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.
I’m always up for a weekend getaway, and Iowa has become my reliable, go-to state. Iowa cities provide an inexpensive vacation, and all within just a few hours from Omaha. Here are a few of my favorite, memorable vacations in Iowa, plus recommendations from Iowa travel bloggers.
Audubon offers great outdoor spots like the T-Bone Bike Trail, which is a paved bike trail that spans from Audubon south through Hamlin, Exira, and under I-80 into Cass County. Littlefield Recreational Area outside Exira offers camping, fishing, swimming at a beach, and more. Nearby you’ll find the “tree in the middle of the road” unique site as well. Downtown you’ll find the John James Audubon bird walk and a beautiful city park.
Restaurants like El Adobe and The Bakery on Broadway will fill up your tummy with delicious foods. Want to try a prize-winning tenderloin? Head to Darrel’s Place in Hamlin!
Nearby in Gray, you’ll find the Heritage Rose Garden, which features more than 200 varieties of roses and flowers. If you need something to do indoors, head to the Audubon Rec Center.
Enjoy a stay at the historic Taylor Hill Lodge. This century-old barn has been renovated into a lodge and it’s a great place to stay and enjoy Iowa countryside!
There is plenty to keep you and your family busy in Audubon County.
Clear Lake is the perfect place to plan a summer getaway! Families will enjoy visiting City Beach where you can take a dip in Clear Lake or have fun in the new splash pad area. We recommend grabbing a sandwich at nearby Starboard Market and having a picnic during your day at the beach.
Nature lovers will enjoy exploring Clear Lake by taking a tour on the Lady of the Lake, or by going on a walk at Central Gardens or either state park (Clear Lake or McIntosh). We also recommend staying in the yurts at McIntosh State Park.
History buffs will enjoy visiting the Surf Ballroom or the Cerro Gordo County Freedom Rock to learn about important stories and people that made an impact both locally and nationwide.
There is something for everyone in Clear Lake and don’t forget to get a black raspberry ice cream cone at the Viking Drive-Inn while you visit!
Read on about the Iowa Ice Cream Road Trip's stop at Viking Drive-Inn in Clear Lake.
Decorah is a small town full of outdoor adventures in northeastern Iowa. Located in the Driftless Area of the Midwest, the landscape is surprising in areas: Waterfall, rocky terrain, and Upper Iowa River, which National Geographic listed as one of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America.
On our visit, we stuck to paved path of Trout Run Trail for a bike ride, but the area is also popular with mountain bikers.
The city is proud of its Norwegian heritage, so get a sample of some of the Nordic delicacies at Ruby’s Restaurant and Catering. My favorite meal, though, was at Luna Valley Farm, which serves wood-fired pizza made from ingredients grown and raised by them. Don't forget to cap off your day with a beer from one of the local microbreweries!
You can easily spend a weekend in Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa, and not see all the highlights. From cultural experiences like the Science Center of Iowa and the Living History Farms to big thrills at Adventureland, the city has enough to keep any family busy.
Des Moines has a great restaurant scene. Among my favorites that I return to again and again are Fong's Pizza and Zombie Burger.
A great place for an Iowa summer getaway is Dubuque! There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
Some of my favorite things to do during the summer are: Ziplining at Sky Tours Dubuque, hiking at the Mines of Spain, and enjoying the Mississippi River. Several boat companies do river cruises, but if you have your own boat there are lots of sandbars that you can enjoy.
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and the Fenelon Place Elevator are worth a stop too.
The Yardarm has outside riverfront dining which is lovely on a warm day. Along Rhomberg Avenue you’ll find an independently-owned Dairy Queen, the menu is slightly different from the regular locations and it’s walk-up, like a human drive-thru!
The Hotel Julien and the Grand Harbor Resort are popular Downtown lodging options. However, if you are into camping, you’ll find a couple of campgrounds. Miller Riverview Park is very close to Downtown located on Schmitt Island, or just across the river in Wisconsin (a 10-minute drive), is the large Coconut Cove Resort, which is great for families.
Elk Horn is the “capital” of the Danish Villages. Learn about Dutch culture and history by visiting this small town.
The Museum of Danish America & the Danish Windmill Museum are great places to learn about the connection of Elk Horn to Danish culture along with the impact on our society. If you’re a wine fan, we recommend heading outside Elk Horn to Danish Countryside Winery.
Make sure to check out the other Danish Village of Kimballton. This town is home to the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid sculpture park and fountain.
Get a taste for traditional Danish food like frikadellar and Abelskiver at the Danish Table. Award-winning tenderloins are available at Larsen’s Pub or grab delicious pizza at Grace on Main!
Looking for a place to stay? We recommend Blue Grass Inn & Suites in Audubon.
