Iowa might be known for its farms and cornfields, but amid all that agriculture are some incredible natural spaces, state parks and designated hiking trails. Whether you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life for a weekend, or you just want to take in some beautiful scenery for an afternoon with the family, there’s no better season to explore the Hawkeye State’s varied terrain than summer. Here are five of the best summer hikes in Iowa.
Most Interesting Landscape: Maquoketa Caves State Park
Established in the early 1920’s, Maquoketa is one of Iowa’s oldest state parks — but it’s been a favorite destination for hikers since the 1860’s. A 6-mile-long trail system winds through towering geologic formations and forests, linking scenic overlooks and multiple caves that all members of the family can explore. Highlights include Natural Bridge, a stone arch that stretches 50 feet above the trail; the 17-ton Balanced Rock; and Dancehall Cave, the largest cave in the park at 1,100 feet long. Featuring three entrances and a lighted walking path, it’s accessible to almost everyone. Other popular caves include Hernando’s Hideaway, Shinbone Cave and Wye Cave. Some caves are easily explored, while others are better suited for serious spelunkers. And a campground and hike-in camping sites mean you can stick around for an extended adventure. The park is open year-round, although the caves are closed during the winter months. For more information, visit iowadnr.gov.
A Photographer’s Dream: Wildcat Den State Park
Wildcat Den combines natural beauty and historical structures. Stop at the eastern entry of the park during this hike in Iowa and check out the 1840’s working grist mill and turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse. The mill is open for tours in June and August. Then head out along the 4-mile-long trail system that passes through forests filled with centuries-old pine trees and along towering sandstone cliffs and burbling Pine Creek. The packed-earth and sandstones trails feature steep inclines and are best suited for intermediate or experienced hikers, but intrepid explorers will be rewarded with spectacular views of majestic sandstone formations, such as Devil’s Punch Bowl and Steamboat Rock. The park is open year-round. For more information, visit iowadnr.gov.
Best for History Buffs: Effigy Mounds National Monument
Encompassing more than 2,500 acres overlooking the Mississippi River, this national monument is home to the country’s largest-known concentration of effigy mounds — raised piles of earth shaped like bears, birds and other symbols and often used as burial grounds. More than 15 miles of trails, ranging from easy to moderately challenging, lead you around the park and to the mounds. The most difficult part of the hikes is heading to the top of the hills where the mounds are located. During the summer, a leafy green canopy offers shade along wooded areas and provides cover for a variety of wildlife species, including white-tailed deer. You’ll also pass through tallgrass prairies and along several overlooks, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the bald eagles that nest in the bluffs. The park and its trails are open year-round, from dawn until dusk. For more information, visit nps.gov.
Family Friendly: Brown’s Woods
West Des Moines
Located on the southwest side of Des Moines, in the shadow of the Des Moines International Airport, this urban forest preserve features 486 acres of woodlands, rolling hills and riparian landscape. Explore more than four miles of trails during this hike in Iowa, including short gravel loops that are great for younger kids as well as more complicated dirt trails. The Preparation Loop and Gateway Trails are just a half-mile-long each, while the 0.3-mile-long ADA Accessible Loop is popular for folks of all abilities. The 3.2-mile-long Brown’s Wood Trail is considered moderately challenging and is popular among birders. Visitors are encouraged to geocache, splash in the creek, and even pick nuts, fruits and mushrooms. Dogs also are welcome, although pups must remain leashed at all times. Summer hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. For more information, visit polkcountyiowa.gov.
Moderately Challenging: Mines of Spain State Recreation Area
This National Historic Landmark covers 1,437 acres of wooded and prairie land just south of Dubuque. And it’s home to one of the best hiking trails in the state — Horseshoe Bluff. The 1.3-mile loop begins and ends at the parking lot and takes hikers up almost 400 feet for breathtaking views of the canyon below. The trail is considered moderately challenging, and some stretches could be dangerous for young children. However, Mines of Spain offers 11 additional trails, ranging from a 0.8-mile ADA-accessible paved trail to the remote 6-mile out-and-back Eagle Scout Trail, which was built by Boy Scouts. The park is open year-round from 4 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. For more information, visit minesofspain.org.