Welcome to the Buckeye State, the Birthplace of Aviation, the Mother of Presidents, and, of course, home to some of the best kayaking spots in the country!
Iowa isn’t one of the most popular holiday destinations in the country, but you’d be surprised by just how amazing it can be for kayakers and canoers!
There are so many wonderful rivers, lakes, and waterways where you can spend a few hours, days, or even weeks exploring hidden wonders and beauties of middle America.
If you’re looking for someplace to spend your next kayaking vacation or you live in Iowa and want to get to know your own backyard, you’ve come to the right place.
In this post, we’ll talk about the best spots to go kayaking in Iowa, include resources to help you make the most of your trip, keep you updated on all the important Iowa kayaking laws, and answer a few of the most commonly asked questions.
By the end of this page, you’ll be ready to hit the water and have a proper Iowa kayaking adventure!
15 Best Places to Go Kayaking in Iowa
1. Terry Trueblood Recreation Area
For those who are visiting Iowa City and don’t have time to head too far out of town for a proper weekend getaway, this is the spot for you. The park is located just a few miles from the city’s downtown area, close enough you can make the drive there and back in a matter of minutes—leaving you plenty of time to get out on the water and get your paddle wet.
The recreation area is absolutely perfect for newbies who are just trying kayaking for the first time. The water is calm, the area is gorgeous, and there are plenty of nearby spots to rent kayaks. Anglers best be prepared, because there’s plenty of walleye and brook trout in these waters. It’s a wonderful place to spend a lazy afternoon floating along or testing out some new paddling skill. Just be aware that it can get a bit crowded on the weekends, as the University of Iowa is nearby and students often come to the lake to get away from the stuffy classroom.
2. Maquoketa River
The Maquoketa River is definitely one of Iowa’s most popular waterways. Running for 150 miles, it starts in northeastern Iowa and cuts through the state toward the Mississippi River. Along the way, it cuts through towering limestone bluffs believed to be more than 400 million years old, virtually unchanged through the ages, and a testament to the antiquity of our world and the magnificent beauty it has for us to enjoy. Natural history buffs will love it!
Of course, for anyone who wants some whitewater adventure, the rapids near Manchester offer a great place to challenge your skills. Or, enjoy the gorgeous terrain around Backbone State Park, where there are 18 miles of waterway cutting through dense forests of mighty oak trees. No matter what your skill level, you’ll find somewhere on the Maquoketa River perfect for you.
3. Cedar River
If you’re visiting Janesville, make sure to take a detour to the Cedar River. The launch point is conveniently accessible at Janesville City Park, and the waters here are easily navigable even for kayaking newbies. However, this is just the beginning of a water trail that runs for a lovely 47 miles and offers you all sorts of unique experiences.
For example, just a few miles downstream, you’ll come to Black Hawk Park, home to forests rich with gorgeous silver maple trees. Bird watchers will want to keep a sharp eye out for the hawks, bald eagles, and other avian species that build their nests near to the river. The water is slow-moving enough you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the views, but you can make good progress downstream to complete the water trail in the span of a day. It’s a beginner-friendly paddling destination you’re sure to love.
4. Boone River
For a taste of Iowa history, pay a visit to the Boone River. Along the 111-mile stretch of waterway, you’ll come across from truly spectacular spots that will make the trip a whole lot more fascinating and enjoyable.
Boone River is home to a plethora of wildlife, from otters to hawks to swallows to eagles. It will carry you beneath bridges that have stood for decades, and you’d do well to look up to spot the nests tucked up under the bridges’ support columns. Adventure paddlers will also find plenty to keep them entertained. When water levels drop, the river’s boulders are exposed, putting your skills to the test as you paddle around the obstacles. All along the way, you’ll see remnants of the industry that made Iowa one of the most productive midwestern states during the 1800s.