Estherville is most likely one of the most overlooked towns in Iowa. It is nestled along the Des Moines River and Fort Defiance State Park.
The state park has several beautiful hiking trails that challenge hikers, as well as the casual walker. The Des Moines River Water Trail provides more than 20 miles to explore by kayak, boat, or canoe. The outdoor enthusiast will fall in love with this area of the state.
Book an overnight stay at Little Swan Lake Winery/Bed & Breakfast. Here you can enjoy the rolling hills of Iowa, with a jaw-dropping view off of your deck.
Your visit would not be complete without a meal at Woody's Pizza, as it is one of the most recognizable restaurants in the state of Iowa.
A stroll around the town square will remind you how peaceful and beautiful life is in small-town America.
Right in the heart of north Iowa with easy access via US-20 or I-35, Mason City is an ideal summer getaway for families, with music, architecture, art, food, and plenty of greenery.
For fun, stroll or bike the Meredith Wilson footbridge and visit Music Man Square to learn more about the musical Music Man, River City, and how Mason City inspired it all. At the Charles H. MacNider Museum, find the adorable puppets from the Lonely Goatherd scene in Sound of Music, as well as works in a variety of mediums from many different artists, including paintings by Thomas Hart Benton.
Architecture aficionados will love the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Historic Park Inn and Stockman House, and will notice tributes to his style all over town, from century-old leaded glass to contemporary murals and more!
If all this fun makes you hungry, Northwestern Steakhouse and Black Dog BBQ will make sure you don’t stay that way, while Birdsall’s ice cream and Mama Sugar’s Cupcakery will be the icing on your delicious trip!
Want more info? Here’s the full take on visiting Mason City with kids.
Okoboji, and the collection of nearby towns and lakes, are one of the most popular summer destinations in the state. Whatever kind of lake vacation you wish for - quiet, active, or a party - you'll find it in Okoboji.
Boaters flock here, but since we don't own a boat, we cruised the lake with a canoe from our resort.
Make time to visit the historic Arnolds Park Amuseument Park, home to one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters in the U.S. Grab a cold treat at the Nutty Bar Stand after your afternoon at the amusement park.
If you can pull yourself away from the lakes, you'll find museums, bike trails, and a fun nature center in the area.
Just south of Cedar Rapids sits the small, Midwest town of Ottumwa – a city waiting to surprise you with numerous experiences!
Ottumwa’s tagline, “Let Us Surprise You,” was announced in 2016 as part of the city’s rebranding to maintain it’s proud past and cultivate an exciting future. So what does this mean for you? Ottumwa has exactly what families (like mine, and yours) are looking for, all the experiences in one place!
Not only did I find a city that reminded me of the small town I grew up in, but it also offered some of the bigger city vibes I crave as well. Visiting was a whirlwind experience of nostalgia and adventure, as well as anticipation to see even more of what Ottumwa’s future looks like. Ottumwa is growing. I can’t wait to bring my family back!
The Quad Cities - Betterndorf and Davenport in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois - feel like one large city with small-town atmospheres. The Mississippi is the natural divider for the states and cities.
We visited on a particularly rainy weekend, so we spent most of our time indoors. There are several excellent museums, including the Putnam Museum (a science center crossed with natural history museum), Figge Art Museum, and the Familly Museum.
There are two free, not-to-miss places to include on your visit. The Fyxell Geology Museum located on the picturesque Augustana College campus, and is home to fossils and rocks and petrified dinosaur poop. (Kids love it)
The John Deere Pavilion is also a free attraction, with hands-on activities and an up-close look at farming equipment.
It's tough to say which city you should stay overnight in. But, they're all near each other so you can't really choose incorrectly.
Indoors and outdoors, Sioux CIty has plenty of activity options to fill a weekend.
Stone State Park and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center in the city are two great places to hike. The trails at the nature center connect to the rest of Stone Park if you’re looking for a longer hike. The nature center is a must-visit if you have young kids.
Sioux City has a surprising number of museums for a city of its size. Some that I especially recommend to visitors include the Sioux City Art Center (the Grant Wood corn room is a must-see!), LaunchPAD Children’s Museum for little visitors, and the Sioux City Railroad Museum with its brand new grand-scale railroad now open for rides.
Is it a day trip or a weekend trip?
So, good question. How far away are these places from Omaha? And should you plan just a day or a weekend? I almost always plan overnight trips, even to nearby towns in Iowa.
