Iowa’s Middle River Is a Paddler’s Hidden Gem

See historic bridges and wildlife on this 38.6-mile paddle through America's heartland.

Photo: Photo by Dennis Groom on Unsplash

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  • Distance: 38.6 miles
  • Time: 2 days

We glide silently around a bend in the river, unintentionally sneaking up on two fawns playing in the shallow water. Close wildlife encounters are an unexpected perk of both boat travel and Iowa’s little-known Middle River. The easy current delivers us past rolling farmlands, beneath historic bridges, and by animals unaccustomed to human presence. In summer, the river is low, so we find ourselves pushing and pulling our fiberglass canoe around boulders and snags in several places, but it’s a fair trade for the peaceful travel as we float nearly 40 miles. Cottonwood fluff floats lazily beside us, and we drift past turtles and great blue herons so closely that I’m sure I can reach them with my paddle. This is America’s heartland at its finest.

Turn-by-Turn from Middle River Forest County Park

1) From the launch, paddle 28 miles downstream past forest and farmland in the gentle current of the Middle River Water Trail to the Pammel Park takeout (access point 63).

2) Pull ashore on the east side.

3) Next day, continue 10.6 miles east downstream to the take out at the Holliwell Covered Bridge (access point 50).

Campsite: Pammel Park (mile 28)

Knock out a big day on the water, then savor a hardwood-shaded tent site. (The white oaks at this park are some of the oldest in the state, creeping up on 400 years.) Paddle ashore (boater’s left) and secure
your canoe to a tree beyond the water line before hiking .6 mile to the campground. Primitive camping isn’t allowed on this route, so reserve one of the five tent-only sites ($14).


Perk of the shallow water? Easier to see to the bottom. Rocks containing animal and aquatic plant fossils are common here.


Watch for river otters, beavers, and white-tailed deer along the banks (peak viewing at dusk). In June, look for great blue herons and raptors like red-tailed hawks and bald eagles.

Shuttle car 41.3230, -93.9596; 38 miles southwest of Des Moines on Holliwell Bridge Rd. Put in 41.3523, -94.2814; a 30-minute drive west of the shuttle car off 200th St. Gear up Middle River Rentals; canoe rentals start at $50 and kayak rentals at $30. The shop offers shuttle services (prices vary). Season April to October Permit None

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