Sunbathing Year Round in Iowa

Iowa has harsh winters, but with a little luck you can find opportunities for nude recreation in any season of the year. As a matter of fact, I have sunbathed naked in Iowa in every month of the calendar.


A few years back, an acquaintance in a mailing list asked everyone to remember the people in Oklahoma who were suffering from drought. She requested people to do rain dances if that was part of their tradition. Iowa is much further north than Oklahoma, but I said I’d be glad to give it a try if the local temperature reached 50 °F.

Soon enough, we had a warm spell, so I upheld my promise. First I went to my favorite swimming hole on the Skunk River, but with no leaves on the trees the area was too visible from the main trail. It wasn’t just being seen naked I was worried about, but also that people might laugh at my idea of dancing!

I hiked up to another part of the river, farther from the trail, which would be difficult to access in the summer when the underbrush grows thickly. I gingerly removed my clothes. Now I don’t know how to do a rain dance—my native ancestry is far enough back that no traditions have come down in the family, and anyway I don’t think any of the Algonquian peoples did rain dances. But I knew it was important to address the four compass directions, and when naked (also not traditional) in January it was important to keep moving! After a bit of jerking around and 90° turns I hurriedly re-dressed. A minute or two with nothing between my skin and the sun was pretty good for January.


One year the temperature reached 50 in February, so I went to my favorite spot in the Skunk River Greenbelt, hoping to take my clothes off just long enough to say I’d done it in February.

The wind died down when I got there, so I spread my beach towel on the damp sand and basked in direct sunlight for a few minutes. My reveries kept being interrupted by sheets of ice floating down the river bumping into each other. The cracking sounds set off my “someone’s coming” reflexes.

One shallow part of the river near the shore still appeared to be frozen solid, so I cautiously stepped out onto the ice. Unlike Atanarjuat in the film The Fast Runner, I was stepping gingerly instead of running, and I wore shoes.


It always warms up in March, but not enough for skinnydipping here. Even when the temperature hit 70 one day, I knew the water would still be icy. So instead of one of my usual spots, I went to a small county park that I don’t visit in the summer because it’s not on the river.

I spread out my beach towel in a small clearing and enjoyed a pleasant sunbath. After the trees leaf out, it would be too shady to catch much sun in this park.

After dressing, I took the long way around back to the car. A heavily shaded section of trail was covered in a thin layer of snow for 20 or 30 feet. This must have been the remnant of a huge drift from the blizzard three weeks earlier. I took off my shoes to enjoy the novelty of walking through snow wearing only my shorts. (It was too close to the parking lot to feel safe with my shorts off.) Well, it wasn’t very enjoyable! The bottoms of my feet were quite numb by the time I reached bare earth again. Atanarjuat must be made of tougher stuff than I am. I can tally that experience as something I’ve done, so I don’t need to do it again.


Opportunities to get naked outdoors are more plentiful in April, but it’s still not congenial to swimming. Occasionally—maybe once a year, when it hasn’t rained for a few days—I’ll take a brief dip just because it has been so many months since the last time. I slowly wade out knee-deep into the snowmelt and wait while acclimating, then suddenly plunge the rest of the way in because there’s no way to do it gradually. I swim the backstroke for three strokes so that I can count it as actually swimming rather than just dunking. Just as the blood is about to congeal in my extremities, I scramble out. This is not the time for leisurely drying off in the breeze—a brisk towel rubdown is called for. Then, with winter stiffness washed out of my limbs, I wait impatiently for summer.


By May the last traces of winter are long gone. My unclad outings aren’t limited to mid-afternoon on the warmest days—I get out whenever it’s not pouring rain.

But high waters mean the currents are too strong for swimming safely, and the riverbanks are either under water or muddy, so there are few good spots for sunbathing either.

So I used to sit on a large dead log that was lying in the river (until this year’s floods washed it away). In May I’d wade through waist-deep water to get to it, then perch on top like a frog in the sun. I would be prominently exposed to any canoeists who risked the high waters, so if they were a family group I had to hop into the water behind the log.

With running water on all sides and no vegetation nearby, it took longer for mosquitoes to find me, so I could stay there into the evening until the approach of dusk raised goose bumps.

However, in flood years none of this is possible. Although I haven’t explored this alternative much yet, I think May could be a good time of year for hiking naked. You can do this in uplands that aren’t flooded. Wildlife areas with no attractions other than hunting will be little-used this time of year.


June is paradise. The classification of Iowa’s climate is cool and wet with hot summers. The water is warm enough to swim in as long as you like, and still deep enough that you can actually swim, not just splash about. I like to turn somersaults in the water.

When I work in Ames, my favorite hangouts are not far from town, and I can be in the water in less than a half hour from leaving the office. That’s 20 minutes of driving, 5 minutes walking down the path, and 10 seconds to get out of my clothes. So I enjoy nature au naturel most days of this month.

When there are floods, though, it’s a different story. In 1993, eager to skinnydip for the first time since the previous autumn, I swam in the backed-up floodwaters in a tiny creek that would normally only have been ankle-deep.


The water levels continue to drop. Even if there were floods earlier, it’s not deep enough to swim just anywhere—you have to go to one of the few swimming holes. If people who aren’t nude-tolerant are around, there won’t be any skinnydipping. But it’s easy enough to walk up- or downstream, away from the trail, and find a bit of water for splashing and sandbanks for sunbathing.

