Yellow River State Forest is, without a doubt, Iowa’s most distinct forest. It’s more rugged than other state forests, with steep hills, limestone outcroppings, and spring-fed trout streams. And its unique (for Iowa) geological features and ample outdoor activities make it a popular place for nature lovers year-round.
About Yellow River State Forest
The Yellow River State Forest is nestled in the Driftless Region, which means it’s in an area largely untouched by the most recent glaciers. The region is a Paleozoic Plateau, a high-relief topography with steep slopes and bluffs, stream-carved rocks, waterfalls, and springs.
The first land for the state forest was bought in 1935 with funds designated for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). That land was near the confluence of the Yellow River and the Mississippi River, which explains the forest’s name.
The State of Iowa gave the National Park Service 1500 acres of the original forest in 1949, what is now Effigy Mounds National Monument.
Then, in the 1960s, the state began developing part of the forest for recreation. Prison laborers built roads, picnic areas, campgrounds, and other recreational areas.
The state added more land next to the original Yellow River unit in 1990. And today, most of the 8900-acre forest is in the Paint Creek watershed.
Yellow River State Forest Units
Paint Creek Unit
At 5237 acres, Paint Creek is the largest and most visited unit in the state forest. Primitive campgrounds, miles of multi-use trails, overlooks, and stocked trout streams offer many recreational activities. See the map here.
Paint Rock Unit
This 864-acre area has eight miles of hiking trails and backpack camping sites. See the trail map here.
Waukon Junction Unit
This 209-acre unit is located on the south edge of the Paint Rock Unit along the Mississippi River.
Luster Heights Unit
This unit is 770 acres with several miles of trails, some groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter. Also, there are two Mississippi River overlooks in this unit. See the trail map here.
Yellow River Unit
This 1227-acre area features canoe & kayak access to the Yellow River and a canoe-in campsite. See the map here.
Mud Hen Unit
This 196-acre unit comprises islands on the Mississippi River and can only be accessed by boat.
Things To Do at Yellow River State Forest
If you enjoy camping in the woods, you’ll love camping at Yellow River State Forest! Year-round primitive camping is available in the four campgrounds and group backpacking sites.
Many campsites in the Paint Creek Unit can accommodate tents, campers, and some RVs. But there is no water or electricity or modern restrooms. A handful of hike-in group campsites are available in the Paint Creek and Paint Rock Units. For more campground info, see the Campground section later in this article.
Fish for trout
Fish at two stocked trout streams, Little Paint Creek and Big Paint Creek, that run through the Paint Creek Unit. See the Iowa DNR Trout Fishing info and Allamakee County Trout Fishing Guide for more information.
Hit the trails
Hike, mountain bike, ski, or ride your horse through the Yellow River State Forest! Find numerous trails in the Paint Creek Unit – miles and miles of multi-use trails wind through this area. Also, the Luster Heights and Paint Rock Units offer hiking trails.
Some trails are only open to hiking, while others allow mountain biking and equestrian use. All routes are marked for specific uses, and you can find most of the multi-use trails in the Paint Creek Unit. Refer to the unit maps and the equestrian trails map for details.
Trail etiquette! Bikers yield to hikers and horses; hikers yield to horses. Ask permission to pass. And, please, if you pack it in – pack it out.
Yellow River State Forest is one of Iowa’s few places to experience backpacking! So, if you enjoy backcountry camping, you’ll appreciate the hike-in sites. Note that all overnight backpackers need to register at the forest office.
See Iowa’s only fire tower.
See this historic 93-foot-tall fire tower in the Yellow River State Forest Paint Creek Unit! The fire tower was built in its current location in 1963 by the Aermotor Company, around the same time the state forest opened for recreational use.
Soon after its construction, new technology and fire management techniques meant the fire tower was no longer needed. But it’s still something to see! See the Paint Creek map for the location.
Paddle the Yellow River Water Trail
The Yellow River is a popular river to kayak or canoe for a good reason! It’s different than many other water trails in Iowa; it’s remote, with plenty of small rapids, beautiful scenery, and wildlife.
However, it’s swift during higher waters, with many rocky areas to navigate during lower water (requiring portaging). So the Iowa DNR recommends having paddling experience.
There is a river access point and a canoe-in campsite in the Yellow River Unit. And there are several other access points outside of the state forest. See the Yellow River Water Trail brochure for details.
The Yellow River State Forest is in what is considered a Globally Significant Bird Conservation Area. What does that mean? For bird watchers, it means the forest is a terrific opportunity to spot many bird species! Some species aren’t often seen in other areas of the Midwest, like Cerulean Warblers and Red-shouldered Hawks.
