Geography of Iowa

Marques Hayes

Updated:

With its location firmly within the corn belt, Iowa is often associated with fields of corn. Geography is a major force behind this distinction. This Midwestern state, however, has other distinctions that cannot be summed up in just its ubiquitous corn fields. 

Largest City in Iowa

Des Moines is the capital and largest city within the state of Iowa. It is also part of the largest metropolitan area within the state of Iowa. According to the 2020 U.S. census, 214,133 people call reside within the city limits of Des Moines. 699,292 people live in Des Moines metropolitan area.

Capital of Iowa

The capital of Iowa is located towards the center of the state. Iowa became a state in 1846, with Iowa City as its capital. Iowa City is located in the eastern part of Iowa.

With a rapid population growth, it was decided that the capital of Iowa should be more centrally located. For this reason, Des Moines became the capital of Iowa in 1857, six years after it was incorporated.


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Des Moines is located where the Des Moines Lobe and the Southern Iowa Drift Plain meet.

A satellite image of the state of Iowa against a black background with the state flag and USGS and NASA logos in the upper right and left corners.
A Landsat satellite image of the state of Iowa. Image: USGS/NASA, public domain.

Des Moines Lobe

The Des Moines Lobe is part of the greater Prairie Pothole region. This region includes Central/North Central Iowa.

This region was covered by glaciers during the Wisconsin glaciation, 6 millennia ago. Those glaciers would eventually retreat during the Last Ice Age. In their wake, the glaciers melted, leaving behind lakes and swamps. The swamps were often drained for farmland.

Landform regions of Iowa. This map shows the location of 10 major landform regions. Clockwise from Northwest to Southwest, the regions are Northwest Iowa Plains, Des Moines Lobe, Paleozoic Plateau, Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, East-Central Iowa Drift Plain, Iowa Cedar Lowland, Southern Iowa Drift Plain, Loess Hills, and Missouri River Alluvial Plain.
Map of the landform regions of Iowa. Northwest to Southwest, the regions are Northwest Iowa Plains, Des Moines Lobe, Paleozoic Plateau, Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, East-Central Iowa Drift Plain, Iowa Cedar Lowland, Southern Iowa Drift Plain, Loess Hills, and Missouri River Alluvial Plain. Map: NPS.

This is also a region of rolling hills and ridges. The Iowa Great Lakes, a group of lakes in northern Iowa, are at the western edge of the Des Moines Lobe. Iowa State University, located in Ames (north of Des Moines), is located in this region. It is the first designated land grant school. It has been in operation since 1858. It was originally known as Iowa Agricultural College.

Southern Iowa

Southern Iowa is comprised mainly of the Southern Iowa Drift Plain. When many people envision Iowa, this is the region most associated with this state. This is a region of rolling hills.

One of the primary reasons many people associate this region with Iowa is its transportation geography. Interstate 80 is a major road that runs across the state of Iowa. This highway runs through the city of Des Moines. This is a common sight for many people traveling through Iowa.

The Drift Plain refers to the glacier drift that formed the region’s rolling hills. This region includes Iowa City, which is home to the University of Iowa.

Eastern Iowa

The Mississippi River forms the eastern border of Iowa. Davenport, is Iowa’s largest city on the Mississippi River. Along with Bettendorf, and the Illinois cities of Rock Island and Moline (East Moline, IL is also counted), Davenport is part of the Quad Cities metropolitan area.

A photo of a river with broken pieces of ice on the surface and bare trees lining the banks of the river.
The Skunk River is a 93-mile-long (150-kilometer) tributary of the Mississippi River in Iowa. Photo: USGS, public domain.

Manufacturing is the largest sector of Davenport’s economy. Conversely, the region is home to a growing high tech industry.

Mississippi Alluvial Plain

The far southeast portion of the state comprises of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. Oxbow lakes are found in the region. Oxbow lakes area formed as a result of the Mississippi River changing its course, and meanders being cut off.

Wetlands are also part of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain.

Keokuk, Fort Madison, and Burlington are the largest cities of this region. Keokuk is the southernmost city in Iowa. Both Keokuk and Fort Madison are the county seats of Lee County, Iowa. 

Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge, Blackhawk Bottoms, and Red Cedar Wildlife Area are among the places that are protected wetland and bottomland forest areas. They serve as habitats for birds. 

Driftless Area

The Driftless Area makes up the far northeast of Iowa. It also goes by the name of the Paleozoic Plateau. This part of Iowa was never covered by glaciers during the Last Ice Age. Because of this, the region lacks “drift”.

Drift refers to the glacial deposits left behind from glacial melt water. This region of Iowa is characterized by river valleys, bluffs, and outcrops,. There are caves in this region, characteristic of the karst topography of the area. 

While the Driftless Area lacks glacial deposits, the Iowan Erosion Surface, which is also located in northeast Iowa, is a region formed by such deposits.

Paha Ridges

This particular region is home to paha ridges. Paha ridges are hills that have been formed as the result of the erosion of glacial till.

The town on Anamosa is located around this region. Anamosa is the hometown of American painter Grant Wood. Famous for his painting “American Gothic”, he also painted the landscapes of this region. 

Northeast Iowa is home to cities such as Dubuque and Waterloo. Along with Davenport, Waterloo and Dubuque have long been the major industrial centers of Iowa. Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city, is located at the southern portion of the Iowan Erosion Surface. 

