If you’re looking for a major midwest climbing adventure, the Pictured Rocks in Iowa is the place to start. Pictured Rocks is home to midwest climbing that rivals the more popular spots on the west coast. With 14 designated rock climbing walls and over 50 marked routes, climbers of any skill level can find a spot to put those skills to the test.
Unfortunately, Iowa’s Pictured Rocks closed its camping options a few years back, leaving climbers with plenty to do, but nowhere to sleep. There are a handful of places to set up camp nearby, however—whether you’re into the RV life or prefer to rough it in the woods.
Experience The Best Midwestern Climbing at Iowa’s Pictured Rocks
Located along the banks of the Maquoketa River and halfway between Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, the Pictured Rocks cover 1,138 acres of wildlife. Named for its steep limestone bluffs and narrow river valley, it’s a midwestern climber’s dream come true.
Iowa’s Pictured Rocks are an especially popular climbing destination during the fall and spring. On Sundays throughout the season, classes from the University of Iowa top rope at the park on the “A Wall”–which offers the most routes in the park. It gets pretty crowded around this time, so be sure to check out the other walls around the park.
But climbing isn’t all that Pictured Rocks has to offer. A boat dock provides easy access to the Maquoketa River, making the park a great location for canoeing and kayaking. Plus, it’s the perfect spot for anglers to catch smallmouth bass. And for those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, hiking and spelunking spots are a dime-a-dozen at the Pictured Rocks in Iowa. However, spelunking has become so popular in the area that, in order to protect the park’s wildlife, spelunkers must have an authorization form to enter any caves. Be sure to give the park office at least a week to process the permit.
The Dyrt Campers’ Favorite Campgrounds near the Pictured Rocks in Iowa
From river-floating luxury to primitive roughing-it, camping near Pictured Rocks has it all. Each site below is within a 40-minute drive of the park, and offer Iowa visitors affordable, well-kept campsites to rest their head without too much trouble. Plus, each campground offers even more trails, rivers, and wildlife to explore.
1. Riverview Ridge in Cascade, Iowa
Riverview Ridge is probably the closest campground you can find near the Pictured Rocks in Iowa. Luckily, it’s also one of the top campgrounds in Iowa for tent and RV campers. Just a 20-minute drive from Pictured Rocks, Riverview Ridge offers 10 miles of trails, scenic bluff views, and easy river access nestled within the beauty of eastern Iowa. Trails wind through steep hillsides and high bluffs that follow along the Maquoketa River.
Campers can make use of the river through catfish, bass, crappies and carp fishing, or by renting inner tubes or kayaks for a float down the river that comes with a free ride back through the woods.
Tent and RV campsites can be booked though walk-in and reservations, but online reservation requires a two-night minimum stay for weekends, and a three-night minimum stay for holidays. RV campsites offer full, electric, and no hookup spots. As a bonus, if you’re visiting during the off-season (before Memorial Day and after Labor Day) you can get a discount.
Campers have access to a bathroom and shower house on the grounds. Plus, each site comes with a table and a fire ring. The campground has strict rules against bringing your own firewood, though, so be sure to pick some up from the camp store—they’ll even deliver it to your site.
“Great private campground. Lots of trailer sites but the gem is the tent sites down by the river. Very clean and the office was so friendly.” —The Dyrt camper Laura B.
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2. Matsell Bridge Natural Area in Linn County, Iowa
If you’re willing to drive a bit farther from the Pictured Rocks in Iowa, you can find an affordable and remote campground near Matsell Bridge. It’s a 30-minute drive from the park, costs $10 per night and campsites are reservable on a first-come, first-served basis—no need to worry about this site filling up, as there are 70 primitive sites to choose from. However, there is no vehicular access to the tent campsites, so be prepared to walk your gear in.
In addition to its primitive tent sites, the Matsell Bridge Natural Area offers 10 miles of equestrian trails, a shooting range, a rustic cabin, and easy access to the Wapsipinicon River. Park rangers are on-site to answer any questions and provide help to park guests as well.
Campsites are close to the river, which is great for a peaceful stay. However, when the water level gets too high, the lower elevation campsites can flood. Campers should also beware that gnats and mosquitos run rampant here during the summer, so be sure to bring bug spray.
“Nice quiet little primitive campground next to the Wapsipinicon River… Beautiful location, ranger close by, wood for sale just across the bridge, fire pits and picnic tables at every site. Good for RV, trailer or tent camping… level ground and lots of shade. Primitive bathrooms, no showers or running water.” —The Dyrt camper Carol M.
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3. Maquoketa Caves State Park in Maquoketa, Iowa
A slightly more popular spot just 30 minutes from the Pictured Rocks in Iowa is Maquoketa Caves State Park. Hikers and spelunkers frequent the area for its 370 acres of massive caves, hardwood trees, and high bluffs. The campsites here are a bit more modern than those at Matsell Ridge. They offer both electric and non-electric sites as well as showers and restrooms.
Campers can reserve spots online, and also find some on a first-come, first-serve basis when the park isn’t as busy. But even if it is, campsites are fairly spread out and surprisingly private for how popular the campground is.
“We have been to this park more than once because we just love the caves so much! The hike is so beautiful that you could walk and climb around all day and not grow tired. The price is unbeatable and it is fun for the whole family.” —The Dyrt camper Dani K.
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4. Eden Valley Refuge in Baldwin, Iowa
A bit farther from Iowa’s Pictured Rocks rests Eden Valley Refuge. The campground, situated on the banks of the babbling Bear Creek, is open year-round and holds some of the most beautiful scenery in the area. Eden Valley’s limestone bluffs and forested hills are full of wildlife waiting to be explored. There are five hiking trails in the area, one of which leads visitors over a long swinging bridge that crosses Bear Creek and eventually leads to a watchtower.
Spanning 201 acres, the campground offers 28 electric sites and 18 primitive sites, with three reservable at $12 per night. The campgrounds are separated into two areas, labeled Site 1 and Site 2. According to The Dyrt camper Linsey M., Site 1 is recommended for its even sites and decent sizes. Meanwhile, Site 2 is set on an incline that will be less than desirable during rainy conditions. Keep in mind that sites must be reserved ahead of time and cost $13 per night.
“It is always a beautiful and peaceful time we have at Eden Valley. At night, nature drowns out any noise from the highway. You can heat coyotes & other animals rustling through the woods. It is absolutely pitch black. PERFECT for stargazing on a clear night. One of my favorite places to escape to for a weekend and forget about all the stress of daily life.” —The Dyrt camper Linsey M.
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- Chimney Rock Campground, Cresco, IA