March 26, 2018

My Iowa Bucket List

The more I travel through Iowa, the more I realize I’ve just scratched the surface of what families can do in Iowa. The Great Iowa Road Trip highlighted fun on the water and by rail, and our weekend in the Amana Colonies gave us a taste of the cultural offerings of the state. But, there’s a lot more we have yet to see and do in Iowa.

Here’s my Iowa bucket list for exploring the rest of what the state has to offer:

Things to do in Iowa

Ride the world’s steepest, shortest scenic elevator – Bet you didn’t know that existed. It’s called the Fenelon Place Elevator, and it’s one way to discover a great view of Dubuque (not to mention see two other states while at the top).

Explore caves – Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa is on my must-visit list, with its 16 caves you can explore (better pack the flashlight). If it’s on yours, too, make note you have to attend a brief program before setting out on your adventure. Unfortunately, we all have to wait for construction to end first (scheduled to run through Aug. 24, 2018).

Arnolds Park is an amusement park in the Iowa Great Lakes Region. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa Great Lakes Region – I’m one of those rare people from Omaha who has never been to Okoboji or any of its nearby towns surrounding the lakes. It’s taken on mythical vacation status in my mind since everyone I know has fond childhood memories of trips there or goes every summer with their kids now.

Things I want to do there: Take the kids to Arnold’s Park; try a local brewer, like West O Brewing Co.; and I thinkThe Barefoot Bar at the marina looks incredibly fun. There’s also the new Dickinson County Nature Center that just opened, and it has a human-sized honeycomb to crawl through that I might attempt just to embarrass my kids.

Bernie’s Barnyard – So get this, my kids have never been to Adventureland in Altoona. I think 2018 will be the year since the theme park is opening a new kids area with two rides, games, and a playground. It’s been decades since I’ve been to Adventureland, so I don’t think we’ll spend our whole day at the barnyard, there’s a lot to see and our ticket would get us into Adventure Bay Waterpark.

Adventureland in Altoona, Iowa, is home to the only rollercoaster in the Western hemisphere with a negative-G loop. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Need For Speed –  One of Adventureland’s rollercoasters (The Monster) has the only negative-G loop in the Western hemisphere (which means you feel like you’re falling out of the coaster). I’m not totally convinced I want to have that feeling, but I’ll admit at least sounds cool. Ziplines are more of my speed. For the longest, fastest and highest ziplines in Iowa, I think I’ll head to Sky Tours Zipline in Dubuque.

Effigy Mounds is a national monument overlooking the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Visit Effigy Mounds – I’ve seen pictures of this unique site in Harpers Ferry. Effigy Mounds is an American Indian burial and ceremonial site located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. The national monument contains more than 200 mounds, and many are shaped like animals.

The Midway at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa State Fair – To be included in the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die,” the Iowa State Fair must be something that truly stands out over other fairs. For that reason alone it should be on every Iowa Bucket List. But there are also butter cows, legendary corn dogs, and Ye Olde Mill to see. Read Iowa State Fair tips here.

An artist’s rendering of what the Sycamore Falls will look like once it’s opened at Reiman Gardens in Ames. Illustration provided by Iowa Tourism Office

Reiman Gardens – I heard these gardens on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames are beautiful to visit. Expansion plans for Reiman Gardens should conclude fall 2018 or spring 2019, and will feature multiple waterfalls and a reflecting pool. While there, I think we’ll look for Elwood, the World’s Largest Concrete Garden Gnome.

RAGBRAI – Someday, not this year, but someday, I will ride RAGBRAI with a fun group of friends and Mr. Wonderful. If you’ve never heard of it, RAGBRAI is a huge bike ride across Iowa each year. Each stop is a chance to see a new community and enjoy the festivities they’ve planned for the bikers who are in town for a mere night.

Snake Alley in Burlington is called the “Crookedest Street in The World.” Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Walk the “crookedest street in the world – Burlington is home to Snake Alley, deemed by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the “CROOKEDEST Street in the World.” I’ll walk it, not ride my bike up it, thankyouverymuch.