Again, I get naked outdoors most days of this month unless I am out of town. It’s so normal in July that there’s not much to say about it.


August is hotter and dryer. Sometimes the deepest swimming holes are only waist-deep. But the sunbathing is even better. The low water levels expose broad stretches of sand. You can spread out your towel well away from the woods and brush and escape most of the mosquitoes.

When the heat keeps the clothed people indoors in their air conditioning, the 95°+ days are great for sitting naked in the water under the shade of a tree, and then roaming up and down the banks after the sun sets. Or (as I wrote about elsewhere), on more than one occasion it was a day that I expected to have the river to myself but instead met several people who thought I was undressed appropriately for the weather.

This is too hot for a lot of people, but I revel in it. When the air is almost as warm as my body, boundaries begin to dissolve. The environment is an extension of my sinews and skin. Or is it the other way around?—I am as much a part of the natural world as the sloping sandbanks, the shallow riffles, the westerly breezes, and the baking sun.

Besides sunbathing, you can also mooonbathe. I’ve taken some after-dark naked hikes in August. By this time of year, the sun is setting earlier, so it is dark enough to do the hike and get out of the park before it closes at 10:30 PM. The warm breath of Mother Earth caresses me as I am out in nature the way I was born to be. I lie on the sand and gaze up at the stars, with nothing but a bit of air between my skin and the edge of the universe.

But even though it is the hottest part of the year, by the end of August a few dusty curled-up leaves circling slowly in the eddies foretell the coming of fall.


The nights are cooler now, but most afternoons are still warm and sunny enough for outdoor nude recreation.

Various hunting seasons start on September 1 and September 15. With armed men in the woods, it’s not prudent to roam just anywhere. The few remaining swimming holes may not be safely accessible, but there are still places to splash in the water, then sit on your beach towel as the sun dries your body. If you are discreet, you may be able to do this after school starts in city parks where no hunting is allowed.

Kids are back in school, so if you can get away on a weekday afternoon, you are less likely to run into clothed people than you are in the peak of canoeing and fishing season. Make the most of these afternoons, because the sun sets earlier, and if the mosquitoes don’t come out after dark, your goose bumps might.

I had an enlightening spiritual experience one September when I went out to the park, stripped down, and let the wind remind me of answers to questions that had been given to me to ponder on my fiftieth birthday.


Some days are still warm and sunny. Choose your sunbathing spot carefully; besides the hunters, falling leaves mean more of the riverbank is visible from the trail or road.

River flow is reduced almost to nothing, and in any event the water has been chilled by October nights. I might lie down and do a brief backstroke, scraping on the sandy river bottom—again, just to say I’ve done it at this time of year.

Wading is okay though, because only my feet go numb. One time I squatted in the water and built a dam of sticks, gravel, and sand all the way across the river. With my bare hands (and everything else was bare too) I stopped the entire flow of the river which in the floods of June 1993 had risen across highways and cut off Ames from the east and south. This dam was still there when I checked on it the next day.


It’s not every year that you get the chance to frolic naked outdoors in Iowa in November. But once, on the day after Thanksgiving, the temperature climbed above 60. I went to a remote section of a city park, where the river curves away from the trail. Although the trees were bare, they were thick enough to obscure the view from the trail. After stepping into the open on the sandy shore, I let the sun warm me for a few minutes. Soon I was ready. I stripped down, making my limbs and trunk as bare as those of the trees.

After I dressed and was hiking back towards my car, I came across the only other person I saw at the park that day. It was a darkly handsome, quiet young man that I had occasionally exchanged sidelong glances with at his place of work. We just nodded as we passed each other. If he had come along a few minutes sooner and followed the river instead of the trail, who knows what might have happened if he had found me in my natural state?


Opportunities in December are even rarer. But one unusual winter we didn’t get any snow until New Year’s Eve, and in fact a few days before Christmas the high was forecast to be in the 50s.

I took the afternoon off of work. I didn’t want to waste the time to drive out to the Greenbelt, and anyway it was deer season, so I went to a city park. It was windy, so I climbed down into the valley on the west side of the river in search of a spot sheltered from the wind. The leafless trees meant that most of the valley was visible from the main part of the park on top of the hill. But finally I found a small, dry stretch of sand where I could get naked. I had come in too much of a hurry to stop by home and pick up my beach towel (which lives in the car trunk during summer), so I spread out my jeans and polo shirt and lay on them. The sun ducked behind the hills around 2:00 PM, so I didn’t have long to enjoy it. I was just glad I could do it at all. I didn’t even think of getting wet.

On a rare winter day in another year, I wasn’t able to get time off from work and so missed a chance to sunbathe on December 30. Perhaps once in my life I’ll get to try it on Christmas.

To sum it up, Iowa is a great place to enjoy nature naked. In the summer you can do anything almost any day or night. From April to October you can get wet at least briefly and enjoy the sun when it is shining. Winter is mostly a time for hiking in several layers of clothing, but every once in a while you can expose yourself. The downtime of winter makes the first skinnydip of spring all the more bracing.

Now I did once skinnydip in January, but that was in Hawai’i and that’s another story.