Explore the Best Hiking Trails in Iowa fi

Explore the Best Hiking Trails in Iowa

By Emily Leikam on April 25, 2024
8 min read

Iowa might catch you off guard—not with its vast fields or the iconic rolling hills, but with its secret trails that crisscross the state, offering more than just a flat canvas of farm fields. Here, between the sways of the tall grass, you’ll find a side of Iowa that doesn’t always make the headlines. It’s not just about the land’s fertility; it’s about its ability to surprise you with hidden valleys, quiet forests, and trails that tell stories of the earth beneath your feet. Discover the unexpected joy of hiking in Iowa.

Explore the Best Hiking Trails in Iowa fi
Maquoketa Caves State Park. Photo by: johnsroad7.

Key Takeaways

  • Iowa's trails offer a surprising diversity of landscapes, from calm forests to rugged hills, revealing the state's hidden natural beauty.
  • Trails in Iowa cater to every level of hiker, providing a welcoming experience for beginners, families, and seasoned adventurers alike.
  • Beyond just hiking, Iowa's trails offer opportunities for wildlife viewing, cave spelunking, and observing unique geological formations.

Why Hike in Iowa?

Iowa may not be the first place you think of for hiking, but it’s a hidden gem that deserves a spot on your outdoor adventure map. The state's natural landscape is unexpectedly varied, featuring everything from the intricate beauty of cave formations at Maquoketa Caves State Park to the sweeping vistas of the Loess Hills. Trails here cater to all, whether you’re looking for an easy family outing or a challenging trek. This variety turns every hike into an exploration of Iowa's diverse landscape, proving there's much more to the state than its farming fame.

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Maquoketa Park Rocky Tunnels. Photo by: Nicholas J. Klein.

Best Hiking Trails in Iowa

Maquoketa Caves State Park

Maquoketa Caves State Park, a unique natural treasure located in eastern Iowa near the town of Maquoketa and about 30 miles southeast of Dubuque, is famed for its fascinating network of caves, bluffs, and limestone formations. Among its highlights are the expansive Dancehall Cave, known for its spacious lighted path, along with various smaller caves that present more adventurous crawl spaces for the daring spelunkers. 

The park features a practical 1.7-mile loop trail that takes hikers through diverse landscapes, from lush woodlands to scenic bluffs, providing an enjoyable experience for both serious hikers and casual visitors. Alongside hiking and spelunking, the park’s interpretive center offers insights into the area's natural and geological significance, making a visit both educational and fun. Whether you’re into exploring caves or just looking for a peaceful hike in nature, Maquoketa Caves State Park has a little something for everyone.

Loess Hills State Forest

Loess Hills State Forest is located in western Iowa, near the city of Sioux City. It’s renowned for its unique landscape formed by wind-deposited loess soil, which creates steep, sharply ridged hills. The forest features several trails, most notably the 8-mile Brent's Trail which offers a comprehensive look at the area’s distinct geological makeup, including views over the Missouri River Valley and dense woodland areas. 

With each season, the forest showcases different aspects of its beauty, from the bloom of spring wildflowers to the autumn leaves' palette. This diversity makes it a favorite spot for activities like hiking, bird watching, and photography throughout the year.

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Fall colors in the Loess Hills State Forest. Photo by: Bill.

Backbone State Park

Backbone State Park, located in northeastern Iowa, holds the distinction of being Iowa's first state park. It received its name “Backbone” for the narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the Maquoketa River. The park covers more than 2,000 acres of craggy terrain, offering a peaceful escape into nature with its richly forested hills and crystal-clear streams. 

Backbone’s extensive network of trails caters to hikers, mountain bikers, and climbers, with paths like the Devil’s Backbone Trail, which is particularly popular for its challenging terrain and incredible views. In addition to outdoor activities, Backbone State Park is a haven for anglers and boaters, with the cold waters of the river making it ideal for trout fishing. 

