If you are like me — hiking is a great escape.
It’s free, it boosts our mental state, it gives us exercise, and it’s basically homeschooling because we look at birds and moss and stuff.
However, many of the nearby trails and state parks near Iowa City can be crowded. That forced me to dig a little deeper and find these hidden gems in Iowa City or within a couple hours’ drive. All can be easily navigated to using Google Maps.
Some caveats: because my kids are 13 and 10, none of these trails are stroller-friendly paved excursions. They are, though, relatively short hikes, ranging from just a mile or two to six miles. I’m working from home during these pandemic times, so I was interested in places we could go for a satisfying but relatively brief jaunt over lunch or in the evening, as well as further-flung places we could head to on the weekends that would remain uncrowded even on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
One more thing: I openly encourage you to force your kids to hike even if they don’t want to.
I believe the fortifying effects of nature and the health benefits of walking are well worth the conflict. My kids complain 100% of the time when I announce we’re going hiking, but by the end are totally into it. It doesn’t hurt that we nearly always stop for ice cream on the way home if they “act decent” (probably canceling out the health benefits, but whatever. I recommend Heyn’s and Jon’s for ice cream).
Favorite Hiking Destinations Off the Beaten Path Near Iowa City and Beyond
Big Grove Preserve – Solon, IA
An eighty-acre woodland adjacent to the Coralville Reservoir off Sugar Bottom Road, this shady property under towering trees features a wide, shallow creek, a picturesque curved stone bridge, rocky outcroppings and well-maintained trails, with some hilly spots for a pleasantly elevated heart rate. I think we hiked about three miles but I’m not sure because the trails are not marked (though there is a trail map near the entrance) and you have to navigate by your wits. It’s worth it, though.
Turkey Creek Preserve – Solon, IA
Near Big Grove is another property, again featuring a creek (full of fossils!) and exploding with wildflowers when we visited in early spring. In addition to the woodland area, there is also a huge prairie, featuring a beautiful, expansive view when you hike up the hill to the top. Again, trails are not marked and distances are not given but it’s small enough to just wander around and never lose your sense of direction. Big Grove and Turkey Creek are two of the several properties owned and maintained by Bur Oak Land Trust – check out their website for the full list of natural sites open to the public to enjoy. We also enjoyed Belgum Grove in Hills and Hora Woods in West Branch (though be warned the trails peter out relatively quickly in the latter).
Stephens State Forest – Lucas, IA
Iowa’s largest forest at 14,000 acres is mostly undeveloped, but the Woodburn Unit boasts six miles of trails (and five hike-in campsites). Gently rolling hills carpeted with oak and hickory on the Ridge Trail gives way to a creekside ramble lined with cottonwoods and birches. You can do a 3.4 mile loop (here are turn-by-turn directions) or make it longer by linking to one of the other trails. Read more in this article (which also recommends three other hidden gems in the Des Moines area).
Ciha Fen Wildlife Preserve – Lisbon, IA
The Ciha Fen Preserve is an 80-acre sand prairie/savanna complex on a wind-deposited sand ridge. It contains one of the only two documented remaining nutrient-poor “fens” – a type of wetland – known in the state of Iowa, boasting numerous rare plant and animal species. The site is a place to stroll through short-grass prairie and under ancient oak trees, and berry pick for raspberries and strawberries. The site is an ideal wildlife refuge, but is primitive for human visitors, with a short faint trail loop. Again, this is small enough to wander without a map – there is a mowed grass perimeter path that we followed. Read a little more about the geology, flora and fauna in this article. Bonus – it is right by the Sutliff Bridge so you can stop and walk over that, too.
Redbird Farms Wildlife Area – Iowa City, IA
Redbird Farms is 400 acres of mostly prairie, several ponds, with some timber as well. Again, trails are not marked but you can wander without getting lost. We ended up walking about five miles here – I will always press forward in the attempt to make a loop and avoid backtracking, which sometimes doesn’t work or really lengthens the hike – admiring the view from atop some gently rolling hills.
