Palisades Kepler State Park is a scenic 840-acre park along the Cedar River in eastern Iowa. It has everything a nature-lover could want—breathtaking views, unique trails, wildlife, and more! This one belongs on your Iowa bucket list, for sure.
The good news is overnight stays are available in the park cabins and campgrounds. So you can take your time exploring everything this unique park has to offer!
A Brief History of Palisades Kepler State Park
The bedrock at Palisades Kepler has been the source of many rare geologic findings. For example, fossils in the rock outcroppings are evidence of prehistoric life in ancient seas over 400 million years ago.* And that’s just part of its fascinating history.
According to the Geological Society of Iowa, “The Cedar River valley has attracted human settlement ever since the initial peopling of the Midwest.”1 This resource-rich area has likely supported human life for thousands of years.
Seven conical Native American burial mounds (along the road to the campground) are from the Middle/Late Woodland cultures. And excavation of rock shelters rendered ceramics and artifacts, further indicating human occupation.
Later, pioneers settled in the area. And in the late 1800s, Captain James Sherman Minott bought 160 acres along the Cedar River, where he built an inn for visitors. He created a popular vacation spot, complete with a restaurant, boat rentals, summer cottages, and river outings.
A few years after Captain Minott died, the state acquired land in the Palisades area. And in 1922, Palisades State Park opened. Then, in 1928, the Louis H. Kepler estate donated adjacent land to the Conservation Board. So the park expanded and was renamed Palisades-Kepler.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built roads, trails, and log and stone park structures, like the park lodge that remains to this day. The park has continued to thrive, with thousands of visitors enjoying an excellent Iowa outdoor experience each year.
*Note that fossil collecting isn’t allowed in Iowa State Parks.
Things to Do at Palisades Kepler State Park
Explore four miles of rugged hiking trails to experience the most of this beautiful park! The hiking is excellent year-round, yet fall is an extraordinary time to venture out on the trails.
(Please use caution if ice and snow are present, as they can create treacherous conditions.)
Cedar Cliff Trail is a 2-mile trail that traverses bluffs with scenic views of the Cedar River. It offers some elevation and extends over rugged terrain, a welcome challenge for adventurous hikers. The historic CCC stone gazebo is a nice stop along the route.
Campers Trail is a short (.1-mile) hike from the campground to the park road and the Cedar River.
Cool Hollow Trail is a one-mile trail through the woods. It crosses a one-of-a-kind log pedestrian bridge between Indian Mounds Road and Kepler Drive.
Lodge Trail is another short (.1-mile) connector between the park lodge and the park road along the river.
Overlook Trail is the easiest trail in the park. It’s a .3-mile trail stretching along the Cedar River; parking and a picnic shelter are nearby.
Woodland Trail is a ½-mile trail that extends along Kepler Drive through the woods.
Note: Many trails at Palisades Kepler State Park are ranked moderate to difficult. The easiest is the .3-mile Overlook Trail. Also, check out the trail map – you can combine the trails and roads to make a loop around the park.
There’s nothing better than fishing at the Cedar River. Access the river from sandbars and picnic areas and enjoy the scenery while waiting for that big catch. There’s also a boat ramp on the south side of the park. Anglers most often catch Channel Catfish, Walleye, and Bass.
Several picnic areas at the park have great views of the river and bluffs. An open picnic shelter is available by reservation, and otherwise, first-come, first-serve.
Enjoy the river views
Take in views of the Cedar River valley along Kepler Drive on the park’s south end. There, you’ll find scenic picnic areas, benches, and a long sandbar area along the river.
When the river is low, this sandy area is where visitors enjoy the views and wade in the water. Swimming isn’t expressly prohibited there. BUT it’s at your own risk, and you should use extreme caution, even in shallow areas. The river has dangerous currents and undertows, and people have drowned there.
Climbing is allowed in select areas, but only with permission. Check-in at the park office to complete the required registration and waivers.
Camping (& cabin rentals)
Camp (or rent a cabin) at this beautiful campground surrounded by dense woods and sloping hills. From there, you can access a few popular hiking trails.
Attend programming or volunteer
Rent the CCC Lodge
The park is home to this historic stone lodge constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The building sustained damage from the Derecho of 2020, but it’s now available for events.
Palisades Kepler State Park Campground and Cabins
The park has a beautiful campground surrounded by forest, sloping hills, and trail access! There are 45 electric and non-electric campsites at the park campground. And if you’re camping with family or friends, a few buddy sites are available.
Thirty-one sites have electric hookups, and there’s a group tent area. Modern restrooms & showers, and a dump station are on-site.
Four family cabins are in a corner of the campground. Each one accommodates up to four people with a/c, a restroom & shower, and a small kitchen. One unit is ADA accessible.
Cabins are available for weekly rental during peak season and two days in the spring and fall. Note that guests bring their linens, toiletries, dinnerware, and other items.
Palisades Kepler State Park Map
Things to Do Nearby
The American Gothic Barn is a fun tribute to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting. Find it just east of the park’s entrance, on the south side of Hwy 30. There’s no parking, as it’s on private property, but you can easily see it from the highway.
Indian Creek Nature Center is about 8 miles northwest of the park. It’s near the confluence of Indian Creek and the Cedar River – and a must-see! Hike the trails and explore the Amazing Space while you’re there. And don’t forget a stop in the gift shop.
The town of Mt. Vernon is just five miles east of the park. It’s a little town steeped in history and home to Cornell College. There you can stroll the quaint shopping district and excellent small-town eateries.
Cedar Rapids is about 20 minutes west of the park and has many things to do! Visit the museums, do some shopping, and stop at one of the delicious restaurants while you’re there.
The Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center is a ten-minute drive from the park and is open to the public for scheduled events.
Don’t forget that Coralville Lake and Iowa City are just a short drive south of the park. There you’ll find plenty of things to do – both outdoors and in.
Lake MacBride State Park is another terrific Iowa outdoor adventure, just 20 minutes south of Palisades-Kepler State Park. Go there to hike, rent a boat, camp, fish, and enjoy the beach on this 900-acre lake.
Pinicon Ridge Park is a beautiful 966-acre park 24 miles from Palisades-Kepler State Park. It has an observation tower, a wildlife area, and a picturesque 520-foot pedestrian bridge! Also, check out the camping and cabins, trails, and boat rentals.
Visit Palisades Kepler State Park Today!
Palisades Kepler State Park is at 700 Kepler Dr, Mt Vernon, IA 52314.
1. The Natural History of Palisades-Kepler State Park, Linn County, Iowa. Geological Society of Iowa. Edited by Raymond R. Anderson and Bill J. Bunker. https://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/igs/publications/uploads/GSI-068.pdf