can learn about Hoover’s journey from a child of simple beginnings to the presidency of the United States.
  • The landscape and historic buildings provide a glimpse into the rural Iowa where Hoover grew up and the influences that shaped his character.

Visiting the museum and historic buildings

  • The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, offers a comprehensive look at Hoover’s life and accomplishments.
  • The park features several historic buildings, including the Hoover Birthplace, Blacksmith Shop, and other structures that provide insight into daily life during Hoover’s time.
  • The self-guided tour allows visitors to explore at their own pace, with informative talks provided by rangers throughout the day.
  • The burial site of President and Mrs. Hoover is also located within the park, allowing visitors to pay their respects to the former First Couple.

To learn more about the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, you can visit their official website.

3. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
Geographyguy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tracing the footsteps of Lewis & Clark in Iowa

The Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail allows visitors to follow in the footsteps of the legendary explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as they ventured westward over 200 years ago. Although the trail spans over 4,900 miles through 16 states, Iowa offers a glimpse into this epic journey.

Lewis and Clark were set to explore the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory, and the wide-open landscape they encountered didn’t look like the Iowa we know today. Iowa’s leg of the trail is marked by Lewis & Clark Trail signs along Interstate 29 as it follows the mighty Missouri River from Council Bluffs to Sioux City.

To experience the outdoor beauty and history along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail in Iowa, consider the following itinerary:

  1. Start your adventure in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with a hearty breakfast at a local diner. Fuel up with dishes like chicken fried steak and eggs or a kitchen sink omelet.
  2. Head to Hitchcock Nature Center, just a 20-minute drive away. This nature reserve offers stunning views of the Loess Hills and the Missouri River Valley. Explore the 10-mile trail system, visit the observation tower, and learn about the area’s flora and geology at the visitor center.

Scenic spots and recreational activities along the trail

Within Sioux City is the Sergeant Floyd Monument, which honors Sergeant Charles Floyd Jr., the only member of the Lewis & Clark expedition to die during the journey. Visit the Sergeant Floyd River Museum & Welcome Center to learn more about his story and explore Missouri River history.

Throughout the trail in Iowa, there are several scenic spots and recreational activities to enjoy:

  • Lewis & Clark Monument and Scenic Overlook in Council Bluffs: This monument offers stunning views of the Missouri River, Council Bluffs, and the Omaha skyline.
  • The Omaha East/Council Bluffs and Hilton Garden Inn Council Bluffs are available for accommodations in Council Bluffs.
  • Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City: This museum provides a comprehensive look into the famous expedition with animatronic figures, interactive displays, and a scenic overlook of the Missouri River.
  • Sergeant Floyd Monument in Sioux City: This monument commemorates Sergeant Charles Floyd Jr., who died during the journey. Visit the Sergeant Floyd River Museum & Welcome Center to explore Missouri River history.
  • Attractions and dining options in Sioux City: Enjoy a variety of dining options, such as authentic Mexican cuisine, and check out local shops and entertainment venues.

For those looking to immerse themselves in the history and adventure of Lewis & Clark’s expedition, tracing their footsteps along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail in Iowa is a must-do. Experience the beauty of Iowa’s landscapes, learn about the explorers’ journey, and make memories along this iconic trail.

4. Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail offers visitors the opportunity to relive the journey of Mormon pioneers in Iowa. This historic trail stretches across multiple states, including Iowa, and highlights the significant role that the state played in Mormon history.

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

Reliving the journey of Mormon pioneers in Iowa

The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail allows visitors to step back in time and experience the challenges and triumphs of the Mormon pioneers as they traversed the rugged terrain of Iowa. Along the trail, visitors can explore various historical sites and landmarks that tell the story of the Mormon pioneers’ migration westward.