I typically plan overnight stays for anything more than a two-hour, one-way drive from Omaha. But, to help you decide, here are the distances from Omaha:
Elk Horn – 65 miles from Omaha
Audubon – 80 miles from Omaha
Lake Icaria – 85 miles from Omaha
Sioux City – 100 miles from Omaha
Des Moines – 135 miles from Omaha (so much to do, I’d recommend more than a day)
Estherville – 190 miles from Omaha
Okoboji – 200 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight – but you’ll want a whole weekend there)
Ottumwa – 220 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight trip)
Clear Lake – 250 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight trip)
Decorah – 330 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight trip)
Closer Iowa road trips
Looking for places closer to Omaha for a quick getaway? I recommend exploring southwest Iowa. Here are a few notable places and things to do:
Des Moines, Iowa, is one of those cities that I take for granted that it’s so near. We’ve visited the city just a handful of times since I started this blog, and each time, we discover something new and exciting. It’s probably time I compile some of the greatest hits of our DSM adventures for you!
COVID-19 Update: Businesses in the state of Iowa is opening at a limited capacity, so double check before your visit to see what the restrictions are. Either contact the restaurant or attraction or see if there is an update on Catch Des Moines, the city’s official tourism website. Check the Iowa Department of Public Health for the latest health updates.
Des Moines Attractions
Discover Des Moines attractions, museums, and restaurants to visit on your next weekend getaway. Here are a few of my favorites, as well as a few that are on my to-visit list for our next trip.
I love a good science center, since it has things that my kids will love but also things that I can enjoy. It's like my whole family can be kids here. Plan on spending a few hours at the Science Center of Iowa in downtown Des Moines. Read on for details on what to see and do.
Blank Park Zoo is a bit off-the-beaten-path compared to other Des Moines attractions, but it's a lovely place to spend an afternoon. There are animal encounters, a fun playground, and of course, a lot of animals.
Here's a freebie to add to your list of things to do in Des Moines: VIsit the state capitol building. Tours are free, and you get the chance to see the breath-taking library. We did take our little ones on the tour and they did OK, but would definitely appeal to an older age demographic more.
Our first introduction to the magnificent sculpture garden in downtown Des Moines was during the Des Moines Summer Art Festival (an even worthy of its own trip to the city). Since then, we've returned again and again.
The Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a free park to visit with more than 30 sculptures. While I admire a lot of the artwork there, I'd be lying if I didn't say all that green space is excellent for kids to get some energy released.
Based on both experiences, and on my experience of always stopping at a particular restaurant in Des Moines every.single.chance. I get, here is my suggested itinerary.
Spend the day in downtown Des Moines. If it’s a Saturday and it’s summer, stroll through the farmer’s market. Sample a few foods as you make your way down the street to your first destination: The Science Center of Iowa.
After a few hours there, you’ll be hungry. Lucky for you, Fong’s Pizza is on the same block. Get the crab rangoon pizza. Just trust me.
If your kids are, somehow, still full of energy, have them run it out at the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden. If you’d rather be indoors, head to the state capitol building for a tour.
End the night with a crazy huge burger at Zombie Burger in the Historic East Village.
Hope you’re rested. Today you can choose between thrills at Adventureland or history and cows at the Living History Farms. Either way, you’ll be walking a lot and probably really hot by the end of the day.
If you’re at Adventureland, just plan on eating in the park for lunch.
At the Living History Farms, you’re not farm from the Machine Shed. The servings are huge, so I hope you’re hungry.
Omaha has a pretty decent amount of paved and mountain bike trails, but every so often, we come across a trail that outshines the others. I’m talking about the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, which yes, isn’t in Omaha, but it’s close enough. Let me tell you about this long trail in southwestern Iowa.
The Wabash Trace Trail is a rails-to-trail path in western Iowa stretching from Council Bluffs to Blanchard. It’s 63 miles of crushed limestone and, for the most part, it’s pretty straight and flat (being a former railroad route and all).
Most people that I know, ie. those living in the Omaha metro area, start in Council Bluffs. The access point in Council Bluffs is on the south end of town, not far from Iowa School for the Deaf. There’s a park near the trail where you can leave your car, as well as a Lewis Central School District school parking lot.
I’ve biked this trail mostly, but there are quite a few runners and walkers on the trail, as well.
A few things to know about the trail
This trail is maintained by two nonprofits and volunteers, not taxpayer money. So, it’s extremely important to pay the minor trail pass fee so surfaces and bridges can be maintained.
And so trees and debris can be removed from the path.
The last I’d checked, the fee is $2 per day for anyone between the ages of 12 and 64, or an annual pass of $20. You simply drop your fee or donation in the collection poll at any trailhead. Annual bike passes are available at local bike shops.
The northern half of the trail, where I’m most familiar with, offers vistas of the Loess Hills. I’ve yet to make cover the entire distance. If you want to, there are places to stay overnight, making it a manageable overnight or weekend trip.
