12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

Photo courtesy of Canva

By Katie Giorgio

December 24, 2023

The cold has settled in and it won’t be long before the Iowa landscape is covered in glistening white snow and ice. You could cozy up and wait out the next few months indoors or you could lean into the unique opportunities that the winter season presents. 

Below is a list of particularly amazing places to go ice skating, sledding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and enjoy other magical winter fun here in Iowa. Our best advice is to remember that there is no bad weather, just bad clothes. Dress appropriately for whichever of these fun outdoor activities you take on this winter and you are sure to have a wonderful wintry time. 

Time to bundle up and start checking off your Iowa winter bucket list.

Jester Park Sleigh Rides

Granger

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

Photo courtesy of Jester Park Sleigh Rides

Before the holiday season draws to a close, make a point to reserve a sleigh ride through Jester Park in Polk County. These holiday horse-drawn rides take place every weekend through the end of December and are a great way to add some nostalgia to the season. Don’t worry if there’s no snow on the ground, the team will hitch up to either a wagon or sleigh depending on the weather. 

University of Okoboji Winter Games

Okoboji

The fictitious University of Okoboji is proud to host the 44th annual Winter Games this January in Okoboji. From Jan. 25-28, winter enthusiasts from around the state gather to participate in a host of frigid activities including broomball, flag football, softball, snowga (yoga in the snow), human foosball, and much more. There’s a polar plunge if you’re brave enough to take a dip in the nearly frozen lake, plus a kite festival and fireworks to cap it all off. If you are ready to embrace the great outdoors this winter, don’t miss the Winter Games. 

Sundown Mountain Resort

Dubuque

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

Iowa isn’t known for its mountains, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some fun on the slopes this winter. Head to Dubuque and check out Sundown Mountain Resort, where you’ll find 85 acres of skiing and snowboarding fun across 21 different trails. It’s a great spot for both beginners looking to hit the bunny hill and more experienced skiers looking for a thrill. They make their own snow when the temperature doesn’t stay low enough so it remains a popular destination all winter long. 

Mount Crescent

Honey Creek

If you happen to be spending your winter in the western part of the state, you’ll want to check out Mount Crescent for some excellent skiing fun. This ski resort is located not too far from the Iowa-Nebraska border and its rugged terrain is part of the Loess Hills. Locals will tell you it’s a fantastic place to learn to ski—a favorite since it opened in the 1960s—and also a prime spot for sledding. The latter run is 1,000 feet long and there are ski runs that are up to 2,700 feet long. Thanks to their snow-making machine they stay open from December through March each season. 

Cone Park

Sioux City

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

Photo courtesy of Cone Park

Siouxlanders appreciate time outdoors in the winter at Cone Park. Here you’ll find an exciting 700-foot tubing run. For $15 you can spend three hours racing down the hill again and again. There’s also a 5,400-square-foot ice-skating rink to twirl about. If you don’t have your own ice skates, you can rent what you need when you arrive at Cone Park and grab a hot chocolate at the concession stand. The park also has a 2-mile trail that loops through the area. And if you get a bit chilly, cozy up next to the outdoor firepit for a bit. 

Brenton Skating Plaza

Des Moines

Ice-skating fans in the Des Moines area can enjoy some fresh air at Brenton Skating Plaza. This holiday hub of activity downtown in the Principal Riverwalk stays busy with open skating all the way through March. At $10 for adults and $6 for kids, you can show off your icecapades moves for cheap. Skates are available for rent ($5 per pair) or you can use your own. Skating lessons are offered at specially designated times, and check out the special event calendar to take advantage of special skating nights like princess and superhero skates, teacher appreciation night, military appreciation skate, Valentine’s skate, and more. 

Seven Oaks Recreation

Boone

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

Photo courtesy of Seven Oaks

Skiers and snow tubers in central Iowa love Seven Oaks Recreation in the winter. Located in Boone, this popular snow-covered destination is a popular one for skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing all season long. Open since 1997—a ski area existed in this spot years before then but had fallen into disrepair—Seven Oaks is a great spot to spend the day feeling the wind rush past as you slice down the hill. Family-owned-and-operated, there is a lodge for breaks and warming up where they also serve pizza and other snacks. We recommend the mini donuts after a few runs down the slopes. 