Exotic Animal Races – Prairie Meadows Race Track in Altoona has live horse racing from April to October, but once a year, things get crazy. Camels, zebras, and ostrich races are held in July (this year, it’s July 15). There are also corgi and dachshund races on the schedule, if that’s more of your speed. Word is it’s FREE and open to all ages but gets very, very crowded (and notably, open to all ages, doesn’t necessarily mean kid-friendly since it is a casino). Arrive early to get good parking, and if you want to beat the heat, make reservations to sit in the third floor club house.

The historic Squirrel Cage Jail is located in Council Bluffs. It may or may not be haunted. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Go to jail – Honestly, there is no good reason why I haven’t been to the Historic Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs. I used to work blocks away from it. It’s one of the oldest rotary jails in the United States (think “lazy Susan”-esque). Word is, it’s haunted, too.

The streets are scrubbed before the start of the Volksparades during the Orange City Tulip Festival. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Have a European getaway – I’d love to take the kids to Europe but realistically, European-inspired towns in Iowa are a more realistic getaway for us at this point. I can get a taste of Holland by visiting Orange City, Pella, or Elk Horn & Kimballton. Windmills? Find one in Pella or Elk Horn. Tulip festivals? Find one in Orange City and Pella (every May). I’m pretty excited to say I’ve got plans to go to Orange City’s this year; it’s held May 17-19, 2018. There are parades, a carnival, performers, and a ton more. I can also venture to Czech Village (Cedar Rapids) or Decorah for a little Norwegian heritage.

The Hotel Pattee in Perry was built in 1913 and has 40 individually decorated and themed rooms, plus a bowling alley. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Stay in a century-old hotel – Iowa has a handful of grand hotels, including the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel that’s still remains, the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City. You won’t find many super close to Omaha except if you consider Perry, Iowa close. There, you’ll find the Hotel Pattee, built in 1913. Besides looking exceptionally charming, it has a bowling alley, and that my friends, is what you call a vacation hit when traveling with kids.

Hot Air Balloon – I just founds this out: You can make a reservation to ride in a hot air balloon during the National Balloon Classic in Indianola. I thought you just went to gaze at all the hot air balloons, but you can make a reservation to ride in one. Sign me up. This event is held annually in late July-early August.

Everything at Matchstick Marvels is built out of matchsticks. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Matchstick Marvels – This museum in Gladbrooke looks like one my kids would love. In the summer 2018, they will unveil a matchstick replica of the 1970 Dodge Charger from the “Fast & Furious” movies that’s more than 11 feet long.

The Iowa Bucket List For Your Sweettooth

Usually I roll everything into one list, but today, I feel like singling out food. Upon reviewing the list, it’s better to say this is the dessert bucket list for Iowa.

Try the nuns’ candies – There are nuns making caramels in Dubuque and they’re world-famous. I’ve got Monastery Candy on my list, and you can bet their hazelnut meltaways will be the first I try.

Van Veen Chocolates in Pella is one of the stops on the A to Z Foodie Trail in Iowa. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Complete the A to Z Foodie Trail – This is pretty ambitious and, for me, will likely take a few years. The trail is in Marion and Mahaska counties featuring 26 stops in a loop through Pella, Leighton, Oskaloosa, Knoxville and Pleasantville. I just need to stop at each place, get my selfie with the designated letter of the alphabet and move on quickly.

Dine at The Hall – The Hall in West Des Moines sounds like a pretty unique place for a meal and drink. There are food trucks inside a former 1890s railcar barn and iron foundry, and soon, Foundry Distilling Co. is set to open there.

Thanks to Blue Bunny Ice Cream, LeMars is the Ice Cream Capitol of the World. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Ice Cream Capitol of the World – LeMars, in northwest Iowa, is the Ice Cream Capitol of the World (granted, this designation is self-proclaimed, but who am I to judge?). It got this designation for being the world’s largest producer of ice cream novelties in one location. The place to enjoy said ice cream has to be the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor.

