Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip

Spend a weekend or a whole week enjoying all the natural beauty and small town charm on an Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip.  This unique portion of Iowa is rich in history with many exciting opportunities for fun and learning. 

Families really will have to visit more then once to enjoy all that Eastern Iowa has to offer. Follow along on our adventures as we camped out at Backbone State Park, climbed the hills of Effigy Mounds & Pikes Peak and uncovered little Iowa treasures along the way. 


Backbone State Park 

Our exploration of northeastern Iowa started with enjoying Backbone State Park. A variety of rental cabins at Backbone are available for a minimum of two nights stay during the off-season. Between Memorial Day-Labor Day cabin rental is for 7 nights, from Fri-Fri. 

Rental Cabin at Backbone State Park to enjoy on an Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip

The smaller cabins are perfect for our family of four. Cabins come equipped with modern conveniences including A/C & heat, running water (i.e. a bathroom and shower) and a full-sized kitchen. 

Reserve America has detailed cabin photos and information. During a night of unexpected storms, we stayed snuggle safe, dry and received a quite nights sleep. 

Cabins are perched atop unique geological rock formations along the East Lake Trail just up the road from the sand beach, home to the famous “castle” structure boat house. Our children delighted in climbing around the rock formations and finding a “cave”. 

But that wasn’t the real cave! One of the many features of the park, including 21-miles of trails, a C.C.C. Museum, shallow streams, a deep lake, rock climbing opportunities and several picnic locations, is the Cave.

We were surprised to find a live, wet, cave. It’s deep, dark, damp and has bats! Yep, I said that, for real, a bat flew right by me and totally scared me crazy! This was nothing like our guided cave tours in MN or MO which were both amazing but felt way safer with lights and peppy young tour guides. 

Prepare to get dirty and bring a headlight flashlight. We don’t recommend using a cellphone to light your path. 🙂 

Cave at Backbone State Park in Iowa


Once you’re done playing around inside, hit the awesome trails! The Backbone Trail has made the news this year due to a couple of tragic deaths, a child and an adult. From our experience, 99% of this trail is safe. There are a few locations with extreme drop offs. Instruct young children to not run ahead on the trail and keep everyone in your group way back from the edge. This trail is not stroller friendly. 

Deer and wildlife are abundant at Backbone State Park and we saw half-dozen during our evening walks. The sunset from high above on the Backbone Trail was breathtaking. 

Sunset along trail at Backbone State Park on Backbone Trail in Iowa


Day Trip

Using Backbone as our “base camp” we headed off on our Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip to the River Bluffs Scenic Byway making our way about an hour east to the Great Iowa River Road

We logged an awesome gadget Geocache, passed by the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge, went shopping at the Paper Moon (awesome bookstore with kitty cats) and enjoyed the simplistic beauty of Amish country. 

Elkader Iowa

As we were driving along and enjoying the scenery, daddy recognized the small town of Elkader. Years ago he inspected the famous Keystone Bridge. In excitement of a new adventure, we quickly took a detour. We would highly recommend stopping by this unique small town. If you are wanting some challenging fun, check out their white water rapids

Effigy Mounds

Effigy Mounds has long been on my Bucket List and during this trip, we saw a small portion of the massive park. I would highly recommend doing a little advance planning before visiting this park. 

In the visitor center kids can enjoy the hands-on learning station. There is a small museum, gift shop and other educational opportunities. We purchased our first National Park Passport books and we can’t wait to start filling in our books. I wish we had learned about this earlier. 

Outside of the visitor center is a small mound that can be viewed without taking the trail. A challenging, steep hike takes visitors to the first series of mounds and overlook points. Once you get past the gigantic steep hill, the two-mile hike is relatively easy. Our suggestion is to save this hike and portion of the park for older children who can handle the climb and appreciate the cultural value of the mounds. 

For those who do make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded handsomely with woodland beauty and stunning vistas. 


Pikes Peak State Park

Just down the road from Effigy Mounds is Pikes Peak, offering beautiful overlooks and Native American mounds similar to those at Effigy Mounds. Bear Mound and the main overlook are all located along a paved, easy to use path. But don’t let that fool you. With over 11 miles of trails, this park can keep you busy all day.

River Overlook at Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa taken during our Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip 

We only saw a small portion of the park and enjoyed finding a waterfall along Bridal Veil Trail. 

Waterfall on Bridal Veil Trail at Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa

Lock & Dam 10

I absolutely fell in love with all the beautiful, small river towns along the Great Iowa River Road and Guttenberg didn’t disappoint. Alongside charming historic buildings, Lock & Dam 10 is exciting and fun to watch.  

You’ll find the Lock & Dam located behind the school. Drive through the gated area and down to the viewing platform. Enjoy the ships passing to your heart’s content!

Boat leaving the Lock & Dam 10 in Guttenburg Iowa


Phew! What a Trip! Daddy says this was one of his favorite short trips and we all agree. With so much to see and do on an Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip, plan to visit for a week.


I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
Once a quarter we'll deliver free deals and inspiration for connecting as a family straight to your inbox. Free, Helpful and Essential!
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.


  1. I’m yet to have got further north than McGregor! Saving your itinerary for future reference, this is definitely a trip I need to make! (I’m in Dubuque!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.