Discover places to go in Iowa using this category, including itineraries for city visits, tips for kid-friendly destinations and Iowa restaurants to try. Learn about Iowa cities like Des Moines, Davenport, Orange City, Okoboji and more.
Just south of the lovely Bayliss Park in downtown Council Bluffs, you’ll find the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. If you’ve got a kid who loves all things Thomas, this place is for you. If you don’t have a kid who loves trains, you just love history, this is especially for you.
Surprisingly, I’ve never been to this FREE museum (donation is encouraged), even though I have two train obsessed kids. I even worked two blocks from this museum for many years. Shame on me.
Anyway. Enough shaming. I made up for it recently by bringing Mr. Wonderful, the kiddos and two aunts along for the ride.
What to expect
The museum is housed in the old public library, a gorgeous and historic building in itself. The second and third floor have exhibits; the first floor – where you enter the building – is the little gift shop and helpful reception desk. Pick up a free audio tour if you’re there without hyper-active kids.
The museum received an update in the last few years and it is very engaging and eye-catching with colorful displays. A lot of the museum is artifacts, which my kids (ages 2 and 4) breeze right by…or try to climb on (shhhh). Omaha and Council Bluffs are steeped in train history and you’ll learn a lot here.
What kids like
There is a lot of effort to be interactive, some succeeding more than others. My kids love pushing buttons, and there is a bounty to push in this museum. There are displays that encourage touching, sitting on and making loud noises and those were a hit. There’s a part to pretend like you’re lighting off dynamite – fun for the kiddos.
The video and photo interactive booths were neat but didn’t work very well.
If it’s a bit of a drive for you to get C.B., plan on doing a bit more while you’re there. Pack a picnic and enjoy Bayliss Park. If it’s really hot, there’s a small splash pad there for kids to run through.
Across the street from the park (east side), there is a nice ice cream shop… so, about a block from the museum.
If you’re going for a train or transportation-themed day, there’s the RailsWest Museum not too far from there. Or, you could do like us and dine at the regional chain Quaker Steak & Lube near the Mid-America Center.
There’s a lot to look at there for kids – real race cars, motorcycles, trucks and memorabilia.
Just across the river, back in Omaha, you can see a neat train documentary at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium right now at the IMAX there. If you’re a member, it’s free to see.
If you’re a hiker, you likely have a favorite nearby spot to see the changing leaves. If you’re not, I’ve got you covered.
Maybe you don’t want to take a hike; maybe you’ve been on Pinterest too much lately and you’ve found a bunch of leaf projects to do with your kid. Maybe you just want to take pictures of your cute kid.
Whatever your reason, here are a few suggestions for all thing leafy in the Omaha area:
For a less rugged hike, you can’t beat the boardwalk at Fontenelle (though you can hit trails there, too). I’m pretty sure, though, that leaf collecting is discouraged there, so look but no touchy. There’s a lot to see and do at Fontenelle in addition to immersing yourself in nature. There’s a fun play area that kids adore, and there’s the temporary exhibit Green Evolution you’ll want to see before it leaves.
Cost: $8 per person; children 2 and younger are admitted free.
Hitchcock Nature Center
It’s no secret my family loves afternoons at Hitchcock. This time of year is great to go since you’re not sweating profusely as soon as you get out of the car. Stop by the visitors center to check out a kids backpack full of fun “tools” to the hike and then grab a map and hit the trails (some are more strenuous than others so pick the right path for your family’s ability… unless you like hauling a 28-pound toddler up a steep incline).
Cost: Park admission per car is $2; annual permit is $10; backpacks are free to check out.
Was summer camp ’87 the last time you ventured to Hummel Park in northeast Omaha? It’s time to come back. Time your visit right and you might catch a fun activity on a Saturday afternoon.
Autumn is the time to head to apple orchards, and most people in Omaha think of heading to Nebraska City to get their haul. That’s a fun day trip, but there’s a spot closer to home to consider: Ditmar’s Apple Orchard & Vineyard. It’s one of the best apple orchards near Omaha!
This post was first written in 2013 and has been updated with 2019 fall information.
This orchard on the east side of Council Bluffs, Iowa, doesn’t have all the activities you’ll find at the biggest orchards in Nebraska City, but it also doesn’t have the jammed packed parking lots and herds of people. It has enough attractions to entertain your family for about two hours, maybe more on a nice day.
If all you want from an apple orchard is a bunch of apples, don’t drive any further from home than you have to, right? For us, it’s about a 20-minute drive to this orchard!
Things to do at Ditmars Orchard
The corn maze – I was surprised that my kids got so into it, but my preschooler really enjoyed guessing which path to take. It’s a decent workout (especially hauling a toddler around), to boot.
