Summer Fun in the Outdoors

There are many ways to get you and your children (your own, your summer students, your youth group) outdoors in Iowa this summer. Use this as a checklist to guide your outdoor explorations.

Summer is the time to explore the finest county park system in the country, check out nearby state parks, or even your city recreation areas! Check the links below to help you plan your next adventure with your children!

Go Camping
Camping gives kids the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. Bring along children’s creature comforts from home (like blankets from their bed or a favorite stuffed animal) to help them get comfortable with the new environment. Get ideas and tips at the National Wildlife Federation Great American Campout page.

Go Hiking
Iowa’s parks and forests collectively boast over 600 miles of hiking trails, with more being added every year. Go for a stroll or a more difficult excursion, and take plenty of snack and water breaks to enjoy the nature around you.

Catch Fireflies
A simple, fun way to get kids interested in bugs and other small wildlife. Remind children to be gentle to avoid crushing the beetles, and if you want to collect them be sure your container has air holes. Take care not to handle fireflies if you’ve applied bug spray to you and your child, as the chemicals in the spray can kill the insects you touch.

Learn to Fish
Every kid needs to try fishing at least once – check out our tips for taking kids fishing. To commemorate the first time your child catches a fish, take a picture to upload onto a congratulatory certificate you can find at

Skip Rocks
Skipping rocks is a great way to relax and spend quality time together. Throw with the current of a river to help you get more skips, making it easier for young arms with less throwing power to achieve success.

See a Goldfinch
Our state bird lives just about everywhere in the state, and their bright yellow plumage makes them easy to spot. Put thistle seeds or black oil sunflower seeds in a finch feeder and wait. Goldfinches are social, so when they come you’ll see plenty.

Make a S’more Over a Campfire
The process of finding a suitable roasting stick, burning a marshmallow or two, and finally getting a golden gem is rewarding. Don’t like marshmallows? Try fire-roasted Starburst for a fruity twist.

Swim in a Lake
Taking a dip is a great way to cool off. Kids can build sand castles and look for shells on shore when they’re done making a splash. Make sure to stay in designated swimming areas, and consider bringing water shoes to protect your feet from debris.

Pick Wild Raspberries
Black raspberries can be found in many public parks throughout the state in late June and early July. Show your child how to pick berries without hurting themselves or the plant, and point out the differences between berries that are safe to eat versus poisonous ones like honeysuckle.

Go Stream Walking
Iowa streams and creeks tend to run cool, and walking in the middle of them wicks away body heat with continual water movement. Take into consideration how deep the stream you want to walk in is beforehand, as kids can tire quickly from slogging through deep water. Wear sturdy footwear that can protect you from debris.

Catch a Frog
Frogs of all types and sizes live in Iowa, but leopard frogs are particularly fun to catch. Their tremendous jumping ability keeps you on the move, but distinctive dark markings and bright gold eyes help you keep track of them. When catching any frog, remind your child to be gentle, as the soft amphibians can be easily hurt by excited fingers. Remember to wash hands of any insect repellent first.

Visit a Fen or Marsh
These wetland habitats are home to an entirely different set of organisms than we usually see. Bring along binoculars and watch a heron stalk the water for frogs and fish, or look for other animals like ducks, geese, muskrat, cranes, egrets, and shorebirds. Don’t forget the plants; you could find Iowa’s endangered pale green orchids right under your feet. Remember not to pick anything, as these habitats are very ecologically fragile and many of the plants there are protected by federal law.

Watch Butterflies
Catching butterflies can be a great way to get kids excited about insects. Demonstrate catching the butterfly and holding it gently for your child, ideally by carefully pinching all four wing segments between the sides of your fingers. Holding it this way allows you to examine the butterfly without the animal being able to flap its wings, thus preventing damage to the tiny scales that help it fly.

Try Geocaching
You need a GPS and a list of coordinates, which will take you to sites where you can search for a small container. Geocaching coordinates can be found online for free. The containers at the sites usually contain a notebook with the names of those who have already found the container and a pencil to write your own name with. Some caches have little trinkets inside, but geocaching etiquette says to only take the trinket if you have something of equal or greater value to leave in its place.

Look for Fossils and Geodes
A very long time ago, Iowa was part of the ocean floor. Over time, sediment built up and created the limestone we now use for making concrete. This type of rock is excellent at preserving fossils, and at multiple sites collectors can look for and keep their finds. Particularly good specimens have been found in the Mason City area, and visitors can learn more at the Floyd County Conservation Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve and Center.

Visit State Preserves and Parks
With 72 state parks and 95 preserves, Iowa has a rich diversity of public lands available for exploration. Seven sites were developed and planned as recreation areas, and offer extensive options for all sorts of activities. Most state parks have camping options, ranging from rustic to the occasional glamorous cabin.

Go on a Bike Ride
Iowa is one of the nation’s leaders in cycling, with hundreds of miles of paved bike trails. Biking in Iowa is a great way to see the state and get exercise while taking it easy on your joints.