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The Hidden Travel Gems of Northeast Iowa

Shane's a lifelong travel enthusiast who loves nothing more than finding the next adventure.

Eastern Iowa Is Full of Surprises

Iowa might not be high on the list of road trip destinations, but a lot of people might be surprised by just how much this section of the Midwest has to offer. If you've only seen the western part of the state, you might be surprised to know Iowa has remarkable bluffs, heavily forested state parks, and many outstanding and interesting places to visit, especially in the northeast side of the state in Mississippi River country.

Picturesque small towns dotting bluffs and nearby the mighty Mississippi offer some remarkable surprises to people unfamiliar with this part of the state. It has it all—whether you're a fan of campsites, good fishing, a big blues festival, or even hitting a small casino. Plus, you can visit a lot of unique and vibrant small towns thriving in really cool ways!

There's a lot to love about northeast Iowa. It's a place quite dear to my heart after decades of traveling to see family and even more just to explore the great area further on my own.

Let's jump into what this awesome area has to offer!

Early spring in the Effigy Mounds, one of the great bluffs in the northeast part of the state.

Early spring in the Effigy Mounds, one of the great bluffs in the northeast part of the state.

The Effigy Mounds National Monument

Effigy Mounds is the only National Monument/Park in Iowa and is a remarkable place to visit. A small museum at the bottom of the bluff teaches the history of the Neolithic people who lived in the area during the last ice age, shows aerial photos of the animal-shaped mounds you can see, and if you time it right, you can even get a guided tour at the base by a park ranger.

The Effigy Mounds currently have two major trails, and they are challenging hikes using switchbacks to make your way up the sides of some fairly steep bluffs. These trails are beautiful in spring, summer, and autumn—and there are several impressive burial mounds. The trails wrap close by to these before heading to various scenic outlooks that allow you to view the bluffs, the woods, and of course, the Mississippi River from many hundreds of feet up.

When the trees are in full bloom, it's absolutely beautiful. To catch it when the trees are changing color in fall is to see incredible views that would give even some of those famous Vermont pictures a run for their money.

Located just outside of Marquette and Harper's Ferry, this amazing national monument has great hikes, beautiful views, and wonderful history. It's just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a series of great campgrounds and two wonderful small towns you can explore. They have plenty of great eating options.

Great scenic outlook of the Effigy Mounds, the lower scenic view of the main trail.

Great scenic outlook of the Effigy Mounds, the lower scenic view of the main trail.

Decorah: A Small Town College Town

The words "college town" bring a specific image to mind, but that's not Decorah. This isn't home to a 20,000-student university; this is a very small town home to Luther College, a small private school of approximately 1,200 students. Still, they bring strong life and vibrancy to this beautiful town, creating a truly unique place you wouldn't expect to find in such an out of the way location.

First, there's the Toppling Goliath Brewery which is widely recognized as one of the best microbreweries in the United States and possibly one of the best in the entire world.

If you love beer, this is an absolute must-visit, and the food is really good (speaking from personal experience on this one)!

The town is home to 13 different parks with major hiking trails, caves, and other attractions. There's no shortage of woods, paths, natural springs, and outdoor sights to lose yourself in for a day—or several on end.

Nordic Fest in the fall celebrates the major influence of Scandinavian (particularly Norwegian) culture and is famous and full of fun events from mock Viking battles to natural crafts, And, of course, plenty of food and drink.

Get accommodations early as this is a regionally-famous event that gets a lot of attention every single year.

Good picture of the town of Decorah, straight from their Facebook page. Many Iowa small towns are very picturesque and tree-filled.

Good picture of the town of Decorah, straight from their Facebook page. Many Iowa small towns are very picturesque and tree-filled.

Pikes Peak State Park

Many amazing hiking trails can be found in northeast Iowa. And unfortunately, many overgrown hiking trails from when funding was lost for some parks and centers. Still, you have some stunning ones, like Pikes Peak, one of the two most popular hikes in the entire area.

Pikes Peak State Park is located right outside of McGregor and features 11 miles of trails to explore. It has several scenic overlooks that allow you to enjoy the beauty of the Mississippi River from the top of several bluffs.

If you have a week and love hiking, combining the trails of Pikes Peak with the Effigy Mounds State Park is a great way to explore the bluffs and get incredible views of some beautiful country.

This isn't what most people think of with Iowa—but wonderful hiking, woods, bluffs, and river views—what more could you ask for?

Pikes Peak is truly a remarkable state park and one of the best places to check out the bluffs, woods, and Mississippi River in all of eastern Iowa.

Many of these parks and hiking trails are open in winter and make for some wonderful potential winter shots!

Many of these parks and hiking trails are open in winter and make for some wonderful potential winter shots!

