If you think you know what Iowa looks like but haven’t traveled through Northeast Iowa, you don’t know how beautiful Iowa can get. I’m not one to wax poetic about “This is God’s country,” but if you go on one of these hikes in Northeastern Iowa, you might mumble that phrase a time or two. The region — part of the Driftless Region covering several states — is unlike anywhere in the rest of Iowa.
Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Allamakee County, though all three sites mentioned are free to visit. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
I’m not a hardcore hiker, so if you’re looking for overnight hikes or something like that, sorry, move on. My family and I are more of the hobby hiker types: We prepare for an hour or two hike, tops, and then we’re done. The most we’ve done is a 5-miler in Yellowstone…and that was plenty for us.
But I digress. These places in Iowa are great for hiking at (mostly) all ability levels. Some places have more accessibility than others, but generally speaking, if you’re a beginner hiker, you can do these hikes.
Great trails to hike in northeastern Iowa
I hiked the following trails in the fall when it was nearly peak leaf changing season. It. Was. Gorgeous.
Tip: If you want to time to visit for leaf peeping, I’m told that averages around Oct. 11 each year. As an average, that means sometimes it’s a little earlier, sometimes it’s a little later, but generally, there will be some pretty colors at that time.
Effigy Mounds National Monument
Where: 151 Iowa Highway 76, Harpers Ferry
Highlights: This national monument near the Mississippi River is a protected land preserving unique burial mounds built between 850 to 1,400 years ago. There are 31 mounds at this park shaped like animals — among several others with different shapes like conical and linear. What makes this place special is that the animal-shaped mounds have only been found in the Upper Midwest.
The bear-shaped effigy is found throughout the North and South Units. In the hike I’m suggesting in the North Unit, you should look for Little Bear Mound and Great Bear Mound. In the South Unit, there is a trail of bear effigies called Marching Bear.
Try this trail: There’s a 2-mile loop near the Effigy Mounds Visitors Center in the North Unit. When you take the loop clockwise, you’ll pass several unidentified mounds, as well as Little Bear Mound, Great Bear Mound, Fire Point and Eagle Rock. Fire Point and Eagle Rock are great overlooks of the Mississippi River.
The hike is uphill in the beginning and the terrain is uneven with thick roots and stones. It’s manageable and there are benches placed throughout the entire trail for a resting spot.
Most of the hike is shaded, though there are clearings where the mounds are.
Yellow River State Forest
Where: 729 State Forest Road, Harpers Ferry
Highlights: One of Yellow River State Forest’s most recognized landmark is the Fire Tower, the state’s only fire tower. You can’t climb up it these days, but if you drive up to see It, you’ll see a few trail heads that may inspire you to explore. The forest has a few streams flowing through it, the largest being Big Paint Trout Stream.
Try this trail: There are 50 miles of multi-use trails in the forest, so it’s a bit daunting to pick just one for you. I’ve been told that the absolute best trail to hike is Paint Rock, but it’s a 10-mile loop that doesn’t quite fit with my easy hike list. So I have a different suggestion.
I recommend seeking out Larkin Overlook. You may find trails around there to explore, but we did just one super easy short trek to the lookout. And the lookout, you guys, is awesome.
It’s a bit nerve-wracking since there’s a steep drop-off but if you can get past that, there’s a view of a creek, lush forest, and in the distance, the Fire Tower.
It’s the closest I got to feeling like I was in a national park while still in the Midwest.
Mt. Hosmer City Park
Where: 271 Main St., Lansing
Highlights: Don’t let the name “city park” deter you. This is one of the region’s must-visit spots for the Mississippi River overlooks. You can see parts of Wisconsin from the park. There are two outlooks, and honestly, the first one you drive past isn’t the main one but it has the better view. However, the main overlook has the signage that tells you all the things you’re looking at. So stop a both.
The main overlook has a parking lot, picnic area, small playground, and war memorials. It also has a trailhead to one of the park’s several trails, Beaver Loop (a portion of which is known as Hooky Hangout).
Try this trail: This short, out-an-back trail stars with a steep descent…which means a nice little hill to hike up a the end. Still, it’s just about a half-mile and manageable for most abilities. It connects to another trail if you want a longer hike.
My family didn’t want a longer hike, so we took this short route that led to Hooky Hangout, which looks a little like a gathering spot for some sort of cult, but in reality is something more innocent: An old hangout for high schoolers who played hooky from school.
It’s a shaded hike, and there’s a fascinating amount of foliage to observe.
If you have some favorite hikes at these parks or other places in Northeast Iowa, please leave a comment! I’d love your tips since I want to return to this region.