The forest is one of the state’s most significant public hunting grounds. Hunt for deer, turkey, small game, upland birds, and more!
Most of the forest is open to hunting, except for some marked areas around the campgrounds. Seasons and species are restricted by Iowa hunting regulations for public hunting areas. Find hunting regulations and license information on the Iowa DNR website.
Winter at Yellow River State Forest
Snowshoe or cross-country ski
Or just take a winter hike on the miles and miles of trails throughout the forest! Parts of the Paint Creek and Luster Heights Unit trails are often groomed for cross-country skiing.
Many of the forest’s gravel roads get closed to traffic during the winter – and open to snowmobiles!
Fish for trout
Winter doesn’t stop anglers from fishing for trout! The coldwater streams don’t usually freeze and are open to fishing during all seasons.
Stay in a local cabin.
What’s better than staying in a cozy cabin during the winter? Warm up next to a fireplace at a local cabin after a day on the trails. Several cabin rentals are available locally at places like Iowa Cabin Rentals or the year-round cabins at Backbone State Park.
Yellow River State Forest Maps
The following maps for Yellow River State Forest are on the Iowa DNR website:
Paint Creek Unit
Luster Height Unit
Yellow River Unit
Paint Rock Unit
Yellow River State Forest Campgrounds
Paint Creek Campgrounds
Four campgrounds are in the Paint Creek Unit, with a total of 135 campsites:
- Big Paint Campground
- Creekside Campground
- Little Paint Campground
- Frontier Equestrian Campground
Many sites can accommodate tents, camping trailers, and some RVs. But there is no electricity, water, or modern restrooms/showers at the state forest campgrounds. Campsites have a picnic table and fire ring, and there are pit toilets in each campground. Drinking water is near the office. See the campground maps here and make reservations here.
A rustic cabin rental for up to six guests is near the park office and is reservable at ReserveAmerica.com.
Backpacking/hike-in tent sites
Four hike-in camp areas are off the trails in the Paint Creek Unit (Camp John Shultz, Camp Glen Wendel, Brown’s Hollow Camp, and Heffern’s Hill Camp). Also, a group hike-in campsite is off the trail at the Paint Rock Unit. See the unit maps for locations. Overnight backpackers need to register at the forest office.
Things to Do Nearby
Northeast Iowa is one of the absolute best places to visit in Iowa! Its geological features make it an excellent place for outdoor activities, from fishing and camping to trails of every type. Visitors enjoy miles and miles of hiking, biking, equestrian, and water trails. Also, stop by the area’s historic buildings, shopping, and museums. Below are some of the many places we recommend checking out!
Effigy Mounds National Monument is next to the state forest. Explore the visitor center, trails, and ranger programs. Also, learn the history of local Native American tribes and see animal-shaped burial mounds!
McGregor and Marquette are historic Iowa river towns just south of the forest. They’re quaint river towns with scenic views, historic buildings, quaint shops, and eateries.
Prairie du Chien is just across the river in Wisconsin. Go there to shop for supplies at Walmart or get a bite to eat at a restaurant like Huckleberry’s. Or tour the Villa Louis Historic Site or the Fort Crawford Museum.
Pikes Peak State Park is about 20 miles south of the state forest. And it’s one of the most visited parks in the state! Its panoramic views, impressive bluffs, native woodlands, and great hiking make it a must-see.
Spook Cave is a fun place to take a one-of-a-kind cave tour on a boat! It’s just 16 miles south of the forest and has a campground with a waterfall.
Wyalusing State Park is 30 miles southeast of Yellow River State Forest. This Wisconsin park has everything from hiking and biking to canoeing, camping, and fishing. It’s a scenic park worth exploring.
Decorah, Iowa, is an excellent Iowa town just 32 miles northwest of the state forest. Tour the Fish Hatchery and museums and explore several scenic nature areas and trails. And be sure to stop in the downtown district while you’re there.
Volga River State Recreation Area is an hour southwest of the state forest and an excellent place to camp (with full hookups!), boat, and fish. And, with over 20 miles of multi-use trails, you can hike, bike, or ride!
Find Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, about an hour southwest of the state forest. This park has the highest point in northeast Iowa – The Devil’s Backbone. Hike, fish, climb, paddle, camp, or rent a cabin at this excellent state park!
Visit Yellow River State Forest Today!
Visit the Yellow River State Forest kiosk off State Forest Road, near the park office in the Paint Creek Unit.