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Kayaking In Iowa – 7 AMAZING Places to go Paddling Around the Hawkeye State

Mark Armstrong
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Despite being a landlocked state, there are many fantastic places to go kayaking in Iowa. Several rivers can offer scenic multi-day trips, with many of them being ideal for shorter family trips as well.

The Hawkeye State is home to beautiful forests, limestone bluffs, rolling hills, and vast plains, making it great for scenic views and wildlife. To give you a better idea of what to expect from an Iowa paddling trip, we’ve put together a short guide to some of our favorite spots.

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1: Maquoketa River

The Maquoketa River can be a scenic place to paddle, with plenty of access points and a designated Water Trail. There are different sections of the trail, with two forks of the river and the main river as it flows along to the Mississippi.

A good spot to launch is just below the dam in Monticello. Canoe and kayak rentals are also available close to the access point. From this launch, you can paddle around eight miles through woodland to Pictured Rocks Park. Before the take-out, you get to paddle through tall limestone bluffs with chances to see the many resident bald eagles.

This section features slow-moving water and can be ideal for new paddlers but can take around four or five hours. Other sections of the water trail may be more suited to experienced paddlers.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I to II (easy to moderate) depending on the section paddled. The whitewater park section is Class II.

Where to launch & how to get there:

21430 River Road, Monticello, IA 52310. From Monticello, head north on Main Street and take a right onto River Road. The launch is at the end near the canoe rental.

2: Cedar River

The Cedar River can be an easily accessible river that flows through the center of Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. A 47-mile water trail begins at the boat ramp in Janesville City Park. This can be an ideal spot to launch for all skill levels, with plenty of places to stop along the banks.

Roughly 9-miles downstream you’ll reach Black Hawk Park. The trip can be very peaceful and relaxing as the river winds through forests of silver maples. Bald eagles, hawks and other birds can be seen along this stretch.

The river is generally slow-moving and ideal for beginners and families. Kayaks are available for rent a few miles upstream in Waverly.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I (easy)

Where to launch & how to get there:

Janesville City Park, 112 W Barrick Road, Janesville, IA 50647.

3: Upper Iowa River

The Upper Iowa River is a scenic river that flows alongside huge limestone bluffs and through forests. There are lots of opportunities to spot wildlife and plenty of access points to launch and take-out. There are also several places along the river where you can camp or rent kayaks, including in Kendallville and Decorah.

This gently flowing river stretches 136 miles from Minnesota through Iowa where it reaches the Mississippi. One of the access points is at the ramp in Kendallville Park.

> Minnesota kayaking guide

From Kendallville you can paddle to Bluffton Bluffs, around 16 miles downstream, but there are other take-outs and places to stop if you’re looking for a shorter trip.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/II (easy/moderate)

Where to launch & how to get there:

Kendallville County Park, Cresco, IA 52136. The boat launch is on the south side of the river.

4: Lake Wapello

Lake Wapello is located entirely within Lake Wapello State Park and can be an excellent spot for kayak fishing with bass, catfish and bluegill among the target species. There’s also a bait shop with kayak rentals near the boat ramp.

The lake covers over 1,000 acres, giving you plenty of room to explore the shoreline and various inlets. As well as being ideal for anglers, it can also be great for new paddlers with flatwater conditions and a maximum speed rule of 5 mph for motorized vessels.

The park has plenty of parking. There are also some good hiking trails as well as a campground and restrooms if you want to spend a couple of days exploring.

Class of Rapids rating:


Where to launch & how to get there:

15520 Campground Road, Drakesville, IA 52552. From Drakesville, take 180th Street west to Eagle Boulevard and follow to Lake Wapello State Park.

5: Des Moines River

The Des Moines River features a water trail that stretches 100 miles from Fort Dodge to Saylorville Lake.