5. Upper Iowa River
The Upper Iowa River was named by National Geographic as one of the “100 Greatest Adventures”, so it’s definitely worth paying a visit while you’re in-state. The river runs an impressive 156 miles, cutting through limestone cliffs that rise a terrifying and imposing 300 feet. You can’t help but feel awestruck by the majesty of Mother Earth as you paddle between the cliffs and see the effects the river has had carving out channels through the immense stone walls.
Beginners will be right at home on these waters most of the year around. The flow is easy to navigate even if you’re new to paddling, and you’ll find the current is calm enough that even kids can handle it. However, be warned that the river can be a bit turbulent and fast-flowing during flood season. The good news, though, is that there are few underwater obstacles and no rapids, so even when the current is up, you’re still in for a good time.
6. Lake Wapello
Looking for a calm lake day for the whole family? Come on down to Lake Wapello for a truly spectacular day of fun in the sun. Located within Lake Wapello State Park, this is a popular destination among kayak anglers, because the lake is stocked with bluegill, bass, and catfish. Bring your rod and reel, get out into the middle of the lake on your kayak, and cast in your line. Whether you catch something or not, you’re in for a truly lovely day.
The lake spans a whopping 1,000 acres, so you’ll never have to worry about running into motorized vessels or bumping into other kayakers. With so much shoreline to explore, you’ll love finding little hidden inlets and coves, as well as the secret beaches. It’s flat, calm water where motorized vessels have to stay under 5 MPH, so there’s no risk of wakes to disturb newbie kayakers.
7. Lizard Creek
If you’re new to whitewater kayaking or looking to go for your very first whitewater run, Lizard Creek is the perfect spot for you. The Class I and Class II whitewater rapids are beginner-friendly, with multiple stretches that you can paddle with the aid of a guide or experienced whitewater kayaker. The boulders, drops, and riffles along the river give it enough challenge that it will put newbies to the test. Thanks to the many access points along the way, you can safely put in and take out at any time if you feel you’re not up to a challenge.
Be warned: if the water level is too low, the river won’t be safe to paddle. However, even if you’re not a whitewater kayaker, you can enjoy exploring some of Iowa’s natural beauty, including the impressive limestone cliffs, deep forests, and plenty of views of the cornfields for which the state is best-known.
8. Charles City Whitewater Park
For those who want to stay in-town but still get a proper kayaking experience, the Charles City Whitewater Park is a thrilling option. Built in 2011, it’s the state’s first whitewater park, the perfect place to test your skills or try your hand at whitewater kayaking without actually venturing out into wild and unpredictable waterways.
Here, you’ll find a number of challenges: the Exit Exam, a perfect place for kayak surfers to test their burgeoning skills; Doc’s Drop, a larger rapid that challenges your vertical moves; and Dam Drop, or Double D as it’s locally known, a smaller set of man-made rapids designed to test your stand-up paddleboard surfing skills. The whitewater park lets you practice your paddling safely and gives you plenty of chances to exit when you’re done or feeling unsteady.
9. Wapsipinicon River
The Wapsipinicon River is a truly spectacular place to experience the majesty of the limestone cliffs for which Iowa is so well known. The cliffs range from small (20 to 30 feet) to immense (80 feet), and you can see the multiple layers of strata that formed the land over the passage of the years. It’s a stirring and sobering reminder that Earth is a lot older than we often realize, and it falls to us to care for it while we are here.
The river itself is easy to paddle and perfect for beginners, with plenty of access points along the way for you to put in or take out. Whether you want to do a full-day trip or just spend a few hours on the water, you’ll have no trouble finding a paddle trail that suits your needs. The river is also home to great kayak fishing. Crappie, walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike all make their home here, and a smart angler can come away with plenty of fresh-caught fish for dinner.
10. Des Moines River
The Des Moines River spans 100 miles, and offers you plenty of gorgeous views, calm water trails, and scenic surroundings that will help to relax you after a busy work week. You’ll paddle past a lot of privately owned land, so you’re better off staying inside your kayak as much as possible, but along the way, you’ll get to enjoy a few hours in the middle of nature and quiet that will soothe your stress away like only natural life can.