Cozy up in a cabin

McGregor, Decorah, and other locations

Nothing could be more picturesque than spending the weekend in a cozy little cabin in the woods. Several Iowa options, particularly in the northeastern corner of the state, allow you to do just that. Check out Grumpsters Log Cabins near McGregor or Decorah High Point Cabins, as both have several cabin options that range from a two-person getaway to a whole family affair. A couple of the cabins at Decorah have added amenities like hot tubs. Booking one of these cabins will transport you to a place of comfort and rustic charm, though we have to warn you that you may not want to return to reality until after winter wraps up. If you are looking for something closer to home or a bit more budget-friendly, check out the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) winter cabin rentals in parks across the state. 

Observe bald eagles

Le Claire, Keokuk 

12 Iowa winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts

Photo courtesy of Bald Eagle Festival

Bald eagles are always majestic, but watching them soar and swoop over a river during the winter months is truly mesmerizing. Typically starting in January, many Iowa riverways will be popular spots for bald eagle watching. The DNR reports that the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers were popular viewing spots in 2023. Cities like LeClaire on the banks of the Mississippi celebrate the stunning birds of prey during their annual Bald Eagle Festival, scheduled for Jan. 20-21, 2024. Even if you can’t make it to this particular event, check out popular watching spots across the state, including in Lansing, Dubuque, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines. You’ll truly be amazed at how many bald eagles you can see at one time. 

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing

Indianola, Ackworth and other locations

A dozen or so parks in Warren County are just waiting for enough snowpack so that outdoor enthusiasts can strap on their Nordic skis or snowshoes and take a winter hike. Of course many other trails and locations around the state are ideal for snowshoeing (including the Viking Lake Loop near Stanton, the Rio Valley Trail in Clive, and Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids) and cross-country skiing (including F. W. Kent Park near Iowa City, Brent’s Trail in the Loess Hills, and Whitewater Canyon Trail near Cascade). Check with your local parks department to see what trails are ready for winter exploration on foot. 

Go ice fishing

Clear Lake and other locations

Of course a little ice covering the lakes and rivers of Iowa won’t stop avid anglers. Ice fishing is a popular winter pastime all around the state. The DNR offers a bucketful of tips and tricks and has access to reports on waterways across the state so folks know when the timing is right and the ice is thick enough. The backwaters of the Mississippi River are a particularly popular spot for ice fishing, as well as Clear Lake and Big Spirit Lake in north central Iowa. You are likely to have the most success either early or later in the winter season, but again, it’s important to check the reports from DNR to ensure it’s safe to go out. Toss in a line and perhaps you’ll snag a yellow perch, walleye, bluegill, or crappie. 

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Des Moines

We get that not everyone feels outdoorsy during the winter months, so we added a “warm” item to the Iowa winter bucket list. For a refreshing dose of tropical vibes to get you to springtime, pop into the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Wandering through the conservatory, you’ll find exotic orchids and other uniquely gorgeous tropical plants in bloom. This time of year you can also check out Dome After Dark to see the gorgeous flora that call the garden home in a whole new light, literally. It’s perfect for a date night, a girls’ night out, or just a fun spot for the kids to explore. A trip to the botanical gardens will remind you to enjoy winter while it’s here and look forward to warmer weather ahead.

  • Katie Giorgio

    Katie Mills Giorgio is a freelance writer, editor, and nonprofit professional living and working in her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She’s written for a wide variety of publications, including WashingtonPost.com, BHG.com, and U.S. News & World Report. 100 Things to Do in Cedar Rapids Before You Die, her first book came out in October 2022. Learn more at katiemillsgiorgio.com or follow her on Instagram at @ktmgiorgio.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | THINGS TO DO

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