Iowa is one of my favorite Midwest states to explore because it is full of wonderful outdoor opportunities, great food, and cultural attractions. Plus, Iowa has its fair share of quirky and strange road side attractions!
Read to explore Iowa? Here’s a list of 101 things to inspire your next Iowa road trip! I’ve divided up the list into sections:
- -Outdoor adventures in Iowa
- -Food & drink in Iowa
- -Only in Iowa experiences
- -Family-friendly things to do in Iowa
Outdoor adventures in Iowa
Hike interesting terrain in Iowa
Explore Iowa caves
Top on my list is Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa – it has 16 caves to explore. There’s Spook Cave near McGregor, where you can tour the cave by boat.
Crystal Lake Cave is one not too far from downtown Dubuque. It’s a cave where you can take a 90-minute Wild Cave Tour that takes you deeper into the cave, with some passages requiring belly crawling.
Rock climb in the Midwest
Head to central and eastern Iowa to find rock climbing opportunities. Chief among them is Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon, Backbone State Park near Dundee and Pictured Rocks County Park near Monticello.
Don cross country skis or snow shoes for the annual Candlight Ski along Waverly Rail Trail in Waverly. The event, held on the first Saturday of February, is held on a.11-mile portion of the trail.
Catch a harness race
If you’ve never heard of harness racing, head to the Taylor County Fairgrounds in June. Rather than racing on the horse like a jockey, horses race as they pull a small, two-wheel cart and rider.
Kayak and canoe rivers
Voted as one of the most scenic in America, the Upper Iowa River is found in Eastern Iowa. You can launch near Decorah. If you time it right, you can try kayaking by moonlight!
Another option is kayaking the Mississippi River backwaters at Rock Creek Marina at Rock Creek County Park outside Camanche. You can also explore the water trails of Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa.
Walk across Lover’s Leap
Head to Columbus Junction and seek out the 262-foot Lover’s Leap Swinging Bridge. It’s a doozy. The bridge is eight stories above the ground.
Sky Tours Zip Lining in Dubuque has nine zip lines to attempt over the course of two hours. At Mount Crescent in Honey Creek, there is just one zip line, but it’s a pretty view.
Ride the roller coasters at amusement parks
Iowa is home to one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in America, The Legend. Find it and other rides at Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Arnolds Park.
For newer and even wilder rides, head to Altoona (near Des Moines) to visit Adventureland. It’s home to the only roller coaster in the Western hemisphere with a negative-G loop.
Explore the Driftless Region
My first encounter with the Driftless Region in eastern Iowa included a bike ride and kayaking in Decorah. It’s a beautiful area with surprising terrain. Three parks that could be your base for exploring the Driftless Region are Mines of Spain Recreation Area in Dubuque, Bixby State Preserve in Edgewood and Osborne Park in Elkader.
Why just do yoga or standup paddleboard when you can do both? Try it at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo.
Take a train ride
It’s a bit of a drive to get to, but Boone is home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The railroad offers out-and-back rides and many of them are themed (and appeal to families) – imagine something along the lines of Thomas the Tank Engine and “Polar Express.”
Take a mini train ride
Each summer on the weekends, kids can take rides on the miniature steam train at Watson Station in Missouri Valley. The ride includes a bridge and a pass through a 50-foot tunnel.
Not for the faint of heart, but definitely a lot of fun, RAGBRAI is an annual bike ride across Iowa that takes several days to complete. Bike all day and enjoy the fun all night. The host cities change each year, so the festivities change.
Scenic bike rides
If you have a mountain bike or hybrid, try the crushed limestone Wabash Trace Trail that runs north to south in western Iowa. Road bike? Try the Trout Run Trail in Decorah. Another trail I’ve heard is good, even for road bikes, is Cedar Valley Nature Trails.
Do the Taco Ride
Keeping with the bicycle theme, there’s one last item on this list to be done on two wheels – the Thursday night Taco Ride along the Wabash Trace Trail in Western Iowa. Leaving from Council Bluffs, cyclists ride about 10 miles to Mineola for dinner at Tobey Jack’s Mineola Steakhouse, and they pedal their way back. Hundreds of people do it each week and it’s a blast!
