Looking for fun and adventure in Iowa? Then you should be looking from the seat of a kayak. Kayaking is arguably one of the best recreational activities available in Iowa. You’ll take in gorgeous views like towering limestone bluffs, dense hilly woods, and iconic Iowa fields. You’ll get to see plenty of wildlife in its natural habitat, like bald eagles, painted turtles, and swallowtail butterflies.
You’ll get an upper body workout, if you want - or you can relax, paddling only to steer. Paddle with a big group or choose a more remote water trail and enjoy the peace and solitude with your best friend. That’s the beauty of it: when you go kayaking in Eastern Iowa, you choose your own adventure, so to speak.
Before you go, though, there are a few things you should know to help your trip go smoothly. You need to choose your kayak and gear, know paddling basics and safety information, be aware of regulations, and decide where to go (there are far more options than most people realize)! Read on for everything you need to know about kayaking in Eastern Iowa.
Why a kayak, not a canoe? What kind should I buy?The kayak has surged in popularity over the canoe in Iowa for a couple of key reasons: Kayaks are smaller and lighter than canoes and other boats, which means they’re easier to store and transport. You can easily purchase a couple kayaks, store them in your garage, and load them on top of your car with an affordable roof rack and mounts. Additionally, they are easier to maneuver because you’re sitting closer to the water, so your center of gravity is lower. It gives you extra piece of mind if you’re worried about tipping.
We reached out to Todd Robertson, River Programs Outreach Coordinator/Paddling Instructor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, to share his advice and tips for this article. “The fact is, a canoe is much harder to paddle correctly and efficiently than a kayak, as kayaks can be more forgiving,” Robertson said.
While Robertson himself prefers to canoe (“I was hooked once I learned how to paddle one correctly,” he said), he too started with kayaking, and it’s a great way to get out on the water for beginning and experienced paddlers alike. He recommends a longer kayak to start, over 12 feet long, because it will track straighter and be less frustrating for newer paddlers.
Make sure to note that kayaks over 13 feet must be registered in the state of Iowa. If you’re renting, this isn’t a concern, but it’s something to consider if you’re looking to buy them. (Registration with the Iowa DNR is $17.00 for three years for boats without a motor or sail.)
Robertson also recommends rotomolded kayaks because they’re more durable than lighter Kevlar or fiberglass, as well as more affordable. You can get a decent budget recreational kayak for under $500. Make sure to consider the costs of your paddles, personal floatation devices (life jackets), and roof rack and mounts or trailer.
Safety and education
“My best tip is to put safety above all else and expect the unexpected,” Robertson said. “Expect to get wet. Know what to do if you DO dump your boat. Wear the life jacket. Don't paddle alone and seek some basic, formal instruction.”
The basic instruction can be as simple as this free online course, available through the DNR website, which is a great place for beginners to start and a good brush-up for more experienced paddlers. If you’d like to learn to paddle more efficiently and learn other kayak skills in person, the DNR offers a variety of classes through its Canoe and Kayak School.
On the water, it’s important to keep an eye out for dangers like strainers and low-head dams. Strainers are any obstacle that allows water through, but not you and your boat, like downed tree branches. If you do get caught against one, “lean into the beast,” as Robertson says -- meaning lean toward the obstacle. If you instinctively lean away from it, and toward the current, you can easily swamp and flip your boat.
As a final piece of safety advice, Robertson offered this: “ALWAYS file a float plan. That's as easy as telling a loved one or friend where you are going, putting in, taking out and when to expect your return. In case of an accident, people have to know where you are or what area!”
You can find additional basic safety tips in this PDF safety brochure.
Local laws and regulations
As a paddler, it’s your responsibility to know the laws and regulations that apply to where you boat. The top three violations by Iowa boaters are various registration violations, inadequate personal flotation devices, and improper speed or distance from other vessels (this last one will most likely not apply to you and your kayak). You can access and review regulations for the State of Iowa here.
When asked what laws or regulations people often forget, Robertson reiterated the importance of life jackets. “(Kids ages) 12 and under must wear a life jacket on board a paddling vessel at all times and we recommend wearing the life jacket when within 15 feet of river shore,” he said.
Additionally, the law states that if you’re 13 or over you must have your life jacket on board with you. However, if you’re not wearing it, it may not be available when you need it. “The river current can take the life jacket far away from you and even if you catch it, it is very difficult to put a life jacket on in moving water! Wear the life jacket!” Robertson said.
Where to paddle: The best Eastern Iowa water trails for kayaking
Eastern Iowa is filled with amazing water trails all offering a unique experience. In fact, the DNR maintains over 900 miles of water trails in Iowa with designated put-in points, and signage marking distances between points. Check out the DNR’s interactive water trails map and let this list, with the most popular sections noted, be a jumping off point for your explorations!
Upper Iowa River
Kendalville to Bluffton - 18 miles with shorter routes available
Rentals in Bluffton or at Hutchinson Family Farm north of Decorah
Scenic with 300-foot bluffs, very popular
Charles City Whitewater Park
Iowa’s first whitewater park - practice your tricks in three whitewater features
Backbone State Park to Manchester Whitewater Park - 18 miles
Monticello to Pictured Rocks County Park - 8 miles
Terry Trueblood Recreation Area
In Iowa City - 95-acre Sand Lake, rentals available
Wapsipinicon River (Wapsi)
Kayak rentals in Central City
Clermont to Elkader in scenic Northeast Iowa
Scenic downtown Iowa Falls to Eldora
Kayak rentals in Charles City and Cedar Rapids
If you love being outdoors, and you’re not paddling yet, it’s time to get started. Kayaking is such an amazing way to explore Eastern Iowa and spend time in nature!