Must-stop on the trail: Mineola
Most Omaha bikers of any skill level can make the out-and-back trip to Mineola. It’s not easy — it’s nearly 20 miles in all — but it can be done.
Why Mineola? It’s the first town stop on this trail when you depart from the Council Bluffs trailhead. And it’s home to one of the first restaurants that’s a short ride off the trail: Tobey Jack’s Mineola Steakhouse.
It’s located at 408 Main St., so about a block or so from the trailhead in Mineola. The town isn’t huge, so it should be fairly easy to find.
What to like about it? Outdoor seating and lots of it!
We ordered a few appetizers to split, but there’s also a kid’s menu and much heartier fare to choose from.
Riding with kids on the Wabash
There is a Wabash trail map you can check online to see the distances between each stop. We rode the Council Bluffs to Mineola leg of the trail with two kids ages 7 and 9.
My kids are fairly seasoned bikers for their young age, so the 9.6-mile one-way ride wasn’t too difficult, but it did require us a stop to rest each way.
The good news about that route:
– It’s mostly shaded. I love a good route with towering trees.
– There are a few bridges to cross, which are always fun for kids. There’s also a tunnel.
-It’s pretty straight and flat, so kids who aren’t that sure on their two wheels don’t have sharp turns or steep downhills to worry about. While it looks flat, you will occasionally notice a slight incline, though.
– I enjoyed the scenery. It’s very easy to feel removed from the rest of the world and yet you’re not very far from the city.
– There’s at Mineola restaurant called Tobey Jack’s to look forward to at the turnaround point. You can order food or get a frozen treat out of the cooler. Grown-ups, there is also beer on the menu.
The bad news about that route:
– The path is made of crushed limestone, so if you own a road bike, you’re not going to want to take it on this trail.
– My kids became bored with the trail being so straight.
– The route does involve crossing a few country roads. They aren’t busy roads, at least, but you just have to be ready to stop occasionally to look both ways for cross traffic.
– Water fountains are not found along this route. We refilled at our mid-way point.
– Bathrooms are also not a given on this trail. You may just have to use the great outdoors, mostly. We did find a port-a-potty at Margaritaville, a funny little picnic area not too far from Mineola. If you can hold it, wait until you get to the restaurant in Mineola, though.
The popular Taco Ride on the Wabash Trace Trail
Perhaps you’ve heard of a Thursday night bike ride called The Taco Ride. It’s the exact same route I took with the kids, from Council Bluffs to Mineola.
This popular weekly event draws hundreds and sometimes thousands of cyclists, and it’s a lot of fun. While you may just breeze by Margaritaville on a day trip, it’s a must-stop during the Taco Ride.
It’s been going for decades now, and the Taco Ride got its name because the original restaurant you’d stop at offered discount tacos and beers on Thursday nights. The name stuck even when it turned into a steakhouse.
There is no set-in-stone start and end time, but most people head to the trail shortly after work ends on Thursday. Consider it the bike rider’s happy hour.
Is it kid-friendly, you might wonder? Well, I’ve been on the ride a few times in my younger days with friends and rarely saw a kid riding with a parent. I’d say kids wouldn’t be shunned, it’s just not the scene I’d want to bring a kid to.
But if you do want to bring kids, go early in the evening and head back before dusk.
There are some risks to the Taco Ride, if you aren’t prepared. Here are a few tips:
– The trail is not lit with street lights, so the bike ride back from Mineola is super dark. Bike lights are a must. Be on the lookout for those without bike lights. While you’re at it, don’t wear dark-colored clothes at night.
– Wear a helmet.
– It is pretty common for people to bring beers for the ride and/or partake in a few drinks in Mineola. Expect a few people to not be riding the straightest line.
– Warn others behind you of fallen tree limbs and cross streets.
– The Taco Ride in the summer can be pretty hot, but other times in the year, the temperatures will drop after the sunset. Bring layers.
– Bring water for yourself. And for others.
– Bring a repair kit for your tires and others who may encounter bike troubles along the way.
Find more things to do in Iowa by reading a few of my favorite posts:
Who doesn’t love a good road trip? You don’t have to go too far from Omaha to have a fun getaway. I’ve collected some of my favorite Midwest destinations for this post to give you a variety of options near and far. All road trips from Omaha on this list are within a day’s drive, and most are much closer than that. Happy travels!
COVID-19 update: Current CDC guidelines advise against all non-essential travel. But if you do decide to travel, please keep in mind things have changed. Double-check your destination to make sure 1) you’re not traveling to a hot spot; 2) it’s even open and what the new hours may be; and 3) the activities you want to do are still running.
Road Trips From Omaha
These getaways are just a car ride away. Read on for destinations to consider for your next overnight or weekend trip.
