October 19, 2020

Every winter, as the state of Iowa goes into hibernation, we love to make big plans for when the seasons turn to “shorts weather,” or 50 roughly degrees. Each approaching summer promises to be the summer that you do the thing and hone a new skill. The summer to get into biking. The summer to take golf lessons. The summer to become a grill master.

This past summer was admittedly a bit different. As cabin fever set in, we sought out things that were safe, fun and a welcome respite from the stresses of everyday life. The activity that rode the biggest wave of popularity was exploring the water — particularly kayaking. If you didn’t emerge from the summer with either a new kayak or a new puppy, you weren’t living your best quarantine life.

Taking up any new endeavor can be accompanied with a little intimidation. Well, have no fear, when it comes to getting out on the water, we’re here to help. Below is a helpful cheat sheet with everything you need to know to get started so that you can make big plans now (we hear kayaks make a wonderful holiday gift).

How Do I Get My Feet Wet?

The easiest way to get started is to rent a kayak or canoe and test the waters. Luckily, there is no shortage of places in Greater Des Moines that allow you to dip your toe in the water. From river excursions to serene lakes, there’s something for every experience and comfort level with the Central Iowa Water Trails.

Quarry Springs Outfitters – Johnston


Beaver Creek access at 6701 NW 70th Avenue, Johnston and Terra Lake Park – 6300 Pioneer Parkway, Johnston

Rentals Available:

One- and two-person kayaks

The newly opened carry-down access site in Johnston features ample parking and now offers an on-site outfitter to equip you with everything you need for a day of adventure.

Seven Oaks Recreation


1086 222nd Drive, Boone IA

Rentals Available:

Canoes, kayaks, river tubing

Explore Iowa’s waterways without all the guesswork. Seven Oaks will plan your trip down the Des Moines River Valley with all the necessary equipment included. They offer a seven-mile float (2–4 hours) on canoes, kayaks or tubes, and a 15-mile option (5–8 hours) for canoers and kayakers.

Argo Adventures


2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines — Waterworks Park for day trips from Walnut Woods

Rentals Available:

Canoes and kayaks

For a full-service outfitter in Des Moines, check out Argo Adventures, with trips departing twice a day at 8 a.m. and Noon on weekends. Located in Waterworks Park near Gray’s Lake, you will paddle eight miles down Racoon River by either canoe or kayak.

Gray’s Lake


2101 Fleur Dr, Des Moines

Rentals Available:

Two- and three-person canoes, single and double kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and pedal boats.

Rentals are available in half-hour and hourly increments, so Gray’s Lake is the perfect option if you want to dip your toes in the Des Moines waters without dedicating an entire day.

Raccoon River Boat House


2500 Grand Avenue, West Des Moines

Rentals Available:

Canoes, kayaks, double kayaks, fishing kayaks and stand-up paddleboards

Offering Raccoon River visitors a way to get their feet wet in the park, this new boathouse offers restrooms and all sorts of boat rentals to get you started. If you have your own watercraft, you can even rent a storage space to eliminate the hassle of strapping it your vehicle every time you want to venture out on the water.

Canoe Sport Outfitters


203 W Salem Avenue, Indianola, IA 50125

Rentals Available:

Canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and paddleboats

Canoe Sport Outfitters can set you and your petite paddlers up with everything you need for a fun-filled family adventure, whether you’re looking to canoe, kayak, stand up paddleboard, or paddleboat. This super friendly rental center on Lake Ahquabi offers take-away rentals, classes and certification, events, and adventure trips.

Want even more options? Check out this comprehensive list from Polk County Conservation.

I’m Hooked. What Kind of Kayak Should I Buy + Where?

We could go on a long time about this one, but instead, we’ll direct you to this blog, which discusses the merits of all different types of watercraft. As far as where to buy your vessel, outdoor retailers like Scheels, REI and Dick’s all have an assortment of options, but you can also shop local at places like Quarry Springs Outfitters or Canoe Sport Outfitters.

I Dove in Headfirst + Got a Kayak. Now I’m Ready to Sink or Swim.

Nice work! We don’t want you to sink, so we’ve curated several resources to help you navigate the waterways.

One thing you’ll want to bookmark is the Iowa DNR’s Interactive Paddling Map, which shows everything from access points and campsites to hazards and rapids. There is even a search bar to lookup by city and real-time streamflow and water levels.

You should also join the Central Iowa Paddlers Facebook group. Here local water enthusiasts share opportunities to join float trips, tips for the best rivers to check out each weekend and advice for everything from watercraft repair to boats for sale.

Want more context and information about each River Trail? The DNR also has some handy PDF brochures on all the major rivers throughout the state. With color photos and maps broken down by beginner/intermediate/advanced sections of the river and areas of interest along the river, these brochures have everything you need to become a nautical know-it-all.

If you are still feeling like a fish out of water, no worries, the DNR also offers canoe and kayak schools. Find the schedule here.

Finally, if you’re ready to expand your geographical scope and explore more of Iowa’s water trails, the Des Moines Register highlighted seven great options here.

So, there you go! You now have all the information you need to get started exploring our waters.

About the Author: Ben Handfelt is the director of creative and communications at Catch Des Moines. He helped create the “S’s Are Silent” creative campaign and can often be found doing “quality control” at various Des Moines breweries and restaurants.