I spent a lot of time planning the Great Iowa Road Trip – I wanted to find the best places to eat, the most interesting things to do and the coolest places to visit outdoors. Now you can benefit from my obsessive scouring of travel blogs and CVB guidebooks and easily plan your own Iowa vacation. This trip’s main stops were in Des Moines, Boone and Clear Lake, plus a few surprise pit stops.
EDITED: This post was first published in 2016, and has been updated in May 2022.
Disclosure: Special thanks goes to Travel Iowa, Catch Des Moines, Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, Sips North Shore and Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce for hosting us and making our experience so wonderful!
Here’s what we did, where we stayed and what we ate.
Day 1 – Des Moines
We left Omaha and made the short two-hour trip to Des Moines. Arriving too soon to check into the hotel, we headed to the East Village for lunch. It was zombie time.
Everyone recommended Zombie Burger when I had asked for suggestions, and when a crowd tells you to go somewhere, you go. Totally worth the trip for these burgers!
I tried the Dead Moines Burger and split fries with Mr. Wonderful. The kids had cheeseburgers of their own. To enjoy the sunshine (and to spare one zombie-fearing child), we dined outside.
Zombie Burger’s decor is fun, but if you have a kid who doesn’t find the undead amusing, you might steer clear.
Our visit coincided with the free Des Moines Art Festival, so we headed there after lunch. This huge festival is over a weekend in June every summer. If you can plan a trip to coincide with it, you’re in luck! Free fun for everyone.
We browsed some booths and enjoyed the kids activities. There were a lot of hands-on art booths for them.
The favorite thing from downtown Des Moines didn’t involve art, though. Mooch loved this meandering stream. There were a lot of kids playing in the water, and adults dipping their feet in it.
Dinner was at the Machine Shed, an iconic Des Moines/Urbandale restaurant with huge servings of comfort food.
Machine Shed was near our hotel for the next two nights: Wildwood Lodge. The hotel had a cabin theme throughout it, especially in the cozy lobby.
The kids, as always, loved the pool the most.
Day 2 – Des Moines outdoors
Our hotel had a free continental breakfast, so we ate there in the morning. While watching a rerun of the Golden Girls, we ate fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and toast, as well as an assortment of pastries.
Fueled up, we headed to Living History Farms, which is right next to the Machine Shed and near our hotel.
We visited during the week, so we enjoyed touring the farms without crowds of people. I had a Groupon, making it a little easier on the travel budget.
(Here’s where Mr. Wonderful would ask, “What travel budget?”)
The kids enjoyed the farms with animals the most, which meant the 1900 farm was the clear favorite with the horses, mules, cows and farm cat.
Being younger than 7, the hands-on activities were far more appealing to my children than Q&As with the staff dressed in period costume.
We needed a quick lunch since Mooch’s nap time loomed, so we found a pizza shop that served made-to-order pies quickly. Red Rossa was a satisfying spot not far from our hotel, and to boot, the kids meals came with a cup of Italian gelato.
Naps were incredibly long that day, so by the time the kids were awake, many of the city’s attractions were closed.
We went to Jordan Creek Town Center for dinner at a chain restaurant (which thoughtfully had a kids playground) and then strolled along the man-made lake.
Day 3 – Boone & Clear Lake
It was time to cram in some more sight-seeing before we left Des Moines, so after a tasty breakfast at the Drake Diner, we headed for the state capitol building.
You can take a free guided tour, which lasts about an hour and a half, or do a self-guided tour. We went with option B, which worked out great for our little ones.
The capitol grounds are nice to stroll, with several statues to look at, but it was close to lunchtime and we had a train to catch, so we had to skip it.
The kids slept through lunch, so Mr. Wonderful and I ordered some pizza to go from Fong’s Pizza (the Ankeny location) before we continued our drive to Boone, Iowa.
Once in Boone, we roused the kids to catch the 1:30 train ride with the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. It’s an out-and-back ride on an old 1950s train. We sat in the open air coach section.
The highlight is crossing over the High Bridge. You cross it twice, so if you’re slow with the camera, you get a second chance to get a shot like this (better have a strap to hold onto your camera – that’s a big drop).
I should say, that the was the highlight for the kids. I think I enjoyed the good local beer served in the concession train car.
Save your train tickets – they’re good for a tour in the museum afterward.
We left Boone and made the hour drive north to McIntosh Woods State Park near Clear Lake, Iowa. The plan: Stay in a yurt overnight.
How often do you get to say that?
Our yurt was near the water and this was our view from the dock!
We lucked out and had a cooler than average June night. While the yurt has windows and a fan, I could see how stuffy it could get in there if the summer weather was hot and without wind.
Still, it was nice to have beds that night instead of my slowly-leaking air mattress. And you can’t beat the peaceful location.
McIntosh Woods State Park has a small, unsupervised beach. The kids played in the water briefly, but if you had a choice of only visiting one beach in the area, don’t make it that one it.
Dinner was at the Anchor Inn on the North Shore of Clear Lake. It had a fun patio, but was disappointing in the service department.
Day 4 – Clear Lake
We left the tranquility of the yurt and towering trees of the forest and headed into the nearby town of Clear Lake for the rest of our stay.
Breakfast was along the South Shore of the lake at PM Park. The kids played on the little pirate ship while Mr. Wonderful and I sipped coffee and waited for breakfast to cook. I tried their famous Everything Hashbrowns, but I have to say, the French Cakes my son ordered were the best. They’re basically french fried pancakes.
In need of more coffee, we stopped in Cabin Coffee Co. in downtown Clear Lake for some fancy drinks. We even got the kids some hot chocolate, which the barista was kind enough to split into two cups and keep the temperature cool for them.
It’s a fun cafe to visit – you kind have to get your picture taken on one of the saddle stools, don’t you?
