Iowa has a very different feel when viewed from the water. Bluffs protrude on river banks with cliffs of limestone hanging over the river. Tall trees line riverways while others are open to vast fields and valleys. The varying terrains change with the meandering river as the river flows gently back and forth across the landscape. Summer and fall are the best times to experience the Iowa River. From paddling a kayak or canoe on the Iowa River to motor boating on the Coralville Reservior to sailing on Lake McBride, there is a variety of recreational boating activities.
The low profile of a small recreational kayak can easily navigate the Iowa River. The current is strong - not enough that it cannot be paddled upstream, but enough that an approach down river is pleasant. The river swings from side to side and carries the kayak gently down river. At the river’s pace, one can float downriver by simply steering the kayak with a short four-mile trip taking about two hours. Add a little paddling and the trip is closer to an hour.
Water access points line the waterways, conveniently highlighted on Iowa’s DNR map. My favorite route is to drop below the Coralville Reservior at the Tailwater East Campground. From here, the next water access is located at the Waterworks Prairie Park located at the Dubuque Street bridge over the Iowa River.
This path has a calm river speed with notable attractions. Eagles can be found nesting along the river. On the riverbanks, muskrats have built homes known as “push-ups” from riverfront trees. Tall bluffs dart loops and turns in the river channel. Rapid Creek empties into the Iowa River on the eastern bank. Its path is serene, a shady lane lined with tall trees and the slow current creates a glass water top.
For a larger body of water that has room to cruise at high speeds, the Coralville Reservoir is a local favorite for motor boating. From speed boats to pontoons to sea-doo’s, the lake is often busy with movement. Two marinas, Coralville Lake Marina on the southern end and Scales Pointe Marina on the northern end, stretch more than 10 miles.
From water skiing and water tubing to just cruising, the rich greenery that lines the lake creates a scenic backdrop to any activity. Notable stops include the many tree-lined coves surrounding the Sugar Bottom Recreational Area, a perfect place to bird watch and take in the natural setting. For a more active boating experience, a cove north of the Coralville Lake Marina and south of the Sugar Bottom Recreational Area is known as a tie-up meeting place among locals: “Party Cove.” Farther north is the Lake McBride spillway, which in early summer and early fall is more active with small waterfalls streaming from its dam into the Coralville Reservoir. Across from the Scales Pointe Marina is a small beach front known as “Boho Beach,” which many boats pull up to and is another favorite meeting place. Of course, a long day on the water can leave you hungry and stopping at Bobbers Grill, boasting live music and beach volleyball, is a great place to stop and eat.
With a limitation on boat horse-power, Lake McBride has placid waters ideal for sailing. It is best accessed from the southeastern side of the lake by taking Mehaffey Bridge Road to Cottage Reserve Road and finally to Sail Boat Road. A boat ramp provides access the northern edge of the peninsula. From the ramp shoreline, the view itself is a spectacle with catamarans and sailboats zig-zagging the lake among windsurfers.
Tacking, or weaving the bow at angles to utilize the wind, is the best sailing method on the lake. However, some shallower areas are more easily maneuverable with the assistance of a small motor such as the narrow jog from the upper lake portion to the beach. The best areas to sail are the northern and southern areas of the horseshoe-designed lake. For a fun break, the beach has a small convenience store that sells ice cream and snacks.
From floating on the river and lake, these water trails are a perfect outdoor activity to explore and enjoy the natural recreation surrounding the area. It is an impressive display of the varying Iowa landscape. A day to relax and feel inspired on a boat floating on the Iowa River.
For more information on water accesses, hazards to avoid, and portage routes; visit the Iowa DNR website.
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