The Best Hiking Trail in Iowa, According to Iowans

By Amie Rivers

June 29, 2023

It was a simple question, asked on our Facebook page:

But that question led to a lot of very different responses!

Here are the best hiking trails in the state, according to you:

Mines of Spain State Recreation Area

The top picked—nominated by Carolyn, Christopher, Susan and Beau—was the Mines of Spain in Dubuque.

Though the area has 15 miles of trails, the 1.6-mile Horseshoe Bluff Trail was a top choice for a few commenters, likely because it winds its way along the Mississippi River, providing dramatic views.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Iowa may not have any national parks to claim. But Effigy Mounds in Harper’s Ferry is considered a national monument, and thus falls under the purview of the National Park Service.

Come for the more than 200 American Indian mounds associated with 20 different tribes, many of which are animal-shaped—something unique to this region. Stay because Effigy Mounds is also located in the driftless Upper Mississippi River Valley area, a super picturesque area of the state.

Three different readers suggested this, liked by more than two dozen others, making it our second-top pick of the week. Though, none expanded on which trails they liked best. (They probably know that any trail here is a good one.)

Yellow River State Forest

Also located in northeast Iowa’s Harper’s Ferry, the Yellow River State Forest is more than 8,900 acres (divided into 6 units) of driftless gold for a hiker.

Paul’s suggestion of taking the Backpack Trail, in the Paint Creek Unit, was seconded by a dozen others.

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Backbone State Park

The Northeast Iowa hike aficionados must have stuffed these ballots!

But you can’t argue with Backbone State Park in Dundee, also one I’ve had the pleasure of hiking many times.

A dozen agreed with Carolyn on that one, who specifically suggested “the spine,” otherwise known as the Backbone Trail, comprised of dramatic dolomite cliffs that were carved over millennia by the Maquoketa River.

The rocky, picturesque Backbone Trail at Backbone State Park.

Maquoketa Caves State Park

Located in Maquoketa, this eastern Iowa park is a must on a hot day.

Reader Megan did not specify which trail at Maquoketa Caves State Park she appreciated the best, but nine others agreed Iowa’s best-known and most accessible limestone cave system deserved consideration.

My suggestion? Hit up as many of the 13 caves over the 6-mile trail system as you can stomach. (If you’re particularly claustrophobic, try one you can easily walk through, like Dancehall Cave.)

Venturing inside Dancehall Cave.

Wildcat Den State Park

Southeast Iowa is finally getting some love!

Readers Heather and Meagan both suggested Muscatine’s Wildcat Den State Park, another favorite of mine since I was young.

“The natural beauty…will take your breath away!” Heather noted, and she’s not wrong in the slightest.

Green and rocky.

Pikes Peak State Park

Suggested by a couple of folks, Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor has 11 miles of scenic trails, including ones along the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers.

Though nobody suggested a particular trail, the half-mile boardwalk trail to Bridal Veil Falls is a great, fairly easy one.

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Gray’s Lake

This one’s for the city dwellers!

Located in Des Moines, the 1.9-mile loop trail around Gray’s Lake in the city-owned Gray’s Lake Park is a ritual for some residents, enough to make this list.

You can’t argue with a lake loop, and the Des Moines skyline is a nice feature. But the most distinguishing feature has to be the 1,400-foot-long Kruidenier Trail pedestrian bridge, built in 2000.

“It’s easily accessible on just about any given day by old and young alike, and is do-able by all skill-levels and physical abilities,” said Dana, who suggested the trail.

Loess Hills State Forest

Though it’s currently closed (beginning in April 2023) because of wildfires, Loess Hills State Forest in western Iowa’s Pisgah was also a favorite of readers.

At more than 11,400 acres, we needed a bit more specificity, and Michael suggested Brent’s Trail, an 8-mile trek along the ridges and valleys of the majestic Loess Hills, a unique geological feature.

Geode State Park

Back to southeast Iowa for Danville’s Geode State Park, where you cannot, by law, take home any geodes you find.

But you can traipse around Lake Geode, which Mallory suggested we do for a “fairly short and quiet hike.”

Your sarcastic suggestions

Plenty of folks suggested other trails in the thread, which you should read in full.

And a few folks submitted some tongue-in-cheek answers, too. Some of our favorites:

“One leaving the state.”

“The one no one knows about.”

“I-80 median strip.”

“Flat.”

And, my personal favorite:

“Whichever one you’re on at the moment!”

 

by Amie Rivers
6/29/23

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  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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