Yellow River State Forest: The Perfect Park if You Wish Iowa Had a National Park

 I recently visited Yellow River State Forest and stayed at Little Paint Campground. This park is expansive, more so than any Iowa State Park or forest I have visited so far. Let's talk about what activities are available here, and who should pay Yellow River State Forest a visit. 

a lookout point at Yellow River State Forest
The view from the lookout point near the fire tower

The Layout of Yellow River State Forest

By Iowa standards, Yellow River State Forest is a massive park. It is north of Marquette and south of Harper’s Ferry. Combined with neighboring Effigy Mounds National Monument, Pikes Peak State Park, and Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the area is an unofficial national park (in my opinion).

 Yellow River State Forest is not one contiguous park. It is made of several smaller units. The largest one is called the Paint Creek Unit, which has multiple campgrounds. 

The main road of Paint Creek is State Forest Road. It offers some fantastic views as you drive through the park. It is also the only paved road in the park. If you go looking for lookout points or trailheads by car expect gravel roads with a steep incline. If you go in the winter, you should also double check with the park system that the roads you need are not closed for the season. 

Yellow River State Forest offers two “standard” campgrounds, one on either end of State Forest Road. There are also two equestrian campgrounds on the east side of the park, and several hike-in campsites that connect to the park's fantastic hiking trails.

A map of Yellow River State Forest
A map of Yellow River State Forest that can be found near the water pump and camp host.

Activities at Yellow River State Forest


Yellow River State Forest is famous within Iowa as one of the only backpacking destinations. The loop around the entire Paint Creek Unit is 13.5 miles and includes 1,653 ft of elevation gain. That isn’t much compared to national parks or continental trails. But it makes for one of the best escapes into nature that Iowa has to offer. Plus, there are several hike-in campsites, meaning you probably won’t ever have to worry about the campgrounds filling up, provided you have a tent and good shoes. I meant to do more hiking while I was here, but the humidity was oppressive enough that I thought it was better to read with my feet in the creek.

A hike in campsite at camp John Scholtz at Yellow River State Forest
A hike in site at Camp John Scholtz, Yellow River State Forest

Horseback Riding 

If you ride horses, you will be happy to hear that most hiking trails double as horseback riding trails. I also noticed that the few no-horse trails leading to lookout points had convenient hitching posts near the trailhead. There are also two 

Winter Sports

During the winter these same trails become the perfect place for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. 

Angling and other Water Activities

As mentioned above, Yellow River State Forest has a few creeks. Much like Backbone State Park, the streams are stocked with trout, making for great fishing. If you aren't into fishing, you can always go creek stopping instead. Just make sure you bring some kind of water shoes. I found the creekbed to be rocky and slippery, but not bad if you can stand the crisp temperature. Yellow River State Park doesn't have any beaches or designated swimming. I’m not even sure the water in the creeks gets high enough for kayaking. However, there are some wetlands on the east and south side of the park that might be suitable for kayaking. 

This creek runs through little paint campground
This creek runs through little paint campground.

Nature Appreciation

Because Yellow River and the surrounding parks offer so much wildland, the park has fantastic birdwatching. While I was there, I saw an owl, a crane, a beaver, and many, many chipmunks. Animal and plant lovers can really have some fun here!

Camping at Yellow River State Forest

Camping at Yellow River is a bit different than camping at many popular state parks. None of the campgrounds offer water pumps or electric hookup. There are no showers, and only drop toilets. I personally have no problem with this. However, I know many people do (including my boyfriend, who prefers a shower when it gets muggy). The Traditional campgrounds do offer a firepit with a grill and a picnic table at each site. Campground sites are $12 per night. 

I ended up staying overnight at Little Paint Creek Campground. It was pretty quiet when I rolled in at 8 pm, and it stayed that way. Little Paint Campground is built around a creek, which means you will have great access to trout fishing, creek stomping… and bugs. Lots of bugs. Actually, I found the bugs throughout the park to be a little obnoxious, not just here. Keep that in mind if you visit during the summer!

The Little Paint Campground at Yellow River State Forest
The Little Paint Campground at Yellow River State Forest

How to Prepare for Visiting Yellow River Campground

How you prepare for an overnight trip to Yellow River State forest will depend on what season you plan on coming in. As mentioned above, Many roads close during winter, so make sure you check what roads remain open. In the summer, I found the bugs to be relentless. They didn't bite so much as divebomb my eyes. Bringing a good, deep woods bug spray is critical. 

There are a few things you also need to prepare for, independent of the season. First is water. There is only one drinkable water pump in Yellow River State Forest. It is located by the camp host, ice, and firewood vending on State Forest Road, east of Big Paint Campground. Make sure you carry enough water with you to your campsite and other activities. I was camping alone for one night, and bought a gallon of water for myself ahead of time, which worked perfectly. If you are backpacking, make sure you know where to locate water and how to filter water ahead of time. 

The second universal thing to prepare for is cell phone signal. Yellow River State Forest is in a valley, so service is spotty. I use Verizon, and was only able to get a signal on big hills. Don’t expect to have signals at camp, or on the main road. If you will be camping alone, make sure you check in via text before you enter the park, and give someone at home a rough itinerary of your trip, for safety reasons.


Hands down, I think this park needs to be on everybody's Iowa bucket list. Yellow River State Forest offers something unique within the state. By adding in the other parks nearby, outdoor experiences here become so much richer. I will be coming back,q    1 probably when the air is cooler, the bugs are dead, and I can drag my boyfriend along to see the fall colors. Go give this park a shot! I think this park would also make a fantastic day trip as part of a Great River Road road-trip, or on the way to Dubuque. 

If you liked this review, you might also like my review of Ledges State Park and Elk Rock State Park. Please give them a view! 


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