October 16, 2018

Fun Things To Do With Kids In The Quad Cities

Our trip to the Quad Cities in eastern Iowa and western Illinois was supposed to be a fun getaway, including some beautiful fall scenery. Think autumn things like pumpkin patches, nature hikes, and changing leaves along the Mississippi River. Due to rain — so much rain — our weekend was spent mostly indoors, though. No problem since there are plenty of fun things to do in the Quad Cities that are indoors, including exploring kid-friendly museums and eating an embarrassing amount of ice cream and pancakes.

Disclosure: Our visit was hosted by Visit Quad Cities. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Exploring the Quad Cities in Iowa & Illinois with kids - Fun things to do in the Quad Cities, including family-friendly museums, restaurants, breweries & hotel

The Quad Cities, if you’re unfamiliar, consists of Betterndorf and Davenport in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois. The Mississippi is the natural divider for the states and cities. They’re proximity to each made it feel like one large city with small-town atmospheres.

For a family-friendly getaway to the Quad Cities, here are some of my suggestions:

Where to play

My kids are 7 and 9 years old, so they they’re starting to age out of children’s museum-type experiences (hands-on) but still love anything that’s play-based. Here’s where we went in the Quad Cities.

Learning about mummies and Egyptian hieroglyphs at the Putnam Museum in the Quad Cities.

A mix between science center and natural history museum, Putnam Museum in Davenport was a big hit for my kids. It’s large and families could easily spend an entire afternoon here. My kids enjoyed the science center, mummies, and walking through the river exhibit featuring the animals, flora and fauna found along the Mississippi River.

Putnam Museum has a lot of hands-on activities for kids to explore STEM concepts.

I loved playing with the kids in the augmented reality room where you could see yourself on screen with dinosaurs.

Where: Putnam Museum, 1717 W. 12th St., Davenport, Iowa

Tip: If you’re a member of Omaha Children’s Museum, you get admission for four FREE at the Putnam Museum thanks to the ASTC reciprocal membership program!

I was impressed with the massive Figge Art Museum in Davenport. We were there to see the new traveling exhibit, “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse,” as well as glimpse at some of the permanent collection. Catch the traveling exhibit while you can, as it was impressive.

The inspiration for our visit to Figge Art Museum was to see the traveling French Moderns exhibit, but the large museum is worth a stop with or without a stellar traveling exhibit.

The museum also is known for having one of the largest collections of Mexican Colonial artwork outside of Mexico City and is one of the first U.S. museums to have a Haitian art collection.

The Figge’s Family Activity Center was my children’s favorite space in the museum. They could create art, perform, read and be a little louder than they normally would be in a museum.

My kids spent most of their time in the newly remodeled Family Art Center on the second floor of the museum. It was a space to draw, build, and try on costumes. It’s perfect for all ages.

Where: Figge Art Museum, 225 W. 2nd Street, Davenport, Iowa

If you go to Figge, you’ll be block away from the Davenport Skybridge. It’s a walkway from a parking garage that leads you to a neat lookout over the Mississippi River.

If you’re in downtown Davenport, make a quick stop to see the Davenport Skybridge, which has great views of the Mississippi River.

We went during the day, but I’ve seen pictures of the Skybridge at night and the interior is lit up with colorful lights.

Family Museum in Bettendorf was one of the museums we were not originally planning on visiting, but rain washed out our outdoor plans so this became our substitute. I’m glad we did!

The Family Museum in Bettendorf, Iowa, appeals especially to younger kids.

Consider this museum like a children’s museum with a very creative and fun pretend space filled with a farm, grocery story, Mississippi bridge replica, veterinarian clinic, post office and more, plus a large water table and maker space.

The Family Museum in the Quad Cities had so many opportunities for make believe play.

Its total exhibit space is small compared to Omaha Children’s Museum, but you can easily spend a few hours playing just in the one room I mentioned above. And if your kids love the role playing, the Family Museum is hard to beat.

Playing with clay in a studio at the Family Museum in Bettendorf.

We went upstairs to the clay studio before leaving (there is also a separate art studio upstairs). The make-and-take air-dry clay is free to play with and take home. For a few dollars, though, you can make something on the pottery wheel. It’s not a great option for visitors like us since that clay needs to be fired in a kiln and picked up a week later.