Home to one of my favorite places to hike in the Loess Hills of Iowa, Honey Creek is my go-to destination on a sunny weekend day. Hike at Hitchcock Nature Center, visit the goats and try goat yoga at Honey Creek Creamery, or try the zipline at Mount Crescent Ski Resort (or if it's winter, you know, go ski there).
Tip: Don't skip the visitor's center at Hitchcock Nature Center. It's full of interactive exhibits for kids. In the winter, you can rent snowshoes there. It's next to the lookout tower.
Home to the Sarpy County Fair in the summer and just south of Omaha, Springfield is an easy day trip for Omaha families. I usually pair a visit to Springfield with a trip to a nearby state park. You could visit Louisville SRA for water time at the beach and inflatable obstacle course and end the day at the old-fashioned soda fountain at Springfield Drug for ice cream. Or, hike Schramm Park and then sip the afternoon away at Soaring Wings Vineyard & Brewery.
Tip: Soaring Wings often has live music, especially on the weekend. Pack a picnic and lawn chairs, and then buy a bottle of wine to enjoy an evening overlooking the vineyard.
Enjoy a mix of history and nature on a visit to Ashland, Neb. Exit 420 off Interstate 80 will take you to three of the state's big attractions: Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, Wildlife Safari Park, and Mahoney State Park. Just beyond those attractions, you'll find Platte River State Park (look for the waterfall!).
If you're visiting in the summer, Mahoney State Park offers a full day of activities, including horseback trail rides, an aquatic center with a wave pool and water slides, and putt-putt golf.
Tip: Ashland is home to two great wineries. My favorite, Glacial Till, has a tasting room on the main street of town. Try the cider.
It doesn't matter the season, Nebraska City is a favorite day trip for my family. We'll spend a few hours at an apple orchard like Kimmel, and a few more hours at Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure. You can also tack on a visit to Arbor Lodge to explore the historic mansion.
Tip: Have a blast exploring the Treetop Village treehouses tucked inside the Tree Adventure.
Most Nebraskans make the trek to Lincoln at least once, if only to attend a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Huskers football game. The city has a college town feel to it, with affordable local restaurants, charming shops, and plenty of museums.
Learn about Nebraska's unique history and see giant Mammoth fossils at Morril Hall. If traveling young kids, a stop at the Lincoln Children's Zoo and Lincoln Children's Museum is a must.
For such a small town, Brownville packs in a lot of history and arts. Bookstores, galleries, and one excellent winery can found in the town of a population just over 100, as well as a vibrant seasonal music and theater scene.
Tip: Brownville is pretty close to Indian Cave State Park, which has horseback riding, great hiking trails, and an interesting little living history area.
For a relaxing lake getaway, Lake Icaria near Corning, Iowa, is a well-known secret to Omaha families. This is the place for fishing and water fun in the summer. The cabins are affordable, but RV and tent camping is also available.
Tip: Food trucks stop by on the weekends, seasonally. We lucked out and found a barbecue truck on the Saturday we were there.
Sioux City has two of my favorite things: A gorgeous state park in town, and museums. Stone State Park has wonderful trails and is near the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, which has a great nature playscape. For museums, families with young kids will want to go to LaunchPAD Children’s Museum. Art lovers should check out the Grant Wood corn room at Sioux City Art Center. And music lovers should check out the memorabilia scattered throughout the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Tip: Don't leave without a visit to Palmer’s Old Tyme Candy Shoppe, home to the Twin Bing.
Indoors or outdoors, Des Moines has a lot for young (and young at heart) to enjoy. Favorites of my family include the Science Center of Iowa, Adventureland, and Living History Farms.
Tip: One location of my favorite Des Moines restaurant, Fong's Pizza, is within walking distance of the science center. If you time it right, the large Des Moines farmer's market takes place in front of Fong's too in the summer.
Boone is your winter and summer destination for activities, and the Hotel Pattee in Perry is where you'll want to stay. We've been to Boone in the summer to wander around the beautiful Ledges State Park and ride on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. In the winter, we had a blast skiing and tubing at Seven Oaks Recreation.
Tip: Hotel Pattee's rooms are all themed, and you can request specific family suites with fun themes.
My family has had many great adventures to Kansas City, from wild rides at Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, to hours on end spent at Science City and Nelson-Atkins Art Museum. Oh, and the barbecue is pretty tasty too!
Tip: The City Market is a lively year-round farmer's market that's free to explore. While there, stop at the Steamboat Arabia Museum, another free attraction.
I found Excelsior Springs more of a couples or friends getaway than a family destination. Why? The gorgeous Elms Hotel has a fantastic spa with a grotto where you'll just want to relax the hours away.
The hotel is within walking distance of two great stops: A great barbecue joint that offers live music on some summer evenings and the excellent microbrewery, Dubious Claims Brewing Co.
