Summer in Iowa City!


How about a break from all of the technical, legal, and financial stuff lately?

Iowa City is kind of interesting, in that it appeals to a wide variety of interests.  Home to the University of Iowa, on its face, you have a college town.  While it’s been ranked in the top 5 college towns in America, it’s also ranked in the top 5 best places to retire.  Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  How can it be a happening place for millennials (you know, binge drinking, late night fun, etc.) and not chase off all the curmudgeons that want lights out at sunset?

Having visited last summer/fall, and returned this summer, I can say it strikes an interesting balance.  There’s plenty to do late into the evening, but always plenty of family-friendly fun as well.  The downtown events (the block party, jazz festival, etc.) are very well attended, with lots to do, without seeming too crowded.  Happening, but at the same time relaxed.  Since it got pretty long, I’ve decided to break this post up into three parts, first covering where to stay, food, and what to do.  I suppose life generally follows in that kind of priority order, though food sometimes comes first.

Places to Stay

It wouldn’t be a good place to visit in an RV if there weren’t good places to stay in one.  Fortunately, the Iowa City area doesn’t disappoint.  You won’t find a downtown RV park, but what you will find are several public campgrounds within short drives of downtown.  You might notice a theme here–every one of these camping destinations is on a body of water.  For reference, I include a few travel distances.  The center of downtown is where a lot of the action is, with a lot of the big box stores, mall, etc., located to the northwest in Coralville.  There’s a lot of recent commercial growth on the south side of town between US 218 and the Iowa River as well, with a Menard’s and Wal-Mart in that area–those distances are also included.

Coralville Dam Lake Complex
Drive time to downtown Iowa City: 15-20 minutes
Wal-Mart, Coralville mall/shopping area: 15 minutes

Menard’s: 19 minutes/15 miles or 25 minutes/8 miles

Coralville Dam Lake is just to the north of Iowa City, and a quick drive into town.  There are three campgrounds surrounding the dam itself: West Overlook sits along the edge of the lake, while the two tailwater campgrounds sit at the low side of the dam, one on either side.

Old photo of the dam complex and campgrounds. The Tailwater West campground hadn’t been built (grassy area below dam), and the trees in the other two are now large and mature.

Access to all three is easy, but make sure you use the west entrance.  The address for the complex sits on Prairie du Chien Road, and directions to that address will take you along a winding, narrow road coming from I-80.  Instead, simply exit I-80 at Dubuque Street, and head north to West Overlook Road.  You’ll arrive at a 3-way stop, with West Overlook to the left along with the check-in booth, dump station ahead of you, and bearing right will take you to both of the tailwater campgrounds.  These campgrounds are certainly popular in the summer, but they close at the end of October.

They’re all fairly convenient to downtown, and there’s a Hy-Vee (Iowa-based grocery store chain) at the corner of Prairie du Chen Road and Dodge Street, making for the shortest grocery runs of any of the camping areas.

Tailwater East Campground

Sitting on the east side of the dam, this campground is the closest at the complex to a lot of Iowa City attractions.  A quick right turn exiting the campsite loop and a fairly short drive south on Prairie du Chien Road links you to Dodge Street, which becomes a one-way arterial through much of the historic residential areas just

This isn’t to scare you! The Great Flood of 2008 was an event that left its mark on Iowa City. There are a number of construction projects ongoing as a result of the flood. Tailwater East is visible at lower right.

east of downtown Iowa City.

This campground is fairly old, with a number of smaller sites, but with a few boasting 50-amp service and both water and sewer.  About half of the sites sit right at the waters’ edge, just downstream of the dam, while all of them have good shade from a high tree canopy.  The noise from the dam’s discharge is just loud enough to be soothing, if barely noticeable.  I suppose you could call this the more rustic of the three campgrounds at the complex–satellite signals will be somewhat difficult, and cell phone service is present, but weak.  There are certainly sites that can accommodate the Grey Ghost, but certainly not all of them.