Wabash Trace Nature Trail

As part of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project, the former Wabash Railroad track was repurposed into the Wabash Trace Nature Trail. This now gorgeous recreational path in southwestern Iowa, extends over 60 miles from Council Bluffs to Blanchard near the Missouri state line. With its crushed limestone surface, the trail is ideal for hiking, biking, and running. It winds through lush farmlands, rolling hills, and quiet woodlands while passing through quaint small towns like Shenandoah, Malvern, and Silver City – each offering rest stops and local amenities. 

The trail is also popular among the community for the weekly "Taco Ride," where cyclists gather to enjoy a portion of the trail and local tacos. It also serves as a haven for diverse wildlife, making it a favorite spot for bird watchers and nature lovers. Whether you're in for a leisurely walk, a rigorous bike ride, or just looking to enjoy some tacos with friends, the Wabash Trace Nature Trail offers a great outdoor experience.

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Backbone State Park. Photo by: Amel.

Raccoon River Valley Trail

Another Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project, the Raccoon River Valley Trail stretches impressively across 89 miles in central Iowa, connecting 14 communities from Waukee to Jefferson. This trail, featuring a loop that allows for a variety of circular routes, caters to cyclists, runners, and walkers of all abilities with its mostly flat and well-maintained asphalt surface. As it winds through the Iowa countryside, it showcases various landscapes from rich agricultural fields to wooded areas and provides ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and bird watching. 

The trail is not only popular for daily exercise and leisure but also hosts several community events and activities throughout the year. The Raccoon River Valley Trail is a prime example of how decommissioned railway lines can be transformed into vital recreational and ecological assets, promoting community connectivity and outdoor activities in a naturally beautiful setting.

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Lightweight, soft, and oh-so comfortable, the Splash Roll-Up.

Yellow River State Forest

Yellow River State Forest, located near Harpers Ferry in northeastern Iowa, sprawls over 8,900 acres of lush, rugged terrain, making it an idyllic retreat for experienced hikers and nature aficionados. Trails like the Paint Creek Unit Trail, spanning about 25 miles with its steep inclines and varied landscapes, and the Backbone Trail, a 7-mile trek through some of the forest's most untouched areas, offer challenging and rewarding hikes. These paths are perfect for those in search of a tranquil adventure. 

Beyond hiking, Yellow River State Forest is renowned for its excellent trout fishing opportunities in its pristine streams. It’s also popular with horseback riding enthusiasts, offering designated trails that meander through its eye-catching vistas. 

Pikes Peak State Park

Pikes Peak State Park, situated in the picturesque northeast corner of Iowa near McGregor, offers breathtaking views of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers from its lofty vantage points. The Bridal Veil Trail, a 2-mile journey through verdant woodlands to a spectacular river overlook, features the enchanting Bridal Veil Falls, making it a favorite among hikers for its scenic beauty and moderate challenge. For those seeking a more rigorous adventure, the Border Trail provides a 4-mile trek across steep terrains leading to stunning overlooks, rewarding the brave with unparalleled vistas and a sense of accomplishment. 

This park encapsulates the majestic beauty of Iowa’s landscape, catering to both serene walks and challenging hikes. Past the hikes, this area is fantastic for bird watching. If you’re lucky, you may be able to get a glimpse of bald eagles or red-tailed hawks.

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Red-Tailed Hawk flying overhead. Photo by: ArmadilloGrafix.

Seasonal Hiking in Iowa: What to Expect

In Iowa, each season offers a different hiking experience. Spring brings mild weather and trails lined with wildflowers, making it ideal for exploring Maquoketa Caves State Park. Summer offers lush, green landscapes, perfect for the shaded paths of the Loess Hills State Forest. Fall is a spectacular display of colors, best viewed from the high vantage points of Backbone State Park. Winter, while cold, transforms the trails into serene, snowy escapes. The Raccoon River Valley Trail is a popular choice for cross-country skiers.

