Best Free Camping in Iowa

Free Camping in Iowa

By Nathan Swartz

With no national forests or Bureau of Land Management presence, Iowa has some of the least free camping available in the US. That said, the Hawkeye State does have a few offerings, particularly near Des Moines and Lake Red Rock.

See a map of all free camping in Iowa.

Free Camping via Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Most of the free RV camping you'll find in the state comes via public lands managed by Iowa's DNR. Eagle Lake State Game Management Area–one of the more popular of these destinations and located near Mason City, Iowa–isn't much more than an open patch of field with a couple of trees and a stream running through it. The fact that it comes with no price tag, is easy to access and even has good cell service, makes it one of the most visited of Iowa's free camping areas.

On the polar opposite end of the state, Eldon Wildlife Management Area is little more than a few wide spots in the road with pull-offs that can accommodate medium-sized RVs but serves as another prime example of what free camping in Iowa is all about–a spot to call home with decent views and, in Eldon WMA's case, access to a river.

Free Camping in Iowa State Forests

While the majority of camping in Iowa's state forests are either via paid, designated campgrounds or open to hikers only, free camping can be found in the state's newest state forest, Loess Hills has some free camping available via a small dirt lot along the banks of Jones Creek Pond.

There are even more options throughout Iowa's state forests if you're car camping or tent camping.

Free Camping in Iowa County Parks

Warren County provides three parks that offer RV camping, all within an hour of Des Moines. Expect a nice country drive into a forested camping experience, a picnic table, a fire ring and vault toilet, and not much else. The nicest of these is probably David Bates Memorial Park along the Iowa River.

Free Camping at Casinos in Iowa

If you're not specifically set on doing your overnighting in a campground, casino parking lots in the state offer a place to stay at no cost. Casino camping varies wildly based on the business in question, so it's often a good idea to call ahead to get a better idea of the rules for your stay length, whether you can have kids in tow, and whatever other camping regulations they have set as conditions on your stay apply. Often, though, they'll give you a few free bucks worth of play in the casino, and–if it's not obvious–they're hoping you'll be joining them inside.

These casinos are all located off of I-80 and on a trajectory toward Des Moines, should that help make your camping road trip easier.

Beyond casinos, businesses like Walmart and Bass Pro Shops also allow overnight stays in their parking lots. More of an RV parking than camping experience, they're nonetheless convenient when you just need somewhere to get off the road come nightfall.

portable computer displaying map of camping locations
mobile device showing map of camping locations

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Recent Iowa Free Campsite Reviews

Nov 11, 2021

"A beautiful campground, for free!"

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This is absolutely a hidden gem! We tent camped here for one night when we visited the darling town of Pella and Lake Red Rock. Every spot has a cement pad, picnic table, and fire ring. We heard cows mooing through the night, but otherwise quiet and respectful neighbors. The spaces are well spread out. Show up early though, as there only about...
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Ellen Albers
4 reviews
Clive, IA

Cracker Barrel

Oct 24, 2021

"Adequate "

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We’ve never had a bad experience at a Cracker Barrel. We are 56’ long total so the only place that really worked for us was behind. Non RVs were parked in the rv spots when we got there. Garbage truck woke us up early morning as the 3 dumpsters are behind. We were level and got a decent nights sleep.

Jay Hanson
17 reviews
Oct 20, 2021

"Very large casino parking lot"

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This a a very large lot. There is an area for trucks and RV’s, but all RV’s went to the opposite side at the rear of the lot. Lots of road noise, but no problem for us. Just used our white noise ap on our iPads. Enjoyed casino as well. Scott’s County Park is nearby. $5 for a dump or water fill. We took showers there, it was only $2.00 each....
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Leslie Waterman
10 reviews
Oct 20, 2021

"Very large casino parking lot"

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This a a very large lot. There is an area for trucks and RV’s, but all RV’s went to the opposite side at the rear of the lot. Lots of road noise, but no problem for us. Just used our white noise ap on our iPads. Enjoyed casino as well. Scott’s County Park is nearby. $5 for a dump or water fill. We took showers there, it was only $2.00 each....
Read More

Leslie Waterman
10 reviews
Council Bluffs, IA

Bass Pro Shops

Oct 19, 2021

"Ok for a parking lot"

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Lot of freeway noise, otherwise it was ok. The noise died off some about 11 and picked up again around 5. Plenty of security lighting. One other rig in the lot. We were left alone.

Thomas Beard
26 reviews