If you’re looking for beautiful stretches of river to paddle near Des Moines, Iowa, you don’t have to look far! Just west of Des Moines, the South and Middle Raccoon River water trails are ranked among the best water trails in Iowa.
The Middle Raccoon River is one of the most undisturbed river trails in Iowa. Surrounded by protected land, it features cleaner water, dense woodlands, and ample wildlife habitat. If that isn’t enough, paddlers get a close encounter with the 40’ tall Hanging Rock in Redfield.
The South Raccoon contains more sediment since it’s bordered by more farm ground. It’s still a beautiful stretch of river! Paddlers enjoy a peaceful and scenic float with fun riffles and sandstone bluffs.
The Middle and South Raccoon Rivers join south of Redfield. They then continue southeast to Van Meter. The river continues to offer peaceful, beautiful views as you go. And it’s sprinkled with granite boulders left by glaciers, which make you wonder if you’re really in Iowa.
Paddling the South and Middle Raccoon River Water Trails
The South and Middle Raccoon River Trails have granite boulders, sandstone walls, and plentiful wildlife. These features put them among the top-rated water trails in Iowa!
What you’ll experience
Riffles and rapids. Most of the South and Middle Raccoon River trails are for intermediate paddlers. Paddlers come across riffles, sweeps, and logs (with some Class II rapids). Granite boulders and slabs of sandstone left by glaciers are common. When river levels are low, paddlers might have to portage around riffles and down trees. Check distances and river levels before paddling.
Sandstone and shale walls. You won’t miss the 40-foot tall Hanging Rock* when you float the Middle Raccoon section south of the Redfield Dam. Hanging Rock is the largest outcrop of sandstone along the water trail. But there are similar areas of sandstone walls along this stretch of river.
*Hanging Rock is more than a rock bluff! It’s a 469-acre recreation area too.
Wildlife. This water trail is the perfect habitat for wildlife. Paddlers spot wildlife along the shores, in the air, and in the water. Bald Eagles, Herons, and Kingfishers are among the many species of birds along the river. Paddlers may also glimpse deer, river otters, and foxes, to name a few. Turtles sun themselves on the rocks. And six different species of mussels live in the clear water of the Middle Raccoon.
Sandbars. Sandbars offer paddlers the perfect spot to rest and even have a picnic. Explore the sandbars! Hunt for unique rocks and mussel shells, watch the tadpoles and minnows, and spot animal tracks. (Of course, river levels affect the size of sandbars on these water trails.)
Middle and South Raccoon River Water Trails Maps
Also, the Iowa DNR’s Interactive Paddling Map is super useful! You’ll want to check this map before you head out. Also, the DNR Brochure features a different map.
River Access Points
Middle Raccoon River Water Trail
Access points on the Middle Raccoon Water Trail offer short or long paddling trips. All trails sections are for intermediate to advanced paddlers (watch for sweeps, riffles, and obstacles).
Access numbers are approximate mile markers. They can help you estimate the distance between points.
Lenon Mill Park in Panora (Access #18). This access is below the dam. It has a concrete boat ramp and shoreline, making it easy for paddlers to navigate. There is a gravel parking lot by the ramp, and restrooms (and camping!) are available in Lenon Mill Park.
P-28 (Access #16). The access is below a bridge and has a concrete ramp. The gravel parking area is small, with enough room for about five vehicles. No restrooms are available here.
Middle Raccoon River Access at 248th Street Bridge (Access #13). This access is below a bridge, on the river’s left side, and has carry-down access. It has a small gravel parking area and no restrooms.
Cowles Access (Access #9). This access is just above the 268th Street bridge. It’s a concrete ramp on the right side of the river. The gravel parking area is large enough to turn around. No restrooms are available at this location.
Shearer Access (Access #7). This access has a concrete ramp on the right side of the river. It’s located south of Linden, off of Amarillo Avenue. A gravel parking area is large enough to turn around in—no restrooms at this location.
Redfield Dam Upper Access (Access #2B). All paddlers need to get off the river here before reaching the dam. A concrete ramp is on the right side of the river. There is a small gravel turn around here, with a larger parking area below the dam. Paddlers can portage around the Redfield Dam to get back on the river (at Access #2A).
