Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Officially Ends

Photo courtesy of Clear Lake Iowa

By Katie Giorgio

June and July flew by, and August is now over. There are Halloween decorations on the shelves at retailers near you. But there’s no need to give up on summer just yet; the first day of fall isn’t officially until September 23, meaning there are plenty of memories yet to be made with quick day and overnight trips across the state.

Check out these spots to soak up a little bit more family fun before summer 2023 officially comes to a close.

Adventure golf or go karts

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of Lost Island Waterpark and Theme Park

Though Lost Island Waterpark and Theme Park in Waterloo are both mostly closed for the season, you can still hit up the Adventure Golf mini golf or the go-kart course on weekend afternoons through September; click here for tickets. If you want to make a two-day adventure of it, consider staying at the Lost Island KOA Kampground located nearby. With sites for RVs and small cabins that you can reserve, this island-themed oasis in the middle of Iowa is a fun getaway. 

Chase waterfalls 

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of Decorah Parks & Recreation

A day or two visiting Decorah in northeast Iowa can be a bit of a fairy-tale dream. With a variety of waterfall hikes to go on, including Dunning Springs Park and the Ice Cave Hill, your outdoor adventures will transport you to a summer wonderland.

You might also go river tubing or kayaking on the Upper Iowa River and enjoy the scenery along the bluffs in this very unique Iowa landscape known as the Driftless Region (assuming the water is high enough!).

Of course, once you’ve worked up an appetite, you can snag a slice of pizza at fan-favorite Mabe’s Pizza, then finish off the day with some ice cream from Sugar Bowl. If you need to chase one more waterfall before heading home, make a pit stop in Big Springs Park near Guttenberg. 

Hit the rapids

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of City of Manchester, Parks & Recreation

This one is assuming we get some much-needed rain—and a lot of it! But if the river cooperates, head to Charles City and pop in to the Charles City Whitewater Park at Riverfront Park.

The first such park developed in Iowa, this multi-level water adventure is popular with kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, tubers, fishermen, and all river enthusiasts alike. The best part is that it is free and open all year long.

Manchester has also developed a whitewater park with rapids running through the heart of downtown. Also free and open all day and all year long, this run features six 18-inch drops over 800 feet. Bring your own tube and life jacket or rent them from a nearby retailer. Pavilions near each whitewater run offer a great spot for a picnic as well. 

Go caving

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of The Des Moines Register

Keep cool in a cave as the late summer temperatures soar. Maquoketa Caves State Park is a perennially popular spot in eastern Iowa that offers a variety of trails to explore and interesting geological formations. Bring a flashlight and good footwear so you can pop in and out of dark spaces. You can also check out Spook Cave, which you can actually take a boat ride through before staying at the nearby campground.

Crystal Lake Cave near Dubuque is another cool spot to check out. You’ll be amazed at what sits below the cornfields of the state when you see the interesting formations on the cave tour. There’s also a super fun gift shop to explore after you see the sights below ground. 

Live the lake life

There’s something special about a weekend spent at the lake. And while Minnesota may be better known for their large selection of lakes, there are plenty of fun things to do on and off the water in Iowa, including Clear Lake. You can bike around the lake or head out boating, sailing, or fishing. There are several beaches to access for more fun in the sun.

Plus, there are plenty of restaurants and nightlife spots to enjoy right around the lake. Grab a sweet treat at Cookies, Etc. or Charlie’s Soda Fountain. Coralville Lake in eastern Iowa is another option for spending a day on the water with plenty of  beaches and trails to explore. The nearby Iowa Raptor Project is a fun stop to see some birds of prey, along with the Devonian Fossil Gorge. No matter what activities you decide to do, you’re sure to enjoy your lake-cation. 

Ride the rails

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of Rail Explorers USA

Gather up your train enthusiasts and head for the middle of the state, where you can check out the Boone Scenic Valley Railroad Museum. There’s a lot of train memorabilia and history to explore, but don’t miss out on the actual train ride. Check out the special trips the train makes, including lunch and dinner rides or “Day Out with Thomas” events that young children are sure to love.

And with the addition of a new attraction, Rail Explorers,  you can take in the scenery from a new perspective. The scenic valley trail is 12.5 miles through open farmland and across the Des Moines River, which you pedal over on the open-air rail bike for a thrilling experience of the Iowa countryside. 

Peep some wildlife

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

If you are a family of animal lovers, consider a day trip to the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. Operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, this spot in central Iowa is home to a variety of animals. The bison are a favorite species to spot in the park, but you may also see elk and a wide variety of birds.

Jester Park Nature Center, also in central Iowa, is another popular spot for a wildlife excursion. Here you can also see bison and elk or take advantage of the equestrian center. If your crew is interested in more exotic animals, the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines is an excellent choice. Check out the lions, tigers, giraffes, penguins, rhinos, red pandas, and more. 

Take a hike or a ride

Last-Minute Iowa Day & Overnight Trips to Take Before Summer Ends
Photo courtesy of Polk County Conservation

Go by bike or by foot, but get out and explore the trails of the state. The High Trestle Trail is a particularly fun way to get from Ankeny to Woodward in central Iowa. The 25-mile paved path is particularly exciting to ride in the evening hours when the half-mile-long, 13-story-high trail bridge that spans across the Des Moines River between Madrid and Woodward is lit up.

Farther west in the state is Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. You can find a wide variety of hikes to take, depending on the age and skill level of those you are hiking with, in this distinct geographic region of the state made up of windblown soils. 


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