Tip: Wear a helmet, bring a bike light, and watch for cyclists on the way back who may have had one too many drinks at the half-way point.
Meet a bison
Bison were once native to Iowa, and now, there are just a handful of places to see them. In central Iowa, visit the Van Meter farm Bare Bison on a Saturday to meet them. In Western Iowa, Botna Bend Park in Hancock is home to a small herd of bison.
Stay in a yurt
What’s a yurt, you ask? It’s like a more permanent tent, like not quite a glamping experience but definitely a step above camping. Find two yurts at McKintosh State Park in Clear Lake. The view is worth it!
Ski in Iowa
The closest ski resort to my home is in Honey Creek called Mount Crescent Ski Area. You can also find ski slopes in Dubuque and Seven Oaks in Boone.
Attend a maple tree tapping
You might associate maple tree tapping and maple syrup pancake feeds with more northern states, but visit Botna Bend in Hancock at the right time and you can attend an event for each.
Play in the Iowa Great Lakes
The Okoboji region is a popular summer destination for families. Consisting of six lakes, AKA the Iowa Great Lakes, the region is the place to go for boating, fishing, and my kids’ favorite, playing on the beach.
Find your Christmas tree at a tree farm
It’s like a scene out of a movie: Finding the perfect Christmas tree at a bucolic tree farm. I’m most familiar with the Council Bluffs tree farm, Dappen Tree Farm. Here’s a list of seven other Iowa tree farms where you can find a great fir or pine.
If you know me, you know I LOVE waterfalls. Iowa has some pretty ones. An easy one to climb is in Decorah.
Iowa is home to whitewater rafting parks, including one in Manchester and another in Charles City.
Splash at a waterpark
Adventureland in Altoona has a large waterpark that’s included with admission to the amusement park. You can also cool off at Lost Island Waterpark in Waterloo.
Pick apples at an orchard
Iowa is home to a lot of apple orchards, but a few that have been vouched for by my travel writing friends include Wilson Orchard near Iowa City and my favorite, Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.
Bike across High Trestle Trail Bridge
The centerpiece of the High Trestle Trail near Madrid, this pedestrian bridge is so unique, it’s was named by the BBC as one of the world’s eight most amazing footbridges Go there by day or night, as it’s lit by mesmerizing blue LED lights.
Watch waterski stunts
I’ve been obseswsed with the idea of water ski stunts ever since I saw a picture of a pyramid of water skiers. The Waterhawks perform stunts on Eagle Lake in Waterloo each summer.
Stroll botanical gardens
There are gorgeously cultivated gardens around the state of Iowa, including Reiman Gardens in Ames and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
Food & drink in Iowa
Sip some wine
Iowa is home to six wine trails! The wineries I’m most familiar with are on the Western Iowa Wine Trail, including Prairie Crossing Vineyard and Winery and Breezy Hills Winery.
Take on some food challenges
Not one to shy away from a challenge? Iowa has some gut-busters for you. Head to Des Moines to try the Adam Emmenecker Challenge at Jethro’s BBQ. It involves all of the basketball star’s favorite foods and you have to eat it all in 15 minutes (including but not limited to brisket, pork tenderloin, a cheeseburger, fried cheese curds and a pound of fries).
While you’re in Des Moines, stop at B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli to attempt to put down the Killosal Sandwich.
Other food challenges can be found in Waterloo, home to the 28,890 Challenge at the Screaming Eagle; Carroll, where you can take on the The Carrollton Challenge at Charlie’s Steakhouse; and Ames, where you can try to eat the Triple Double Food Challenge at Brick City Grill.
Eat pizza on a farm
One of the most unique dining experiences I’ve had was at Luna Valley Farm near Decorah. The farm offers wood-fire oven pizza on special nights, using ingredients they’ve grown or raised on the farm!
