There’s so much to see and do in Northeast Iowa you can’t fit it all into one trip! The area’s unique geography is a nature lover’s dream—you can hike, bike, fish, camp, and paddle in breathtaking landscapes. Combine that with quaint Iowa towns brimming with cultural events, excellent restaurants, and museums – and you have the recipe for the ideal Midwest getaway!
After visiting once, Northeast Iowa will have you going back again and again! For many years, our family has been visiting Iowa’s Driftless Area. And, each time, we find something new. So, read on for our top ten things to see and do in Northeast Iowa.
Table of Contents
- Things to do in Northeast Iowa
- Places to see in Northeast Iowa
- Map of Northeast Iowa
- More to do in Northeast Iowa
Iowa’s Driftless Area
Northeast Iowa is unique because it was largely untouched by the most recent glaciers. As a result, it’s considered a Paleozoic Plateau, a high-relief topography with steep slopes and bluffs, stream-carved rocks, waterfalls, and springs.
Things to do in Northeast Iowa
Outdoor activities are the name of the game in Northeast Iowa. But even if you run into bad weather or want a day indoors, you have options! Many area towns have museums, restaurants, and shopping.
Go trout fishing
Many people are surprised to learn that Iowa has fantastic trout fishing! But it’s true. Stocked and naturally producing trout are abundant in spring-fed streams of northeast Iowa. At times, some streams have thousands of trout per mile!
The good news is there are so many trout streams in Northeast Iowa you’re bound to find a fishing spot wherever you are. And you don’t have to be an expert to catch trout (small hooks and the right bait will do the trick). But if you want to fish like the pros, local fishing guides are available.
For more on trout fishing in Iowa and for popular trout streams, click over to the article below.
Canoe, kayak, or tube a river
For a fun experience, go canoeing, kayaking, or tubing one of three rivers in Northeast Iowa. The Upper Iowa, Turkey, and Yellow Rivers have water trails unlike anywhere else in Iowa. They’re the most scenic and remote rivers around, offering river goers an outdoor adventure they’ll never forget.
And whether you’re up for a multi-day river adventure, or one day stint, you have options! These rivers have several access points and camping options along the way. Also, some campgrounds and outfitters offer kayak, canoe, and tube rentals.
For a whitewater adventure, check out Elkader Whitewater Park! This park is located on the Turkey River and features a 20-foot+ wave for experienced paddlers. It also has a boulder island and an accessible walking path to the shore.
Links to brochures:
Hit the trails
Northeast Iowa is home to miles and miles of scenic, multi-use trails! You can hike, bike, mountain bike, cross-country ski, or ride your horse on many area trails. Just be sure to check which routes are open for specific uses.
Below are many of the area’s most popular areas for trails.
→ Decorah is a fantastic place for trails. Several city parks have multi-use trails popular for hiking and mountain biking. It’s also home to Trout Run Trail, an 11-mile paved trail traversing farmland, streams, and switchbacks. And not far from town is the Prairie Farmer Trail, a 20-mile paved trail stretching from Cresco to Calmar.
→ Yellow River State Forest has 50+ miles of multi-use trails for hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian use. All routes are marked for specific uses, and you can find the most multi-use trails in the Paint Creek Unit.
→ Pikes Peak State Park has over 10 miles of hiking trails, with a .5-mile boardwalk and a 3-mile section designated for mountain biking. Pikes Peak trails offer killer views, passing by dense forest, a native burial mound, and even a waterfall.
→ Effigy Mounds National Monument has fourteen miles of trails. They include a Yellow River boardwalk, routes to native burial mounds, and views of the Mississippi River.
→ Volga River State Recreation Area features over 22 miles of multi-use trails through varied landscapes and water crossings, many with scenic views. Trails are for hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian use.
→ Backbone State Park has over 20 miles of multi-use trails through its scenic and diverse landscapes. The most popular is the Backbone Trail, a short, rugged loop trail towering over the Maquoketa River.
Make it a winter escape.
There’s no shortage of winter outdoor fun in Northeast Iowa. So, consider renting a cozy cabin to relax after an adventure-filled winter day.
❆ Cross-country skiing. Many area trails are suitable for cross-country skiing, and some are groomed. Check out the Decorah parks, Yellow River State Forest, Backbone State Park, and Volga River State Recreation Area.
❆ Snowshoeing. With so many multi-use trails in northeast Iowa, there are endless opportunities for snowshoeing. Routes that aren’t groomed for skiing are suitable for all different levels of snowshoers.
❆ Trout fishing. Fishing for trout is a year-round activity in Northeast Iowa. Most streams don’t freeze and are open to fishing in the winter.
❆ Ice fishing. Ice fishing is a popular winter activity when the ice is thick enough! The most popular spot in northeast Iowa is the Mississippi River backwaters (Bussey Lake, Mud Lake, and Sunfish Lake, to name a few).
❆ Snowmobiling. Northeast Iowa has hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails! Yellow River State Forest, Volga River State Recreation Area, and Backbone State Park have routes designated for snowmobiles. But there are many more! See the DNR map for routes.
Camping and Cabins
We believe camping or renting a cabin is the optimal way to experience the beauty and fun in northeast Iowa! There are campgrounds galore, several with cabin rentals. You can find several excellent private cabin rentals too.