While seasonal hiking in Iowa offers distinct experiences throughout the year, the right gear from KÜHL can enhance your adventures comfortably and stylishly. Here's what to expect in each season, along with clothing recommendations to keep you hiking confidently in all conditions:

  • Spring: As the snow melts, trails can be muddy and slippery, with cooler mornings and warmer afternoons. Layers are crucial. KÜHL’s Konfidant Air™ pants, which are lightweight and feature ventilated pockets, are ideal for fluctuating temperatures. Pair these with a long-sleeved shirt like the Airspeed™, which offers UV protection and breathability.
  • Summer: This season is warm, making it perfect for exploring Iowa’s different landscapes, but also brings bugs and intense sun. Opt for the Splash™ Roll-Up pants and Konstance™ Tank, which provide comfort, freedom of movement, and protection from the sun. For cooler mornings or higher altitudes, the AirKÜHL™ Hoody is a light layer that offers versatility.
  • Fall: Witness the beautiful foliage change with cooler temperatures and occasional rain showers. The Revolvr™ pants, with its quick-drying capability, works well during unpredictable weather. Layer with the The One™ Jacket, a light, water-resistant windbreaker perfect for shielding against sudden downpours.
  • Winter: Cold and snowy conditions require insulated, moisture-wicking clothing to stay warm and dry. The Interceptr™ Fleece Jacket provides excellent warmth and comfort, while the Arktik™ Jacket offers superior insulation and softness, ideal for harsh Iowa winters.

By dressing for each season with these KÜHL products, you'll enjoy Iowa's trails year-round, staying comfortable and protected against the elements.

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Experience superior moisture management and breathability with AirKühl™ Hoody Printed and Brazen Kuhldry® Crew.


We've explored a variety of trails across Iowa, highlighting the state's rich landscapes and outdoor experiences that you may not have known about before. From the enchanting caves at Maquoketa to the breathtaking views of Backbone State Park, there's a trail for every type of hiker. 

Now, we'd love to hear from you. Do our selections resonate with your own experiences? Are there hidden gems or favorite trails in Iowa you think deserve a spotlight? Share your thoughts and help us improve this guide with the community's collective insights.

Featured image by: Venti Views.


What is the best time of year to hike in Iowa?

The best time to hike in Iowa is during the spring and fall months when the weather is mild, and the natural scenery is at its peak. Spring brings wildflowers and lush greenery, while fall offers a stunning display of autumn colors. However, many trails offer unique experiences year-round, including winter activities like cross-country skiing.

Are there any free hiking trails in Iowa?

Yes, Iowa boasts numerous free hiking trails across the state. State parks like Maquoketa Caves, Loess Hills State Forest, and Backbone State Park offer free access to a variety of trails. Always check the latest park information for any changes in fees or access.

What should I bring on my hike in Iowa?

Essential items for hiking in Iowa include water, snacks, a map or GPS, appropriate clothing for the weather, sturdy hiking shoes, and sun protection. For longer hikes or specific trails, consider bringing a first-aid kit, insect repellent, and a flashlight or headlamp.

Are Iowa's hiking trails dog-friendly?

Many of Iowa’s hiking trails are dog-friendly, but it’s important to keep your dog on a leash and follow the specific park or trail rules. Always bring supplies to clean up after your pet. Some trails may have restrictions, so it's a good idea to check in advance.

Can beginners find suitable hiking trails in Iowa?

Absolutely. Iowa offers trails for all skill levels, including beginners. Trails in state parks often have clear markings and range from easy, flat walks to more challenging hikes. The Wabash Trace Nature Trail and the High Trestle Trail are great starting points for beginners looking for an enjoyable outdoor experience.

Emily Leikam
Emily Leikam

Emily is an avid traveler and has been all around the world from Alaska and Iceland to Peru and Bali. Her home base is Nashville, TN and when not traveling you can find her hiking, practicing yoga or cooking/baking!


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