There are a few spots that are a bit too advanced for total newbies, especially if you’re planning to paddle the full 100-mile stretch. However, there are plenty of stretches—such as the section between Highway 30 and the E-57—that are great for paddlers of all skill levels.
11. South and Middle Racoon Rivers
Both of the Racoon Rivers are worth paying a visit to while in Iowa, especially if you’re already staying in Des Moines. They’re conveniently accessible and just a short drive away from the city, so it’s worth spending an afternoon out on the water.
The South Racoon River runs through cornfields and farmlands, with a few challenges (including fallen trees and riffles) that will put your paddling skills to the test. The Middle Racoon River, by contrast, is serene and easy to paddle, but beautifully wild all around. It’s one of only five Protected Waters within the state, utterly untouched by human development, and is home to otters, great blue herons, kingfishers, and bald eagles.
Make sure to keep a sharp eye out for the Des Moines Lobe, where an ancient glacier once leveled half of Iowa and carved 40-foot sandstone bluffs out of the ground.
12. Clear Lake
With a name like Clear Lake, you know exactly what you’re getting! The water is gorgeous and crystal clear much of the year around, home to many fish species (that offer great fishing and ice fishing). The fact that it’s located near to Clear Lake City means it’s a popular destination for urbanites who want a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s easily accessible without ever having to leave town.
However, be warned that it’s a popular boating lake, especially during the warmer months. You’ll end up sharing the water with a lot of motorized boats, fellow kayakers, canoers, and paddleboarders. Kayak anglers with trolling motors will also spend a lot of time on the water. But given that the lake spans 3,000 acres, you’re sure to find a quiet, calm spot to enjoy away from it all.
13. Middle River
Middle River, also called the Middle River Water Trail, offers quite a few places you can explore the waterways of Iowa and see some of the state’s most beautiful scenic views. The river cuts right through Pammel Bridge State Park, where you’ll be confronted by the towering oak trees that are famous for being some of the oldest in the state—and the country. There’s also the Roseman Bridge, one of the legendary “Covered Bridges of Madison County”, and plenty of limestone cliffs and giant bluffs to offer spectacular views.
Be aware that there are a few obstacles along the way, including fallen and submerged trees, and you may encounter riffles that will be too shallow to kayak. It’s a great chance to practice your portaging skills and explore some of the rarely-visited forest paths and trails along the river’s edge.
14. West Okoboji Lake
West Okoboji Lake is a wonderful place to bring your family for a weekend of fun. The lake itself spans more than 3,800 acres, considered one of “Iowa’s Great Lakes”, so there’s plenty of water for you to paddle your hearts out and improve your kayak-handling skills. But if the kids start getting bored, you can paddle over to Arnolds Park Amusement Park, a vintage amusement park with an antique-looking Ferris wheel and roller coaster. There, they can scream at full volume while you wave at them from the water.
Or, pay a visit to one of the many parks on the banks of the lake, paddle past the many lakeside homes, even paddle up the small inlets and bays along the lake’s edge. You’ll find there’s so much to do on this immense lake, and you’ll love coming back time and again.
15. Lake Red Rock
We’ve saved the biggest—and possibly the best—for last! Lake Red Rock is the largest lake in Iowa, spanning a mind-boggling 15,000 acres. In fact, it’s so large and deep and holds so much water that the Army Corps of Engineers uses it as a reservoir in case of emergencies.
Don’t let the size fool you: the lake is calm, the water is flat, and beginners will be right at home here. Its proximity to Des Moines means anyone can visit it, even if they’ve only got a few hours to spare in their busy week. Not only is it suitable for kayaking, but campers will find plenty of campgrounds around the lake’s edge to pitch their tent, and there’s more than 35,000 acres of hiking trails to explore. You can spend weeks out in nature and still have more to see and do!
Kayaking Tours in Iowa
Kayaking in Iowa is a wonderful way to get out into nature and explore the state away from the big city. You’ll find there are so many stunning places to visit, so many natural marvels to take in, and plenty to keep you occupied all summer long.
