A summer spent in Iowa would not be complete without a relaxing natural escape to one of the best campgrounds in the state. There are a total of 83 state parks and recreation areas in Iowa, offering more than 50 thousand acres of protected ecological lands. All of this is available to campers and hikers to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and learn about the history of Iowa while enjoying its most stunning natural features.
From the rolling Loess Hills in western Iowa to the highest point in the east of the state (the Devil’s Backbone in Backbone State Park), the Hawkeye state can offer some spectacular camping experiences. There are RV parks for rolling campers and more than 5000 individual tent sites across the entire state. Campgrounds in Iowa range from primitive backcountry sites to modern facilities with full hookups and amenities. No matter your preferred camping style, Iowa can provide the perfect camping getaway.
Most natural land in Iowa has been heavily affected by agricultural developments. However, protected areas of the state offer an insight into the environments which support flora and fauna. Only 1% of the tallgrass prairie that originally covered Iowa remains, so it’s more important than ever to preserve what is left and provide an environment for native species. The gray wolf, for example, used to make its home in Iowa. Unfortunately, the only time they’re seen in the state today is when visiting from Minnesota or Wisconsin.
In this article, we’re going to share the 7 best destinations in Iowa for an unforgettable camping trip. This state has so much more to offer than what may meet the eye, it’s rich with history and lush natural areas. You could visit ancient rock formations and walk the passageways where glacial waters cascaded thousands of years ago or hike trails used by generations of past explorers. Read on to find out what magical camping experience is waiting for you in Iowa.
1. Pikes Peak State Park
Pikes Peak is one of the most beautiful, most popular, and most photographed natural areas in Iowa. One popular spot is a 500 foot tall bluff with prize-winning views over the Mississippi River, from here you can see where it joins with the Wisconsin River. Pikes Peak State Park is an excellent camping destination for all ages and abilities, as there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
The two primary lookout points are only minutes from the main parking lot, so it’s easy to take in the best views the park has to offer. Those with more energy can check out some of the longer hikes, such as the 4-mile trail for Point Ann which offers views over Mississippi and McGregor. There are a total of 11 miles of trails in Pikes Peak State Park, mostly through shaded and wooded areas. To help identify the plant life you might see during these hikes, check out our article on 12 common types of trees.
Pikes Peak State Park has a great campground with modern facilities and is suitable for all types of campers. Campsites with electrical hookups are available, with amenities including a modern shower and restroom block. Some tent campsites are available on a first-come-first-served basis, however, most require a reservation before you arrive. There are two open gazebo shelters and a stone picnic shelter available for use. A trailer dump station is also located on-site, as well as a children’s playground to keep the kids entertained.
Pikes Peak is definitely some of the best camping in Iowa judging from the scenery alone. This camping destination is ideal if you’re looking for a quiet natural getaway, to concentrate on reconnecting with the earth and taking in the wildlife. Due to the limited number of recreational activities, campers looking for an adventure holiday in Iowa should pick a different state park. However, nature-lovers who want to take in the beauty of Iowa in simplicity should definitely pay this location a visit.
2. Maquoketa Caves State Park
For a truly unique Iowa experience, you have to visit the Maquoketa Caves. Maquoketa Caves State Park has more caves than any other park in the state, combined with a series of rugged buffs and limestone rock formations. This park is not to be missed by any geology enthusiast, as there’s so much to learn and take in from cave systems which are thousands of years old.
Many of these structures are open for exploration, as long as appropriate safety measures are taken. The caves vary in size from huge open caverns to tiny crawl spaces, so adventurous campers will have the time of their lives exploring. A well-designed trail system networks through Maquoketa Caves State Park, interlinking all the major caves, formations, and overlooks. Hikers will love this fantastic trail, which provides a challenge while you tour the top sights of the state park.
Maquoketa Caves State Park offers electric and non-electric campsites, located among a strand of pine trees. Half of the camping spots are reservable while the rest are available by walk-in. The campground is in a quiet area, secluded from the rest of the state park. We definitely recommend staying here for a few days so that you can fully explore this fascinating area. Unfortunately, the Maquoketa Caves are currently closed due to Covid-19, but the rest of the park remains open.