Tip: If you’re a member of Omaha Children’s Museum, you get admission for four FREE at the Family Museum thanks to the ASTC reciprocal membership program!

Where: 2900 Learning Campus Dr, Bettendorf, Iowa

On the Iowa side of the Quad Cities, we went to two other attractions that happen to be FREE. Both could be about an hour-long visit depending how into tractors or rocks & fossils your family is.

The Fyxell Geology Museum is a free museum that’s worth a visit for families.

The Fryxell Geology Museum is a few museum on the beautiful Augustana College campus in Rock Island, Ill. Leave a few minutes on your visit to explore the campus before or afterward.

The museum’s small but it’s easy to spend an hour here. See if your family can get a guided tour because the enthusiasm of the guide is going to be contagious with your family. 

There’s a surprising amount of hands-on opportunities at Fryxell Geology Museum in Moline, Ill.

Shannon brought out fossils for the kids to touch like fossilized poop and a shark’s jaw.

They’re testing out an augmented reality app, too, and my kids loved seeing the fossils “come to life” in pictures and video with the museum’s iPad.

We got to test out an app at Fryxell Geology Museum where kids can “see” what a fossil may have looked like millions of years ago.

If you’re exploring on your own, there’s a scavenger hunt card game.

The museum’s biggest draw is the Cryolophosaurus, a 22-foot-long dinosaur fossil discovered by an Augstana College professor. It’s the first-ever dinosaur fossil found in Antarctica and it was a previously unknown dinosaur – so a doubly exciting discovery.

Don’t skip the small exhibit in back behind the black curtain. There are fluorescent stones back there.

Where: Fryxell Geology Museum, 820 38th St., Rock Island, Ill. Just a note: Finding a parking spot near the museum was difficult as we went when college was in session.

Moline is home to the world headquarters of John Deere, and so it’s no surprise there’s a place to learn about the history of the company and glimpse at the future. The John Deere Pavilion is a great place to explore with kids as there are several huge farming equipment for them to climb on, as well as an interactive kids area.

Antique and modern John Deere farming equipment are on display at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Ill. You can climb into many of the machines.

The kids area is small but it held my kids’ attention for a long time, especially video editor and the stop-motion video table.  

Adults even got in on the fun, especially with the simulators.

Where: John Deere Pavilion, 1400 River Dr., Moline, IL

Where to eat in the Quad Cities

This weekend getaway to the Quad Cities was extremely over-indulgent and if you’re on a diet, skip this part.

Breakfast is my favorite meal on vacation. The two I’d recommend are local institutions, and expect a wait if you go.

QC Coffee and Pancake House in Rock Island, Ill., is known for their cinnamon roll pancakes. So, we had to get one, right? We also tried the specials there – both plates were heaping with food. Mine was particularly colorful with a variety of fresh fruits and prepared vegetables. It’s all about balance when you also order a large pancake.

QC Coffee and Pancake House is known for their cinnamon roll pancakes.

The kids got Mickey Mouse pancakes, and again, too much for one kid to finish.

Jimmy’s Pancake House in Bettendorf, Iowa, is again, known for pancakes. They were fluffy and prepared just the way I like them. The perk of this restaurant, if you ask my kids, is the toy they gave them after the meal.
This restaurant is very close to the Family Museum.

Lagomarcino’s is a family-owned confectionery and soda fountain that’s been in business in Moline, Ill., for more than 100 years.

Lagomarcino’s has two locations in the Quad Cities and we went to the quaint original in Moline, Ill. You could walk to it from our hotel, Element, which is convenient.

Logamarcino’s is a century-old confectionery and ice cream shop with a deli thrown in for good measure. We ordered sandwiches, fully knowing we’d be splitting one of their famous sundaes afterward. They make their own ice cream and hot fudge.

This place is pretty charming and you’ll be tempted to buy candies and treats before leaving. I promise.

The homemade ice cream and hot fudge at Lagomarcino’s is legendary.

There are two locations. We dined at the downtown Moline, Ill., one. The second location is in the Village of East Davenport in Iowa, and that little area is absolutely charming.