When I went, they also had a band playing and had local beer on tap. It was the perfect Friday night.
Try a pork tenderloin as big as your head
You will not go hungry if you attempt to traverse Iowa’s Tenderloin Trail. There are 14 stops on the trail, and some of ginormous sandwiches. (I’m looking at you, Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City)
Participate in a donut eating contest
Head to Elkader in July for the Sweet Corn Days. Among the many activities planned is the donut hole eating contest, held at Pedretti’s Bakery (home to some of Iowa’s best donuts!).
Enjoy the best apple cider donut ever
It’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. I love the freshly made apple cider donuts at Ditmars Orchard in Council Bluffs. Being an apple orchard, they also have u-pick apples, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I purposely go there just for the donuts.
Drink out of a happy cat
I’m a fan of Fong Pizza in Des Moines and we stop for pizza every time we pass through the city. If we’re not in a rush, we order one of their mixed drinks that come in quirky glasses.
Boat up to the Barefoot Bar
The Barefoot Bar is a bit of the tropics in the middle of the Heartland. Boaters pull up daily to grab a few drinks, hear the live music, and maybe cool off by sliding into the lake. Barefoot Bar is located in Okoboji.
Go for some gourmet food
The chefs from one of my favorite Omaha restaurants, Lot 2, moved to Corning to open Primrose, a restaurant that sources its ingredients from local farms.
Dine family-style in Amana Colonies
There are three restaurants in Amana that come highly recommended for their family-style dining. If I had to pick one for you to try, I would recommend Ox Yoke Inn (and don’t pass on trying the strawberry jam and fried chicken…not together…unless you want to).
About five years ago, Iowa ranked 15th in the U.S. for the amount of breweries per capita – 33. There are even more now. A few that I’ve tried (and liked) include Pulpit Rock in Decorah, which is near a biggie among beer nerds (Toppling Goliath Brewery, which sells five beers on the Top Beers of the Year list by RateBeer).
Get an ice cream headache
Iowa is home to the ice cream capital of the world, so you know they love their ice cream (Le Mars is the place to visit the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream).
Additionally, I recommend going to Lagomarchino’s in Davenport. Be sure to head to the original location to be tempted by the candy treats as much as the sundaes.
Cave into your inner-chocoholic
Iowa has so many candy stores and sweet shops, it’s hard to narrow down the list.
Some of the more unique destinations include Kalona Chocolates in Kalona, an Amish town in central Iowa where it’s not uncommon to see horse-drawn wagons in transit; The Chocolate Haus in the Amana Colonies; and Palmer’s Candy in Sioux City, which is one of the oldest candy companies in the U.S. (and home to the Cherry Bing).
Eat a Dutch letter
Iowa has its fair share of Dutch communities, and each one (it seems) has a bakery with the best Dutch letter. These “s” shaped pastries are tasty. You can find Dutch letters in Boone County at Van Hemert’s Dutch Oven Bakery or head to Orange City to get one at the Dutch Bakery.
Dine at the Sistine Chapel
OK, full disclosure. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, just an incredible replica of the famous ceiling spray painted on the ceiling of Galleria de Paco, a restaurant in Waterloo.
Ride in the Grapemobile
Iowa has a surprising number of wineries, but few can offering what Tassel Ridge Winery offers at its vineyard in Mahaksa County: The Tassel Ridge Grapemobile. Seasonally, it’s used to take visitors on tours of the vineyard.
Eat a loose meat sandwich
Do you call these things taverns or Maid-Rites? Whatever you want to call them, Iowans have been eating loose meat sandwiches for decades. They’re not quite a hamburger or a sloppy joe. They’re their own thing.
Try the nuns’ candy
Monastery Candy in Dubuque is home to the world-famous caramels made by nuns. Word is, the hazelnut meltaways are the best.
Take a bit of headcheese
For the adventurous eater, head to the Amana Colonies to try headcheese from Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse in Amana. I’ll admit, when we stopped by that shop, we just stuck to sausage and cheese, though.