And while I’m on the topic of ice cream, there’s an old-fashioned soda fountain in Grinnell I want to check out: Candyland Station. Their specialty is made of vanilla ice cream, marshmallow, chocolate toppings and Spanish peanuts.

More things for your Iowa bucket list

So, you’re probably wondering about a few things that seem like pretty obvious items that should be on the list. I agree, there are some that should be on the list. I’ve already seen them or did them, though, so they’re not on my bucket list. But they should be on yours if you haven’t. Here are additional Iowa bucket list items to consider:

Zombie Burger – This Des Moines staple is a visually cool place to visit…if you like zombies; if not, stay far away. The food is tasty and has fun names like the Dead Moines Burger. The wait is worth it.

Sleep in a yurt – You don’t find many yurts around here. I stayed at one in Clear Lake. Here’s how the night went down.  While you’re in Clear Lake, better stop by the legendary Surf Ballroom.

Hike in the Loess Hills – The Loess Hills are pretty unique land formations with soil found only in that small stretch along western Iowa and in China. Here are three of my favorite hikes in the Loess Hills.

Ledges State Park – Don’t skip canyon drive, which is a one-way route where the roadways are sometimes covered by Pea’s Creek. It’s kinda cool, but I’ve heard it can sometimes completely flood out the road way. The park is great for hiking and exploring the water ways.

Story City Carousel – This hand-carved wooden carousel in Story City was built in 1913 and still works. We stopped there for a quick ride and it was a hit with my young kids.

Des Moines Arts Festival – It’s one of the largest arts festival in the region, and pretty fun for families. We visited during our Great Iowa Road Trip.

Iowa State Capitol Building – I’m not one to visit state capitols, but even I had to stop and see the beautiful library there. Find the capitol building in Des Moines.

 

For more ideas, visit the Travel Iowa website or check this Pinterest board and start pinning:

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Comments

  1. Allamakee County, Northeast Iowa is home to Effigy Mounds National Monument! Thank you for including us on your list!

  2. When you do your European tour, you might add the German Hausbarn at the Manning Hausbarn-Heritage Park, just 20 minutes north of Elk Horn. There is an authentic German Hausbarn, built in Germany in 1660, taken down and shipped to Manning in 1996 and reconstructed by German craftsmen in 1999. There is also a 100 year old Church and the Leet/Hassler Farmstead, circa 1917, that is on the National Register of Historic Places. We’d love to have you.

    • Thank you for the tip, Freda! I’ll keep that in mind as I plan road trips.

    • I agree with Freda with the German Hausbarn, it is a hidden gem. Did you know the we have two European imports located in SW Iowa and only one hour from Omaha? Take exit 54 N off I-80 to visit the 1848 authentic Danish Windmill in Elk Horn and head north to Manning and see the German House Barn. Both communities have much more to see… this is just a teaser. Thank you for covering Iowa!

      • Thanks for the heads up about Manning, Lisa! I am familiar with the windmill (though it’s been years since I’ve seen it!). I had no heard about the German House Barn.

  3. So many great spots you included! Dubuque is one of our family’s favorite weekend get away spots. They have things for the entire family or for just the adults. Also, when you go to Snake Alley someday, don’t walk it – you can drive down it in your car! And as for RAGBRAI, I’ve never biked it before but just being apart of it as it rolls through all the small towns in special and quite the experience.

  4. So many fun reasons to visit Iowa! And I haven’t seen any of these things! I”m adding some of these to my list of things to see in Iowa. I also want to see some of those covered bridges!

  5. I am beyond intrigued by the Matchstick museum! I’m going to have to check that out when I organize my long weekend trips north over the next few months!

  6. Wow this is an extensive collection. Something for everyone.

  7. I have a few of these already on my bucket list and now plan on adding more! We’ve been to Le Mars and you can never go wrong with ice cream. In fact, I heard there’s an Ice Cream Trail somewhere in Iowa that I need to add to my bucket list!

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