Our other lunch was at Steel Plow Burger Co. You’d think you’d go here for the burgers (and those are good), but you’re really going because you want one of the over-the-rim milkshakes. These things are monstrous concoctions that must be shared.

So we did.

We split a brownie shake, which had little brownie bites and donuts on skewers, M&Ms and marshmallows along the bottom, and delish fudge dropping from the top. Four of us could not finish it.

How could we go to the Quad Cities and not have one of the pizzas that Food & Wine wrote about this year? We went to Harris Pizza (there are several locations, so we went to the one in Rock Island). The pizza is sliced in long strips rather than your typical triangle slices. Crisp bottom, thick crust and ample toppings, with just the right amount of sauce. All around, it was a great pizza.

There are several breweries in the Quad Cities, and I asked around for a few suggestions of family-friendly breweries so that I could try local beer without feeling out of place while on a family vacation. Bent River Brewing Co. in Moline was short walk from our hotel, so we decided to have dinner there one evening. While we were the only ones with kids there, we were welcomed.

Bent River Brewing Co. in Moline, Ill., is a local brewery with a kids menu and games to help pass the time while you wait for a meal.

There was a kids menu and several games to choose from while we waited for our dinner. We played Sorry and Jenga. The food was typical pub food, and the beer was exceptional. I tried their most popular beer, Uncommon Stout, and my husband ordered a seasonal sweet potato beer. The seasonal was so good, we bought a growler to take home.

Where to stay in the Quad Cities

Our hotel, Element Moline, was on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities, but given the proximity of the cities to each other, I don’t know if you can choose wrong when deciding which city to stay in.

Our room at Element had the look and feel of a chic loft – brick walls, concrete floors, and a kitchen.

I’ll be visiting a few more Quad City hotels in the next month and can report back to you on why you’d choose one of the Quad Cities over the other depending on your itinerary.

But, back to talking about Element. You may be familiar with the hotel chain by Hyatt. It’s a sleek hotel, and this one in Moline has such a cool look. It reminded me of loft apartments in Omaha’s Old Market, blending brick walls, cement, and modern furniture.

The hotel had one of the best complimentary breakfasts I’ve seen at any hotel when traveling. There was someone preparing hot food made-to-order (pancakes on the weekend and two egg white options on the weekday). The fresh fruit and yogurt bar were healthier options I appreciated. My kids, on the other hand, liked the cereal bar and pastry varieties.

Element Hotel in Moline had self-serve breakfast food plus someone making hot food to order. On the weekend, she was making pancakes and on Monday, she was making two different egg white dishes.

Most important to traveling families, it has a pool. Our room was shower-only, so that was a drawback for my kids. I’d say, overall, this hotel would appeal more to business travelers than families, while still being pretty family-friendly.

The hotel is within walking distance to the John Deere Pavilion, as well as the TaxSlayer Arena. It’s also near a bike trail along the riverfront, and the hotel has complimentary bicycles if you have time to explore.

Where: 316 12th Street, Moline, Ill.

Family guide to fun things to do in Quad Cities (Iowa & Illinois) - Recommendations for restaurants, museums & hotel for a family-friendly getaway in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois

Plan a Quad Cities Family Trip

I’ll be sharing more in-depth posts about some of the places we visited in the Quad Cities in upcoming posts. Check back to learn more about:

Staying at Element Moline – Oct. 24

Taking Kids To The Figge Art Museum – Nov. 1

Free Things To Do With Kids In The Quad Cities – Nov. 8

Exploring The Putnam Museum With Young Kids – Nov. 22

Comparing Hotels Around The Quad Cities – Dec. 13

What’s At The Family Museum in Bettendorf? – Dec. 26

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September 18, 2018

Where To Eat & Where To Stay In Decorah

Decorah is a town tucked into northeastern Iowa. Found in the Driftless Area, its terrain is rockier than you’d expect for the Midwest. I visited this summer on a girlfriends getaway with the goal of enjoying outdoor pursuits like bike riding, kayaking and climbing a waterfall (not a big one, but still counts). I didn’t expect to encounter an abundance of great food and local beer. You just have to know where to eat in Decorah. I had plenty of tips to build the perfect itinerary for food and beer!