Only in Iowa experiences
Visit Captain Kirk’s future birthplace
I know, I know, “Star Trek”’s Capt. Kirk hasn’t even been born yet. That doesn’t stop the town of Riverside from celebrating its most famous fictitious resident. Places to stop include Voyage Home Museum with memorabilia and the photo opp in front of the U.S.S. Riverside out front.
Look for the marker of his official future birthplace behind New Image Salon and if you’re really a fan, look for the plaque commemorating where he was conceived (it’s in Murphy’s Bar & Grille).
Find those famous covered bridges
You’ve heard of the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” right? Madison County is in Iowa and you can go find those bridges. Grab a map from the Winterset Chamber of Commerce office or even book a guided tour.
Marvel at Matchstick Marvels
The Matchstick Marvels museum in Gladbrooke contains matchstick replicas of buildings and pop culture icons like the 1970 Dodge Charger from the “Fast & Furious” movies.
See some of the “World’s Largest”
Iowa is home to a few attractions that can claim “world’s largest” fame, including the world’s largest truck stop in Walcott and Elwood, the world’s largest garden concrete gnome found in Reiman Gardens in Ames. There’s a ton more to name, but a few more that might interest you: The world’s largest ball of popcorn in Sac City and the world’s largest wooden nickel in Iowa City.
Sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel
Find the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel that’s still remains.
Strike an “American Gothic” pose
Visit the American Gothic House that has been immortalized in Grant Wood’s painting. While there, you can don costumes and pose in front of the house.
Go to popular tulip festivals
The most well-known tulip festival is Tulip Time in Pella. However, I’m most familiar with the delightful Tulip Festival in Orange City, with a parade that includes street sweeping in traditional costumes.
Run around the bases at the Field of Dreams
Head to Dyersville to see the famous ballpark in the middle of a cornfield made for the movie “Field of Dreams.” In the summer, there are Ghost Sunday events. In 2020, an actual MLB game will be played there.
Stay the night in the Villisca Axe Murder House
If you dare, you can book an overnight stay at the Villisca Axe Murder House. For the rest of us, there’s the option of touring the infamous home in the daylight.
Visit one of the last rotary jails
You can tour Historic Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs and see one of the oldest rotary jails in the United States (think “lazy Susan”-esque). It’s notoriously haunted, and occasionally there are flashlight tours offered.
Visit the first aronia berry farm in the U.S.
Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm in Missouri Valley was the first farm in the U.S. to grow the superfood called the aronia berry. The farm hosts the North American Aronia Berry Festival each September.
Living Loess Tour
Held on the third Saturday of the month from May to October, the Living Loess Tour offers travelers the opportunity to visit farms and rural attractions in western Iowa. My family has been able to make nature art on a farm, milk a goat, and hike when we did a portion of the tour.
Each stop offers a stamp and if you visit all seven on the Saturday of the tour, you can enter your passport in for a prize.
Attend a quirky festival
The quirky festivals in Iowa are year-round, but some of the most interesting happen in the summer. There’s TrekFest held each June in Riverside, the hometown of the fictional character Capt. James T. Kirk.
August has two great ones to consider: Iowa Tugfest pits two teams in an epic tug-of-war across the Mississippi River each August. Find the Iowa team fighting from the Leclaire side of the river. Britt Hobo Days has started up around the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt each August.
See the Little Mermaid
OK, OK, this is not the Disney Little Mermaid I’m talking about. Kimballton is a small town in western Iowa that’s home to a replica of the famous Danish statue of the Little Mermaid. Find it at Mermaid Park (obviously).
Strike a pose with goat yoga
Honey Creek Creamery in Honey Creek offers goat yoga sessions in the spring. While it’s definitely more goat cuddling and ogling than yoga, it’s a refreshing experience to try stretches on a farm.
Milk a goat
Return to Honey Creek a few months later and you might get to milk one of those mama goats. The creamery runs Stanley’s Snack Shack, a tasty restaurant known for their goat’s milk gelatos. Oh, and they have goats located near the restaurant and if you ask nice enough, you can milk one of them.