The food – The small shop has a kitchen where you can buy small treats and sandwich entrees (no meatless). The fried apple pie I’ve raved about was not on the chalkboard menu that day. But, I’ve found a new love because of that – fresh apple cider donuts.
I’m not a huge fan of donuts, but these are warm, cakey treats that get devoured quickly. These donuts are so good, they made the list of the best donuts in Omaha (though, technically not in Omaha…they’re just that good).
They also sell hot apple cider, and they offer wine tastings if you catch an employee near the bar (I believe the first three tastings are free).
Hayrack ride – My kids’ favorite part of the visit was probably the tractor pulling us up a big hill to get to the orchard. It’s included if you buy an activity band (more on that later). The tractor rides are only available on the weekends.
Apple picking – There are several varieties at the orchard to pick and take home (here’s a list http://www.ditmarsorchard.com/fruits.html). My family kept finding the honey crisps, which wouldn’t you know, cost extra (and apparently, we aren’t supposed to pick – there was a big to-do about it, there’s some sort of tape marking the trees off but most people didn’t notice it until after picking the trees and I didn’t pay attention to it at all).
My kids enjoyed sampling the apples before placing some in the bag. That’s not allowed these days, but try explaining that to a preschooler.
Things adults will like at Ditmars
In addition to picking apples, there are a few extras to mention, especially for the 21 and older crowd. Ditmars makes wine blends, including a few that uses apples from their orchard. It’s one of quite a few wineries in the area.
If you go
Where: 19475 225th St., Council Bluffs, Iowa – It’s not far off Interstate 80, take the Iowa Western Community College exit – head east, then take the next left (Hunt Avenue), follow that gravel road a ways and then, bam, you’re there.
2019 Fall hours
Wednesday through Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It’s FREE to visit the orchards, though you pay for the u-pick apples. If you are going to play on the playground or do any of the other additional activities, you will meed to purchase activity bands. They are $9.95 per person; and FREE for 2 and younger. Passes allow you to do the following: Tractor ride, corn maze, playground, bounce house (weather permitting), bumper ball soccer, barrel carts.
It’s worth getting the band for the hayrack ride if you have younger children, they love that stuff. The orchard begins not far from shop so you can just walk to the trees and begin picking.
I noticed this year they added bumper balls and a bounce house on their activities page.
They hold special events through out the year, including a very popular balloon glow called Fields of Flight, Midwest Winds Kiteflyers and the Pumpkin Festival.
We caught the tail end of Fields of Flight on year. It’s a weekend-long festival, so if you can’t make it one evening, you have a few other chances.
It’s pretty impressive.
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I might have overdone it this summer bringing my family to so many events that were packed with people. It’s easy to find something that’s free and family-friendly every weekend in Omaha, but you have to keep in mind that 5,000 of your neighbors are headed there too.
So, recently, my family decided to get out of Dodge, so to speak. Just for a few hours. One Saturday we ventured to a family-favorite, Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa. It’s about a 20-minute drive northeast of Omaha. Another weekend, we visited Schramm Park State Recreation Area, which is about 6 miles south of west Omaha. It had been a very long time since our last visit.
Our visits couldn’t be more different. I could go on a rant about how funding makes all the difference (Hitchcock wins), but I’ll just try to focus on what we liked at each.
The Hidden Gem: Hitchcock Nature Center
We visit here most seasons, it’s so easy to get to. What’s to love about this place? A lot.
The visitor’s center is a great place to start off your visit. There are interactive displays that my children love, from making animal footprints to touching pelts and trying to run off with stuffed animals. You can learn what animals and tracks to look for on your hikes. If you have youngsters, be sure to check out one of the free Adventure Packs. It’s a backpack with fun things to help your hikes, my son’s favorite was the magnifying glass.
Next to the visitor’s center is a lookout tower, popular among raptor watchers (in fact, they have Hawk Watch you can take part in). Take in the view, then get on your way exploring.
The trails are clearly marked with difficulty levels. Some spots along the trail will have a Trailcast sign, these are Hitchcock specific podcasts designed to enhance your visit, they change with the season).
Even with its proximity to Omaha, Hitchcock feels like an undiscovered gem. The trails are not packed. Offerings that will interest your children, besides that cool visitor’s center, include a playground, archery, geocaching and earthcaching, and an abundance of educational offerings. Camping is available, and there are a few cabins.
The Forgotten Park: Schramm Park State Recreation Area
Our trip to Schramm Park State Recreation Area was impromptu. I’d read some friends’ Facebook posts on hiking there and when the time came one weekend to decide what we should do, I remembered Schramm.
I’m not too familiar with the park since it’s been a few years and given the spontaneous trip, I hadn’t looked into what we could do there. I figured we’d have a picnic and let the adventure unfold on its own. That always works out well with kids, the not-planning thing.