Cedar Bluffs Natural Area – Oskaloosa, IA
The two-mile Lacey Memorial Nature Trail takes you across prairie and oak savanna, down into a box canyon, along a towering sandstone bluff overlooking Cedar Creek, through forests, and past a several-thousand-year-old burial mound. This very unique 225-acre area contains a wide variety of deciduous trees, wildflowers, ferns and other plant life, all along a short loop trail. Lookout points along the trail allow hikers sweeping views of the Des Moines River Valley. There’s also a stairway that leads down to Cedar Creek. Read more here, and don’t overlook the menu on the left side of this webpage featuring other natural areas in Mahaska County – Eddyville Dunes Sand Prairie looks particularly interesting, as this is an example of one of the very few remaining sand prairies in the Midwest (prickly pear cactus, orchids, and lizards are there?!).
Amana Nature Trail – Homestead, IA
This is a 3.3 mile, well-marked interlocking loop trail system at the intersection of Highways 6 and 151 in Homestead. It travels oak savanna, wet prairie, natural oak/hickory timber, and passes the ancient remains of a fish weir in the Iowa River and burial mounds, leading through a section of the 7,000 acres of Amana Forest. When we visited in spring, ferns carpeted the forest floor and we enjoyed a picturesque overlook on the Iowa River.
Sockum Ridge County Park – Washington, IA
This remote park reached by gravel country roads features around five miles of well-marked but almost-overgrown-in-places trails, mostly through woods. There is also a large pond and a creek. We started with the “Wildflower Mile” and were not disappointed – we counted several varieties of wildflower. There were also a plethora of frogs to catch in the creek and pond.
Cairo Woods Wildlife Area – Columbus Junction, IA
525 acres of forest and prairie sport five short loop trails – all mowed-grass trails – as well as two ponds. Check out this list of other intriguing Louisa County natural areas. Bonus: you could also stop and visit the historic swinging bridge on Third Street in Columbus Junction proper, where after crossing the bridge you can hike back via a short but pretty nature trail through the ravine.
Brinton Timbers Park – Brighton, IA
Wear pants – the trails are well-maintained but very narrow, with long grass alongside many of the trails. This park features the most well-marked trails I’ve ever encountered, with tree blazes every few steps and trail maps posted at every intersection. We did five miles of interlocking loops here, in both woods and a kind of long-grass bottomland area. The Wood Duck trail winds pleasantly along the Skunk River, providing nice views over the river.
Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area – Bernard, IA
One of only three true canyons in the state of Iowa, Whitewater provide a lesson in the state’s geology, taking one back 450 million years to a time when what is now Iowa was under the sea. Rare plants and animals are also sheltered in the various natural habitats found on the property. With several caves to explore, a burbling brook as well as a shallow, wide, sandy-bottomed creek perfect for wading, young kids could spend hours here. Looking up at moss-covered, house-sized boulders; scrambling up steep paths into cool, dark caves; gazing at vistas of rolling farmland; and strolling through prairie – just about the best Iowa has to offer is all here. The Lost Canyon Loop is 3.3 miles and there is also a more prairie-heavy loop, both utilizing wide mown-grass trails. We did the Lost Canyon Loop and then my 10-year-old insisted we leave in order not to miss the start of WWE Friday Night Smackdown, but I’m sure the other loop was great too. Read more in this article.
Pinicon Ridge County Park – Central City, IA
This park features about 10 miles of trails through a variety of wooded hills and valleys. I didn’t see them, but there is also an observation tower and a wildlife exhibit with elk, deer, geese, and ducks. Along the Woodpecker Hill Trail, there’s a little waterfall called Horseshoe Falls (I mean a very small waterfall, but still pretty), while the Flying Squirrel Trail has a nice view of the Wapsipinicon River.