By Brad Lane
While traditional campgrounds with running water and electrical outlets will always have their appeal, if you really want a true camping experience, the obvious choice is to strap on a backpack and start your journey. Be aware: There is a lot of privately-owned land in Iowa, making overnight camping restrictive in certain locations. But the stunning state forests of Iowa allow you to set up camp in a multitude of scenic spots. Here are our favorites.
For perhaps the most famous Iowa backpacking trail, the Yellow River State Forest in Allamakee County boasts an impressive 8,000 acres of wilderness to explore. For the best backpacking and trailside camping within the Yellow River State Forest, visitors are encouraged to check out the Paint Creek unit, which has an impressive 25 miles of marked trails to follow along. While Yellow River State Forest is not the only place to find backpacking campsites in Iowa, it is well regarded as the best.
Located in the luscious Loess Hills of western Iowa, the Loess Hills State Forest encompasses everything that is remarkable in this landscape—rolling hills, swaying prairie, and a variety of woodland landscapes. To get the most out of your Loess Hills State Forest experience, it’s recommended to check out Preparation Canyon State Park. There, you can explore the unique trail systems that wind their way across the horizon and lead to a small number of backpack campsites where you can sleep amongst the open sky and stars.
Consisting of over 15,000 acres of forest spread across seven units and five counties, Stephens State Forest, just south of Des Moines, is the largest state forest in Iowa. If you want to find some pack-in backpack campsites, you need to head over to the Woodburn Unit. Utilizing six miles of trails, the Woodburn Unit within Stephens State Forest is home to five different campsites, all of which will leave you with a feeling of solitude amongst the nature.
To escape away from some of the other tourists, it’s recommended to pack your boat and head over to the Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp on the south side of the lake. Functioning as a paddle-in, hike-in primitive camp, Hickory Ridge has eight campsites available, each on a first-come/first-serve basis, and each delivering on a solitary Lake Red Rock experience.
For those that don’t mind the idea of “roughing it” a bit more in their camping experience, the backcountry campsites found at the Hitchcock Nature Center are right for you. While it’s true that these campsites are lacking in amenities compared to your traditional campground, what they bring extra to the table is a closer experience with nature, ensuring for an outdoor experience worth remembering. The Hitchcock Nature Center only offers three backcountry camping spots, so be sure to arrive at the trailhead with an early start to the day.