Tip: There are a couple of wineries near Excelsior Springs, including Van Till Family Farm Winery. Order one of their artisan pizzas and a bottle of wine and grab a table on their covered patio for a low-key date.
I have so many childhood memories of canoeing the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. This calm river flows through some scenic cliffs that will surprise you, plus the state's famous Smith Falls. I dare you to stick your head in the falls!
This is a popular river for tubers and can take on a bit of a rowdy, party atmosphere on some weekends. Which may or may not appeal to you.
Tip: Valentine is one of the closest cites to use as a homebase. Alternatively, outfitters often offer campsites along the river.
A collection of interconnected lakes, you can have as relaxing or active of a getaway as you want. You want to waterslide into the lake at a waterfront bar? You can find it there. Want to sit on a beach by a firepit watching the sunset? There's a place for it.
Our favorite activities we did at Okoboji included a trip to historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park, a bike ride, kayaking, and playing at Dickinson Country Nature Center.
Tip: The Arnolds Park Funhouse Museum is home to the large wooden slide that used to be in the amusement park. You can take all the rides down you want if you have the day pass or just pay per ride.
Clear Lake is best known for the Surf Ballroom, the last place Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens performed. Once you explore the music history of the ballroom, now a museum, you've got to hit the lake and one of several sandy beaches around it.
Time your visit for the Fourth of July for a small-town celebration you won't forget.
Tip: Want a lakeside dining option? Try PM Park. We had a delicious breakfast indoors and then returned later during our trip to have lunch at the outdoor tiki bar. Yes, tiki bar.
Located along the Mississippi River and split between Iowa and Illinois, the Quad Cities are a getaway for families. We visited on a particularly rainy weekend, so we spent a fun weekend indoors at Putnam Museum and Science Center, the Family Museum, the John Deere Pavilion, and Figge Art Museum, which has a wonderful space for hands-on art activities for kids.
Tip: There’s a surprising amount of hands-on opportunities at the hidden gem, Fryxell Geology Museum, in Rock Island, Ill. And, bonus, it's free.
As much as I want to tell you all to go to Decorah for the outdoor experiences, the awesome dining there almost trumps the outdoors. I know!
OK, first the outdoors. Bike, climb a little waterfall, or kayak down one of the most scenic rivers in the Midwest. For food, get a taste of the Norwegian cuisine the city is known for at Ruby's or have delicious wood-fired pizza on a farm where the ingredients were grown and raised (experience it at called Luna Valley Farm).
Tip: Decorah is home to microbreweries that bring in beer aficionados from around the Midwest, including Toppling Goliath. I particularly enjoyed having a beer after a long bike ride at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co.
If all my destinations could be as bike-friendly as the Twin Cities, I'd be a happy mama. One memorable place to bike around the park at Minnehaha Falls. Indoor fun includes Can Can Wonderland, Science Museum of Minnesota, and the hidden gem, the Bakken Museum.
Oh, and there's a little place called Mall of America. Perhaps you've heard of it.
Tip: One of my all-time favorite brewery experiences was at Surly Brewing Co, where we had dinner and beer with friends. The large brewery is surprisingly family-friendly and if the weather is nice, you can enjoy the immense patio and green space.
Perhaps you remember old family trips to Mount Rushmore, with a stop at Evans Plunge, the indoor water park that uses mineral water from nearby thermal springs. It's still open after all those years (with several updates) in Hot Springs!
Hot Springs is a less touristy stop in the southern Black Hills. Nearby, visit Mammoth Site is a must-visit.
Tip: Hot Springs is a short drive from two beautiful parks, Wind Cave National Park (10 miles away) and Custer State Park (20 miles away). Don't skip Sylvan Lake and the begging burros at Custer!
It's the quintessential summer experience: Road trip to Mount Rushmore. Head straight there or make stops along the way, as we did on our exciting western Nebraska and South Dakota road trip.
We explored everything from the fascinating Toadstool Geological Park in Nebraska to Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. Other stops on this road trip included Wall Drug, Badlands National Park, Mammoth Site, Chadron State Park, and Fort Robinson. It's a long trip and the distance below doesn't factor in the extra stops.
Tip: Everyone has to stop at Wall Drug, if only for the photo ops, right? While you're there, don't forget to order one of their fresh donuts.
Distance: 545 miles to Mount Rushmore
Find more inspiration for road trips
Sky’s the limit on these bucket list for Midwest destinations:
Hitchcock Nature Center is a beautiful destination in the Loess Hills of southwest Iowa. For more than a decade, it’s been my family’s go-to spot for hiking near Omaha. No matter the season, you’ll find a lot to love about Hitchcock!