Dunnig Springs Waterfall in Decorah
We went to Decorah for the outdoor activities like seeing the waterfall in town, but it turns out, the food is as big a draw as the terrain.

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Visit Decorah. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Where to eat in Decorah

For a town with a population of about 8,000, Decorah had too many great choices for dining to fit into one weekend.

Restaurant and brewery suggestions for Decorah, Iowa including pizza at Luna Valley Farm, beer at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co., and two places for breakfast #hosted #dining #Iowa

Decorah is proud of its Nordic heritage. If you want to try some Norwegian dishes, head to Ruby’s Restaurant and Catering.

Ruby's Restaurant in Decorah, Iowa
Ruby’s Restaurant and Catering serves the typical diner food you’d expect in the Midwest plus plenty of Norwegian options.

We went to Ruby’s for breakfast, and decided to turn it into a Norwegian buffet, ordering a variety of small plates to try. It was less breakfast and more Christmas desserts, but I’m not complaining. We tried a rosette, lefse, kringla and sandbakkal.

Plates of Norwegian food in Decorah
Among the Norwegian treats we tried at Ruby’s Restaurant were kringla (top) and lefse.

Ruby’s is also known for the Ronnie Roll. It’s basically a giant cinnamon roll. And yeah, we ordered one of those too. Of course, the typical American breakfast staples are available to order as well.

Ruby's Restaurant in Decorah is home to the Ronny Roll
Ruby’s Restaurant is known for their Ronny Roll, which I had to try because my dad’s name is Ron and I love sugar.

We stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Decorah, where we could’ve enjoyed a complimentary breakfast each morning. But, with limited time in Decorah, we opted to have breakfast in town. 

On the second day of our trip to Decorah, we wandered into Restauration, the restaurant located in the historic Hotel Winneshiek. My friends enjoyed a mimosa with brunch. I stuck to black coffee. Our filling entrees were delicious.

Restauration's brunch menu
Restauration was located inside the historic Hotel Winneshiek in downtown Decorah.

By far, the most memorable meal in Decorah was on our first night. I was so glad to be tipped off that Luna Valley Farm serves wood-fire pizza on Friday nights. What a memorable meal, dining on pizza, lights strung up from a barn and the green farmland in view! 

Woodfire pizza at Luna Valley Farm
Luna Valley Farm in Decorah has pizza nights every Friday from May through October. The pizza includes ingredients raised or grown on the farm. And there’s beer. And the night we were there, there was live music.

The atmosphere at Luna Valley Farm is welcoming where you get to know the people sitting next to you. It was a rainy night, but under the tents, we dined and chatted happily. There was live music the night we were there. When the rain stopped, we walked just a short distance to look at pigs. 

Luna Valley Farm in Decorah, Iowa
There’s usually a line at Luna Valley Farm – two, actually. You can order pizza and appetizers in one line, and get your beer, wine or non-alcoholic beverages in the other.

If you couldn’t guess, yes, they grow and raise some of the food you’ll consume on pizza night.

Some of the other restaurants we tried that I’d recommend:

  • Rubaiyat Restaurant – This was more of an upscale experience than the others. The food was delicious and served with warm bread. I tried a Kobe hotdog because, why not. It was not the most photogenic of entrees, but it was pretty good and very filling. Their brunch was recommended to us.
  • Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. – OK, not a restaurant. While there was a food truck parked by it the day we visited, this is a recommendation for the beer. With many options on tap to try, from a delicious amber to more unique flavors like an Oreo stout and a cider that tasted like Key lime pie, if you like beer, you’ll find something to like here.
Post-bike ride beers at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co.

We went to Pulpit Rock after our bike ride. It was a short walk from our bike rental shop, Decorah Bicycles. 

There is another well-known brewery in Decorah, if craft beer is your thing. It’s called Toppling Goliath. 