There are many river access points, which can make it ideal for trips of varying lengths. One launch is at the Highway 30 bridge in Boone. From this point you can paddle through beautiful scenery, including 100-foot bluffs, as you pass Ledges State Park on your way to the take-out at the E-57 bridge.

Some of the stretches may be better suited to more intermediate or advanced paddlers, particularly if you plan to paddle longer distances on the trail. But the section between Highway 30 and E-57 can be ideal for all levels.

Kayak rentals are available around a mile past the boat ramp on Highway 30, heading west.

Many of the banks are privately owned, so you’re not allowed to land on undesignated areas. However, you can stop and camp on sandbars within the river.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/II (easy)

Where to launch & how to get there:

Des Moines River Boat Ramp, Highway 30, Boone, IA 50036. Head west from Boone on Highway 30. The ramp is just across the bridge on the right.

6: Clear Lake

Clear Lake spans 3,000 acres and can be a great place for beginners and experienced paddlers alike. The lake sits on the shores of the city of the same name, which means it can be easily accessed.

There are public boat ramps at various locations around the lake, including at City Beach Park. However, motorized or trolling vessels are allowed on the lake, which can sometimes cause wake, especially during summer months when the lake tends to be busy.

You can also launch at Clear Lake State Park, where you’ll find restrooms and a campground. Canoe rental is available inside the state park.

The lake can also be a great spot for kayak fishing for a variety of bass, catfish and even crappie. In winter months, it can be a popular spot for ice fishing when the lake freezes over.

Class of Rapids rating:


Where to launch & how to get there:

City Beach Park, South Lakeshore Drive, Clear Lake, IA 50428. Boat ramp is next to the park at the end of Main Avenue.

7: West Okoboji Lake

Kayaking at the West Okoboji LakePin
Courtesy: Mary Fairchild on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

West Okoboji Lake is considered one of Iowa’s Great Lakes. There are over 3,800 acres to explore, making this an ideal spot for a weekend trip.

The lake has great fishing opportunities as well as several boat ramps that make for easy launching. You can rent canoes and kayaks at the Okoboji Boat Works on the eastern shores of the lake.

This can be a good spot to launch for views across the bay to the vintage Arnolds Park Amusement Park, with its wooden roller coaster and Ferris wheel. There are also many parks around the lake, with small bays and inlets to explore, as well as lakeside homes.

This can be a pretty busy lake during the summer, particularly with fun-loving recreational boaters and swimmers. But you’ll usually find quiet areas of the lake around smaller coves and bays.

Class of Rapids rating:


Where to launch & how to get there:

Emerson Bay State Recreation Area, 3100 Emerson Street, Milford, IA 51351. The boat ramp is located next to the campground.

Iowa Kayak Laws

US Coast GuardPin

Before you head out on Iowa’s waters, it can be important to make sure you know the rules and do your own research. Some areas will have rules specific to that particular location. These are just a guide to basic rules.

  • PFD (US Coast Guard approved) in the correct size and in a suitable condition must be carried on board all vessels for each person on the vessel.
  • Children under 13 are required to wear a US Coast Guard approved PFD at all times while on a kayak or canoe.
  • Registration is required for all kayaks and canoes longer than 13 feet. Motorized kayaks/canoes less than 13 feet will also require registration with the DNR.
  • Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) is illegal. You will be considered intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% and higher.
  • white light is required for paddling during the hours of sunset and sunrise.
  • sound producing device is required for all vessels 16 feet or longer and recommended for kayaks of all lengths.

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around Iowa

Final Words

Iowa is filled with natural surroundings, from glistening lakes and rivers to scenic countryside landscapes. If river kayaking is your thing, you’ll find miles and miles of paddling trails all across the state, making it easy to plan long distance trips.

You’ll also find beautiful lakes for easy flatwater trips. These are just a few of our favorites.

Maybe you want to share your favorite Iowa paddling spot? Tell us about it. And remember to share this guide to encourage others to check out this great state’s waterways. 

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