COVID-19 Update: All indoor spaces, including all public restrooms and the Loess Hills Lodge Exhibit Gallery, cabins, and playground facilities at Hitchcock Nature Center are closed to the public. All camping, including tent and RV and backcountry, is closed. Closures will remain in place until April 30 at which time they will be reevaluated & possibly extended. Outdoor spaces in the parks currently remain open for public use.
Where is Hitchcock Nature Center?
Hitchcock is located in Honey Creek, Iowa, a small town just to the north of Crescent and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Its exact address is 27792 Ski Hill Loop, Honey Creek, Iowa, and it’s about a 20-mile drive from Omaha.
Honey Creek is home to Mt. Crescent, the area’s only ski resort. For food options, you best bet is Stanley’s Snack Shack, a seasonal burger and ice cream joint you’ll pass on your way to the nature center. It’s ran by the folks who operate Honey Creek Creamery, so things like the ice cream are actually made with goat’s milk from the goats raised at the creamery.
Loess soil (pronounced “luss”) is a pretty unique landform found only in the Loess Hills in the Midwest along the eastern edge of the Missouri River Valley and China. The hills were formed by winds carrying silt and glacial material and depositing them into massive drives.
Today, those drifts are sculpted into steep ridges and rolling hills. Due to its unique nature, the Loess Hills supports rare plants, animals, and biological communities.
Things to know about visiting Hitchcock
Hitchcock is part of the Pottawattamie County Parks, so to visit, you will need to purchase daily admission or annual membership. It’s $3 per vehicle (pay by exact change or check) or $20 for the membership.
The park is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
How many trails are there?
Hitchcock is 1,268 acres and has about 10 miles of trails. I didn’t really count, but they’re connecting trails with varying degrees of difficulty. We can easily spend a few hours here on a hike.
If you’d like to experience the trails with a guide, plan on attending one (or more) of the evening Hitch Hikes. Held several times a year, it’s an educational series that’s included with park admission. Reservations are not needed and they are weather-permitting.
The 2020 Hitch Hikes are: May 19, 7 p.m. June 16, 7 p.m. July 21, 7 p.m. Aug. 18, 7 p.m. Sept. 15, 6 p.m.
How difficult are the trails?
There are three levels of trail ratings at the Hitchcock: Easy, Moderate, and Difficult.
Easy trails: Boardwalk on Hawk Ridge (a wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk); Fox Run Ridge; Bluestem Meander; Heritage Trail; Hidden Valley; Wildwoods; Hawk Ridge; and Dozer Cut.
I’m skipping Moderate because, to be honest, they aren’t too much more difficult than Easy trails.
“Difficult” in this part of the country is not to say prohibitive from taking kiddos. It’s almost inevitable that my family winds up walking up The Chute.
If you want more difficult trails in the Loess Hills, read this post about some other nearby hikes in Iowa.
When’s the best time to visit?
Each season has its perks.
Winter: If you want to feel like you have the place to yourself, visit in the winter. Bring your own snowshoes or rent them from the visitor’s center (they even rent kid-sized snowshoes). Rentals are $6 per day.
Kids, and kids at heart, can bring sleds and tackle The Chute. It’s a bit too fast for me, but my kids love it.
Spring: On the first few warm weekends of the year, my family always has to make a trip to Hitchcock. Granted, in March, things are still quite dead-looking, but it’s refreshing and not too crowded.
Then, when you get a little further into spring, the wildflowers start popping up and the leaves sprout on trees.
Summer: If you go early in the morning, before humidity and high temps strike, it’s a lovely time to hike. Trails like Hidden Valley are nicely shaded and feel slightly cooler than up on the ridges.
Bring insect repellent.
Fall: Hitchcock really shines in the fall. With cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and migrating birds, it’s a prime season to visit.
Wildlife you may spot there
Maybe it’s just because I’m typically hiking with two (or more) very loud children, but we don’t see a ton of wildlife at eye-level. We do encounter snails and other small creepy crawly things.
However, the bulk of the wildlife we spy tends to be birds of prey. Hitchcock is an excellent location for migrating birds. In fact, each year from September to December, they hold Hawk Watch where the public is invited to help count how many passing birds can be recorded. Find out which raptors and birds to watch for and when during Hawk Watch.
One of the best places to look for birds is the 45-foot-tall observation tower.
Camping and cabins at Hitchcock
One things I have yet to do at Hitchcock Nature Center is stay overnight. They have a couple rustic cabins with A/C and heating, and a few other nice conveniences like a refrigerator, microwave oven, and tables and chairs. However, they do not have running water or bathrooms (those are nearby).
The prices are pretty reasonable.
There are also camping and RV options here. For camping, they have both modern and backcountry camping.
