I’ve been paddling Iowa’s rivers since 1976 when my dad and I took our aluminum canoe to Bonaparte, Iowa dropped it on the Des Moines River and floated the short route to Farmington. Since then I’ve enjoyed paddling countless miles of Iowa’s streams as the Publisher and Editor of Canoeing Iowa magazine, as an instructor and guide for my retail store, and as a recreational paddler.
Iowa’s rivers have a lot to offer in the way of scenery, excitement, history, and adventure. Each river has unique qualities and characteristics which sets it apart from all the others. Call it a rhythm or even a personality. They also have moods and attitudes based on water levels. Trying to determine which is best or most unique is like a parent trying to decide which of their children is best. It often depends on how they are behaving at the time. If I wrote this on another day it would likely be different in some way.
I approached this task by asking myself, if I had just seven days to paddle in Iowa what seven routes would I choose? Again, not easy to do. There are several that didn’t make the list that are nearly equal to others or have some quality or characteristic lacking in one of the routes I selected.
I’m not going to add a lot of detail or include maps, distance charts, and other information here. Instead I’ll recommend you purchase Paddling Iowa by Nate Hoogeveen. His book covers the routes I mention here and over 100 more. It provides ideal water levels by referring you to the river gauge readings found on the USGS website and it discusses more about historical sites, rental options, and other points of interest you’ll see along the way. I highly recommend it if your wish is to explore Iowa’s waterways by watercraft.
In addition, you’ll find maps and a great deal of information on most if not all of these routes at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources web site. They have printable PDF maps available and are an excellent resource for planning your river adventures in Iowa. Go to iowadnr.gov and look at the Things To Do drop down menu. Open Canoeing and Kayaking and you’ll find a great deal of useful information.
So, here are the rivers, the starting and ending points, the approximate river miles, and brief explanation of why it makes my list of favorites.
Upper Iowa River, from Kendallville to Bluffton. This starts my list of favorites since it likely the most scenic stretch of river in the entire state. The Upper Iowa is noted for its’ high limestone bluffs rising from the banks and has the distinction of being the only river in the state recognized nationally as a Wild & Scenic River. Paddling down the surprisingly cool and clear spring fed water lined by towering bluffs and cliffs, you’d never believe you were in Iowa. The entire route is just under eighteen miles and can be shortened with a take-out at “Chimney Rock.” If you get a chance to paddle this river you won’t be disappointed.
Yellow River, from Bridge 16 to Yellow River Landing. Boasting the highest rate of fall in Iowa, this is where you’ll find the swiftest current in the state and numerous challenging riffles. This alone makes the trip worthwhile. However, along this fourteen-mile trip you’ll also view bluffs rising up to 200 feet, paddle through the Yellow River State Forest, and end near Effigy Mounds National Monument passing through the river valley that is 400 feet deep.
Boone River from Briggs Woods to Bell’s Mill. A paddle of approximately sixteen miles this route makes the list for its’ scenic qualities and challenging conditions. Overall the Boone River Valley is deep and narrow and is lined by steep cliffs and bluffs. The rocky bottom combined with a pushy current creates a challenging course for most beginners and less skilled paddlers. At low conditions the river can beat up a composite canoe or kayak. This is by far my favorite river in Central Iowa. Be sure to check out the waterfalls in Briggs Woods. If you want to add another four miles to the trip and see some falls from the water start your paddle in Webster City.
Turkey River, from Elgin to Sandpit Road Access outside of Elkader. This is another beautiful river valley that most people wouldn’t expect to find in Iowa. At just under twenty river miles the route includes cliffs, high timber covered bluffs, and a few fun riffles. In the hot summer you can cool off in the spring fed water below Big Spring Trout Hatchery.
Des Moines River from Boone Waterworks Park Lower Ramp to Luther Access. This makes my list primarily for the Kate Shelley High Bridge which stands 184 feet above the river. Although it’s no longer used for rail traffic, it’s still quite impressive. Just down river is a newer, less aesthetically pleasing railroad bridge you’ll pass beneath. While the Kate Shelley High Bridge is the highlight of this trip there’s still a lot to enjoy throughout. The valley is deep and narrow in places ad wide and open in others. There are some high cliffs and scenic bluffs and the route passes Ledges State Park which is worth some time checking out. Overall this stretch is just under fourteen miles.
Volga River from Volga to Garber. This is nearly thirty miles of river and should likely be broken up into two smaller sections. Along this route you’ll experience a secluded valley and pass through sections of high cliffs and limestone outcroppings. Overall, much of this section of the Volga feels more like a large creek than a river but it’s the scenic qualities are worth the trip.
North Raccoon River from Adel to Walnut Woods. This is another long route encompassing approximately twenty-eight miles. It doesn’t make my list as a favorite for the scenic qualities. You won’t find steep cliffs and a narrow secluded valley like some of the other rivers I’ve mentioned. You also won’t find much in the way of swift water or challenging riffles. This is basically a slower moving, casual river section. It makes my list because at normal or low water conditions it has huge sandbars ideally suited for camping and exploring.