See a bit of WWII history in Algona
The small town of Algona was once home to a POW camp that housed German, Italian and Japanese prisoners. The story goes that a German POW began constructing a Nativity scene, and in time, he and several others built 65 pieces of a set that’s about half of life-size. It’s on display at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds during the holidays each year.
Reenact a scene out of “The Music Man”
Mason City is the birthplace of Meredith Willson, who wrote the 1962 musical. Head to the Music Man Square to find the 1912 “River City” indoor streetscape, a recreation from the set design of the movie. While there, might as well tour his home and the Meredith Willson Museum, where you can seek out the “76 Trombones” hanging from the ceiling.
Make a music pilgrimage
On Feb. 3, 1959, the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valence and the Big Bopper crashed in a cornfield in Iowa. A memorial exists at the crash site near Clear Lake that fans visit year-round.
Visit the Surf Ballroom
The concert venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and the Big Bopper played was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Concerts are still held there. You can visit any time, even without a concert ticket – take a self-guided tour of the historic ballroom during regular hours.
Be sure to visit the green room where hundreds of autographs dot the walls (and ceiling).
Des Moines Arts Festival
Every June, thousands of art aficionados take to the streets of Des Moines to view works (and maybe purchase one) in this outdoor juried art show. It’s huge! And, if you’re going with kids, there’s a great area for families you’ll want to visit.
Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator
The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque is the world’s steepest, shortest scenic elevator. You can see two other states while at the top.
See a windmill up close
One of the closest windmills to Omaha is in Elk Horn, a small town heavily influenced by its Dutch roots. However, if you want to go inside a windmill, head to Pella, where you can take a tour of the Vermeer Windmill, the largest working windmill in the U.S.
Visit Effigy Mounds
Effigy Mounds, a national monument in Harpers Ferry, contains more than 200 mounds, many shaped like animals. It’s an American Indian burial and ceremonial site located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley.
Snap a photo of the Round Barn
Just north of Bedford, you’ll find the beautifully restored Round Barn. Built in 1907 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The barn is exactly what it sounds like. Find it at the Taylor County Museum.
Go on “America’s Racin’ Vacation”
Boone Speedway, AKA “Iowa’s Action Track,” hosts the International Motor Contest Association Super Nationals each September. For one week, champions are crowned in Modified, Stock Car, Late Model, Hobby Stock, Northern SportMod, Southern SportMod, and Sport Compact races. Many race fans make a week-long vacation out of the Super Nationals.
Visit the only ice harvest museum in the U.S.
Learn what ice harvesting at the Ice House Museum, a round building designed to hold millions of pounds of ice harvested from the Cedar River. There are hands-on activities to try in the museum housed in a former ice house.
See a small town lightshow
The Lewis Memorial Fountain in the Town Square of Sigourney is unique in that it has a nightly rotating light show from May through September. The multicolored, three-tiered fountain has been around for nearly 80 years.
Tackle Snake Alley
Ripley’s Believe It or Not named Snake Alley as the “CROOKEDEST Street in the World.” Find this curvy road in Burlington.
See the Hula Hoop Tree
Head to rural Jones County to find the Amber Hula Hoop Tree, a whimsical sight to be certain. Hundreds of brightly colored hula hoops hang from the tree. Note: There is no place to park there, so put on your hazard lights when you stop to take a picture (which you will want to do).
Tour the capitol building
This building is gorgeous, but most importantly, taking a tour of the Iowa State Capitol means you get to see the most magnificent law library ever.
Ride in a hot air balloon during the National Balloon Classic
If you don’t own a hot air balloon, you can still fly in one during the National Balloon Classic held in Indianola in late July-early August. People can make a reservation for the ride. Of course, you can always just watch from the ground, too.
On the western side of the state, you can attend a balloon glow every September at Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.