There are 6 miles of hiking trails in Maquoketa Caves State Park, which will take hikers to see all the major attractions. Highlights include unique flowstone and dripstone formations, and caves such as Hernando’s Hideaway. Just a mile from the state park, Maquoketa River offers additional recreation where you can rent canoes or go tubing.
3. Ledges State Park
Some of the best tent camping in Iowa can be found in Ledges State Park. The official campground here offers newly renovated campsites with modern restrooms and showers, but this isn’t our main attraction to the area. A handful of primitive hike-in campsites are available at Ledges State Park, which we highly recommend for a breathtaking Iowa experience. One two tent campsites (one with electric and one without) are easily accessible at this campground, so be sure to make a reservation if you need to drive up to your campsite.
The bluffs and canyons of Ledges State Park have drawn visitors for nearly 100 years, as millions have visited since the park was officially designated in 1924. Glacial meltwater carved many canyons and valleys into the sandstone thousands of years ago, which now attracts many sightseers who come to take in the cavernous canyons. The east of the park contains a large bend in the Des Moines River, from where it occasionally floods. However, the area is still a functioning state park and offers recreational activities year-round despite the flooding.
Ledges State Park Campground is just a short distance from the banks of the Des Moines, located in a cluster of deciduous woods. Full and partial hookups are available, as well as a handful of pull-thru sites. Most sites are in the main campground, however, a secluded walk-in area can provide a more serene and private camping spot. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and grill. Campers can access clean water, flush toilets, showers, and a dump station inside the campground.
Plenty of activities are available in the many natural features in Ledges State Park. Kayakers and canoeists can head down to the Des Moines River, where there are also plenty of fishing opportunities. We think it’s a great idea to combine camping with angling, as fishing is good for you and will add to the natural experience! Alternatively, four miles of hiking trails can take you on a tour of the park highlights, including a series of quality overlooks and access to Pea’s Creek Canyon.
4. Lacey Keosauqua State Park
There’s a lot of history at Lacey Keosauqua State Park, it’s one of the oldest and largest in Iowa. Valleys and bluffs of oak and hickory total an area of 1600 acres located in a large bend in the Des Moines River. This scenic state park is popular with hikers, campers, and fishermen who come to take in the peaceful Iowa scenery. Recreation at Lacey Keosauqua is much more than outdoor activities, as the area is rich with important sites of historical significance.
A series of 19 Indian burial mounds can be found in the northwest part of this state park. These look like man-made hills and are of incredible importance to Native Americans. Woodland Culture Indians would construct mounds such as these for important purposes, including burying their dead. It’s perfectly okay to visit these mounds during your time at Lacey Keosauqua State Park, but it’s vital to act with the utmost respect. Always avoid walking on or otherwise disturbing burial mounds, and any other sacred sites.
There are 13 miles of trails in this state park, winding through the cliffs and valleys around the river. One three-mile section follows along the bank of the Des Moines as well as a Mormon river crossing from the 1800s and structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. If you prefer wildlife over history, many of this state park’s trails are popular with birding enthusiasts. Wildlife sightings in Lacey Keosauqua include deer, raccoons, and red foxes, so it’s a great destination for animal lovers.
Lacey Keosauqua State Park has a beautiful campground with shaded campsites. Electric and non-electric camping spots are available, and the washroom amenities are modern. If you get bored with the river, Lake Sugema is just two miles from the state park and can offer even more boating opportunities. With a plethora of flora and fauna to take in, a selection of scenic hiking trails and a choice of several historical attractions nearby, Lacey Keosauqua has some of the best tent camping in Iowa.
5. Lake MacBride State Park
Iowa’s largest state park boasts more than 2000 acres of woodlands, wetlands, prairies, and of course, water! Lake MacBride is a man-made reservoir originally created by a dam constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. However, flooding has caused the water level to rise and flow over into Coralville Lake, effectively making them the same body of water. Lake MacBride State Park borders on Coralville Lake to the west and Lake MacBride to the east.
