Eastern Iowa Summer Bucket List Inspiration

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Have you created your summer bucket list yet? Summer is the perfect time to get outside and explore so use these 13 ideas as inspiration and make it the best summer yet!!

summer bucket list

This post is sponsored by Iowa Lottery. All opinions are entirely my own.

Explore Eastern Iowa Summer Bucket List

When I first moved to Iowa in 2006, I wrongly assumed that the state did not boast much in the way of outdoor recreation. Flat farmland. That’s what makes up Iowa, right? Over the 16 years I’ve lived here, though, I have learned just how false that assumption is! 

We love to travel outside of Iowa so we often don’t think of fun things we can find right in our backyard. Iowa has so many unique geological features and a lot of fun outdoor recreation opportunities. This year, Iowa Lottery wants to encourage Iowans to get outside and explore, and for really good reason!

swimming at Malanaphy Spring Falls Decorah

Why Iowa is Rich in Fun Outdoor Recreation Opportunities

Ask non-Iowans what they know about the state and you’ll get a range of answers. Some people ask, isn’t that where they grow potatoes? Nope – that’s Idaho. Other people confuse Iowa with the other 3 vowel, one consonant state, Ohio. But that confusion is a big no-no and any Iowa college fan will tell you why. And many people, including the people who live here, think Iowa is just boring, flat farmland – a place to leave instead of a place to explore.

Iowa is bordered on the west by the Missouri River and on the east by the Mississippi River, which makes it the only state in the United States of America bordered by two navigable rivers. Interestingly, the Mississippi River actually flows east to west instead of north to south at its bend not far from us – in the Quad Cities.

If you stop to take a closer look, though, you’ll find a lot of fun outdoor areas and amazing outdoor recreations just waiting to be explored. Iowa is full of natural lakes, rolling hills, magical caves, prairie grass, towering river bluffs, and so much more!

From visiting state and local parks, going kayaking, playing mini golf, taking a short day trip or a longer road trip, there are so many fun summer activities to keep you busy, right here in Iowa. 

explore ia lottery tickets on table

Explore Iowa with Iowa Lottery

Iowa Lottery wants to help you explore our great state through their partnership with the Polaris $5 Explore Iowa scratch-off ticket! You can win one of three different Polaris recreational vehicles: the RZR, Slingshot, or Snowmobile or up to $50,000 in the Play it Again Promotion. 

Wouldn’t it be fun to win a new vehicle to explore any or all outdoor recreation areas in Iowa?! Non-winning tickets can easily be entered into the LotteryPlus App for your chance to win one of these amazing Polaris prizes:

  • Nine lucky winners will receive a $25,000 Polaris Gift Certificates
  • 15 winners will get a $5,000 cash prize
  • TWO Grand Prize Winners – one $50,000 Polaris Gift Certificate and one $50,000 Cash Prize

13 Fun Summer Bucket List Ideas to Help You Get Outside & Explore

The purpose of this list is to inspire you to get out and explore some of the amazing outdoor recreation areas Iowa has to offer, but even if you don’t live in Iowa, you can use it as inspiration to visit Iowa or to create your own fun summer list where you live! 

There are so many great ideas here – and all of them can be accessed within an hour’s drive of our home. Take a deeper look at your own area and find fun ideas to add to your summer fun list too! 

Here are 13 outdoor activities around Eastern Iowa that we intend to check off our summer bucket list this year!

1. Visit Our Favorite Eastern Iowa State Parks

One of our favorite Eastern Iowa state parks is only 20 minutes away – Wildcat Den. It’s a beautiful, shady location with hiking, a working grist mill, a one-room schoolhouse, and more. 

We enjoy short hikes through the woods there or playing in the river. I will never forget my kids stuffing themselves on mulberries they picked while splashing through the water. 

Make your own great memories by finding a new park local to you or returning to a family favorite if you haven’t been in a while.

2. Go to Deep Lakes Recreation Area

Featuring more than 120 acres of clear water lakes in a former sand and gravel quarry, this Iowa recreation area, run by the Muscatine County Conservation Board, has  been on our list for some time. We’d like to rent a kayak and also swim on the beach!

blue heron eco cruise

3. Bird Watching on the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is full of fun places to explore. Last year we took one of the few remaining car ferries while traveling the Great River Road and had a great time! 

The Mississippi River is also home to a lot of different birds like eagles, pelicans, egrets, falcons and more which make it a great place to go bird watching! This year, we’d like to go to one of the Corps of Engineers’ locks and dams and watch the barges navigate the river. 