Historical sites and landmarks on the trail

The trail is dotted with numerous historical sites and landmarks that provide a glimpse into the pioneering days of the Mormons in Iowa. Some of the notable sites along the trail include:

  • Sergeant Floyd Monument: Located in Sioux City, Iowa, the Sergeant Floyd Monument pays tribute to Sergeant Charles Floyd, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who died near the site in 1804. The monument features a 100-foot obelisk made of Sioux quartzite, making it the tallest point in Sioux City. Visitors can explore the monument and its accompanying museum, which showcases the history of the area and the life of Charles Floyd.
  • Winter Quarters Temple: Situated in the Omaha, Nebraska area, the Winter Quarters Temple is a reconstruction of the original temple that served as a gathering place and sanctuary for the Mormon pioneers during the winter months. Visitors can learn about the significance of the temple and the hardships endured by early Mormon settlers through exhibits and guided tours.
  • Council Bluffs Historic District: Located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Council Bluffs Historic District showcases the historical significance of the area during the pioneer era. Visitors can explore various buildings and sites that played a role in Mormon pioneer history, such as the General Dodge House, which was once the residence of Grenville M. Dodge, a prominent figure in the development of the Transcontinental Railroad.

These are just a few examples of the many historical sites and landmarks along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail in Iowa. Each site offers a unique perspective on the Mormon pioneers’ journey and provides visitors with a deeper understanding of this important chapter in American history.

For more information on the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail and its significance, visit the Wikipedia page.

5. Other Notable Natural Attractions in Iowa

Pikes Peak State Park
McGhiever, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While Iowa may not be known for its national parks, it still offers a variety of natural attractions that are worth exploring. Here are some other beautiful natural spots in Iowa:

  • Pikes Peak State Park: Offering majestic views of the Mississippi River, Pikes Peak State Park is a must-visit location for nature lovers. It features hiking trails, camping grounds, and panoramic vistas that showcase the natural beauty of Iowa.
  • Grotto of the Redemption: Considered the largest man-made grotto in the world, the Grotto of the Redemption is an architectural marvel. It showcases a series of nine grottos that depict scenes from the life of Jesus, adorned with minerals and rocks.
  • Snake Alley: Located in Burlington, Snake Alley is a peculiar sight to see in Iowa. With its seven curves over 275 feet, it is recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the world’s most crooked road. It’s a unique and quirky attraction that is worth a visit.
  • Crystal Lake Cave: Crystal Lake Cave is one of the most beautiful caves in Iowa, showcasing pristine stalagmites, helictites, and rare anthodites. Guided tours allow visitors to explore this natural wonder and learn about the intricate formations within.
  • Keokuk-Hamilton Bridge: Offering breathtaking views of the Mississippi River, the Keokuk-Hamilton Bridge is a picturesque crossing from Iowa to Wisconsin. It provides a scenic backdrop for fishing, boating, and enjoying the natural beauty of the river.

These notable natural attractions in Iowa may not be national parks, but they offer their own unique beauty and provide opportunities for outdoor exploration and appreciation of the state’s natural wonders.

Conclusion

Iowa may not be the first state that comes to mind when you think of national parks, but it offers a unique and diverse range of natural and historical sites to explore.

From Effigy Mounds National Monument to the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, there is something for everyone to enjoy in Iowa’s national parks.

When planning a visit to Iowa’s national parks, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Research and Plan Ahead: Take the time to research each park and its attractions before your visit. Check for any park closures, visitor center hours, and guided tours to make the most of your trip.

2. Dress Appropriately: Iowa’s weather can be unpredictable, so be sure to pack layers and dress for the changing conditions. Comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, and bug spray are also essential for outdoor activities.

3. Follow Park Rules and Regulations: Respect the natural environment and follow all park rules and regulations. This includes staying on designated trails, properly disposing of waste, and not disturbing wildlife or historic sites.

4. Be Prepared for Outdoor Activities: If you plan to participate in outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, or camping, make sure you have the necessary equipment and supplies. Carry enough water, snacks, and a map of the park to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

5. Capture Memories: Iowa’s national parks offer stunning landscapes and historical sites, so don’t forget your camera. Capture the beauty of the parks and the memories you make during your visit.