Despite being at the base of the dam, this was the only campground to escape significant flooding in the record-setting 2008 event.

Tailwater West Campground

This campground sits just across the (narrow) river from Tailwater East, and is a much newer area with level concrete pads, and manicured grass covering everything not paved.  There’s a playground, fish cleaning area, and good sky views to the south if you’re looking for satellite service.  All of the sites in this loop are big-rig friendly, with a few pull-throughs available.

Heading into town via Prairie du Chien Road and Dodge street is just a tad longer than from the east side, as you’ll have to climb to the top of the dam and drive across it.  If you’re headed for downtown or points west,

West Overlook

This area sits to the north of West Overlook Road near the complex entrance.  It has the most sites, with many having views of the lake, but a number on more secluded and shaded loops as well.  Some are a little tight to maneuver, mainly depending on how crowded it is, but it’s manageable even at 45 feet long.  If you need good cell service, this gets priority over the other campgrounds at the dam complex.

Johnson County Parks
Johnson County, where Iowa City is located, has a fantastic county park system for RVers.  While they’re not plowed in the winter, and water may be shut off in cold weather, they are open all year.  They’re also cheaper than the Coralville Dam Complex sites, though they’re not reservable in advance.  For a full-time RVer, that can actually be a good thing, as you can easily arrive during the week and have a spot through a weekend or two.  Like the COE parks, they do have a 14-day limit, but both are seemingly loose limits when the parks aren’t crowded.  Last fall, I stayed at both locations, and enjoyed both.  If you’re curious about site availability or have other questions, the park staff and rangers are incredibly helpful.

Hills Access

Downtown Iowa City: 15-20 minutes
Coralville mall/shopping area: 16 minutes
Wal-Mart: 12 minutes
Menard’s: 10 minutes

Hills Access is located south of Iowa City, just east of the “town” of Hills.  It’s convenient to a lot of the Iowa City attractions, via US 218 (a limited-access freeway connecting to I-80 and I-380), and Gilbert Street, which runs into the heart of downtown Iowa City.  Hills Access is small, with only a few sites with electric service.  It’s shady, flat, and right along the Iowa River.  It’s about as convenient to downtown as the Coralville Dam Complex.  Though if you aren’t planning on getting out on the water, there’s probably less to do in the immediate vicinity.

F.W. Kent Park

Downtown Iowa City: 25-30 minutes
Wal-Mart, Coralville mall/shopping area: 16 minutes
Menard’s: 18 minutes

Our only neighbors at F.W. Kent Park last fall.  The racoon and the two deer were going back and forth over something laying in the grass.

Kent Park is a large park northwest of Coralville and Iowa City.  It’s home to a reservoir like Coralville, but with steeper banks along the water and hillier terrain through the campground.  Some sites aren’t level enough for a large rig, but there are plenty that are.  And while the park has signs saying the gates are locked at 10 p.m., I’ve never found them to actually be locked.  It’d be a long hike back to the campground if you had to park there.  It seems to be less busy than the dam complex too.  That’s perhaps because of location or maybe the inability to reserve sites in advance.

The biggest negative for Kent Park–if your objective is to spend time in downtown Iowa City–is the drive to get there.  It isn’t difficult by any means, just a little further out.  Figure 25 to 30 minutes to the center of downtown, and about the same distance to the Coralville shopping area as the dam complex.

My Favorite?

Ultimately, it depends.  Several of my visits have been to visit a friend south of downtown, making Hills Access very convenient.  But with so few sites it can be hard to get a hold of one.  The Coralville Dam Complex is just a little bit further, but the drive is much more interesting into town.  If you were arriving on a Friday with no reservations, head to Kent Park.  Hard to be disappointed with any of them.  If you’re wondering why there aren’t more pictures at the campgrounds, it’s because I really didn’t take any.  I was so busy having other fun while in town that I didn’t spend that much time in the campgrounds.  Food is up next!

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