Tell people you’re going camping in Iowa, and they’re liable to ask if you’re sleeping in a cornfield. A whopping 85 percent of Iowa is farmland. While it’s the top corn-producing state in the country, that doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to go boondocking in Iowa. The high bluffs on the western and eastern edges of the state are particularly popular campsites. There are few parks and recreation areas sprinkled amongst the cornfields.
One of the best things about boondocking in a place like Iowa is that you’ll never have to fend off the crowds. Very few tourists come here for outdoor adventures. Even residents of the Hawkeye State are often unaware of the fun that lies in their backyard. If you’re up for an often-overlooked camping experience, keep reading to find out where the best boondocking in Iowa is.
Is Boondocking Legal in Iowa?
There are plenty of free campsites in Iowa
, but you’ll need to know where to look. State parks and state forests are the most forms of public land in the Hawkeye State, and they usually only have developed campsites that charge a fee. However, in addition to the state park system, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources
also controls a few wildlife management areas that do not charge a fee. A few of the state forests and county parks also permit free camping, but most do not. You’ll need to check each site’s regulations before you go.
Another option is camping in a private parking lot, like Walmart or Bass Pro Shop. Most of Iowa’s towns have no parking restrictions
that would preclude overnight campers in private lots, but you’ll need to check with the manager at each property. There are also a few casinos along Interstate 80 — outside of Des Moines — that are welcoming to RV travelers.
While free campsites aren’t as easy to find in Iowa as they may be in Utah or Colorado, they do exist and can be quite helpful in keeping your expenses low
. So where are these fabled free campsites?
Your Guide to the Best Boondocking in Iowa
Most Iowa campgrounds tend to be on the developing, amenity-heavy end of the spectrum. However, there are a few spots where you can get off the grid and stay away from the crowds.
Are you ready to give up all the creature comforts that come with a developed campground? If you are, you can save quite a bit while camping in the Hawkeye State. Below are some of the finest places where you set up camp.
White Oaks Conservation Area
White Oaks is one of the better campgrounds for boondocking. It’s labeled “primitive” because the sites only have pit toilets, though they have drinking water. However, the day-use area has flush toilets, a playground, and an excellent picnic spot. White Oak’s 11 sites are first-come, first-served, though, so it pays to get here early if you’re arriving towards the beginning of the weekend.
If the primitive camping experience proves to be more than you bargained for, there’s a more developed campground at Shagbark Lake that offers full hookups for your RV rental.
Fishing is the primary draw of White Oaks Campground, with Shagbark Lake stocked full of bass, catfish, and bluegill. There’s even a boat ramp and fishing jetty for you to make use of. Boats must be human or electric-powered, though. There are also 19 miles of hiking trails outside the campground in the Shimek Forest.
More information: White Oaks Campground
Echo Valley State Park
Primitive camping is allowed in this quaint little park in the northeast corner of the state. It’s only a hundred acres or so, but it provides an excellent trout fishing experience in Glover and Otter Creek, a historic lime kiln, and hiking on the 2.5-mile Echo Valley Nature Trail. It’s only a few minutes outside the little town of West Union and about an hour and a half north of Cedar Rapids.
Sites at Echo Valley cost $5, but are essentially dry campsites. There are no dump stations or potable water; just vault toilets and a few picnic tables. Come prepared with your black water tanks empty and your freshwater full.
An hour to the east is a relatively slow-moving section of the Mississippi River that’s littered with scenic islands that are ripe for kayak expeditions. Echo Valley is also somewhat near to Effigy Mounds National Monument, where you can find 200 earthen mounds built by the prehistoric Mound People, who remain something of a mystery to this day for anthropologists.
More information: Echo Valley State Park
Clemons Creek Wildlife & Recreation Area
This off-the-grid campground is only a couple of miles outside the sizable town of Washington. The 290-acre park comprises a marshy area that’s home to bullheads and carp, along with a grassier section where the campground is located. There are no amenities here, but at least you're close to a town with plenty of services.
