Iowa has an exciting new trend going on. Recently they’ve started converting some dangerous river dams into whitewater parks, and the paddling craze is taking hold.  Take a look at the two parks we visited, along with some tips from the local kayaking gurus.  This may be just the adventurous vacation your family has been looking for.

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Kayakers waiting for their turn to play in the whitewater, at Iowa’s Charles City Whitewater Park. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Whitewater Rafting in Iowa?

“So where you off to?”inquired my Colorado middle school aged daughter’s orchestra teacher, when she asked to be excused from Friday’s class.

“I’m going to Iowa, to go whitewater kayaking with my mom,” she explained.

“Huh. Not somewhere I’d think of as a whitewater destination,” he mused.

Which is why we were in for such an unexpected treat, during our upcoming tour of an exciting new tourist scene:  Iowa Whitewater Parks.

Deadly Dams Transformed into River Recreation

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A view of three converted dams at what is now Manchester, Iowa’s Whitewater Park. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

A land lush from generous amounts of precipitation, numerous rivers wind across the Iowa countryside.  The problem at hand was Iowa’s 177 aging and useless low head dams.  Since the 1900’s, their dangerous currents have been the cause of 192 deaths.

Unaware boaters could find themselves floating around a peaceful bend, and suddenly encounter a frightening drop down a low head dam.  The danger is in the undertow, which circulates viciously at the base of the waterfall.  Any who plunged over the dam in a floating device could easily find themselves trapped in its underwater pull, which leads to tragic drownings.

This hazard drove momentum towards a brilliant solution:  convert these low head dams into whitewater parks.  While still featuring a drop, they are inherently much safer.  Anyone floating down a converted whitewater park drop would be flushed clear through the area, rather than sucked into an undertow.

Iowa Whitewater Park Vacation Destination for Adventurous Families

Environmentalists will be happy to know that fish ladders have been incorporated along the right side of each whitewater feature.  State natural resources officials say removing the dams and returning the river to its natural flow has actually improved river health.

And last, but not least… Iowa’s new whitewater parks have provided a thrilling, free recreation option for locals and visitors alike.   It’s made Iowa a Midwest leader in whitewater park attractions.

Manchester Whitewater Park’s Spectacular Six!

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Outdoorsy TravelingMom Tami and her daughter visited Manchester Whitewater Park on a rainy day. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

The Manchester Whitewater Park was our first stop during our visit to Iowa — and a very pleasant surprise.  My daughter and I were a little nervous about what we had gotten ourselves in to.  Neither of us had ever kayaked before, much less tore it up at a whitewater park.

I heard before our trip that the Manchester Whitewater Park included six drops, but I didn’t realize their close proximity.  You can stand in one location and see all six features, with only a slight, scenic bend between them.  This is ideal, especially if your plan is to float through the entire course, then walk up and repeat the fun all over again.

After eating lunch downtown at a local coffee shop, we arrived at the Manchester Whitewater Park after a short three block walk.  It’s a gorgeous stretch of river, with miniature “waterfalls” just begging to be slid down on a hot day.

Whether you are a kayaker honing your skills for future endeavors, or a child with an inflatable tube, all adventurous players are welcome.   With a less intimidating flow than Charles City (our stop the following day), this is the park where any beginners should start.

Our visit fell on a rainy day, so we had the park to ourselves. It instantly wet our appetite for hitting the river in a boat or tube!  We were saddened by the uncooperative weather and our lack of gear, but it made us even more eager for our adventure the next day.

Charles City Whitewater Park’s Thrilling Drops

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Entering the Charles City Whitewater Park with playboat kayaks. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Opened in 2010, the Charles City Whitewater Park is easy to find in the heart of the city.  It features a ¾ mile segment of river, and three exhilarating drops of rushing water and waves.

The paddling scene is surprisingly strong and growing here in Central Iowa. We were fortunate to have three local whitewater gurus meet up with us at the Charles City Whitewater Park.  It was a cool, overcast morning.  I found myself pondering why we weren’t undertaking this adventure during the sunny, warmer afternoon, instead?

I found myself pondering why we weren’t undertaking this adventure during the sunny, warmer afternoon, instead?

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The gear is ready to go! These paddling fans can’t wait to get out on the water. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Sage Advice from Seasoned Paddlers and Kayakers

After 10 minutes of chatting with these passionate paddlers, next to their van full of gear and boats spread out across the lawn, I pretty much had my answer.  They couldn’t wait that long.  They were too excited to get out on the water!

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Iowa whitewater guru Hannah rides both kayaks and a stand-up paddleboard (SUP)  / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

The bad news was, it had poured rain for two days prior.  This resulted in a rushing river at 4 times its normal level.

Seasoned kayaker Marty broke it to us gently, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a new kayaker out there.  It would just amount to a Survival-fest.”

Alrighty, then!  Marty didn’t have to tell me twice.  I quickly decided to heed his sage advice.

The good news was, we learned all about this fabulous sport from our three guides.

Many boats are used at these whitewater parks, but the norm is to use a kayaking playboat to hone your craft.  Playboats are shorter and are shaped to roll more easily (although that feature doesn’t sound too desirable to me… apparently it is).  Kayakers start learning as early as age 5.

Watching our new friends crush this whitewater park was such a thrill.  Hannah even tackles the course with a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard), performing tricks that Marty assured me were being accomplished by very few – if any – other riders in the US.

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There she goes! Fearless Hannah demonstrates what is a very new sport – river SUP’ing / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Hannah’s Iowa Whitewater Parks Safety Tips

So where does a beginner start?  Our local whitewater guru Hannah shared these awesome safety notes with us.

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You can read more about Hannah and her pup Bella’s adventures at
Riverotteradventures.com / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

  • The Manchester Whitewater Park is often at a great beginner level. Levels may change with any recent rainfalls. Charles City Whitewater Park will be a bit more challenging than Manchester.
  • Line up in the center of the features and paddle through. Same if you catch yourself in a situation where you are swimming through.
  • I would strongly recommend wearing a properly fitting PFD (personal floatation device), sturdy shoes (no strappy sandals of any kind), and a helmet.
  • In the event of a capsize:
    • Assume one of the whitewater swimming positions (Defensive position for going through the features, on your back, toes pointed up to the sky and the bottom of your feet pointed downstream)
    • If you can get to the river bank before the next feature, utilize an Aggressive swimming position and swim quickly and aggressively to shore.
    • Do not ever try to stand up in moving current (this can lead to a hand/foot entrapment).
    • Either plan to swim with your gear (kayak/paddle) or collect it downstream.

Visit Iowa’s Three Whitewater Parks

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A local Charles City teenager shows us some of his impressive kayaking moves. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

A third Iowa whitewater park is located in Elkader, but recently suffered damage during flooding.  It’s currently closed for repairs, but keep it on your radar.  The close proximity of these three whitewater parks to each other create an excellent circuit to visit and ride them all.

A water lover since childhood, I absolutely can’t wait for our next opportunity to try out Iowa’s whitewater parks.  I found it highly appealing that these locations are actually safer than a typical, naturally occurring stretch of whitewater.  This makes Iowa’s Whitewater Parks an ideal place to learn, and an incredibly fun destination for an adventurous family.