At the tip of the Iowa City metro area, North Liberty is a suburban city with a residential character and a highly educated populace.
The city has grown at a staggering rate in the new millennium, tripling to more than 20,000 at the last count in 2020.
To the east lies the immense Coralville Lake, man made in the 1950s for flood protection and featuring no fewer than 11 recreation areas round its scenic wooded shoreline.
The University of Iowa, founded in 1847, is just ten minutes away to the south, and packs historical interest, cutting-edge culture and Big Ten sports action.
1. Coralville Lake
North Liberty is by the west shore of a vast body of water created by the construction of the Coralville Dam in the 1950s. Part of a vast flood prevention system, Coralville Lake has a mind-boggling capacity of 461,200 acres.
Water has twice passed over the spillway, in 1993 and 2008, to unearth the limestone bedrock, which we’ll talk about later.
Over the last 70+ years, the lakeshore has been developed for recreation activities, from camping to hiking, boating, fishing and mountain biking.
Two locations just minutes from North Liberty are Lake Macbride State Park and Sugar Bottom Recreation Area, which we’ll come to later in this list.
Just east of North Liberty is Squire Point, with peaceful hardwood forest granting lovely views of the lake.
2. University of Iowa
The campus for the oldest and second-largest university in Iowa is a mere ten minutes to the south of North Liberty.
As a visitor attraction the University of Iowa is as versatile as they come, mixing world-class museums with pro-standard sports action and performing arts in dazzling venues like the new Voxman Music Building.
The Old Capitol Museum is a good place to start, at the 1842 building that served as Iowa’s first state capitol, and where the Iowa constitution was crafted.
After 14 years of closure following the flood of 2008, the Stanley Museum of Art is a must, and is considered one of the great university art museums.
You can’t forget the Hawkeyes, which have 22 different varsity teams competing in Division I of the NCAA.
3. Hawkeye Wildlife Preserve
In North Liberty you’re a matter of minutes from one of the premier birding areas in Iowa. The Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area is on the Iowa River floodplain just upstream from Coralville Lake, with a mosaic of marshland, grassland, riparian woodland and upland forest.
More than 300 bird species have been counted in these 14,000 acres, and North Liberty is the main access point, along Swan Lake Rd NW.
On the marshy Mallard and Gadwall Ponds Trail, look out for blue grosbeaks, henslow’s sparrows, eastern meadowlarks and field sparrows.
The Sand Point and Swan Lake Trails guide you through woodland, home to the likes of gray catbirds, green herons, yellow-billed cuckoos, horned larks, lark sparrows, great horned owls and barred owls.
4. Iowa Children’s Museum
This 28,000-square-foot attraction in nearby Coralville is a place where children can discover, create, imagine and explore.
Designed for children from birth to the age of 12, the Iowa Children’s Museum has expertly crafted interactive exhibits where children can learn through safe play.
Several of these mimic everyday environments like a restaurant, hospital, grocery and bank, all primed for active exploration, problem-solving and discovery.
Parents and caregivers are also part of this process, and are given all the resources they need to make the experience as rewarding as possible for young minds.
5. Iowa City
Intertwined with the UI campus, Iowa City is a vibrant town just 15 minutes from North Liberty. What’s unusual is just how walkable the downtown area is, and this has a lot to do with an urban renewal project in the 1970s.
At the heart of this was a pedestrian mall, which has leafy, traffic-free alleys lined with restaurants, shops and bars.
This is a natural place for people to gather for outdoor summer events like weekly concerts and the Iowa City Jazz Festival.
Thanks to UI’s prestigious Non-Fiction Writing Program, Iowa City has earned UNESCO City of Literature status, and along Iowa Avenue there’s a literary walk with bronze reliefs for all the authors and playwrights associated with Iowa, from Kurt Vonnegut to Bill Bryson.
6. Lake MacBride State Park
North Liberty is within easy reach of Iowa’s largest state park. A swimming destination in summer, Lake MacBride State Park adjoins the east shore of Coralville Lake and is named for Thomas Macbride (1848-1934), tenth president of the University of Iowa, and a key figure in Iowa conservation.
During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) furnished the park with much of the infrastructure that survives today, including the beach building and a grand stone shelter.
The park is on almost 2,200 acres, and has more than seven miles of trails weaving around the lake through beautiful oak-hickory forest.
On the water, the lake is a habitat for sought-after Kentucky spotted bass, and is a boating paradise with a range of craft, from motorboats to paddle boards, that can be rented from the beach.
We haven’t even mentioned the spectacular waterfall/spillway, the two campgrounds, or the stunning beach area.