  • – Winneshiek Wildberry Winery – Since we were on a girlfriends’ getaway, we couldn’t resist the draw of a winery tasting room that was near our hotel. We got a flight of wine to taste. In all honesty, the wine was too sweet for my likes. But, that sweet wine was pretty good in a wine slushie, which I split with my sister. It was inexpensive, too. Also, This winery had probably the best photo opp in town – a giant gnome in front of the building. 
  • La Rana – I liked La Rana for its small, but cozy decor and fresh food. We had a few quibbles with the our meal, though, so it’s on the bottom of my suggestions for you.
  • – I had many friends familiar with town offer suggestions for meals, and due to limited time, we couldn’t make it to them. Here are what others say are great places to each in Decorah: Mabe’s Pizza and Whippy Dip (for ice cream).

Where to stay in Decorah

If you know anything about the area, you know there’s an abundance of outdoor activities, including great paved and mountain bike trails, the Upper Iowa River for tubing or kayaking, and even a waterfall. So, you may want to stay overnight.

Hotel and glamping suggestions for Decorah, Iowa - Whether you want a hotel near Trout Run Trail, a historic hotel downtown, or you want to try glamping at Luna Valley Farm, there are options in the small town that fits your needs #hotels #glamping

We stayed in the new Fairfield Inn & Suites, located conveniently near the Trout Run Trail. On the morning of one of days in Decorah, we biked the trail around scenic pastures, up to the fish hatchery, and along the river. If running or walking is your jam, this is a good trail for you, too.

Fairfield Inn & Suites in Decorah
The Fairfield Inn & Suites in Decorah, Iowa, was located near the popular Trout Run Trail and just a short drive from downtown Decorah.

Fairfield is a familiar chain for me and my family, so I like knowing what to expect, from a daily hot breakfast bar to a fitness center and pool. 

I’m loving the look of the lobbies in Fairfield Inns these days, too.

The colorful lobby at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Decorah, Iowa.

Our room was comfortable, with two Queen beds and a large bathroom. 

There are, of course, other options for hotels in Decorah, including the historic Hotel Winneshiek in the downtown area. We had breakfast at Restauration, the hotel’s restaurant, and took a quick peek around the lobby while we were there.

It’s a pretty hotel, and I’d look into staying there when we return. It was booked solid the weekend we were there due to Toppling Goliath’s big beer release weekend. Who would’ve guessed?

Another option that, alas, was also already booked the weekend we were there was at Luna Valley Farm. They offer glamping! 

Tips on where to eat, drink and stay in Decorah, a town in Northeastern Iowa known for outdoor adventures and popular craft breweries

More Decorah adventures

If you missed my previous post about outdoor adventures in Decorah, go check it out! I wrote about the bike ride along Trout Run Trail and a moonlit kayaking trip, both experiences were with our local guide, Amber, who recently started up Karst Adventures.

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September 10, 2018

Exploring The Science Center of Iowa

My kids are starting to love visiting science centers when we’re traveling. When planning trips, I check if our destination has a museum or science center that’s part of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, or ASTC. Why? The four of us will get in free admission thanks to the reciprocal membership benefits we get with our Omaha Children’s Museum membership. Sweet, right?

This summer, we had a chance to make use of that free admission perk to visit Science Center of Iowa in downtown Des Moines.

A fun day for the family at the Science Center of Iowa located in downtown Des Moines

Highlights of the Science Center of Iowa

The Science Center of Iowa was a fun morning for my family on a day that looked like it might rain at any moment. 

We spent the most time in the room called When Things Get Moving, where the kids could make paper rockets to shoot, test egg cradles, and building LEGO race cars.

Ball exhibit inside Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines
When Things Get Moving is a popular permanent exhibit at the Science Center of Iowa in downtown Des Moines.

The space exhibit, Why The Sky, was also a great one to explore. This was probably the most entertaining exhibit for both adults and kids. After testing out several exhibits there, we found our way to the planetarium. Turns out, it was a great place to lay flat on the floor and rest while watching a show.

Space exhibit inside Science Center in Des Moines, Iowa
Why The Sky was an exhibit that explored space and spacecraft at the Science Center of Iowa.

The IMAX theater was another space to sit and rest for a spell. It was not very crowded the afternoon we went. The great thing is that planetarium shows are included with admission. Here’s a list of their programs at the science center.

There are a few other rooms, including one for natural sciences, a Makers Space, and one dedicated to LEGO building . If you visit with toddlers, there is also a separate room for that age group to explore.