We hit the Clear Lake City Beach soon after. There’s a small splash garden just off the beach, which made for a nice place to rinse off the sand after the fun was over.
We walked to the downtown area from the beach and had lunch at Starboard Market – another restaurant many recommended when they heard where we were going.
We ordered delicious sandwiches, and if you get the boxed lunch, they come with a non-meat salad, chips and a house-made cookie.
I have to point out the great service there. Farley dropped part of his cookie on the floor and after hearing about it, one waitress brought him another. So sweet!
Breezing past nap time, we took the kids to Surf Ballroom. We had to take obligatory Buddy Holly pictures out front.
It’s free to visit the Surf Ballroom (unless there’s a concert). The kids danced on the stage while Mr. Wonderful and I marveled at all the musical acts who’ve played in the historic hall.
As I mentioned before, we skipped naps, and the result was our epic Surf Ballroom picture of Mooch.
The Surf Ballroom was right next to our dinner spot: SIPS North Shore Kitchen & Bar. We were treated to an elaborate dinner – the best dinner on the trip.
Update: SIPS has since closed since our visit.
We stayed the last two nights in Clear Lake at the South Shore Inn, which is the hotel connected to the popular night spot, The Landing. The main appeal of the hotel is its location: it’s right on the lake.
UPDATE: South Shore Inn changed ownership and underwent renovation. It is now the boutique hotel, Lakeside Inn. The Landing is now called the Lakeside Landing.
Guest rooms face the lake and you either get a balcony, or in our case, a walkout patio with a view. As one of the ladies staying in a nearby room said to me one morning, as we gazed out at the calm lake, “This is God’s country.”
The sunset from the hotel’s pier was a perfect end to the day.
Day 5 – Clear Lake
My day started with my son and I sitting on the dock in our jammies. It wasn’t a private dock, so we didn’t linger.
After breakfast, we picked up coffee once again from Cabin Coffee Co. (I have a coffee problem), then headed to Central Gardens of North Iowa, a free public gardens not too far from the hotel.
It’s a beautiful place to explore, and if you’re lucky, a volunteer may be present to tell you more about what you’re seeing.
One volunteer gave us a tour of the children’s garden, and had the kids help her pull some radishes.
If you visit on a Friday morning in the summer, you might catch some garden activities for the kids and a plant sale (bouquets for a donation).
From there, we went back toward PM Park to get a guided tour of the lake courtesy Jake, the owner of Lake Time Boat Club. Rather than attempt to drive our own rental boat, we decided to sit back and have someone else do all the work.
If you’re looking for a little speed on a boat ride, this is a good option over the popular Lady of the Lake steamboat tours in Clear Lake.
We had lunch at the Tiki Bar next to PM Park. It seemed fitting to have a rum drink after a boat ride.
We went to a different beach in the late afternoon: Clear Lake State Park. It were very few people there besides us, which was surprising until we learned why. Nasty zebra mussels.
If you visit the lake, don’t be like us: Wear water shoes. Both kids cut their feet on the tiny, razor-sharp mussels attached to rocks.
The night wasn’t totally ruined, despite some tears. We had a quick burger and fries at The Landing – the bar & grill located next to our hotel. It was so good and the service was super friendly, especially with our kids.
We ended our night at Clear Lake’s Fourth of July celebration along Main Avenue. This impressive carnival was so much fun! It’s an annual weekend event, and we caught the opening night on June 30.
The kids enjoyed the rides, while Mr. Wonderful and I marveled the view of sunset behind them. Before we even left, the kids asked if we’d go back the next Fourth of July.
True to Oh My! Omaha family travels, one of us got sick that night. Fortunately, it was more from junk food and spinning carnival rides than a true illness.
Day 6 – Story City and Ledges State Park
Our last morning in Clear Lake, my birthday, we had a snack on our hotel patio. Had to take in the view one last time.
We then had breakfast No. 2 at Sevens in downtown Clear Lake. It felt and was lit more like a bar, but the place was hopping with locals and the food was very good.
I got a few moments after breakfast to shop alone at the boutiques while Mr. Wonderful took the kids back to the Central Gardens of Northern Iowa. There, they helped the volunteers water plants and bought me a beautiful bouquet.
We bought one last cup of coffee from Cabin Coffee Co. (my problem may be more of an addiction) and then said goodbye to the lake.
Our next stop was 70 miles south in Story City to ride the antique carousel. It’s near a park so it could double as a stop to get some energy out.
We were there just for a quick spin, though. The ride was pretty cheap and memorable for the kids.
The volunteer at the carousel recommended Dinner by Dawn for a spot we could grab food to go. The food was really good and staff there was incredibly friendly, helping us plan our next pit stop: Ledges State Park.
The park is definitely off the beaten path and, at first, I regretted taking the detour because it seemed our drive down county roads was just taking us further into corn fields.
Then we found it! And it was worth the stop.
If you’re short on time, head straight for the canyon drive – a one-way route. There, you’ll have to drive over roadways that Pea’s Creek flows over. It’s kinda cool, but I’ve heard it can sometimes completely flood out the road way.
We took a tough hike up one trail to see the “ledges” and then on our way back to the car, we waded through the creek. It was a beautiful park and we will be back to camp and really explore the trails. Like the lake lesson learned, we’ll bring water shoes next time.
Our plan was to tire the kids out from hiking and splashing around so that they’d nap all the way home. It’s about 160 miles from Ledges State Park to Omaha. It worked for one kid, at least, and our ride home was quiet. Mostly.
Plan your own Iowa road trip!
To learn more about some of the destinations on this trip, visit the blog over the next few weeks. I can’t wait to tell you about these places:
A room with a view at Southshore Inn in Clear Lake, Iowa (Now called Lakeside Inn and renovated)