Sometimes you just need an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. On those days, we head for the hills (or forests, parks, and rivers) for some much-needed peace and quiet surrounded by beautiful natural scenery. Whether it’s a hike through one of the lovely state parks, a full-on retreat to a remote area, or a peaceful drive through the countryside, Iowa offers tons of ways to get out and about and give yourself some breathing room. These 9 spots are particularly excellent for doing just that.
We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life. While we continue to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, please take proper precautions or add them to your bucket list to see at a later date. If you know of a local business that could use some extra support during these times, please nominate them here:
1. Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge
This lovely nature preserve is a wonderful spot for wildlife and birdwatchers, and has an amazingly unique feature that is seen in very few other places: the wetland terrain is so flat that direction of the water flow actually changes depending on the direction of the wind!
The Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 as a protected area for the breeding grounds of migratory birds. The area covers 3,334 acres of marsh and upland habitats where the Blue Earth River and the East Fork of the Des Moines River once joined as an expansive riverbed before the Ice Age. You can see graceful Trumpeter Swan, striking Bobolinks, and many species of waterfowl.
Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge is located at 1710 360th St., Titonka, IA.
2. Loess Hills
The Loess Hills are a stunning spot to find serenity. The breathtaking scenery was created by a unique natural process of superfine windblown soil that accumulated into dunes around the Missouri River over thousands of years.
There are several ways to enjoy this lovely area. Loess Hill State Forest offers some spectacular views in Harrison and Manona Counties. If you’re looking for a peaceful drive through these beautiful rolling prairie dunes, the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway offers a 220-mile long adventure through some of the most incredible natural areas in the state. The full trip takes more than five hours, but there’s something supremely peaceful about driving through this scenic area.
The Loess Hills are located along the Missouri River in northwestern Iowa.
3. Woodland Mounds Preserve
This quiet natural area near Indianola is home to one are the largest timber strands in Warren County, which means visitors to this woodland wonderland can enjoy hiking along some beautiful forested trails!
This is an excellent spot to go for wildlife and birdwatching, and the preserve is also home to five small burial mounds built by the Woodland Indians if you want to add a bit of history to your visit.
Woodland Mounds Preserve is located at 19587 Kirkwood Street, Ackworth, IA.
4. Wildcat Den State Park
Wildcat Den State Park is an excellent spot for a weekend getaway! The park is located in Muscatine and, unlike many of the other Iowa State Parks, only offers 28 small campsites, so it doesn’t feel overcrowded by visitors.
The highlight of Wildcat Den State Park is definitely the trail system, which features a 4-mile long moderately difficult loop that winds through the hilly bluffs and rocky outcroppings along the Mississippi River that show off some lovely views.
You can also visit historic Pine Creek Gristmill at the park, which was built in 1848 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wildcat Den State Park is located at 1884 Wildcat Den Road, Muscatine, IA.
5. Stephens State Forest
At over 14,000 acres, Stephens State Forest is the largest in the state. It’s divided up into seven separate units, but one of our favorites is definitely the Woodland Unit near Woodburn. The beautiful forest and rolling hills stretch across 2,000 acres and include sections of Sand Creek and Bluebird Creek. This is one spot you won’t mind getting lost in!
Stephens State Forest is located near Woodburn, off of 330th Avenue.
6. Dunning’s Spring Park & Decorah Ice Cave
There’s just something special about Decorah… while we have several favorite spots around the state, this small city in Winneshiek County is definitely near the top of the list. The stunning 200-foot waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park is only a few minutes from downtown and is an awesome spot to enjoy a picnic and a quick hike down the stairs to the start of the spring.
While you’re in the area, don’t pass up the chance to visit the Decorah Ice Cave, which is only 1/4 from the park! It’s a small, unique cave with ice-covered walls that stay frozen year round - even in the middle of summer! It’s a tight squeeze to get in, but it’s definitely a hidden gem!
7. Backbone State Park
While Backbone State Park isn’t by any means a secret - it is, after all, Iowa’s first state park - it’s still a wonderful spot to explore that strikes a nice balance between accessible natural beauty and a not-too-remote experience. There is tons to do here; it’s an awesome spot for trout fishing, there are 21 miles of trails that wind through beautiful cedar forests and rocky staircases, and plenty of campsites and picnic areas if you want to turn your visit into a longer getaway.
Backbone State Park is also a popular spot for rock climbing, as the area is home to several challenging limestone cliffs. Even if you’re not a climber, it’s fun to watch them work their way up the rocky outcroppings, and you don’t need to strap on a harness to enjoy the beautiful views - the "Devil’s Backbone" hiking trail will take you up the ridge to one of the highest points in the area… but be prepared for a challenging, uphill trek!
Backbone State Park is located at 1347 129th St, Dundee, IA.
8. Crystal Lake Cave
Crystal Lake Cave is not a lush, green oasis by the typical definition, but it is unique in the sense that offers some completely different scenery than the surrounding area. This is definitely one of the less-remote places on this list, but we included it because it offers a fun little experience, especially for families with kids. It’s privately owned, but they offer small informative tours that last a bit over an hour and explores some of the unique cave formations hiding beneath Dubuque. It stays a chilly 52 degrees all year long, so pack a jacket and wear a pair of sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting a bit muddy!
Crystal Lake Cave is located at 6684 Crystal Lake Cave Road, Dubuque, IA.
9. Maquoketa Caves State Park
Sometimes, the best way to escape the hubbub of everyday life is to head underground! This unique State Park has some incredibly scenic views, both on the cool trails above ground and the stunning geological wonders awaiting below. The underground cave system is truly a natural wonder. The largest cavern is called "Dancehall Cave," which is a whopping 1,100 feet, but there are dozens of smaller caves, some of which are only accessible by crawling, so come prepared to get dirty if you want to explore all of them!
Unlike most cave systems, Maquoketa Caves can be explored for free and without a tour guide! Some of the larger caves have paved walkways leading through them, but there are a good deal of steps to get in and out! There really is something magical and peaceful about descending down into a darkened space that makes you feel like you’ve been transported away from daily life.
Maquoketa Caves State Park is actually far more oasis-like than the Crystal Lake Cave because the surface areas are filled with colorful wildflowers in Spring, lush greenery in Summer, and vibrant fall foliage in Autumn (the park is still open in Winter, though it’s less colorful than the other seasons. There are some beautiful rock formations to see - like the 17-ton "Balanced Rock" and an amazing natural bridge sitting 50 feet above Raccoon Creek - that don’t require you to head down into the caves.
Maquoketa Caves State Park is located at 10970 98th St, Maquoketa, IA.
These are just a handful of the amazing places in Iowa where you can go for a little peace and quiet! Do you have a favorite spot to retreat to when you need a break from the daily hullabaloo?