Backpacking in Iowa: Top 6 Things to See and Do

Adventure is kind of a dirty word in the travel world. So many hardcore travelers assume adventure has to be at a breakneck speed in a developing country that barely has clean water and functional power, but interesting experiences can be unearthed right at home.

Backpacking in Iowa: Top 6 Things to See and Do

Backpacking in Iowa: Top 6 Things to See and Do

Iowa is part of the agricultural belt and was the setting for the film, Field of Dreams, but there’s more than meets the eye. A lot more. Consider hitting this place, it has loads to offer the backpacker.

For adventure seekers visiting Iowa, take notes on these six interesting things to do and see.

1. Raccoon River Excursion

Des Moines can be an exciting place in the summer time. Take an inner tube float trip down the Raccoon River with friends. Bring a cooler full of snacks and beverages to maximize this leisurely ride of three to seven hours (length of time does depend on water levels and the season).

If you need transportation to the beginning of the river, buses can pick you up at any of the local campsites or a central meeting point. This is where you’ll be given everything you need for the trip — a tube to float on, one for your cooler, a trash bag for garbage disposal, or a life vest upon request.

Tip: to really get the most out of the experience with your friends, tie your tubes together. It will be like a floating party!

2. Pottawattamie Squirrel Cage Jail

This is definitely not a jail for squirrels, but something more bizarre. Rent a car and drive to Council Bluffs, Iowa to see this fascinating jail that was built in 1885. The Pottawattamie Jailhouse, known as the “Squirrel Cage Jail” is one of three remaining “rotary jails”.

The cells are designed on a central carousel that turned with a hand-crank, spinning around so that one inmate’s holding area could be accessed, via a single entryway. What’s most unique about this jail is it was created with three stacked levels of holding cells, while most of that era only had one level built in a jail.

The tall structure combined with the cages, evokes the feeling of trapping and keeping small animals, which is how the jail got its nickname. The hand-crank is not operational anymore, but you’ll get the full idea once you step inside.

Once the jail was shut down in the 1960s, the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County converted it into a museum. A very unique one, that is worth seeing! After your tour, you’ll be glad to head back to your hotel to appreciate your comparative creature comforts (Shop around for deals; is a good source to score specials on flights and hotels in the area.)

3. Elwood, the World’s Tallest Concrete Gnome

Garden gnomes are curious, funny creatures that obsess some; or make others giggle. For an entertaining spectacle, visit Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University in Ames to see this 15 feet tall concrete gnome, known as Elwood.

He cost $8,000 to design and build, weighs 3,500 pounds, and is composed of rebar and concrete.

If you’re looking for wacky and off-the-wall, this smiling garden gnome might liven up an otherwise boring visit to a university campus.

4. Skydiving, Anywhere Really

Let’s take a break from the weird for a second, and discuss skydiving. Iowa’s landscape is the perfect setting for seeing some beautiful nature as you propel towards a soft landing in a field.

If it’s your first time, a tandem dive is best, or if you’re a veteran, choose from a number of skydiving outfits across the state; Brooklyn, Vinton, Des Moines, Ames. Even in sleepy Iowa, one can get an adrenaline rush!

5. Chasing the Hilliest Ride

If you’re an avid cyclist, seek out the hilliest area of Iowa, located in the college town of Decorah. The special geological formations here are filled with deep river valleys and arching limestone bluffs.

There’s no flat land here, but roads that hug the landscape and rise with hill after hill.

The best riding spot is the low-key community of Bluffton, about 12 miles northwest of Decorah. So bring your bike with you, or rent. You won’t be disappointed.

6. Off-Roading in Iowa

I like to do things that test myself, and off-road motorcycling is definitely one challenge you can enjoy in Iowa to its fullest.

I’d recommend the Bluff Creek OHV Park in Eddyville. It’s literally 20 miles of off-highway trails that have been structured around an abandoned coal mine, a sweet spot for beginners or advanced riders.

Skid down steep hills, jump the deep pits, or try the most beefed up track — the “gravity cavity”.

Hope these six things in Iowa get you charged up and into a different perspective on where you can find unusual, interesting adventure.

Backpacking in Iowa, USA

Backpacking in Iowa, USA

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