We highly recommend the free Blue Heron Eco Cruise boat tour on the backwaters of the Mississippi River at Rock Creek Marina – what a great way to learn about our unique river eco-system!

4. Visit a Cave

Did you know Iowa has a lot of neat caves to explore? Maquoketa Caves State Park is well known in Iowa, but there are other neat caves to find in Dubuque, Decorah, MacGregor and more! 

This summer, we’d like to check out Crystal Lake Cave in Dubuque.

Malanaphy Spring Falls Decorah

5. Find a Waterfall

There aren’t a lot of waterfalls in Iowa, but there are a few on my list! We found a really nice one along the Upper Iowa River when we visited Decorah a few years ago and highly recommend visiting Malanaphy Spring Falls outside Decorah.

There are also nice waterfalls at Pikes Peak State Park, Backbone State Park, Ledges State Park, and Mason City! Mason City waterfalls are on my list this year.

float trip on an iowa river

6. Go on a Float Trip

With over 70,000 miles of rivers in Iowa, it’s not too hard to find a place to put in for a float trip. We’ve rented canoes and kayaks from our local county conservation board for trips  on the Cedar River, and we’ve also floated on the Upper Iowa in Decorah. 

Make some time this summer to get out on a river and have fun in the water with your family!

wilton candy kitchen

7. Find a New Ice Cream Spot 

What better way to spend a hot summer day than by eating ice cream! We happen to have a famous ice cream shop right in our little town – the Wilton Candy Kitchen. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest ongoing ice cream parlor / soda fountain in the United States, it’s always fun to stop in at a favorite ice cream parlor. We also make a habit of always finding a new ice cream parlor to try as well!

8. Visit a Farmers Market

Going to a new farmer’s market is definitely on our summer bucket list. We have several to choose from – the Iowa City Farmers Market held Wednesdays and Saturdays and the Freight House Farmers Market in downtown Davenport on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. 

Farmers Markets are not only a great way to get outside, but they’re also a way to shop local and find great seasonal produce!

9. Go to a Drive-In Movie

Drive-in movies made a comeback in 2020 thanks to Covid. We enjoy watching movies at the local drive-in from time to time. If you have a drive-in theater near you, we encourage you to head out for a double feature with your family this summer!

The closest drive-in theater to us is Blue Grass Drive-In Theater. 

10. Eat at One of Iowa’s 99 Restaurants

Travel Iowa puts out a list of 99 restaurants – one in each of our 99 counties! We haven’t hit all of them yet, but taking a short day road trip to at least one new restaurant on the list each month is a family goal. 

This summer, we hope to try the General Store Pub in Stone City and Crane & Pelican in LeClaire!

11. Attend an Annual Summer Celebration

Iowa is home to many annual summer celebrations including Hinterland Music Fest outside Winterset, Shellabration in Fort Dodge, and also the Walcott Truckers Jamboree at the I-80 Truck Stop!

4th of july fireworks

12. Watch 4th of July Fireworks in a New Town

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. We’ve gone to the next town over almost every single year for the last ten years to enjoy fireworks. While it’s always a lot of fun, this year I want to think outside the box and enjoy fireworks elsewhere!

This year, we’d like to go to the annual 4th of July Ice Cream Social at the Mathias Ham Historic Site in Dubuque. From 11 am – 4 pm, the public is able to tour the historic site for free, enjoy live music, and Victorian lawn games for kids! Picnic foods, cakes, and ice cream will be available for purchase.

13. Go Stargazing on June 24

We love living rurally and being able to enjoy a relatively dark sky by walking out of our front door. We love how easy it is to watch the sunsets, skies, stars, and constellations at our house and watching them when the weather is hot is always on our summer bucket list.

This summer in 2022, five different planets plus the moon will align in the morning sky! The best part is, you should be able to see them with the naked eye! However, you’ll also find observatories throughout Iowa if that’s more your jam! The closest observatory to me is the Eastern Iowa Observatory, located near Palisades Kepler State Park – one of the state parks on our favorite Iowa State Parks list!

To see the five planets and the moon align this June, head outside 50 minutes before sunrise on June 24 and look east!

Learn More About Iowa Lottery and the Explore Iowa Promotion

Many thanks to Iowa Lottery for their fun Explore Iowa partnership with Polaris! My dad has given IALottery tickets as Christmas gifts. We think they make really fun gift traditions – perfect for all the event:  birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, and even college graduation gifts! 

Make sure to head over to their website to learn how you can win a fun way to explore Iowa this summer!

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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