The wildlife area is popular with hunters as there’s an abundance of deer, pheasant, turkeys, and waterfowl on the property. There’s also a shooting range near the campground where you can sight in your rifle before hunting or practice your shotgun skills with some clay pigeons.
If hunting and fishing aren’t your style, the Mississippi River is about 45 minutes from the campground. Again, there are many small islands to paddle toward and explore if you’ve got your own boat.
More information: Clemons Creek Wildlife & Recreation Area
Hickory Hills Park
A county park 20 minutes south of the city of Waterloo and close to the Cedar River, Hickory Hills is the ideal free campground. The campsites are primitive, with only a vault toilet and no drinking water. However, you could make use of the flush toilets and water available in the day-use area.
Hickory Hills has loads of choices for recreation, including volleyball, disc golf, basketball, hiking, and fishing. There’s a trail leading to an old homestead building that’s definitely worth checking out. The 39-acre Casey Lake isn’t too far away and is one of the best spots in the state for Largemouth Bass fishing.
More information: Hickory Hills Park
If you’re wanting to visit Des Moines while boondocking in Iowa, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more convenient campground than Grant Park. The primitive sites at Grant Park are only half an hour from Iowa’s largest city, but they feel a world away. As this is a free campsite, keep your expectations for amenities low. The campground has vault toilets, but no drinking water or any other luxuries.
A couple of hiking trails loop around inside the park, ranging from half a mile to just under a mile. There’s also a small pond for doing some fishing or just relaxing and enjoying the wildlife around it.
Lake Red Rock is just a short drive from Grant Park and is one of the most popular outdoor attractions in the state. Sandstone cliffs surround much of the lake, which are best viewed from a kayak, but there are plenty of hiking trails that skirt the cliffs and provide picturesque views of the lake.
More information: Grant Park
5 Tips for RV Boondocking in Iowa
Iowa isn’t a particularly challenging state for camping; the roads are decent, there’s not much in the way of dangerous wildlife, and you’re never that far from a city like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, or Sioux City. However, if this is your first time renting an RV
, these tips should make your Iowa road trip a whole lot easier and more fun.
- Planning is key. Iowa doesn’t have that many camping areas, which means you can’t drive around hoping to find a suitable Forest Service road to pull onto. Choose your destinations beforehand and map out your route. GoogleMaps is great for navigation, but a paper map — especially one that shows state and federal land ownership — can be a lifesaver on the road.
- Be aware of the weather. Rain and moderate winds could put a damper on a day of hiking, but what you need to watch out for in Iowa are the tornadoes. They rip through the state between March and September, and there are several of them each year. Should you end up being near one, it’s best to leave the RV and seek shelter in a hardened building, preferably one with a basement.
- Travel in the off-season. Many of Iowa’s state parks and forests give discounted rates from October through April. Campgrounds with showers and flush toilets might limit their services, but most provide a vault toilet and potable water from late fall through early spring.
- Make reservations. Iowa isn’t the most popular state for camping, but if you’re hoping to show up and snag a site, and none are available, you are a very long way from the next campground. Make reservations for your own peace of mind.
- Empty and fill your tanks. Many of Iowa’s best boondocking sites are short on amenities. Most do not have dump stations, so you’ll want to empty your black water tank, probably at a truck stop, before heading out to your campsite. Freshwater is more common, but some sites don’t have it, so you’ll need to fill up before your arrival.
Choosing an RV Rental in Iowa
Are you convinced that Iowa has more to offer than cornfields and the bright lights of Des Moines? Can you imagine renting an RV
to do some boondocking in the Hawkeye State? Cruise America
can help you find the RV that’s right for your adventure. Maybe it’s with a 30-foot rig with all the amenities and space for seven or, perhaps, you prefer to travel light in a 20-footer that only holds three. A Cruise America representative will help you make all the RV rental decisions so you can just focus on planning the perfect road trip.
So are you ready to rent an RV for boondocking in Iowa? Make a reservation
with Cruise America today and start your adventure!