Below are some of the top choices for area camping and cabins.
- Backbone State Park
- Pikes Peak State Park
- Yellow River State Forest
- Volga River State Recreation Area
- Iowa Cabin Rentals
- Bear Creek Cabins
- Decorah High Point Cabins
- Wyalusing State Park (Wisconsin)
Places to see in Northeast Iowa
Of course, there are many fun stops in Northeast Iowa. But we’ve narrowed them down to our top 6 favorite spots to put at the top of your list!
The town of Decorah
Where to begin?! Decorah is chock-full of great things to see and do! The lively downtown and wide range of attractions make it one of the top area destinations. That explains why Midwest Living magazine included it among the 100 Best Midwest Small-Town Getaways!
From the Vesterheim Norwegian-American museum to the beautiful park system and phenomenal downtown restaurants and shops, you won’t run out of things to do here! From hiking, biking, fishing, and camping to shopping and touring, there’s something for everyone.
So, go there to explore the trails and parks, spend time downtown, and tour the museums and other attractions. Decorah is super bike friendly and walkable!
Pikes Peak State Park in Northeast Iowa
Pikes Peak State Park is on a 500-foot-tall limestone bluff overlooking the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. And it offers extraordinary views you can’t get anywhere else. But the views are only the beginning.
Pikes Peak has a phenomenal overlook near the visitor center. And over 10 miles of trails interconnect and loop through dense forest. This includes the .5-mile wooden boardwalk to Bridal Veil Falls and past a native burial mound.
It’s also a great place to camp! It’s super close to the overlook, so you can easily catch a beautiful sunrise or access the trails for a great hike anytime.
Effigy Mounds National Monument
Effigy Mounds National Monument is Iowa’s only national monument. Northeast Iowa is the only place in the U.S. with so many animal-shaped American Indian mounds (called “effigy” mounds)! The monument protects 200+ Native American mounds in the Mississippi River Valley.
Visitors can hike the beautiful trails at the 2,526-acre site, learn about Native American cultures, and take in a ranger program! So, walk among the sacred mounds and visit the Visitor Center to tour the museum exhibits and learn more.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is FREE and open to the public daily (except on holidays). See the website for the latest hours.
Backbone State Park
Backbone State Park is Iowa’s first state park, with 2000 acres of unique geological features and heaps of outdoor activities. With all there is to do, it’s among the most adventure-filled parks in the Iowa park system!
While you’re there, hiking the Backbone Trail should top your list. This rugged .8-mile loop trail is on a narrow ridge over the Maquoketa River, a moderate trail unlike any other in the state. (Nearly 20 miles of other multi-use trails also wind through the park.)
Other fun things include:
- Seeing Richmond Spring.
- Fishing (lake or stream).
- Visiting the beach.
- Rock climbing.
- Touring the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) museum.
Of course, you’ll want to stay awhile, so consider camping at one of two campgrounds, or rent a cabin!
Yellow River State Forest
Yellow River State Forest is Iowa’s most distinct forest. It’s more rugged than other Iowa forests, with steep hills, limestone outcroppings, and spring-fed trout streams.
This scenic and remote forest makes it a popular spot for those who like to immerse themselves in nature. Rustic camping, trout fishing, miles of multi-use trails, backpacking sites, river access, and snowmobiling draw visitors year-round.
The Paint Creek Unit is the largest and most visited in the forest. It’s home to primitive campsites, miles of trails (some with overlooks), stocked trout streams, and more!
Spook Cave must be included on any list of things to see and do in Northeast Iowa! So stop here to take a one-of-a-kind cave tour in a boat! That’s right, you get in a boat and enter a cave – with a tour guide, of course. You might even have to duck in some places.
A campground & cabins, a trout stream, and a waterfall are on-site for more fun. So put Spook Cave on your list of things to do in Northeast Iowa!
Map of Northeast Iowa
More to do in Northeast Iowa
As we mentioned earlier, we can’t possibly list all the excellent places to see and things to do in Northeast Iowa. There’s too much (which is definitely a good thing)!
But below are a few more ideas to consider when planning your trip:
- Take a fall drive on a scenic byway: River Bluffs Scenic Byway or Driftless Area Scenic Byway.
- Find shops, wineries, breweries, and more in the historic towns of Decorah, McGregor & Marquette.
- Tour the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center in Lansing.
- Head across the river to Wisconsin’s Wyalsuing State Park.
- Explore area caves like the Decorah Ice Cave, Backbone Cave, Crystal Lake Cave, Maquoketa Caves State Park, & Eagle Cave.
- Drive south to visit Dubuque, where you’ll find the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, the Mines of Spain, a waterpark, Crystal Lake Cave, restaurants, and more!
- Visit the Field of Dreams movie site.
• Campgrounds in Northeast Iowa
• Top Things to Do in Decorah
• Pikes Peak State Park
• Backbone State Park
• Yellow River State Forest
• Volga River State Recreation Area
• Effigy Mounds National Monument
• Visit Wyalusing State Park
• Maquoketa Caves State Park
• Top 10 Things To Do in Dubuque Iowa
• Camping near Dubuque and Bellevue (+map & info)
• Campgrounds near Maquoketa [+ a map]