Pammel State Park is a beautiful 350-acre park in Central Iowa. This outdoor destination features a 100-foot limestone ledge, or “backbone,” in the bends of the Middle River.
Visitors can hike, paddle, fish, and camp (and more!) in this unique woodland area. The good news is, it’s just south of Winterset, Iowa. So it’s perfect for a scenic 45-minute drive from Des Moines!
A Brief History of Pammel State Park
In 1928, Pammel State Park was one of the first Iowa State Parks! The Iowa DNR managed it until 1989, when it got passed to Madison County Conservation Board.
The oldest human-built feature in the park is the tunnel through the ridge—and it’s the only highway tunnel in Iowa! In 1858, William Harmon dug the tunnel to divert river water to a nearby mill. And, in 1925, the tunnel got widened to allow automobiles through. (It’s been broadened and reinforced for visitors to drive through.)
In the 1920 & 30s, the Veteran’s Civilian Corps and the CCC constructed the Backbone Shelter, river ford, and other park structures. They also built the park lodge in the 1920s from the park’s native oak trees. (The lodge now has electricity and restrooms.)
The limestone “backbone” that runs through the park is home to some of the oldest oak trees in Iowa. But oak trees are just the beginning; you’ll also see many other native plants and trees.
Things to Do at Pammel State Park
Hike the Trails
About 4 miles of trails wind through the lush woodlands of the park:
Backbone Trail. From the 100 foot-tall ridge on this trail, you can see the Middle River flowing on both sides! Not to mention the fascinating geological features and old, native plant life. Trailheads are at the tunnel and near the Backbone Shelter atop the ridge. Keep in mind, it’s an out-and-back trail and is steep at the trailheads near the tunnel.
Lodge Trail Lodge is a loop trail on the park’s west side. Trailheads are at the park lodge and further west at a gravel parking area.
The Interpretive Trail is a loop trail, also on the park’s west side. Find the trailhead across the road from the picnic lodge. Look for a sign on the north side of the road after you cross the ford.
Cross the river ford
There’s something about driving across a river! Whether you creep through or make a splash, it’s fun for all ages. The ford is usually two to four inches deep and is one of Iowa’s largest river crossings. It’s also a popular area for wading and fishing. (The ford gets closed in winter and when the river is high.)
Canoe or kayak the Middle River
The Middle River Water Trail extends through the park, with access points two miles apart. Paddle the horseshoe-shaped bend from the river ford (Access #63) to the park tunnel (Access #61). The great thing about these access points is you don’t need two vehicles or a shuttle!
You can use different access points along this 45-mile water trail for a more extended river trip. For details on the trail and access points, see the Madison County website.
Pammel Park is known for its giant catfish! Below the chutes of the river ford, anglers have caught 40-50 pound flathead catfish in the spring. Spring is the ideal time for catfish, but it’s a great year-round fishing spot.
Have a picnic
For a small picnic gathering, an ideal spot is the banks of the Middle River (by the river ford). There are a few small picnic structures with tables and firepits overlooking the river.
The Backbone Lodge is a CCC-era building that sits atop the ridge (and near the Backbone Trailhead). It’s nestled among some of the oldest oak and walnut trees in Iowa and provides a shady spot for a picnic. It’s available first-come, first-serve.
The Pammel Park Lodge is on the park’s west side, past the river ford. The log & stone structure has indoor and outdoor space, with electricity and restrooms. And it’s available for reservation (otherwise, first-come, first-serve). A small playground is also nearby.
The park is along the Makoke Trail, a birding trail in Central Iowa. It highlights the best places to see over 300 types of birds in Central Iowa. Over 70 species nest at Pammel Park, with over 100 species migrating through the area each year.
Coming soon: A new Madison Co. Conservation Center!
The new conservation center is under construction and is next to the campground. The 12,000+ square foot facility will offer interactive displays, classrooms, and much more.
Pammel Park Map
Camping at Pammel State Park
There’s so much to do here, why not stay a while?! The Pammel Park campground has 36 electric and water hookup sites, plus five tent campsites; electric sites are gravel, back-in sites. Also, a modern restroom/shower house and dump station are on-site.
Important Note: If you have a large RV or trailer, you want to take the south entrance to avoid the tunnel. The tunnel is 12’6” high, with a sharp, narrow turn. (We fit through with a 33-foot camping trailer.)
Rent a Yurt
For a unique outdoor experience, stay in one of Pammel Park’s two yurt cabins! Though the yurts have canvas sides, you have many comforts not found in a tent. The yurts have electricity, furniture, a kitchenette, and a hydrant (no restrooms/showers). For more on the yurt cabins, see the Madison Co. Conservation yurt cabin webpage.
Things to Do Nearby
Fellowship Forest is a 60-acre park, just two miles from Pammel Park. Fish at the accessible fishing pier, have a picnic, or stroll the one-mile loop trail around the park!
Explore the town of Winterset! There are many things to do in and around the area, including the famous covered bridges, the Quilt Museum, and the John Wayne Birthplace Museum!
Visit the Winterset City Park. The city park is a unique 76-acre park with a covered bridge, limestone tower, maze, and more! And the views from Clark Tower go on for miles.
Middle River Park is an 80-acre park just south of Winterset City Park. It has picnic areas and a paved, accessible trail.
Criss Cove County Park is a 45-acre recreation area 8 miles south of Pammel. There, you’ll find a 9-acre fishing pond and a small campground with RV and tent sites.
The Clanton Creek Recreation Area is a large, 1115-acre natural area 13 miles south of Pammel. Hike on 10 miles of trails, or go hunting and fishing. The site contains native remnants of prairie, wetlands, and savanna oak.
Float the Middle River Water Trail! The trail starts in Adair County, 18 miles west of Winterset. Holliwell Covered Bridge marks the endpoint, about 3 miles southeast of Winterset. For a map and more information, see the Madison County Conservation website.
Visit Pammel State Park Today!
Pammel State Park is at 1818 Pammel Park Rd, Winterset, IA 50273.