I’ve been river tubing in Iowa several times now. You literally grab a rubber ring and go floating down a river for a couple of hours. But did you know that Iowa is home to 2 whitewater parks that are completely free to visit? There’s one in Charles City and a second in Manchester! The area surrounding the Manchester Water Park has recently been renovated and makes for a fun afternoon adventure!
Updated: November 2021
🗺300 W Main St, Manchester, IA 52057
The Manchester Water Park is, in theory, open for 24 hours a day, year round. Obviously in the dead of winter it’s going to be freezing cold. You’ll likely need a dry suit. I’d imagine that only seasoned kayakers would use it during these times!
The water park is 800ft long and consists of 6 ‘gates’ that create short sections of rapids. During my visit at the very end of summer, the rapids weren’t huge. The condition of the river does change throughout the season.
At the start of summer, the river was still very high, from late snow melt on top of lots of rain. They were actually advising recreational tubers to stay off the river due to the hidden rocks. As it lowered it then became ‘safe’ for tubers with life vests and helmets and by the time we went, it was calm enough to not ‘need’ any additional equipment (approx 4ft, you can check conditions here). I had taken my life vest with me but didn’t use it. I’m pretty confident in water, but they are still advised.
As we hadn’t been to the Manchester Water Park before, we weren’t sure what it’d be like regarding needing tubes. We had a double tube from previous times we’d been tubing in Iowa but didn’t know if it would be suitable for the water park. We decided to rent more durable ones from the Watershed for $15 per tube, as it was still open for the season.
In hindsight, our own tube would have been fine. Other people were using doubles, as well as singles and even small inflatable boats. The end of the summer season is actually a great time to shop around for a cheap tube. They’ll sometimes be discounted for the end of the season!
Manchester Water Park
The water park is on a section of the Maquoketa River. Technically you could get in anywhere along the river. Unless you’re wanting a long float, I’d recommend just beginning at the start of the rapids. There’s a path and a boat ramp that makes it easy to enter. When I visited the area near the river bank was around knee deep.
I found that the first and the very last drop offs were the largest, and for me, the most fun! One thing that did surprise me, was that it did require a little bit of effort. I was half expecting to just get in and float through all the gates. BUT I found that we did often need to paddle a lot more than I thought! Because of the set up of the river, between each rapid, whirlpool like sections were then created. If you didn’t paddle, I found that you’d then drift off and miss the next gate! It wasn’t the end of the world, you’d eventually float back around. But it’d just take a while and I’m not the most patient of people!
It took around 15 minutes to get from the start to the end of the water park section. The river passes under a road bridge and then when you reach the train bridge, that’s when you jump off. I’d recommend floating UNDER the train bridge. The river gets slightly shallower and there’s a bit of a beach that you can get out at. I made the mistake of jumping off my tube right under the bridge on one of my floats and was slightly shocked to discovered that I couldn’t actually touch the bottom! When I could, it was full of large rocks so the depth was constantly changing.
There’s a cement path that follows the river back to the start. You can then jump back in and do it all again! You do have to then carry whatever you’re using to float back up the river so keep that in mind, especially if you’re visiting with children and may have to carry their tube too!
The new park renovations are really cool. There’s a large car park and toilet block with outdoor showers, perfect for rinsing off sandy feet and getting changed (the showers felt warm too?!?). If you just want to relax, I love the SWINGING benches that run along half of the white water park. Lots of people were watching the tubers from the comfort of dry land! Kids will also enjoy a small slide and some built in musical instrument structures!
Tips for tubing in Iowa at the Manchester Water Park
* Wear water shoes!
As mentioned, the bottom of the river is a bit rocky and stoney, so it’s worth protecting your feet. You also have to walk back to the start along a concrete path. If you’re having to do this in bare feet, it can be kinda miserable!
* Take a waterproof pouch/dry bag
Unless you are with a non tuber, you’re possibly going to need to take your car key into the river with you. If you plan for it, you can buy a waterproof pouch in advance that you can wear and take in the river with you. They are similar to a very durable small ziplock bag. Dry bags are another option.
* life vests
It’s better to be over prepared than under prepared. If the river looks too rough, don’t go in. My biggest concern before going in, was if my tube was to flip and I’d smack my head on a rock. After watching other people that were already tubing, I was confident that I’d be ok without a helmet or a life vest. I’d suggest that all kids wear a vest though, just because of the deep sections. Some people didn’t even have a tube, they were just floating down the river in life vests! I just wore my swim wear and a rash guard.
Alternatively, 2021 saw the addition of a free ‘life jacket loaner station’. A range of life jackets are hanging up under a shelter alongside the river. Simply choose the one that fits and then return it once you have finished with it!
* no lifeguard
The whitewater park is free to visit, thanks to donations, but this does mean that there isn’t any sort of lifeguard, at the end of the day it is just a section of river!
* If you’re hungry, visit the Widner Drug Store!
The store backs on to the water park. They have a small ‘parlour’ that sells very reasonably priced food, but their ice cream is well worth getting! You can get a large cup for less than $2 (the ‘white chocolate raspberry truffle’ is lovely)!
I love the way that the Manchester Water Park allows people to experience river tubing in Iowa, without needing to figure out logistics. You can simply enjoy the same stretch of river over and over. Regular river tubing means you get in at one section of the river, float for a few hours and then get out further down the river. This often takes a bit of planning, unless you’re using a company, you’ll need to either leave a vehicle at either end of the float, or arrange someone to pick you and the equipment up.
If you wanted to add a short section of a float, you can walk across the road from the main car park to where the Watershed rental company is (5 minutes). If you drop in here, apparently it takes around 30 minutes to float to the start of the water park.
Manchester sits along Historic US Route 20, you can find more things to do in the surrounding area in my post: America’s Longest Highway: Awesome Events & Roadside Attractions Along Highway 20 in East Iowa!