Testing out circuits at the Science Center of Iowa in downtown Des Moines
My daughter liked building circuits while we were at the Science Center of Iowa.

You can easily spend two hours or more at the Science Center of Iowa. If you attend one of the science shows or a planetarium show, expect to spend a minimum of three hours.

If you go

Science Center of Iowa

Where: 401 W. Martin Luther King Jr Parkway, Des Moines, Iowa

Website

Looking for a fun thing to do indoors with kids in Des Moines? The Science Center of Iowa was great for a few hours of playing and learning. #Iowa #sciencecenter

What’s near the Science Center of Iowa

Our afternoon at the Science Center of Iowa timed out well for us to visit the Des Moines Farmers Market in the morning. There are vendors practically at the front door of the science center. Strolling the market, you’ll find an abundance of samples (food and wine), plus tons of dogs, which are always a hit with my kids.

The Des Moines Farmers Market in the downtown area was one of the largest I’ve ever been to.

The science center isn’t too far from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, with plenty of space for kids to run around and some pretty iconic photo opps.

Fong's Pizza's most well-known pie is the crab rangoon pizza. It's delicious and lives up to the hype.
Fong’s Pizza’s most well-known pie is the crab rangoon pizza. It’s delicious and lives up to the hype.

For food, I can’t tell you enough to go try Fong’s Pizza, which is walkable from Science Center of Iowa.

Plan a Des Moines Family Getaway

We visited the Science Center of Iowa on a weekend getaway in the summer. Read all about the fun things we did in this post. We spent a day at Adventureland and an afternoon at Blank Park Zoo during the trip.

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August 27, 2018

Outdoor Adventures In Decorah

I wanted a weekend getaway this summer that included being active and seeing beautiful scenery. And I needed it to be drivable from Omaha. My choice? Decorah, a small town in northeastern Iowa tucked in the Driftless Area of the Midwest. 

Disclosure: My stay was hosted by Visit Decorah and I partnered with Karst Adventures for the outdoor excursions. All opinions, thoughts and typos are my own.

When I started planning my weekend to Decorah in northeast Iowa, I had two things on my agenda to see: Dunning’s Springs and the Upper Iowa River, which I had seen included on a National Geographic list of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America. After seeing it on that list, how could I not go there?

While it’s quite easy to have a family-friendly getaway to Decorah, this time around, it was a kid-free, girls weekend for me. To make the most of having just 48 hours in Decorah, I partnered with Amber from Karst Adventures to guide my group through a bike ride and moonlight float down the river.

Dunning’s Springs

I’m a sucker for a good waterfall on vacation. This 200-foot waterfall is right in downtown Decorah in Dunning’s Spring Park, and so easy to get to. There is parking available, but you can do as we did, too, and simply bike to it. 

Waterfall at Dunning's Spring Park in Decorah, Iowa
My friend Amy and I climbed up the waterfall at Dunning’s Springs Park in Decorah, Iowa. 

Wear decent climbing shoes if you’re going to attempt to go up the waterfall. The water is cold and we saw children playing in the stream.

There are stairs, making an easy route to get to the top of the falls. The park has trails, including mountain bike trails. This was just a quick stop for us, so we didn’t explore beyond the waterfall.

Bridge near waterfall at Dunning's Spring Park in Decorah, Iowa
The arch stone bridge at Dunning’s Springs Park was made without any mortar.

While you’re there, check out the stone arch bridge. It was designed to be similar to one that was there more than 100 years ago, and the interesting thing is that no mortar was used to build it.

Biking the Trout Run Trail

Our group consisted of three women of varying abilities, and none of us had experience on mountain bikes, so the awesome mountain bike trails in Decorah were out of the question. We opted for tackling Trout Run Trail, a paved loop of about 10 miles that rides along the Upper Iowa River through cornfields, and past the fish hatchery and bald eagle nest.

Bike rider on Trout Run Trail in Decorah
This is what bike riding in Iowa is all about. It was beautiful riding along the Trout Run Trail in Decorah.

With Amber as our guide, we learned about the terrain the Driftless Area is known for, including the fascinating algific talus slope in the limestone walls where we could feel a cold breeze coming from the rock.