Redfield Dam Lower Access (Access #2A). Those that portaged around the dam can hop back on the river here. Here’s a great place to get on the river for those that want to experience the Hanging Rock* area from the water. A concrete ramp and gravel parking lot are below the dam. No restrooms are available.
Important note: 1.7 miles downriver from the Redfield Dam, the Middle Raccoon joins with the South Raccoon River. The Redfield Dam Lower Access to the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Area Access (#12) is around 8 miles, with carry-down access. (See South and Middle Raccoon River Trail Confluence section.)
South Raccoon River Water Trail
The access points along the South Raccoon River Trail are spread out, making for longer float times. Allow plenty of time, especially when river levels are low. These sections are for intermediate paddlers.
Nations Bridge Park Access (Access #33). A concrete ramp makes for easy access, with a gravel parking area nearby. Restrooms, camping, and water are available at the park.
Courtney McCammond Access (Access #22). We found this access very difficult to find and navigate. With the limited parking and a long distance to carry your boat, we recommend scouting it out ahead of time to see if it will work for you. (It didn’t work for us!)
South Raccoon River Access (Access #19). This access can be hard to spot on the river, according to the DNR. You’ll find it on the right side of the river on a sandbar, after a curve on the river. Check maps before heading out. It’s right before the South and Middle Raccoon’s confluence, west of Old Hwy 6 and off of Delta Circle Road. Parking is limited, and there are no restrooms at this access point.
Note: From here, paddlers can continue on the river to where the Middle and South Raccoon meet. The next access point is the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Area Access.
South and Middle Raccoon River Water Trail (Confluence)
Pleasant Valley Wildlife Area Access (Access #12). This carry-down access has a small parking area off the road. It’s on the river’s left side, about 8 miles downriver from the Redfield Dam. No restrooms are available.
Earlham Bridge Access (Access #8). This access is 12.2 miles from Redfield Dam. Most paddlers use an unofficial access area on the southwest side of the bridge, on the river’s right side. It’s easy to get off and on the river here, though there is a 10′ rocky slope to the parking area. But it’s easier to access than the “official” access point.
The official access point is reportedly a bit difficult to navigate. It’s several yards upstream from the Earlham Bridge and only accessed via a dirt road, with carry-down access.
From here, you can continue to Van Meter and beyond! (The best access point in Van Meter is behind the Casey’s.) We’ll have more on this section of the trail soon.
More on the Middle and South Raccoon River Water Trails
Know before you go! Learn more about the Middle and South Raccoon River water trails before you head out on the water! Below are links to check out before you float.
- Download the DNR South and Middle Raccoon River Brochure.
- Check the DNR’s Interactive Paddling Map
- Check river levels at RiverGuages.com
- Check the flow on the Middle Raccoon River here
- Check the flow on the South Raccoon River here
The time it takes you to paddle a section of the trails is dependent on the river levels! When levels are low, the current is slower, and it will take (a lot!) longer to paddle a few miles.
- Check river levels.
- Check the weather.
- Look at the river trail maps.
- Check out Google Maps satellite images. When you’re on the river looking for your access point, you don’t want to miss it! Signage isn’t always clear.
- Wear your life jacket at all times!
- Pack light, but make sure you have plenty of water (and a few snacks).
- Use dry bags for your belongings.
- Do not float alone.
- Inform others (who are not in your group) of your access points and timeframe. Check in when you put in and take out.
- Check river levels before you go.
- Check the weather before you go (downstream too!)
- Expect boulders and trees in the river and plan to portage or navigate around them. (Don’t grab tree branches!)
- Allow space between paddlers, especially around rapids and log jams.
- If you tip over, stay upstream of your boat, so you don’t get trapped.
- Dress in layers. Don’t forget a rain poncho and sunscreen.
Please be respectful
- Of wildlife
- Of other paddlers
- Of anglers
- Of the land and rivers (pack it in, pack it out)
- Of private land. Don’t trespass on private property around the river. The State of Iowa owns the river, but not all the adjacent land is public land.