Best Places To Kayak In Iowa

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Iowa is home to a vast network of rivers and waterways, but this state is often overlooked by avid kayakers. Iowa has a good reputation among some paddlers and a bad reputation among others. This begs the question, what is kayaking really like in Iowa?

Iowa offers more than 900 regulated, mapped, and marked water trails for all skill levels kayakers to enjoy. Iowa offers several options for long-distance kayaking and kayak camping. Winter kayaking can be dangerous due to cold water. No licenses are required for kayaking in this state.

Kayaking in Iowa is beautiful and should not be overlooked by any paddlers. Very few states offer the exciting kayaking experiences offered by Iowa, as there is something attractive for paddlers of every skill level in this state. Let’s some of the best kayaking locations in Iowa and learn what to look out for when kayaking in this region.

Kayaking In Iowa

Iowa is often overlooked by kayakers, but this is a great shame, especially in recent years, as the Iowa state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has put great effort into providing the best possible water trail experiences for kayakers.

Kayaking in Iowa can be incredible. There are over 900 miles of comprehensively mapped, routed, and documented water trails with convenient and plentiful access points, maps, picnic areas, camping sites, rest areas, and even overnight cabins.

These mapped water trails cover a vast area of the state, and there are water trails for kayakers of all skill levels. Shimmering, still, lakes offer a calm kayaking experience for beginners or those who are looking for a lazy day on the water, and fast-flowing, advanced rapids offer a thrill for even the most experienced paddler.

Every water trail and kayaking site is clearly marked with what skill level is required for safely traversing the waters in the area, and every water trail has signs indicating what is coming up in the trail to let you know if you should be getting out of the water at the next access point or not.

Traveling from point to point along the Iowa water trails is a great experience and offers something for every type of paddler. The extreme kayaking camper will find several challenges along the way, and the weekend paddler family will find many areas for picnics and calm waterways for recreation.

These 900 miles of mapped water trails are only the beginning of the Iowa kayaking experience. Iowa has more than 1800 miles of navigable kayaking waterways that are safe for exploration. These areas are roughly mapped, but not every waterway has been incorporated into the Iowa DNR water trails maps.

Kayakers are welcome to explore these waterways at their own risk and are encouraged to mark any hazards along the way on the interactive Iowa DNR online map in order to inform the DNR and other kayakers of what they encounter along the waterways, to better understand the region and protect others.

Kayaking in Iowa is a great experience and offers something for everyone. Iowa is not to be missed for kayakers, as every paddler will find something that satisfies their taste for adventure, regardless of skill level.

Where Are The Best Kayaking Locations In Iowa?

Iowa has a vast system of waterways and water trails available for kayakers of all skill levels. With this wide range of locations available, which are the best for kayaking? Let’s take a closer look at some of the best kayaking locations for beginner, intermediate, and advanced paddlers.

The Manchester Whitewater Park

The Manchester Whitewater Park in northern Iowa is one of the best places for beginner and intermediate kayakers to visit. 

This is an area of river conservation that has been transformed into a flowing whitewater park within the Maquoketa River. This park and recreation area never closes and is always free for use. 

There are several whitewater features within the park that offer a great learning experience for beginners and excellent practice for intermediate kayakers. 

Advanced paddlers may not find this area to be much of a challenge, but it is an ideal location for a family day, as the park offers kayak rentals, tubes, boogie boards, and other watercraft that allow the entire family to enjoy the river.

The Upper Iowa River

The northern section of the Iowa River is home to some of the best kayaking for intermediate and advanced paddlers.

These waterways are official water trials and are well mapped and documented, which means that it is very easy to plan routes and trips, knowing how long it will take to get from one access point to another.

This section of water trails is dotted with access points only a few miles from one another. The closer proximity of the access points allows kayakers to decide how far they want to travel. Anywhere from 5 miles to upwards of 40 miles is possible between access points on the Upper Iowa River.

This stretch of river offers spectacular views of 300ft tall limestone bluffs, is rich with wildlife, including Bald Eagles, beavers, and several other birds and creatures to be spotted along the way.

Simple areas of the river in this section are ideal for intermediate paddlers, while the sections of whitewater will offer a good challenge to advanced kayakers. There are several camping sites and picnic areas along these waterways as well, which will cater well for any length of kayaking excursion.

Maquoketa Water Trail

The Maquoketa water trail is one of the very best kayaking locations in all of Iowa. This water trail spans over 80 miles and is ideal for those who want to cover great distances and those who want to stay closer to home.

This water trail covers many miles of untouched natural scenery and is particularly quiet when compared to other ideal kayaking areas.

This section of the river is well mapped, allowing paddlers to quickly plan routes according to distance and skill level. 

The Maquoketa River water trail offers kayaking for all skill levels. Tranquil sections of the wide river make for easy kayaking with very little paddling, and very fast-flowing sections of the river call for the most advanced kayaking skill set. This river has it all and is a favorite among kayakers from all over America.

What To Consider When Kayaking In Iowa

Kayaking in Iowa is beautiful, and the water trails are well managed, clearly marked, and offer kayaking adventure for paddlers of all ages and skill levels. However, there are some aspects of kayaking in Iowa that must be remembered.

Many of the waterways ad water trails in Iowa become very cold in winter. The water temperatures during the winter become frigid, which means that only advanced kayakers should use these water trails during the winter, as falling into the water may be life-threatening.

The summer months in Iowa are ideal for kayakers of all skill levels, as the water warms to very comfortable temperatures that pose no threat to adventurers.

Another important aspect of kayaking in Iowa is that state law mandates that every water vessel must carry life jackets fr every person onboard. This law includes kayaks, so be sure to carry life jackets along with you while kayaking in Iowa, and don’t be surprised if the coast guard stops you and makes you put your life jacket on.


Iowa is hosts some of the best kayaking locations in North America. There are many miles of prime kayaking waters in this state that are all well maintained and well regulated.

Iowa offers kayaking ideal for all skill levels and even offers whitewater parks in three of its rivers for recreation and practicing kayaking skills. 

Be careful of the temperatures in winter, and bring a life jacket with you, but Iowa’s waterways and trails are not to be missed by any paddler!