By Trent Jonas
From watching hot air balloons brighten up the Iowa sky to celebrations dedicated entirely to carp, Iowa has a slew of fun outdoor festivals to enjoy year-round. Iowa’s beautiful natural spaces also make it a wonderful place to get outdoors. Here are our favorites in the state.
Every summer dozens of hot air balloons take to the skies over Indianola. The National Balloon Classic is more than a spectator event, though—you can get in on the action and take a balloon ride yourself. In addition to the balloons, there are also live bands, vendors and a parade during the week-long event.
Carp are big, plentiful, put up a fight, and are a lot of fun to catch. And that's why the Iowa DNR, the Izak Walton League and Des Moines Parks and Recreation host CarpFEST every year. Head on down to Gray's Lake Park in the capital city to try your hand at landing a big carp. Bait, gear, instructions and demonstrations are available at this free event.
Spring is always sweet at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids—especially during their annual Maple Syrup Festival. You'll find live music, syrup making demonstrations—and even a pancake and sausage breakfast with real maple syrup. Work off the pancakes with a trail hike among the sugar maples, perhaps with an Iowa Brewing Company Maple Fest beer in hand.
If you're feeling like flying a kite, head up to Clear Lake for their annual Color the Wind Kite Festival. The festival brings a splash of color to the winter landscape in north-central Iowa. Largely supported by local business and individuals—like the Manufacturers' Bank & Trust and Fareway Grocery Stores—as well as the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce, the festival takes place on the third Saturday in February.
For more than 30 years, teams of paddlers have been hitting the Mississippi River for the annual Dragon Boat Festival in Dubuque. Every September, paddlers camp out for a weekend, and the boats launch from Miller Riverview Park with a mission of promoting friendship through paddling.
An annual June ritual in Onawa is the Lewis & Clark Festival, which takes place every year at the nearby state park that also bears the explorers' names. The festival—sponsored by the Onawa Chamber of Commerce—seeks to recreate the early 19th century period when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to survey the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The park is the site of the pair's August, 1804 encampment. So, throw on your buckskins and moccasins and head over to the festival for a weekend of rides in a replica of the explorers' keelboat, frontier demonstrations and activities, as well as food and music.
Every January, bald eagles migrating along the Mississippi River flyway stop to feed in the Quad Cities area. Bald Eagle Days celebrates the raptors' annual return to Davenport and Bettendorf (as well as Moline and Rock Island). During the weekend, the Quad City Audubon Society will offer free bus tours of the eagles' feeding sites. Meanwhile, more than a hundred display and information booths—as well as demonstrations and activities from places like Big Run Wolf Ranch and the Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary—will dot the floor of the Quad Cities Conservation Alliance Expo Center.
Like cycling? How about blues music? Craving barbecue? How about a beer? Well, don't just sit there! Hop on your bike (or put it on a rack) and get your blues-loving self up to the Bicycle, Blues and BBQ Festival in Clear Lake. The annual festival takes place in July and runs in conjunction with the annual Brews on the Beach Craft Brew Fest, which offers the wares of 25 Iowa craft breweries, like Lake Time Brewery, Confluence Brewing Company, and Pulpit Rock Brewing.
The River Valley Festival is a multi-day festival that celebrates all the natural beauty and outdoor action that Boone County affords. Enjoy hiking, fishing or a long paddle on the Des Moines River. The festival also features a guided birding outing, a fishing tournament and kids events like Outdoor Craft and Story time. Adults can always enjoy a beverage from the Boone Valley Brewing Company, as well.
Join the "largest paddlesport festival on the nation's greatest river"—Floatzilla. The annual festival takes place in the Quad Cities, and Iowans can launch onto the Mississippi River in Bettendorf or from one of two places in Davenport. If you need to rent a canoe or kayak for the event, you can pick one up from River Basin Canoe & Kayak, Monticello Canoe Rental or CrawDaddy Outdoors.