With its 100-foot sandstone ridges, Ledges State Park is a geological wonder and outdoor lovers’ dream. It’s among Iowa’s first state parks, and to this day, it continues to be one of the most popular. Its unique landscape and amenities make it a perfect place to enjoy nature in Central Iowa.
The good news is, Ledges State Park is an easy drive from Des Moines! It’s about 40 miles north of Des Moines, just south of Boone, Iowa.
A Brief History of Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park is steeped in geological and human history. Glaciers formed the high ledges roughly 13,000 years ago. As they melted, they cut away at the underlying sandstone left from ancient seas. This melting formed the immense ridges we see today. And Pea’s Creek, a branch of the Des Moines River, cut a gorge through the sandstone cliffs, creating another natural wonder to explore.
Throughout human history, the area has been rich in natural resources. And evidence of human inhabitants dates back 4000 years. Native Sauk, Meskwaki, and Sioux all called it home before European settlers moved in.
Around 1914, the idea that the area should become a public park came to light. And in 1921, Carl Fritz Henning became the first park custodian. Then, in 1924, it became one of the first Iowa State Parks.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the first park structures out of native hardwoods and stone. Unfortunately, flooding from the Des Moines River later destroyed many park structures. But a few CCC structures still exist, including the beautiful stone bridge over Pea’s Creek.
Things to Do at Ledges State Park
Take a Drive
If you don’t have time to get out and explore the park, driving through the park on the canyon road is still worthwhile. Drive through the park on Canyon Drive, where you’ll cross fords and see an original stone bridge.
Note that the canyon road gets closed in the winter and during flooding.
Hiking is the best way to get out and see Ledges State Park! Over four miles of hiking trails wind up and down the cliffs, through dense woodlands, and along the creek. Hiking here offers a one-of-a-kind hiking experience for Central Iowa. Notable overlooks include Crow’s Nest, Table Rock, and Inspiration Point. Some trails are steep. But you can find more accessible routes on the park’s northeast and southwest sides. For more on the trails, see the Trails section.
Pea’s Creek is a scenic, rocky creek that winds through the park’s canyons. It’s accessible from the canyon road, and you don’t have to walk far to get to it. When not flooding, it’s a fantastic place for all ages to enjoy a (shallow!) creek walk. Listen to the burbling water, rock-hop from one side to the other, and gaze up at ridges rising from the canyon floor.
There’s no shortage of scenic picnic spots at Ledges! Picnic tables are throughout the park, and two large picnic shelters are reservable. Oak Woods Shelter is on the park’s east side, nestled in the trees. The Carl “Fritz” Henning Shelter is on the park’s west side near the river.
Kayak or Canoe the Des Moines River
Some of the most spectacular sections of the Des Moines River Water Trail pass by Ledges State Park. The Highway 30 Access (#237) is five miles north of Ledges, and the new Ledges Access (#231) is on the park’s west side (off 255th St.). The Dogwood Ramp Access (#230) is just south of the park. See the Iowa DNR brochure for details.
Rock climbing and repelling are not permitted at Ledges State Park.
Camping at Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park is a fantastic place to go camping! With over 90 electric and non-electric (and hike in!) campsites, you’re sure to find the perfect camping spot.
The recently renovated campground has gravel pull-through, back in, and tent campsites. Sixteen sites offer full hookups. A designated youth group camping area and hike-in tent sites are also available.
Reserve a campsite at Ledges State Park online through Reserve America. Two modern bathrooms/shower buildings and a dump station are on-site. For campground layout, see the Ledges State Park Campground Map.
Ledges State Park Trails
Over four miles of hiking trails weave through the trees and along 100-foot sandstone ridges above the Des Moines River. We’ll cover each below and note the difficulty. Some of the hard trails are very steep!
For a visual, see the Iowa DNR map on page two of the Ledges State Park brochure.
Hike-in Campsite Trail (.3 mile; easy). As the name says, this is a short trail leading to primitive tent sites. It’s on the northeast end of the campground. Just past the end of the trail are the remains of an old homestead.
Prairie Trail (.91 mile; easy). As the name implies, this trail winds through restored Iowa prairie. Try to identify the native plants along the way! Find this trail near the campground on the park’s east side.
Oak Woods Trail (.16 mile; easy). Find this short trail near the Oak Woods Shelter. It’s also a connector to the Hog’s Back Trail. See Inspiration Point near this trail.
Hog’s Back Trail (.5 mile; hard). This trail is relatively level once you’re at the top! Get there from the Oak Woods Trail or climb the “stairs” up the incline from Canyon Drive. See Council Ring along this trail.
Mesquakie Trail (.66 mile; hard). This trail connects to Hog’s Back Trail on the east and Reindeer Ridge on the west. You can also make your way up the “steps” from the west end of Canyon Drive.
Reindeer Ridge Trail (.66 mile; hard). Access this trail from the south side of Canyon Drive, or use Mesquakie Trail to get there. See Table Rock along this trail.
Old Indian Trail (1 mile; hard). Access this trail on the north side of Canyon Drive. Though it’s a bit of an incline with some irregular terrain, it’s worth it if you’re able to get up to the Crow’s Nest Overlook. It offers panoramic views of the Des Moines River valley.
Crow’s Nest Trail (1 mile; hard). Crow’s Nest Trail connects to Old Indian Trail. But there’s another trailhead on the west end of Canyon Drive (north side of the road). The elevation gain here is more gradual and can also get you to Crow’s Nest Overlook.
Lost Lake Interpretive Trail (1.15; easy). Lost Lake Trail is an interpretive, accessible trail with a gravel path to the lake. A more rugged path then circles the lake. The trailhead and parking are off 255th St on the park’s southwest corner.
Lost Lake is also part of the Makoke Birding Trail. It’s a Central Iowa driving trail with some of the best birdwatching areas.
Ledges State Park Map
Other Things to Do Nearby
The Iowa Arboretum is just 5 miles down the road! Explore restored woodlands and prairie on self-guided trails through hundreds of species of plants and trees.
Reiman Gardens is 15 miles west of Ledges, in Ames. Here, there are 26 separate garden areas, as well as unique art and architecture. But the highlight is often the Butterfly Wing—an indoor tropical garden with up to 800 live butterflies!
The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad is 8 miles north in Boone. Take a train ride over a 156’ tall bridge and through the Des Moines River Valley!
Seven Oaks Recreation is about 15 minutes from the park west of Boone. In the summer, they offer full-service canoe, kayak, and tube floats on the Des Moines River. And they have a paintball field too! In winter, ski or snowboard the slopes, and go snow tubing.
The High Trestle Trail is 15 miles south of the park. It features one of the largest pedestrian bridges in the world! Access the iconic High Trestle Bridge from Madrid or Woodward.
Jester Park, Big Creek State Park, and Saylorville Lake are excellent outdoor recreation areas 20 miles south of Ledges State Park. Each area has lots of things to do, including trails, beaches, and boating. Stay awhile at the Jester Park or Saylorville Lake campgrounds!
Visit Ledges State Park Today!
Ledges State Park is at 1515 P Ave, Madrid, IA 50156.
Park hours are 4 am – 10:30 pm, daily. Canyon Drive is closed in the winter. Restrooms and parking are available throughout the park.