Hitchcock is the perfect place to inspire curiosity in nature. Here are a few things to know about bringing youngsters to the trails:
– Plan on visiting the visitor’s center. There are several play areas to explore and learn about the wildlife and flora & fauna of the Loess Hills. It’s pretty well done!
– While at the visitor’s center, go to the reception desk to check-out an Adventure Pack for your kid. The packs include animal ID cards, track cards, cloud ID chart, binoculars, kaleidoscope, bug box, compass, thermometer, and nature books. They’re FREE, but you do need to fill out a form and leave behind your car keys as collateral.
– You can geocache at Hitchcock Nature Center. If you don’t have your own GPS unit, you can borrow one at the reception desk.
– If your kiddo is not so steady on uneven trails, start first with the Boardwalk Trail.
– There are often special weekend events at Hitchcock with activities geared toward children. Check the calendar to see if you can time a visit for one.
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Hitchcock Nature Center is part of the Iowa’s 99 awesome county parks. I written extensively about the parks you an explore in Western Iowa, particularly Lake Icaria.
Now that my kids are a little older, we’re starting to venture beyond Heron Haven and other easy trails near Omaha that we’ve loved. There are a lot of hiking trails in Nebraska and Iowa that are within two hours of driving for us, so we won’t run out of new-to-us trails for a while.
Trails Near Omaha - Within 30 Minutes
Looking for a quick hiking getaway from Omaha? Below is a list of trails that are within about a 30-minute drive from the city.
Lewis and Clark Monument Park
Where: Council Bluffs, Iowa Details: 5 miles of trails. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 15 minutes Learn more about this park
Where: Council Bluffs, Iowa Details: 3 miles of trails. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 15 minutes Learn more about this park
Where: Council Bluffs, Iowa Details: The Nature Conservancy does not maintain trails but hiking permitted throughout. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 15 minutes Learn more about this preserve
Schramm Park State Recreation Area
Where: Gretna, Neb. Details: 4.5 miles of trails. Schramm is also home to an archeological dig site (free) and an educational center (additional fee). Distance from Omaha: 20 minutes Learn more about this state recreation area
Where: Little Sioux, Iowa Details: An 8-mile route through Loess Hills State Forest ending at Gleason-Hubel Wildlife Area (a half-mile is on county land at the northern start of Brent's Trail). Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 50 miles Learn more about this trail, one of the newer ones to open in the Loess Hills in recent years.
Where: Lincoln, Neb. Details: 8 miles of trails. The nature center has small animals on exhibit, but the bison and elk on the preserve are the highlights. Distance from Omaha: 55 minutes Learn more about Pioneers Park
Trails That Are One To Two Hours From Omaha
Pack some road trip snacks before taking off to these trails. They're more than an hour's drive from Omaha, so at least two hours round-trip. But, I've been to some of these trails and they're worth it!
Branched Oak State Recreation Area
Where: West Oak, Neb. Details: 2 miles of trails, plus the Hans Burchard Arboretum. It's a little generous to call these hiking trails, but the lake is pretty, at least. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour Learn more about Branched Oak, including what to expect if you camp there.
Where: Sioux City, Iowa Details: 2 miles of trails. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour and 30 minutes Learn more about this prairie
Bacon Creek Park
Where: Sioux City, Iowa Details: 3 miles of trails. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour and 30 minutes Learn more about this park
Where: Anthlon, Iowa Details: This county park is a 210-acre undeveloped public wildlife area with abundant wildlife and wildflowers. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour and 30 minutes Learn more about this park
Where: Shubert, Neb. Details: 22 miles of trails, and home to an interesting living history area that features re-enactors on seasonal weekends. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour and 30 minutes Learn more about this state park
Mount Talbot State Preserve
Where: Sioux City, Iowa Details: No actual maintained trails, but hiking is permitted throughout. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour and 40 minutes Learn more about this state preserve
Stone State Park
Where: Sioux City, Iowa Details: 11 miles of trails. This is a unique state park located in a city and home to the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, a great place to visit with kids. Don't miss the outdoor nature playscape. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 1 hour and 40 minutes Learn more about this state park
Where: Westfield, Iowa Details: No actual maintained trails, but hiking is permitted throughout. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 2 hours Learn more about state preserve
Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve
Where: Westfield, Iowa Details: The Nature Conservancy does not maintain trails but hiking is permitted. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 2 hours Learn more about this preserve
Where: Westfield, Iowa Details: The Nature Conservancy does not maintained trails but hiking is permitted. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 2 hours Learn more about this prairie
Hillview Recreation Area
Where: Westfield, Iowa Details: Five miles of trails, though the Nature Conservancy does not maintain trails but hiking is permitted. Part of the Loess Hills. Distance from Omaha: 2 hours Learn more about this county park
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