There are plenty of hiking trails in Lake MacBride State Park, including one 5-mile multi-use biking trail. This popular option runs along the shoreline of Lake MacBride as well as passing through several portions of forest and prairie. Lake activities are another popular recreational option, kayaking and canoeing are excellent choices. Boat rentals are available if you want to try out a spot of fishing, which is another prime activity on Lake MacBride.
There are 812 acres of water in Lake MacBride State Park, full of walleye, catfish, and muskie. You might even reel in a Kentucky spotted bass! A fishing pier and a dozen fishing jetties are accessible to everyone, and a portion of the shoreline is designated for 24-hour angling access. A state-maintained boat ramp and dock means that everyone can access the lake at no extra fee.
There are two campgrounds at Lake MacBride State Park, located in the north and south units of the park. The northern campground has more modern amenities, with electric and full hookup sites available. This camping spot also has showers, restrooms, and two picnic areas. If you don’t mind roughing it a little bit, the southern campground is less developed but located in a beautiful lakeside setting. These tent campsites are non-electric and have flush and non-flush restrooms but no shower block. This is one of the best campgrounds in Iowa if you want a relaxing natural experience.
6. Lake Red Rock Recreation Area
Lake Red Rock is the largest lake in Iowa, a huge 15,000-acre area of water. The Lake Red Rock Recreation area encompasses this lake as well as an additional 35 thousand acres of land, all managed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. This recreation area is one of the best camping destinations in Iowa, with all the views, trails, and activities you could ever desire.
Howell Station Campground is located just below the Red Rock Dam and lake, to the north of the Des Moines River. This riverbank camping spot is shaded by hardwood forests, a perfect place to sit and take in the scenery. You can see a wide variety of wildlife including bald eagles, white-tailed deer, and other small animals. This COE campground provides roomy electric sites with flush and pit toilets, as well as showers and potable water.
Fishing is a popular activity for campers at Howell Station, as anglers love the easy riverbank access. A plethora of game fish such as striped bass, crappie, walleye, and bluegill fill the lake and rivers in this recreation area. There are miles of water trails so you can see the park from a kayak or canoe, we highly recommend this way to see the shoreline. Of course, there are hiking trails on the land if you’d prefer, but water activities are at their best in Lake Red Rock.
7. Saylorville Lake
The Saylorville Lake Project is another fantastic Corps of Engineers area to rank among the best Iowa state parks. This 50-mile stretch of the Des Moines River Valley offers a huge range of recreational opportunities for visiting campers. The clear lake is host to all kinds of fun water activities including swimming, boating, and water sports.
Anglers love to visit Saylorville Lake to fish for wiper, largemouth bass, catfish, and more. You can use the accessible fishing pier or take out your craft from the boat launch. Alternatively, river fishing is also available. A 24-mile National Recreation Trail passes through the area which can be used for hiking, biking, and in-line skating.
Cherry Glen Campground is the oldest and best-established camping spot on Saylorville Lake. Nestled in a quaint wooded ridge, they offer over 100 family campsites all with electric hookups. Amenities include a visitor center nearby, as well as flush toilets and showers. If you want a scenic tent campsite with easy access to a range of natural entertainment, choose Cherry Glen. We highly recommend this well-equipped campground as some of the best camping in Iowa.
You could spend a lifetime exploring the rolling hills and gentle valleys of Iowa, but we advise starting with one of the best tent camping sites. Any of these state parks and recreation areas make a fantastic choice for your next camping trip.
Lake MacBride State Park and Red Rock Recreation Area are both ideal destinations for anglers, where you could catch bass, walleye, and many more sport fish. History lovers should check out Lacey Keosaudua, while we recommend Maquoketa Caves State Park to any budding geologist! There’s an activity for every taste amongst the best tent camping sites in Iowa and a beautiful view around every trail bend.
Bonus tip: Check out this awesome video of the Maquoketa Caves!