There are few better ways to enjoy a holiday or vacation weekend than taking a float trip in the Midwest. What could beat relaxing with friends or family, enjoying some sunshine, and taking in the natural beauty around you — all while being gently carried to your destination by a lazy river?
If you’ve been thinking about planning a float trip — whether you’re looking to go tubing or you’d prefer to opt for a kayak or canoe — you’re in luck. This guide will review five of the best float trips in Iowa and Minnesota and give you a headstart on getting out on the water.
Upper Iowa River
A popular destination for float and paddle trips, the Upper Iowa River makes the list because of its sheer beauty. Featuring 200-foot-high limestone bluffs, quaint bridges, and plenty of greenery, a trip along this picturesque waterway offers miles of scenic surroundings.
The Upper Iowa River extends for just over 150 miles, beginning in southern Minnesota and then meandering through northern Iowa until it connects up with the Mississippi River near the city of New Albin. If you’re looking to do a one-day float trip, the section of the river near Bluffton, IA is a must-see; the sheer cliffs that line the water are spectacular. There are several outfitters located in Bluffton that provide canoe, kayak, and tube rental, as well as shuttle service for your trip.
If you’re looking for a longer adventure, there are several places to camp along the way, including Chimney Rock Campground, a private campground in Cresco, IA that offers both campsites and cabins. Malanaphy Springs, a state nature preserve featuring a waterfall and hiking opportunities, is a popular stopping point a bit further downstream.
Perfect for a lazy day of floating, the Root River is a relatively gentle waterway particularly popular with tubers. The Root River extends roughly 80 miles from Chatfield, MN, to Hokah, where it empties into the mighty Mississippi.
The river runs right through the town of Lanesboro, where there are a number of places for you to rent tubes and arrange transportation back to town after your float. The south branch of the river also has a one-mile trip that will allow you to put in just under the Lanesboro dam, get out at the bridge on County Road 250, and then walk back along the Root River State Trail.
If you’re looking for a slightly longer trip, you can start off further west in the old milling town of Preston. From there, it’s a day’s float to the Old Barn Resort, a historic farm that’s been converted to campgrounds and a luxury resort. The distance from Preston to Lanesboro on the water is about 14 miles, so if you’d like to do a multi-day trip, that’s an option as well.
Catfish Creek is located in the Mines of Spain Recreation Area in Dubuque, IA. The recreation area itself is composed of dense woods and lovely, untouched prairie land that offers opportunities for hiking, birding, hunting, and, of course, paddling. Catfish Creek does not have much of a current, so it isn’t the kind of float trip that will take you very far. However, the water is so relaxing and the views so beautiful that it made the list anyway.
There is no rental provider for kayaks or canoes in the recreation area itself, so you’ll need to rent from an outfitter in town or from the Dubuque marina. There is a dock in Mines of Spain (with a convenient parking area right across the street) where you can access the water.
Once you’re on the water, head downstream towards the Mississippi River. You likely will have to paddle a bit, since sometimes the river actually backfills the creek against the current. But it will be worth it, as you’ll be surrounded on both sides by fantastic cliffs and caves.
An excellent place for the quintessential float trip, the Zumbro River is a 60-mile waterway in southeastern Minnesota. If you’re looking for a spot where you can spend a lazy summer afternoon letting the current carry you, Zumbro just might be for you. You could have a picnic on the riverbank with some locally brewed beverages, and maybe even jump in for a leisurely swim,
There are several different possible itineraries for your Zumbro float — a popular one is from Zumbro Falls to Hammond, which is a roughly 7-mile trip. From there, you could drift from Hammond to Millville, which is another 6 miles. There are tubing outfitters who will help you plan your trip from any of these three cities (tubing rental spots in Millville will drive you to Hammond so that you can float back). There’s also a camping spot just downstream of Hammond if you’re looking to turn your float trip into a multi-day excursion.
The trip itself is beautiful and features a range of scenery as you float through the river valley. The valley offers views of striking cliffs, dense woods, and even bald eagles if you’re lucky!
The Maquoketa River is another tributary of the Mississippi River, starting in Arlington, IA, and spanning roughly 150 miles of northeastern Iowa. It’s a wonderful spot for floating or paddling, particularly the 50 miles or so known as the Maquoketa River Water Trail.
One option is to start in Iowa’s oldest park, Backbone State Park, located in Delaware County. The park itself is a historic site that still boasts a number of stone and timber bridges and buildings. You’ll also find private outfitters there that offer rentals and shuttles to help facilitate your trip on the water. Another option is to start a bit further south, in the town of Monticello. A float trip from Monticello will take you all the way down to Pictured Rocks Park, a popular rock climbing area.
Either way, floating on the Maquoketa will carry you past a scenic landscape of forest and rocky bluffs. The river itself is mild, and you’ll have numerous opportunities to stop for a picnic or a swim. There are also a number of sandbars where you can pause and just take in some sunshine anytime you need a break.
Float trips are basically a Midwestern institution. Whether you’re looking for a day trip out on the water or a multi-day trek, hopefully, you’ve got some new ideas for waterways you’d like to check out. And remember, there are really only two rules for a float trip: (1) pack out what you bring in, and (2) don’t bring anything you don’t want to get wet.
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