A lot of people visit Iowa for business, but it can be a truly spectacular holiday destination, especially if you come during the summer months when the weather is warm, the water cool, and the sun is bright. However, there’s kayaking opportunities pretty much all year around—you’ve just got to know where to look!
Kayaking tours in Iowa will offer you a great option for finding guided, fully equipped tours of some of the state’s best waterways—the lakes and rivers we’ve mentioned above, and so many more. They’re ideal for those who are visiting and didn’t have the possibility of bringing their own gear, or who are kayaking for the first time.
Here are some of the best-rated and most popular kayaking tours in Iowa:
- Canoe Sport Outfitters (tours of Lake Ahquabi and Racoon River)
- Seven Oaks Rec (tours of the Des Moines River)
- Argo Adventures (tours of Racoon River)
- Rock-N-Row Adventures (tours of the Iowa River)
There aren’t as many tours in Iowa as in other states, but you’ll be able to find those there are using additional resources like:
- Trip Advisor – If you know where you’ll be visiting, input the city into the search engine, and you’ll get local results tailored to your destination.
- Yelp – Here, you’ll find real-life reviews from paddlers who’ve tried the various outfitters and tour services for themselves and have feedback to help you choose which one suits your needs best.
- Google Maps – On Google Maps, you can find outfitters and tour companies around the entire state, or narrow it down to just one city, county, or even one waterway.
You can also use this interactive map of places to go paddling while planning your next kayaking adventure in Iowa.
Iowa Kayaking Laws
Kayaks are non-motor powered vessels
Thus, they are exempted from needing a registration or requiring a license.
However, if you are operating a kayak with a trolling motor mounted, you will need to register it (as a motorized vessel) and obtain a license to operate it.
There is no minimum age for operating a kayak
In Iowa, any child between 12 and 17 who wants to operate a motorized vessel (like a kayak with a trolling motor mounted) needs to complete boater education courses. However, that is not necessary with manual-powered vessels like kayaks.
Kayakers must have one lifejacket on board per person
All children under the age of 13 are required by law to actually wear the lifejackets. Adults, however, just need to have a lifejacket accessible and within easy reach.
Kayakers must display lights at “low visibility times”
Between sunset and sunrise, or during fog and other “low visibility times”, kayaks need to display at least one white light visible from 360 degrees.
Kayakers are not required carry a sound-producing device
As long as the vessel is under 16 feet long (which includes most kayaks), there is no need to carry a sound-producing device when operating on state-controlled waters. However, it’s recommended to carry at least a whistle.
Kayaks do not need to carry visual distress signals (VDS)
When operating on Iowa state waters, VDS is not required, but recommended.
Kayakers absolutely can get a BWI
If you are kayaking while intoxicated or under the influence, you can receive the boating equivalent of a DUI, a BWI. If you’re visibly impaired or your blood alcohol level registers as higher than 0.08%, you are legally “under the influence”.
The penalties in Iowa are:
- Minimum of 48 hours in jail, fine of up to $1,000, and being banned from operating a vessel for 1 year on your first offense.
- Up to 7 days in jail, fine of up to $5,000, and being banned from operating a vessel for 2 years on your second offense.
- Up to 1 year in jail, fine of up to $7,500, and being banned from operating a vessel for 6 years on your third offense.
The judge may require you to complete boating safety education program, as well as alcohol treatment program.
Kayaking in Iowa FAQs
Can you drink while kayaking in Iowa?
It is illegal to operate any vessel—including manually powered vessels like kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes—while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You are not legally allowed to drink on board a kayak on public waterways.
Can you kayak on the Iowa River?
Absolutely! Though it’s not the best waterway (see our better options above), you’ll find plenty of access points where you can put in or take out. It’s a lovely river with lots of scenic views.
Can you go on any river in Iowa with a kayak?
You certainly can. There are no “off limits” waterways, though you do need to be aware that much of the land bordering the lakes and rivers may be privately owned and thus off limits to trespassers.