Elkader: Picturesque Small Town

Elkader is another picturesque and pretty small town that dots the northeast part of the state between woods and bluffs and rivers/creeks. This is a small town of living history. Visitors can enjoy a remarkable historic downtown and the hospitality of friendly locals in the area.

The historic Elkader Opera House is definitely worth a visit or seeing a show if one is active.

The architecture downtown captures the impressive stone and brickwork of the turn of the 1900s while there are an impressive number of cafes, restaurants, and bars offering an impressive array of food options for a small town.

There is a slow, pleasant pace, and spending half a day just walking around, appreciating the old architecture, the sights, and the friendliness of small-town Iowa folk can go a long way.

Call ahead to see if Heritage Days are taking place while you'll be in the area and enjoy buffalo stew and caramel apples, and watch craftsmen show how things were done at the turn of the 20th century.

Elkader's historic downtown main street

Elkader's historic downtown main street

Plenty of Amazing State and County Parks

There is no lack of great parks and campgrounds dotting northeast Iowa's bluffs, river lands, and woods. Whether looking for a state, county, or national park, or just public land off gravel roads, there are plenty of options for people who love the outdoors.

Even if camping or hiking isn't your highest priority, this list shows how much natural beauty is in the area.

National Park/Monuments:

  • Effigy Mounds National Monument

State Parks:

  • Backbone State Park
  • Pikes Peak State Park
  • Volga River State Recreational Area
  • Yellow River State Forest

Other Parks, Forests, and Public Campgrounds

  • Allamakee County Conservation Bluff View
  • Big Paint Campground
  • Barbara Barnhart Van Peenen Memorial Park
  • Decorah Ice Cave State Preserve
  • Dunning Springs Park
  • Lake Meyer Park & Campground
  • Malanaphy Springs
  • Paint Creek
  • Palisades Park
  • Red Barn Campground & Restaurant
  • Rossville Park
  • Siewers Spring
  • Twin Springs Park
  • Wexford Valley Campground

This isn't even close to a comprehensive list. It's only a sample of the many different parks, campgrounds, caves, springs, and public areas that dot the most beautiful part of Iowa.

Hiking and camping options are plentiful—not to mention the many, many stocked trout creeks.

Yellow River State Park is one of my favorite camping parks in the area—this place is equally beautiful covered in snow in winter.

Yellow River State Park is one of my favorite camping parks in the area—this place is equally beautiful covered in snow in winter.

Marquette: A Small River Town Like Very Few Others

Marquette is one of my favorite small towns, even with the Pink Elephant hotel long since gone, the leftovers interesting ruins at the top of the bluff, the famed Pink Elephant statue is set at the base of the town by the land section of the riverboat casino.

Marquette has a lot you're not expecting from such a small town snuggled up against the bluffs just off the Mississippi River. The town has Eagle's Landing Winery that specialize in wine made right here in the state of Iowa.

An old schoolhouse acts as a 3-story antique shop, and is a great place to stop. There are scenic trails going up the bluff, a museum of local history, not to mention a riverboat casino and buffet restaurant.

There are multiple housing options ranging from a nationally recognized German bed & breakfast on the river that is booked 6+ months in advance, to a variety of getaway cabins just out of town, to the Cobblestone Inn which shares a building with the City Hall.

For a town of under 500 full-time residents, there's a lot here to check out and see, and that goes double if you catch their famous summer flea markets that seem to take up half the town with tables upon tables of crafts and wares and plenty more people socializing and looking for a good deal!

Marquette, Iowa, in the winter of 2016

Marquette, Iowa, in the winter of 2016

Special Events Throughout the Year

Checking a local events calendar before heading through northeast Iowa is always a good idea. Annual festivals promise great good, unique crafts, outdoor concerts, or just great overall experiences.

Dairy Days are celebrated in Fredericksberg, while Lansing celebrates Fish Day—a fried fish bonanza that started over 120 years ago when the first bridge connected the Iowa side of the Mississippi with Wisconsin.

The Nashua Civil War battle reenactment is something special and always a delight to witness during its annual showing.

Each town in northeast Iowa tends to have its own unique cultural events, art festivals, or heritage celebrations throughout the year. There's no shortage of wonderful and unique festivities to see and enjoy firsthand. You can even come back throughout the year!

Northeast Iowa Is Full of Gems

Bluffs, woods, creeks and rivers, parks, and incredible small towns—there's a lot to northeast Iowa. While it's never likely to get the attention of many other areas, amazing places to check out, picturesque places to enjoy, and friendly people to meet make it an absolute gem to travelers who are in the know.

And now you can join that "in the know," group who understands the amazing beautiful scenes, hiking trails, campsites, and other events northeast Iowa has to offer. There's no reason not to enjoy every bit of what this special part of the state has to offer.

© 2022 Shane Dayton