Best Canoe Camping in Iowa

Photo by Portij on Unsplash

If you’re new to paddling, we’d like to let you in on a secret that experienced canoers and kayakers already know very well: getting out on the water is more than recreation and exercise. It’s a lifestyle, and one with an incredible amount of benefits, both physical and mental. 

The best way to shake off the stress of daily life is to get in a canoe and move with the flow of a river. It’s no exaggeration to say that it is a meditative experience that calls you back to your true self. You know, the one that too often gets buried underneath all the chores and routines that make up a typical day or week. 

And this effect only grows with more time spent on the water. An hour of paddling is good, a day trip is better, and several days on a canoe camping trip in some of the country’s wildest and most scenic places? Well, this might trigger a total reset and plant the seed for a lifelong passion for paddling. 

Now, how to choose the setting for this transformative experience? We always recommend seeking out areas with a low population density because those are the places that tend to have an incredible abundance of wildlife, who are just waiting to poke their heads out from the fields and forests. 

Iowa, and the Midwest in general, is one of these coveted places. As a canoe camping trip destination, Iowa has so much to offer, from stunning scenery and wildlife to fascinating local history. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite rivers to paddle and what you need to know for your visit. 

Read on to get inspired to plan your next canoe camping getaway in Iowa. 

Top 5 Best Trips for Canoe Camping in Iowa

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

1.) Wapsipinicon River

  • Closest Town: Troy Mills, IA
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Paddling Style: River paddling
  • Camping Availability and Location: Full amenities at the park
  • Camping Permit: No
  • Camping Fee: No

This is a popular river for canoers and kayakers, likely because of its leisurely waters and very few hazards, making it approachable even for novice paddlers. The scenery is a draw, too, with rock formations and woods lining the river banks. 

For more information on canoeing on the Wapsipinicon River, visit the Iowa DNR website.

2.) Lower Skunk River

  • Closest Town: Story City, IA
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Paddling Style: River Paddling
  • Camping Availability and Location: First-come, first-served at Welter Recreation Area
  • Camping Permit: No
  • Camping Fee: Yes

The Skunk River is the product of melting glaciers, which left behind granite boulders, rounded cobble, and gravel. The wooded shoreline offers gorgeous views with features that change with the seasons: wildflowers in spring, wildlife in summer, and foliage in fall. The river has some points that are easier to navigate. However, fallen trees and sharp bends provide enough of a challenge that we wouldn’t recommend this river for beginner paddlers. 

For more information on canoeing on the Lower Skunk River, visit the Iowa DNR website.

3.) Middle Racoon River

  • Closest Town: Panora, IA
  • Difficulty: Intermediate to experienced
  • Paddling Style: River paddling
  • Camping Availability and Location: First-come, first-served at Lennon Mill Park
  • Camping Permit: No
  • Camping Fee: Yes

As a “Protected Water Area” (one of just five in Iowa), the Middle Raccoon River offers an exceptionally beautiful paddle full of unique, wild features, including rock riffles, sandstone, and shale bluffs, and dense forest. Like the Skunk River, the Raccoon is the product of melting glaciers that left granite boulders behind, providing the occasional obstacle to paddlers and making it an appropriate destination for those with at least some paddling experience. 

For more information on canoeing on the Middle Raccoon River, visit the Iowa DNR website.

4.) Iowa River

  • Closest Town: Belmond, IA
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Paddling Style: River paddling
  • Camping Availability and Location: Beach and sandbar camping
  • Camping Permit: No
  • Camping Fee: No

As the only river in the state to earn a designation as a “Wild and Scenic River,” the Iowa River sets expectations high for natural beauty. And it delivers on them, from limestone bluffs to sparkling clear water. This is one of those places that makes you wonder if you’re still in Iowa. 

For more information on canoeing on the Iowa River, visit the Iowa DNR website.

5.) Des Moines River Water Trail

  • Closest Town: Des Moines, IA
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Paddling Style: River paddling
  • Camping Availability and Location: Beach and sandbar camping
  • Camping Permit: No
  • Camping Fee: No

The Des Moines River Water Trail winds its way through both city and nature, with bridges being one of the surprising highlights of this paddling trip. The route is narrow and deep in certain places and wide in others, with plenty of forks to explore and bluffs, cliffs, and parks populating the shoreline. 

For more information on canoeing on the Des Moines River Water Trail, visit the Iowa DNR website.

Come Paddle With Us!

This is just a taste of what Iowa has to offer paddlers. You can plan a fantastic getaway yourself, or you can book a guided tour with us, so all you have to do is show up and start your adventure.