Ready for a fall hiking adventure with kids? Want to look at fall foliage? Explore some of Iowa’s natural wonders? Gaze in awe at some of Iowa’s most unique and unexpected features? Get some exercise hoofing it down a wooded trail? Read on for ten favorite Iowa State Parks (all within 2.5 hours driving distance of Iowa City) with trails to challenge and inspire you — sneak in some outdoor adventuring with your family before the weather changes.
Top Ten Iowa State Parks for Hiking with Kids
Lake Macbride State Park, Solon
Distance from Iowa City: 25 minutes
Lake Macbride State Park is a great choice any time of year. Park at the beach and hike the beach-to-dam trail, an out-and-back (about 3 miles total) that takes you through the woods along the picturesque lake and to a gorgeous waterfall perfect for little kids to wade and splash. There is also a 5-mile out-and-back (10 miles total) North Shore Trail that takes you to the town of Solon, as well as other trails to explore. There are two parcels of Lake Macbride State Park — for hiking, you’ll want the one in Solon.
Palisades-Kepler State Park, Mount Vernon
Distance from Iowa City: 31 minutes
Hike along the bluffs of the Cedar River, wind through forested ravines of mature hardwood trees, and enjoy the breathtaking views. This park is known for its abundance of wildflowers, which are gorgeous in spring! There are 6 miles of trails to explore in this park, some rugged along the bluffs and others that have steep climbs and descents through ravines.
Wapsipinicon State Park, Anamosa
Distance from Iowa City: 47 minutes
Two small caves — Ice Cave and Horse Thief Cave — are the centerpiece of this park, where 3 miles of trails wind through woods and prairie. Also in the area: the Anamosa State Penitentiary Museum, a historic building located on the grounds of the maximum-security prison facility which houses artifacts and educational displays on the history of Iowa’s largest prison. Plus, the National Motorcycle Museum, which has more than 500 rare and vintage motorcycles and motorcycle memorabilia dating from 1902 to the present.
Wildcat Den State Park, Muscatine
Distance from Iowa City: 54 minutes
This is a geologically unique park with lots of big rocks for climbing. None of the trails are super long, making it a good choice for smaller kids. Grab a map (or screenshot one), as the trails are not well-marked (even at their entrances). There is also a historic mill to visit inside the park, the Pine Creek Grist Mill, which is the oldest of its kind between the Mississippi and the Rockies. Behind the mill, a wide, shallow creek is a good place for wading. Sandstone bluffs create unique geological features such as “Steamboat Rock” and the “Devil’s Punch Bowl” that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa
Distance from Iowa City: 1 hour 24 minutes
Maquoketa Caves will blow your mind! Dancehall Cave is a huge, walk-through cave with a paved trail and electric lights inside. The park boasts several other caves ranging in size. Bring flashlights (or, even better, headlamps) and wear shoes and pants that can get dirty (many of the caves are muddy inside as you explore them on hands and knees. Wear kneepads if you have them, but they’re not required to enjoy the park). In addition to the caves, there are several trails of varying length that go up and down bluffs and have great views. This is a place to spend several hours!
Backbone State Park, Dundee
Distance from Iowa City: 1 hour 32 minutes
The Backbone Trail is the centerpiece of the park and not to be missed. Keep little kids close, as there are steep drop-offs on both sides of the trail. The views are incredible, and stepping up and down the rocks on the narrow trail is fun. If it’s warm, you can also hike the shallow, clear creek that flows through the park.
Lacey-Keosaqua State Park, Keosaqua
Distance from Iowa City: 1 hour 36 minutes
Iowa’s largest state park, Lacey-Keosaqua has 13 miles of trails that wind among the valleys and cliffs along the Des Moines River. There is a lake with a small, lovely swimming beach. Also in the area: the American Gothic House — stop to check it out, visit the museum, and take a picture posed like the subjects in Iowa native Grant Wood’s extremely famous painting.
Walnut Woods State Park, West Des Moines
Distance from Iowa City: 2 hours 3 minutes
Did you know the largest remaining stand of black walnut trees in North America is right here in West Des Moines? Me neither! These towering trees, some several feet around, with deeply-textured bark, are amazing to see as you stroll flat trails through the wooded bottomland along the Raccoon River. There are just 3 miles of trails, but this could be combined with a trip to other Des Moines attractions.
Pikes Peak State Park, McGregor
Distance from Iowa City: 2 hours 12 minutes
Majestic views of the Mississippi River await you in this park. 11 miles of trails lead you along scenic bluffs and valleys. Don’t miss the half-mile trail to Bridal Veil Falls, which you can walk under. Also in the area: Spook Cave, which you tour in a guided boat.
Yellow River State Forest, Harpers Ferry
Distance from Iowa City: 2 hours 36 minutes
One of the best Iowa locations for fall foliage, Yellow River is not strictly a state park, but actually a state forest. Stunning views, beautiful woodlands, and trout streams abound in this park. The Paint Creek Unit and/or Paint Rock Unit is best for hiking. Also in the area: Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa’s only National Park Service site), where you can hike to huge, stunning prehistoric burial mounds. These mounds are considered sacred among the site’s 20 culturally associated Indigenous tribes.
You can find a full listing of Iowa State Parks from the DNR.
What are your favorite Iowa state parks?
Check out more Iowa hiking locations — this time off the beaten path.