Where to View Colorful Fall Foliage Near Iowa City

The air is growing crisper, mornings are cool enough for a sweatshirt, and the smell of pumpkin spice is in the air.

a graphic of fall foliage in the Iowa City area
As with everything 2020, many of the fall traditions that we are used to may be more difficult to enjoy in our current climate of social distancing and isolation. However, we can still view the special show that mother nature puts on each year as the leaves transform from green to a magnificent splash of fall color.

Use this guide brought to you by our friends at Montessori School of Iowa City to start generating ideas for places to view fall foliage near the Iowa City area!


When to Go

The peak of fall colors changes from year to year, based on weather patterns, rainfall, humidity, and other factors. In Iowa, fall foliage generally peaks around mid-October, but keep an eye on local weather forecasts or websites that may be able to offer a more accurate prediction. Generally, the southernmost counties will peak earlier then the northernmost counties. The Iowa DNR website is a great resource for predicting when peak colors will occur in different areas of the state.


How to Go

My favorite way to enjoy fall foliage is on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive. Remember to enjoy the fall colors only with members of your own immediate household, as the enclosed space of a car would make for a hospitable vector for virus transmission. Remember your masks and hand sanitizer in case you need to stop for food or gas.

You can also take family bike ride, or a walk or hike through a local park or nature preserve. If you’re truly adventurous, you could try a kayak or canoe ride along the Maquoketa or Wapsipinicon Rivers.


Where to Go

You can find beautiful fall colors in a number of places — including state parks and scenic old roads and highways.

A forest view of fall foliage

State Parks

Iowa features many state parks that offer an abundance of fall color, and the best part is that many are an easy day trip from Iowa City! Note: This year, some of the area parks that are well known for their foliage (such as Lake McBride and Palisades Kepler) are partially closed  due to damage from the August derecho that swept through the state. Check local websites for current, local conditions before heading out.

Pikes Peak State Park
2 hours from Iowa City
Map

There are more than 11-miles of hiking trails available at Pikes Peak State Park.  If you are driving, you can follow County Road X-56 out of the town of McGregor. You can view a 500-foot bluff as well as the bridge connecting Iowa and Wisconsin over the Mississippi River.

Bellevue State Park
1 hour, 45 minutes from Iowa City
Map

Bellevue State Park lies right along the Mississippi River and offers breathtaking views of the water, bluffs, and fall colors. There are hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and nature areas, as well as a butterfly garden open to families. US Highway 52 runs right along the east edge of the park and is a great driving route to see foliage.

Maquoketa Caves State Park
90 minutes from Iowa City
Map

Maquoketa Caves State Park is a gem in Iowa. Although the limestone caves are currently closed to the public, the park includes more than 6-miles of interconnected hiking trails.  Caves Road runs along the east edge of the park and State Highway 428 runs straight through the park.

Wapsipinicon State Park
45 minutes from Iowa City
Map

Wapsipinicon State Park is one of Iowa’s very first state parks. The park includes trails, picnic shelters, and caves for exploring. Within the park, Lower Park Road and Upper Park Road create a driving loop that is beautiful for viewing fall colors.

Lake McBride State Park
25 minutes from Iowa City
Map

Truly in our own backyard, Lake McBride State Park is a great place to view fall foliage.  Some of the trails and recreation areas are closed due to tree damage from the August derecho, but many areas are still open.

You can hike on trails, or drive through the road that twists through the park. The boat rental area is closed for the season, but if you have your own kayak or canoe you can use a public boat ramps and then view the colors from the calm and placid water.

Wildcat Den State Park
1 hour from Iowa City
Map

Wildcat Den State Park has a well-developed system of trails leading to both natural wonders and historical sites. 181st St., runs north to south through the park, while New Era Road runs along the southern border.

Scenic Byways

A car driving to view fall foliage

Another option for viewing fall colors is simply to hop on one of the old highways that are sometimes forgotten as we zip along the interstate to reach our destination quickly.

These old winding roads often travel through small towns, or wind along rivers, lakes, and streams. Here are a few possibilities that are easily accessible from Iowa City:

For more information about Scenic Byways and attractions in the state of Iowa, visit the Travel Iowa website.

Do you have any other favorite places to view fall foliage? Tell us!


About Our Sponsor

Montessori School of Iowa City

Montessori School of Iowa City is one of the oldest Montessori schools on the continent. The school is comprised of pre-primary (2-3 year olds), primary (3-6 year olds), and elementary (1-3 grades). Each classroom is built on the foundation of respect for ones’ self, respect for others, and respect for the environment. Peaceful environments are created by meeting physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual needs. Children are guided by individual, small group, and collective lessons that are followed by practice and lead the child to mastery. All classes have music class and Spanish class each week. Before school program and/or after school programs are available. For more information, please visit the website or call 319-338-9650. The school is currently enrolling — tell them Iowa City Moms sent you!

Sarah Bengtson
Sarah is a proud Iowa native who currently lives in North Liberty with her husband and 2 sons. She grew up in rural Benton county and moved to the Iowa City area in 2005 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa in Physical Therapy. Now she balances raising two growing boys with a work as a pediatric physical therapist. Outside of work and family, Sarah loves music, playing her cello, running, baking, crochet, church activities, and cheering for the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Vikings.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great information. However, in the “when to go” section it states southernmost counties will peak earliest. Shouldn’t it be the northernmost areas will peak first? I’ve been leaf viewing many times and I have found the farther north, the earlier the color changes.

    Thank you!!

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