7. Sugar Bottom Recreation Area
On the east shore of Coralville Lake, a few minutes from downtown North Liberty, is some of the best mountain biking terrain in the entire state.
In deep hardwood forest, Sugar Bottom Recreation Area has 12 miles of hand-constructed trails, with 1,400 feet of climbing.
These range from green to black, whether you want to take an easy, looping ride of the whole system or venture onto one of the demanding loops for experts.
As well as these trails, the recreation area has a beach, boat ramp, playgrounds, an 18-hole disc golf course and the largest of the lake’s three campgrounds with more than 200 sites.
8. Devonian Fossil Gorge
Two floods, in 1993 and 2008, caused water to surge over the Coralville Lake’s spillway, scouring away silt and sand to reveal a series of 375 million year-old limestone bedding planes with fossils standing out in relief.
You can walk along this former ocean floor, spotting thousands of sea creatures under your feet. You’ll begin at the entry plaza, which has a hexagonal layout and is surrounded by six monoliths of Silurian Anamosa dolomite dating back 425 million years.
Standing up to 15 feet high these impressive stone blocks are clad with interesting interpretive exhibits for the gorge.
9. North Ridge Trail
The Iowa City metro area is remarkably easy to navigate on foot by bike, with a tangle of trails extending to every nook and cranny.
This goes for North Liberty, where a north-south multi-use trail merges with another trail in Coralville for a total length of almost five miles.
Beginning at the Fox Run subdivision, the North Liberty end of the North Ridge Trail was paved in 1998 and is flanked by beautiful parcels of native prairie.
The trail passes close by the North Liberty Community Center, packed with recreation facilities for all the family. Outside, by the path, are picnic tables, restrooms and a drinking fountain for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.
10. Reds Alehouse
Opened in 2009, Reds Alehouse has quickly become a star of the Iowa City area, combining regional craft beer with craft food.
Beer connoisseurs will be blown away by the vast choice of brews, and there isn’t a single mass-produced beer among the 28 on tap.
The selection features a bit of everything, from Pilsners to Stouts, Sours, IPAs, Doubles and more by the region’s best breweries.
In terms of food, Reds Alehouse has contemporary selections of flatbreads, burgers, bowls, salads, shareable bites, and no shortage of vegan options. A real bonus is the gigantic patio and firepit.
11. Colony Pumpkin Patch
Just east of the North Ridge Trail is a family attraction for a lovable slice of Iowan rural life. The farm first opens to the public in late August when you can visit the fields to pick your own sunflowers and take some wonderful late summer photos.
Then, mid-September through October, pumpkin season turns the farm into a family day out . This means ten acres of PYO pumpkins, gourds and squashes, together with a nine-acre corn maze, hayrack rides, a bounce house, a zip line and a farm-themed playground.
12. Penn Meadows Park
Within walking distance of Reds Alehouse, Penn Meadows Park has been around since the mid-1980s and is a prime spot for summer recreation.
The park offers a wide range of amenities, all in good condition and regularly updated. In 37 acres you’ve got pedestrian trails, tennis courts, nine baseball/softball fields, two soccer fields, a volleyball court and children’s play equipment.
The playground is particularly large, and features a splash pad, attracting families from across the city in summer.
13. Quail Creek Golf Course
This municipal nine-hole course is just over 3,500 yards from the tips. Quail Creek runs through the entire course, coming into play on the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th and 7th holes.
The latter is a challenging par 3, with a green defended on three sides by water. The course is nicely balanced, serving as a good introduction for new players, while bringing the best out of more experienced golfers.
There’s a practice green by the clubhouse, which has a well-stocked pro shop.
14. Blues & BBQ
Every July, people from all over Iowa visit North Liberty’s Centennial Park for a one-day celebration of music and food.
Blues & BBQ is a free event that was inaugurated in 2007, and has gradually grown over the years to more than 17,000 attendees at the most recent count.
When it comes to music, the event is a little broader than the name suggests, booking performers from all genres inspired by the blues.
As for dining, there’s a mouthwatering array of vendors, making everything from burnt ends to links, pulled pork, brisket, ribs and more, all paired with craft beer.
Kids can also take part, with craft activities, giant jenga, a petting zoo, bounce houses and an inflatable obstacle course.
15. Beat the Bitter
Winters are famously inhospitable in this part of the world, so North Liberty has a program of lighthearted activities to bring some extra cheer to the season.
There’s a lot going on across the city, including a 5k run, ice sculptures in Penn Meadows Park, a light display around the North Liberty Community Center, a kickball tournament and an ice rink, also in Penn Meadows Park.
One of the crazier sights is the Snuggie Crawl, in which 400 people hit the town for a night out dressed in snuggies.