We parked near the fish hatcheries and decided that we’d picnic before our hike. The manmade ponds weren’t necessarily the most scenic of views, but we did find beauty there.
Once filled with fuel, we set off on a hike. We passed a trailhead on our quick tour of the park in our car, but decided that from the hatcheries, we’d surely hit a trail. Not so much.
We walked a board walk along the hatcheries for a ways, quickly stumbled onto a playground (that was too hot to play on that day), and then continued trying to locate a trailhead.
We should’ve just packed the kids back in the car and drove to the trailhead we knew existed, but Mooch has been putting up epic fights whenever I have to strap her into her carseat and I just wasn’t up for that.
So we gave up the search and walked down the road to take in the view of the Platte River. On the way, we stopped at the Geological Display.
Farley liked this area of the park the most, I think, even if there wasn’t much to it. We spotted some fossils in the rocks and picked up some trash, then continued on to the river.
The Platte is a very sandy, shallow river and people were wading out into it that day, but one we weren’t about to venture into just yet. The view is nice, though, so I’m glad we took a minute to check it out.
Schramm is known for its Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium, which we didn’t visit (Right after our visit, it was announced that admission was now free). I think there must be another entrance to Schramm, another section of the park, that we missed. Where we were, all we saw was the closed museum that was once the state’s first fish hatchery in 1882. I have this suspicion that there is a “New Schramm Park” out there that my friends all love.
There were many visitors at Schramm on the day we visited, proving it is a destination. My kids ultimately ended up getting the most joy picking up sticks and driving me insane by running around with the biggest, pointiest ones they could find.
I guess you don’t need modern facilities to capture a child’s imagination. Still, I’d love to see this park get some TLC.
A Treat After Your Park Visit
We stopped for ice cream after visiting each of these parks. After a visit to Hitchcock, we like to drive south on Old Lincoln Highway, where you’ll come across a Council Bluffs’ favorite, Christy Cream, on the north end of Council Bluffs. They’re known for the special sherbet flavor of the day, but I’m a chocolate kind of girl.
After Schramm, we went into nearby Louisville, Neb. Head down the main street and you’ll find two ice cream options. Every stinking time we go to Louisville, I’m determined to check out the old fashion soda fountain at Blake’s Pharmacy, and every time it’s closed (Sundays, man). This trip, we all enjoyed cheap twist cones at Dari Crème.
Some of you know that I used to work in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for years. I grew to feel protective of the city and the quirky people who call it home. It’s a neat place once you drive past the casinos and steer clear of the west end of West Broadway (the 100 block, I dig). I invited a friend to provide an insider’s look at the family-friendly scene Council Bluffs offers. Go out and explore it sometime.
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Living and loving the CB life
Council Bluffs has been known to get a bad rap. You may have heard the old familiar “Counciltucky.” But no matter what you hear you will never know the true gem Council Bluffs is until you get out and explore all it has to offer.
I am a mother of a 10-month-old son. Taking him places isn’t always an easy feat (will it ever be?) and finding places that spark his interest and keep him occupied is always on my to do list. One place we love to go visit is Bass Pro Shops. Yes, you read that right; I know, I know … it’s a hunting and fishing store. However, they have a lot more to offer than just kayaks and duck calls for sale. Bass Pro has an 18,000-gallon fish tank that is sure to mesmerize your little ones. There are all kinds of wildlife animals on display throughout the store and even a carnival like shooting range upstairs for the bigger kids. One of the best things about Bass Pro is all the free family events they hold throughout the year. They have a Santa’s workshop, visits with the Easter Bunny, Family Summer Camp and many more. Not only are these events free, but they often include free take home projects for the kiddos and free holiday pictures. A quick trip to the BP can be a fun learning experience for the whole family!
Ditmars Orchard is another great, quick day visit for the family. Take the kids out for some fruit picking, corn-digging and tractor pull rides. Ditmars also hosts numerous events throughout the year. From their fall time pumpkin patch to live music performances and a hot air balloon festival – it’s always worth it to see what they have to offer!
Council Bluffs has many other amazing locations to check out. If you want to explore history, I suggest the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Historic General Dodge House, Squirrel Cage Jail or the Lewis and Clark Monument. These locations would make for great learning scavenger hunts if you have older children.
If you want to take in some fresh air and nature, visit one of our amazing parks. Big Lake is an excellent park to visit – you can fish, have a picnic and play on the kid friendly playground!
Council Bluffs has a lot to offer if you give it a chance and it’s a wonderful place for a family adventure!
– Tiffany is a crafter, diaper changer and recipe maker out to change the world one Pinterest project at a time. Read more by this 30-something first-time mom at http://nestingnations.blogspot.com/.