There’s nothing better than a good road trip! And when you live in Des Moines, discovering a new place doesn’t mean you have to drive across the country. No matter the season, there are plenty of places within an easy drive for a fun getaway.
To help plan your adventure, check out these incredible Midwest road trip destinations that are all about a three hour drive or less from Des Moines.
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Road trips from Des Moines, Iowa
1. Perry, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 40 miles
Located northwest of the Des Moines metro, Perry, Iowa is a fantastic place for a fun weekend away. With lots of bike trails, this small town is a popular destination for cyclists. Stay at the historic Hotel Pattee where every room has a different theme, from a clown room to a RAGBRAI themed room and more.
In the winter, there’s a ski resort nearby.
Tip: Perry has a great classic theater, the Grand Theatre, where you can catch a movie during your visit.
2. Clear Lake, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 115 miles
Clear Lake is the perfect quintessential lake town just a short drive from Des Moines. Off the lake there’s lots to do too. Shop along Main Street, eat at classics like Starboard Market and visit the Surf Ballroom, the last place Buddy Holly played before he died.
Tip: While Clear Lake is known as a lake town, it’s fun to visit all year long! If you’re looking for a winter adventure, consider the town’s annual kite festival held each February.
3. Mason City, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 120 miles
Fans of The Music Man won’t want to miss a visit to Mason City! Not only is Mason City the hometown of famous playwright Meredith Willson but it was also his inspiration for River City in his musical, The Music Man. See his birthplace, visit Music Man Square and embrace the city’s love of this American classic.
Tip: Snag a room at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in the world that still welcomes guests.
4. Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 128 miles
History lovers and foodies alike will have a blast with a visit to Cedar Rapids. Learn about local history at the National Czech and Slovak Museum or get creative at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum. Find a unique place to dine downtown or in the city’s New Bohemia neighborhood with countless breweries, award-winning restaurants, cozy coffeehouses and more.
Tip: Don’t miss the NewBo City Market! This permanent market building is home to dozens of vendors who sell locally made foods and other handmade goods.
5. Mount Vernon, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 130 miles
Home to Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa is what you get when you pair a college town with a charming small community. Grab coffee at Fuel, shop along the city’s main street, hike at Palisades-Kepler State Park and grab a cozy dinner at the Lincoln Wine Bar.
Tip: Mount Vernon has so many amazing town festivals. One of my favorites is the chalk festival, Chalk the Walk, which is held each May.
6. Omaha, Nebraska
Distance from Des Moines: 135 miles
From the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to the Joslyn Art Museum to the Durham Museum and beyond, there is no shortage of things to do in Omaha. Catch a Storm Chasers baseball game, experience the Old Market, or catch a bit of railroad history at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.
Tip: Omaha has so many neighborhoods to explore! Plan your visit around a neighborhood outside the Old Market to see new parts of the city – like Little Bohemia, Blackstone, or Benson.
7. Van Buren County, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 150 miles
Home to the Villages of Van Buren, this southeastern Iowa county has so much to discover. From artisan shops to historic walking tours through small towns, there’s something for everyone here. Consider staying in the villages themselves at a bed and breakfast like the Bentonsport B&B.
Tip: Grab a meal at Bonaparte’s Retreat, an incredible restaurant in a grist mill built in the 1870s.
8. Burlington, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 175 miles
Experience the beauty of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway when you visit Burlington. Wander the Heritage Hill Historic District, explore the city’s downtown and come hungry to enjoy this surprising foodie destination.
Tip: Don’t forget to visit the former crookedest street in America at Snake Alley!
9. Kansas City, Missouri
Distance from Des Moines: 195 miles
There’s something for everyone in Kansas City! Whether you’re a thrill seeker looking for coasters at Worlds of Fun, a history buff interested in the National World War I Memorial and Museum or an art lover excited to explore the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City won’t disappoint.
And if you go to Kansas City with kids, you could spend a weekend and never be bored.
Tip: No trip to Kansas City is complete without barbecue (even vegetarian BBQ)! There’s many local options to choose from so do a little research, or better yet, ask a local during your visit for their favorite BBQ joint.
10. Decorah, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 200 miles
Located in Iowa’s driftless region, Decorah is a haven for nature lovers and craft beer enthusiasts alike. Explore the region’s beautiful natural areas and reward yourself afterward with a pint at the award-winning Toppling Goliath Brewery.
Tip: If you’re planning a visit during the summer months, be sure to make a visit to Luna Valley Farm for one of their incredible pizza nights.
11. Dubuque, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 202 miles
Dubuque is a river town with lots to see and do. From delicious restaurants to interesting natural areas like the Crystal Lake Cave, you’re sure to have a fun weekend in this eastern Iowa city. Explore downtown, take in the city’s incredible public art scene, ride the historic Fenelon Place Elevator and visit the National Mississippi River Museum.
Tip: If you’re a beer lover, Dubuque is the place for you. The city has a number of craft breweries both in and around downtown that make for a fun weekend of sampling.
12. Okoboji, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 205 miles
Okoboji is quite possibly one of Iowa’s most iconic summer destinations. Experience class thrills on rides at Arnolds Park, hit the beach, rent a boat to take out on the water, sip a local craft beer and so much more.
Tip: If you’re in search of a swanky place to stay, The Inn Hotel is a dreamy art deco boutique hotel you won’t want to miss. Even if you don’t book a stay, the Beach Club Lounge is worth a visit for a cocktail or two.
13. Galena, Illinois
Distance from Des Moines: 216 miles
Located along the bluffs of the Mississippi River, Galena, Ill.,is a fun weekend getaway from Des Moines. With rich history and lots of places to explore along Galena’s main street, there’s no shortage of things to do. Visit local wineries, breweries and distilleries, enjoy world-class dining, or grab tickets for a ghostly tour of this historic town.
Tip: There are a number of resorts near Galena that are great places to ski and experience the outdoors even during the winter months.
14. Le Mars, Iowa
Distance from Des Moines: 224 miles
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, an adventure to Le Mars, Iowa is for you. Known as the ice cream capital of the world, Le Mars is home to the ice cream maker Blue Bunny. Visit the Wells visitor center and ice cream parlor to learn about the city’s sweet past and sample some ice cream for yourself.
Tip: Grab dinner at the iconic, James Beard Award-winning supper club, Archie’s Waeside (it’s a must-visit supper club). Be sure to get there early though! There’s typically a wait on the weekends.
For more ideas: Check out this list of Iowa road trips that are perfect for warm days.
About the Guest Blogger
Megan Bannister is a freelance writer and blogger at Olio in Iowa based in Des Moines, Iowa.
When she’s not sampling and writing about food, Megan enjoys visiting unique destinations, roadside attractions, and “world’s largest” things across the Midwest and beyond.
Her book, “Iowa Supper Clubs,” highlights classic eateries past and present from around the state.