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Insider’s Guide To The Iowa State Fair

UPDATED: Aug. 9, 2018

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by the funny Bolton Carley, a blogger out of Bellevue, Neb., who’s made the trip to the Iowa State Fair more times than she’ll admit. She even has her own guide on her blog for the 2018 Iowa State Fair.

Day trip alert!  Day trip alert!

Where do you need to go?  Only one of the 1,000 places you should see before you die:  the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa!  


school and state fair 480

If there was ever a place to see, and a place that offered something for everyone, it would be the Iowa State Fair.  I don’t know another place that provides carnival rides, different flower hybrids, parades, giant sand sculptures, 2,000-pound bulls, gorgeous photography in tribute of Ansel Adams, a sky jack ride, free concerts, fried Snickers, and massaging chairs all in the same place! So where should you be August 9-19?  The Iowa State Fair.

Why? Because as the theme for this year states:  Nothing Compares!


Okay, so maybe I’m bias, but I love the Iowa State Fair and I kinda consider myself an expert.  My parents started taking me when I was born, and although we’ll not mention how many years ago that was, sufficed to say, I know my way around the fairgrounds especially after years of showing cattle there.  So here’s what I can tell you:

*Go hungry!  Actually, go starving, but not so much that you pass out before you make it in the gates!  Also, it might be best to take a break from your diet, too.  The Iowa State Fair is legendary for its corn dogs.  Needless to say, you don’t want to miss out on a footlong!  Yum.  Of course, there are also turkey legs, funnel cakes, snow cones, fresh lemonade shake-ups, fried pickles, malts made from dairy cows milked on the fairgrounds, and my personal fave, fried Oreos.

This is a fried Oreo. You know you want to try it.

This is a fried Oreo. You know you want to try it. Photo courtesy BC Productions

Crazy, huh?  I never thought I’d like them, but O. M. G!  To. Die. For!  The fair prides itself on adding new stuff every year.  Among the newbies this year:  bacon mac ‘n cheese, caprese salad on a stick, and funnel cake sticks.  Eat up, my friends!  And don’t forget to swing by the barrel stands for root beer, a long-standing tradition at the fair.  (But if you’re looking for adult beverages, no worries.  They have a craft beer booth for you to try all Iowa’s new flavors or if you want to chat with the local livestock crowd, find your way to Stockman’s Bar!)

*Okay, it’s hard to top the food, but you also have to see something made of food:  butter!  You must, and I mean MUST, see the butter cow while you’re there.  If you haven’t been living under a rock, you probably already know that’s a major hot spot. Plus, in addition to the butter cow, there will also be a tribute to the “Field of Dreams” this year made solely of butter!  And while you’re in the building, check out the amazing flowers and produce Iowa farmers grow.

Photo courtesy BC Productions

Photo courtesy BC Productions

Let’s just say you’ll be proud to be from the Midwest.

*Need another can’t-miss spot?  The Ye Old Mill.

Behold, Ye Old Mill.

Behold, Ye Old Mill. Photo courtesy BC Productions

It was actually the original water ride at the fairgrounds.  There may, or may not have been, a LOT of first kisses in the darkly lit, canoe ride. Lol.  You might want to hit the big slide, too.  But for those seeking a little more adventure, pack your cash and get shot up in the air like a rocket as seen below.


The thrill-seeker’s kind of ride. Photo courtesy BC Productions


*Who’s not up for free stuff?  You’ll have enough pens, pencils, magnets, and rulers to start school off if you head to the varied industries and the Iowa tourism buildings.  Oh, and they give away great stuff under the grandstand, too.  You can be temporarily-tattooed up in no time at all!

*Of course, if you’re a person after my own heart, you can’t go to the fair without seeing some livestock!  You’ve gotta see the big bull (and yes, all parts of him are big)!  Every year, cattlemen bring in their bulls to fight for the title of largest bull.

Photo courtesy BC Productions

Can’t go to the state fair without seeing livestock. Photo courtesy BC Productions

They do the same with hogs or as we call it The Big Pig. Plus, 4-Hers show farm animals from rabbits to broilers to horses to llamas over the course of the 10-day fair.  And speaking of 4-Hers, you need to check out the 4-H Exhibit building, it’s like real-life Pinterest!  Thousands of great ideas on display to get your creativity going!  (And if you see a pretty girl with a sash that says East Pottawattamie Fair Queen – say “hi” to my niece for me!)

Truthfully, I could go on and on about what you need to see while you visit the fair, but that’s really up to you.  Be sure to check out the Iowa State Fair website for the schedule of events that most interest you and ways to get discount entry into the fair.


Beyond that, my best tip is to park outside the gates.  If you go back off the main streets, you can get cheaper parking in people’s yards and it’s much easier to get out at the end of the day (you can ride the Dart, too, but I’ve never done that).  Also, go early.  It gets crowded later in the day.  I love to people-watch so that’s okay by me, but it will be chaotic and possibly hot!  Finally, take your camera!  You never know when you’ll see that ostrich on a tricycle or the bearded yak lady!

Happy Fair, y’all!

– As a self-proclaimed herder of cattle, kids, and words, Bolton Carley is a blogger, writer, photographer, and farmer’s daughter living in Bellevue, Neb.  Check out her humorous life lessons blog, follow her on Twitter, enjoy her photography, or for all things funny, go to her Facebook page. 


If you go

Iowa State Fair

When: Aug. 9-19, 2018; grounds open 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., buildings from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Midway from 10 a.m. to midnight

Where: 3000 East Grand Ave., Des Moines, Iowa Map

Admission: Adults, $12; children (6-11), $6; children 5 and younger, FREE

Discounts: Enter between 5 and 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and adults are $6 and children (6-11) are $3. On opening day, tickets are  $6 adult and $3 child from 5 a.m. to noon with a coupon from the Aug. 3 Des Moines Sunday RegisterOn Aug. 11, active and retired members of the military and their spouses are admitted for $8 at the gate (7 a.m. to 5 p.m.) with a military ID. On Aug. 12, get $3 off regular admission (7 a.m. to 5 p.m.) with a donation of at least two canned food items. Limit one discount per donation. On Aug. 13, fairgoers ages 60 and up get in for $8 at the gate until 5 p.m. On Aug. 17, get $5 off regular adult admission and $2 off admission for children (6-11) until 9 p.m.

Guide to things to do, food to eat, and what not to miss at the Iowa State Fair #thisisiowa #desmoines #statefair #ISF

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Connie Reed

Friday 22nd of August 2014

I've always wanted to go to the Iowa State Fair, since it's supposed to be the best. To be honest, I've never even been to the Illinois State Fair--and we have two of them! Definitely something to put on the list for 2015.


Friday 22nd of August 2014

I've been wanting to go to the Iowa State Fair ever since I read about it in the "1,000 Places To See Before You Die" book...and that was years ago. Still on my to-see list. Maybe next year!

Michelle Pond

Monday 28th of July 2014

Great rundown of the fair, Bolton. Makes me want to hop in the car...


Tuesday 29th of July 2014

It makes me want to go, too! I haven't been to a state fair in ages.

bolton carley

Monday 28th of July 2014

Thanks for having me over! :)


Monday 28th of July 2014

Anytime, Bolton, anytime!

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