Appreciate the (free) public art
The Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines is well worth a detour if you’re near the city. The modern art is creative, huge, and Instagrammable. Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa is also home to a lot of unique public art.
See the Grotto of the Redemption
Here’s a rather unexpected find in West Bend – the Grotto of the Redemption. Taking more than 40 years to complete, this grotto is the largest man-made grotto in the world.
Learn about a Suffragette
Visit the girlhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who fought hard for the right to vote throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. The home is located near Charles City. If you visit with kids, there are a few interactives, including some period costumes to try on.
No need to travel to the coasts to find stunning works of art. A few art museums worth a visit include Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center.
Stay in a historic hotel
Iowa is home to several historic hotels that continue to offer unique overnight stays. Some of the longest running hotels include the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, which opened in 1839, and the Black Hawk in Cedar Falls, which is more than 165 years old.
Learn hobo history
Britt, Iowa, is home to The Hobo Museum and the National Hobo Convention. The museum contains artifacts to preserve the culture of this small community, including items from Frisco Jack and Connecticut Slim.
Visit the country’s first all-organic city
South of Iowa City is the small town of Maharishi Vedic City, established as a meditation-themed community. The city is designed to promote happiness and balance, and everything is designed right down to which direction the buildings face and with rooms at precise proportions. Also, the city has banned pesticides and non-organic foods.
Dive into wrestling history
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo explores the 5,000+ years of the sport, including regular ol’ wrestling and professional wrestling.
Find the Volkswagen Beetle Spider
Just what the heck is this? Well, it’s a black Volkswagen Beetle made into a spider sculpture, of course. Find it in Avoca, a little less than 2 miles south of Interstate 80.
See the world’s smallest church
Built in 1885, the world’s smallest church seats eight people and can be found in Festina, near Decorah. In all, the chapel is 14 feet by 20 feet.
Visit Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum
I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I had my fair share of Cabbage Patch dolls. Even so, I could never compete with what’s on display at Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum in Griswold. See more than 3,000 dolls on display, including some that had the dreaded “Cabbage Patch Pox.”
Family-friendly things to do in Iowa
Visit a pumpkin patch in the fall
Some of the closest pumpkin patches to Omaha include Pioneer Trail Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Council Bluffs and McCurdy’s Pumpkins in Atlantic. For a list of 10 pumpkin patches in Iowa, click here.
Have fun exploring science
We make sure to visit them whenever we’re nearby, thanks to the free admission we get with the reciprocal membership benefits we get through out Omaha Children’s Museum membership.
Go to the Iowa State Fair
Sure, there are butter cows at the Iowa State Fair, but I suspect there is something bigger and even greater to see there. Why else was it included in the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”? Clearly, the Iowa State Fair stands out over other fairs.
Ride a historic carousel
Story City is home to a classic antique carousel that’s still in operation. And rides were pretty cheap!
Walk through history
Living History Farms, located in Urbandale near Des Moines, is an outdoor attraction that recreates farm life from various eras. There are hands-on opportunities and the chance to interact with costumed re-enactors.
Visit a dairy farm…with kangaroos
I don’t exactly know why, but Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson is seventh generation family farm. Take a tour and you’ll meet their kangaroos. Because, why not have kangaroos?
Snow shoe in the Loess Hills
One of my favorite things to try with my kids this past winter was snow shoeing. We rented snow shoes at the visitor center at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, and enjoyed the fresh air and views.
Ride on Thomas the Tank Engine
Got a fan of Thomas? Check the calendar to see when the annual Day Out With Thomas is at the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone. The engine is the legit Thomas.
Feed a giraffe
For just a couple dollars, you can be amazed at the awkwardness and cuteness of a giraffe up close. Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines offers a giraffe feeding experiences as a little add-on to your zoo visit. I highly recommend it!
Exploring Iowa cities
While this list is epic, I didn’t include everything (because that’s impossible). If you want some more ideas, consider these posts for specific Iowa cities:
And if you want to hit a few Iowa cities, consider the Great Iowa Road Trip.
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