4 National Parks in Iowa

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Iowa is a Midwestern U.S. state sandwiched between Minnesota to the north and Missouri in the south. The “Hawkeye State” is filled with countryside dotted with cornfields and farmlands. Surprisingly 92% of the state is farmland. Now that’s a lot of corn and cows!

This is an off-the-beaten-track state that has a surprising number of attractions. While there aren’t any iconic National Parks, Iowa has four great national park sites that are worth visiting the next time you head to the state. They’ve got national monuments, historic sites and historic trails. The rivers, historical sites and state parks will allow you to reconnect to nature while learning a thing or two about the state. So check out these four amazing national parks in Iowa the next time you are in the Midwest.

4 National Parks in Iowa

National Monument

1- Effigy Mounds National Monument

Effigy Mounts National Monument Iowa
Effigy Mounts National Monument is one of the top Iowa national parks sites.

You will find the Effigy Mound National Monument in northeast Iowa, right on the border with Wisconsin along the Mississippi River, with Iowa on one side and Wisconsin on the other.

It’s around 221 miles from the state capital, Des Moines and about 60 miles north of Dubuque.

The park was first established in 1949

The Effigy Mounds National Monument has more than 200 prehistoric mounds.

The oldest date back to 450 BCE but some of the effigy mounds created by the Native Americans were probably built between 500-1300 CE.

Iowa has a rich history and culture.

American Indians first came to Iowa around 13,000 years ago.

There are many mounds built in the effigy mounds style, in the shapes of many significant animals like birds, lizards, bears, turtles, lynx, panthers and bison.

These effigy mounds are unique because, though other mounds were built across America, this stretch of the Upper Mississippi River Valley is the only place where effigy mounds were built.

There are 31 effigy mounds, making it one of the largest concentrations of such archaeological structures worldwide.

These mounds are considered sacred ceremonial sites.

One part of the site has a series of 10 bears and three mounds, which archaeologists have named the Marching Bears.

As well as the effigy mounds, 14 miles (22.5 km) of trails lead through a wooded park, so you’ll need to take a hike to see most of the mounds.

The famous Marching Bear Group is in the park’s southern unit and requires a 4-mile (6.4 km) hike to reach the site.

You can explore the wooded area and discover scenic lookout points that let you peak at the Mississippi River.

The Effigy Mounds National Monument trails are open year-round.

Each season brings an entirely new feel and atmosphere.

Visit during winter and you might be able to spot bald eagles flying above the river searching for food.

With autumn comes the magnificent rusty orange and rouge red leaves.

Visit during summer and you’ll be able to join their ranger program.

You’ll be guided around the national monument site and given some interesting information and insights into the mounds and the Native Americans who built them.

National Historic Site

national parks in iowa flag with eagle
Looking for national parks in Iowa? You’ll find four national parks sites to visit.

2- Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is in West Branch, an eastern Iowa area.

This national historic site marks the birthplace of the USA’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover.

Herbert Hoover was President between 1929 and 1933, during a difficult time for America while the nation faced the Great Depression.

He was also a staunch Republican and the first President of the USA born west of the Mississippi River.

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site offers visitors the opportunity to see the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and a museum.

There is also his childhood home, his father’s blacksmith shop and several other buildings you can explore.

Slightly away from the main area on a peaceful hillside President Hoover and his wife are buried.

Interestingly enough, Herbert Hoover was an early supporter of the National Park Service, which was formed in 1916.

Hoover was PresidentPresident of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in 1924 whilst also being the Secretary of Commerce.

He was responsible for increasing funding for national park service sites by 70% and played a part in establishing many national monuments like Death Valley, the Great Sand Dunes, Black Canyon and the Gunnison National Parks.

Hoover spent the first 11 years of his life growing up in West Branch, Iowa.

Because of the death of his parents, he left Iowa for Oregon to live with relatives, and his former home was sold to private buyers.

After Hoover became President, the Hoover family bought back the property and surrounding land and developed the park, making it look like Hoover’s childhood home.

You can spend at least half a day exploring the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.

Begin your visit at the visitor centre by watching a short film about the U.S.’s 31st President.

Then head to ‘The Birthplace Cottage of Herbert Hoover’.

This style of cottage was a popular starter home during the late 19th century.

Hoover’s father built the cottage itself.

Though it had just two rooms, it was built for a family of five. Next, you can visit the schoolhouse and blacksmith shop.

You’ll be transported back in time to this one-room schoolhouse that has been renovated to replicate his classroom.

There’s also the blacksmith shop that Hoover’s father ran.

Herbert’s brother Theodore helped design the replica blacksmith shop from the memories he had as a kid.

Finally, there’s the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, where fascinating exhibits are displayed chronologically, detailing his work, private life and the social and economic consequences of the Great Depression.

National Historic Trail

3- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

This national historic trail follows the Lewis and Clark Expedition route connecting 16 states, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The trail covers 4,900 miles (7885 km) from the Mid-Atlantic Northeast to the Pacific Northwest.

The Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail is a National Park Service-administered trail.

It isn’t a hiking trail, but across the 16 states, there are chances to hike, horse-ride and go boating along its many rivers.

So, what exactly was the Lewis & Clark Expedition?

This was a United States expedition to discover the new western territories that were part of the Louisiana Purchase.

A selection of civilian volunteers and U.S. Army officers were chosen to participate in the expedition commanded by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark.

This group of 30 men set out from Illinois and aimed to map the newly acquired territory.

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition in 1803 to establish an American presence in the region before any European powers could claim the areas.

They also wanted to discover the area’s wildlife and geography while creating trade opportunities with local Native American tribes.

Several Iowa sites along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail are perfect for visiting on your trip to the state.

Lake Manawa State Park is along the border with Nebraska, close to the Missouri River and the Nebraskan city of Omaha.

This was the site of Lewis and Clark’s White Catfish camp, now one of western Iowa’s best places to go hiking and boating.

The vast lake is an excellent place for families

There’s also the Lewis & Clark Visitors Center in Onawa, western Iowa.

At the visitor’s centre, there are a bunch of hands-on exhibits and live re-enactments that allow you to discover more about the expedition.

Inside is a full-sized replica of the keelboat that the explorers used over 200 years ago.

Outside there is an earth lodge replicating the underground homes that the Plains Indians lived in.

You can also watch a 30-minute documentary in the visitor centre theatre.

Along the border with Nebraska, Sioux City is home to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.

This free attraction is home to permanent exhibits dedicated to the expedition.

4- Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

Another historic trail that runs through Iowa is the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail.

This trail follows the history of the Mormon migration, which started in 1827.

The Mormon Pioneer Trail began in Nauvoo, Illinois, passed through Iowa, and ends in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Between 1846 and 1869, more than 70,000 Mormons travelled along the road west.

Tens of thousands of Mormons moved along this trail, searching for a new home in the Great Basin.

The Mormon story begins with Joseph Smith, who found a set of golden plates inscribed with messages about God’s church.

Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni led him to discover these plates that the Book of Mormon was produced in 1830.

Smith gained many followers, and the people eventually became known as Mormons.

Smith moved the Mormon Church continually but eventually settled in Illinois along the Mississippi River.

Smith developed his ideas but saw much opposition to his practices from local people, and he was arrested.

In 1844 a mob broke into the prison he was being kept in and killed him.

Brigham Young became Smith’s successor.

He realised the dangers of the Mormon Church remaining where it was, so beginning a mass exodus to Utah.

Starting on the 1st of March 1846, around 500 Mormon wagons and 14,000 Mormons passed across Iowa’s prairie on their way to the Missouri River.

This route became known as the Mormon Trail.

The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail is 1,300 miles (2092 km) long and stretches from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Great Salt Lake Valley, passing through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah.

Iowa’s section of the trail has 24 historic sites to explore, including:

  • Kanesville Tabernackle & Visitor Center
  • Western Historic Trails Center
  • West Nishnabotna River Crossing
  • The Grand Encampment
  • The Pote Farm Ruts
  • Bank of Memories Museum
  • Mormon Trail County Park and Lake
  • Mount Pisgah Historic Site
  • Seven-Mile Creek Campsite
  • Clarke County Historical Museum
  • Murray Trail Exhibits
  • Garden Grove Historic Site
  • Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County
  • Locust Creek Campsite
  • Chariton River Crossing and Campsite
  • Drakesville Park
  • Davis County Historical Complex
  • Richardson’s Point
  • Van Buren County Courthouse
  • Bentonsport National Historic District
  • Des Moines River Ford
  • Sugar Creek
  • Riverfront Park
  • Linger Longer Park

The Mormon Trail County Park and Lake in Bridgewater is a great natural escape from Des Moines.

This park offers swimming, boating and camping just over an hour outside Iowa’s state capital.

The Kanesville Tabernackle & Visitor Center in Council Bluffs in western Iowa is where they reorganised the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1847.

This President was Brigham Young.

The onsite visitor centre includes several exhibits, artifacts and a film about the Mormon Battalion (a group of 500 Mormons who joined the U.S. Army).

Iowa is a super underrated U.S. state.

There are many interesting things to do in the state and at these four national park service sites.

So whether you are interested in presidential or Native American history, there is a national park for you.

Iowa may not have a capital letter National Park but the state’s interesting history more than makes up for this.

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harriet comley
Harriet Comley is a travel enthusiast, freelance travel writer and a lover of safaris. Since 2017 she has been travelling the globe living in the UK, Canada, Vietnam, China and now Zambia, where she is completing her PhD in Sustainable Tourism. For 3 1/2 years she taught English in Vietnam and China. Now she has turned her attention to writing, having contributed to a number of travel blogs and websites always focusing on what she loves most…exploring!