Tallgrass Prairie

Tallgrass prairie once covered 85% of Iowa. Much of this grassland had disappeared from the state by the mid 19th century due to farming, grazing by cattle, and the overhunting of prairie dogs.

In 1971, the National Park Service reconstructed a 81-acre prairie landscape at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa.

A mowed grass trail passes through tall prairie grasses under a deep blue late summer sun.
A trail through the Tallgrass Prairie – Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in Iowa. Photo: NPS/John Eicher, public domain.

Western Iowa

The far western region’s of Iowa consist of the Missouri Alluvial Plain and the Loess Hills. Like the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, the Missouri Alluvial Plain contains oxbow lakes.

Missouri Alluvial Plain

The Missouri Alluvial Plain is actually the one part of Iowa that is considered to be flat. Iowa is often associated with being flat. The truth is, most of Iowa isn’t flat. The Missouri River Alluvial Plain, however, is much flatter than the rest of the state. 

Loess Hills

The Loess Hills, as the name indicates, refers to what these hills are made of. Loess is a silt-like sediment. It is an aeolian type sediment, as it is deposited by wind. Loess can be very thick in some places. And the Loess Hills are made of this type of sediment.

Sioux City is the largest city in the region.

Carter Lake

There is one major geographic irony. Iowa is technically bordered completely by rivers on its western and eastern boundaries. However, there is one part of Iowa that is west of the Missouri River, Carter Lake.

The City of Carter Lake, is now the only city in Iowa located on the west side of the Missouri River. 

Carter Lake is surrounded by Omaha, Nebraska on three sides and the Missouri River to the South. The issue of whether Carter Lake should be in Iowa or Nebraska continues be of dispute today. 

A State Bordered by Rivers

Iowa is a Midwestern state, bordered by Minnesota to the north, Missouri to the South, Nebraska and South Dakota to the West, Illinois and Wisconsin to the East. 

Iowa can be viewed as an American version of Mesopotamia, in geographic terms. Mesopotamia comes from the Greek language, meaning “between the rivers”. Iowa’s eastern and western borders and formed completely by rivers.

The eastern border is comprised of the Mississippi River. The western border consists of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers. Like Mesopotamia, agriculture, especially in grains, is an important part of Iowa’s economy.

A corn field with silos and a red barn in the background with a hazy sky.
A farm with corn fields in Iowa. Photo: Peter C Van Metre, USGS, public domain.

Iowa is a major center of the corn belt. Iowa’s fertile soil makes it ideal land for growing corn. Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa, is a major corn-processing center. 

Iowa Industries

Unlike Mesopotamia, Iowa also hosts other industries. Manufacturing has long been a part of the economy for cities such as Waterloo, Davenport, and Dubuque. Tractors have been built in Iowa for nearly a century.

In addition to food production, Cedar Rapids has aerospace manufacturing as part of its economy. Banking, insurance, and a growing high tech sector are part of Des Moines’ economy. 

Iowa is also home to a growing renewable energy industry. In fact, Iowa gets over 40 percent of its electricity from wind power. While wind farms are found throughout Iowa, a high concentration of wind farms are found in the northern and western sections of the state. These are some of the windiest regions in Iowa.

Farms are certainly a major part of Iowa. They have been part of this state for a very long time. They remain part of Iowa today. However, sitting between America’s largest rivers, are caves, springs, bluffs, hills of glacial deposits and loess, valleys, lakes, and cities. 

Read next: Huntsville’s Enduring Spring

References

Bach, E. M., & Kleiman, B. P. (2021). Twenty years of tallgrass prairie restoration in northern Illinois, USA. Ecological Solutions and Evidence2(4), e12101.https://doi.org/10.1002/2688-8319.12101

Bechler, B., & Prem, L. (2021, May 13). Geographical features of Iowa. ArcGIS StoryMaps. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/ae3a024a419e427f8e9c12c64f15c543

Fletcher, A. F. (2021, July 10). A history of Carter Lake. North Omaha History. https://northomahahistory.com/2013/09/28/an-early-history-of-omahas-carter-lake-aka-lake-nakoma-aka-cutoff-lake/

Geology of the loess hills, Iowa. (1999, August 18). U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse. https://pubs.usgs.gov/info/loess/

Harding, D. (2019, October 15). What’s the deal with Carter Lake (Aka the only Iowa city west of the Missouri River)? Omaha World-Herald. https://omaha.com/lifestyles/whats-the-deal-with-carter-lake-aka-the-only-iowa-city-west-of-the-missouri/article_f16ae5e0-6a26-11e6-ab73-2b9ac4ed8a67.html

Iowa Legislative Services Agency. (n.d.). Construction & earlier buildings. Iowa Legislature. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/resources/tourCapitol/pictorial/capitolPicsPast/capitolC

Loess hills national scenic byway. (n.d.). Travel Iowa. https://www.traveliowa.com/trails/loess-hills-national-scenic-byway/10/

Prior, J. C. (n.d.). Paleozoic plateau. Iowa Geological Survey. https://iowageologicalsurvey.org/landforms/palezoic-plateau/

Prior, J. C. (n.d.). Southern Iowa drift plain. Iowa Geological Survey. https://iowageologicalsurvey.org/landforms/southern-iowa-drift-plain-2/

Tall grasses to tall corn & back again. (2021, February 12). U.S. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/tallgrass-prairie.htm

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About the author
Marques Hayes
Marques Hayes is a GIS Analyst and a freelance geography writer. He has a Bachelor's degree in geography. Geography is a subject that Marques has a special interest in.