Driftless Area, in case you were wondering, is a region in the upper Midwest, that had glaciers. 

Guide from Karst Adventures in Decorah, Iowa
Amber started Karst Adventures in the summer of 2018. She was our guide both on the Trout Run Trail and, later that night, on the Upper Iowa River.

She was a good motivator for us, warning us of lengthy inclines and how to handle the switchbacks in the cornfields. And, she knew where exactly to look for the famous bald eagles nest in Decorah.

Feeding fish at the fish hatchery in Decorah, Iowa
Feeding the fish at the Decorah Fish Hatchery. This place is a hit would be a hit with my kids.

With pit stops to rest, and one to feed fish at the hatchery, our ride took up nearly the four hours of our rental.

Where to get your bikes: Amber met us at Decorah Bicycles, where we rented hybrid bikes for a four-hour span. In case you’re wondering, there are also mountain bikes and kids bikes available there.

The entire Trout Run Trail may be too difficult for young children, especially with some of the hills. They were a little grueling for us. If you do want to try it with kids, you can do an out-and-back from the bicycle shop to the fish hatchery. It’s flat (and you can look for the bald eagles nest while you’re out there).

Panoramic of the stream at the fish hatchery in Decorah, Iowa
A fisherman at a stream by the Decorah fish hatchery.

The location of Decorah Bicycles is convenient. It’s near the Trout Run Trail, first of all. But, it’s also a short ride from the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park. If you’re comfortable riding on the street, it’s easy to tack on a visit to the falls before getting on to the trail.

And conveniently, it’s near both The Whippy Dip and Pulpit Rock Brewing Co., so if you’re craving ice cream or beer after your ride, you’re covered.

Related post: Get dining suggestions for Decorah here.

Pulpit Rock Brewing Company beer glass
Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. is within walking distance of Decorah Bicycles, where we rented our bikes for the trail ride.

Kayaking the Upper Iowa River

If you don’t have a guide like Amber, it’s a good idea to check the water levels of the river before setting out on the Upper Iowa River. There are outfitters to rent kayaks, canoes or tubes. We got our kayaks from Off The Driftless.

Bonfire by the Upper Iowa River
We took a break during our moonlight float to snack and sit around a fire. Photo courtesy Vidar Skrede

We were fortunate enough to be in Decorah on a gorgeous full moon-lit night, so we had made plans to have a moonlight kayak float with our guide Amber, who runs Karst Adventures. The three of us in my group, again, had varying levels of kayaking abilities. We had all kayaked at least once, so we had that going for us. But it had been years for a few of us. If you’re going to do one of these nighttime floats, it’s pretty important to not be completely new to it.

Moonlight kayaking on the Upper Iowa River
We kayaked down the Upper Iowa River on a full moon in August. It was both peaceful and unsettling, especially when the fog rolled in. Photo courtesy Vidar Skrede

Our group was picked up from Off The Driftless and shuttled to a launching point. After a quick refresher on steering and getting into a kayak, we were off. To be honest, it was both unsettling and incredibly peaceful. Visibility was low, especially with the fog. 

It was an adventure, though, and engaged the senses. We were on high alert for anything in the water. We could hear beaver tails slapping the water, watch blue herons flutter away, and muse over the gang of geese walking in the water. The fog helped disguise us so animals weren’t so skittish. 

Moonlight kayaking on the Upper Iowa River
Fog and a full moon over the Upper Iowa River. Photo courtesy Vidar Skrede

My friends and I were unfamiliar with this river, so I would’ve appreciated having Amber as a guide in the daytime, but she was absolutely essential at night. The river was low in August, so we followed her to avoid shallow waters and fallen trees. 

When I return with my family, I’ll be reaching out to Amber to help customize an outdoorsy itinerary. Her work has largely focused on introducing women and children to outdoor pursuits and skill building. 

Kayaking, biking, and climbing a waterfall in Decorah, Iowa - Here's how to have an active getaway in eastern Iowa #thisisiowa #outdoors #adventure

Plan a trip to Decorah

Read about our experience staying at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Decorah, as well as all the great places we dined at in town. Norwegian Christmas desserts? We tried them. Wood fire on a farm? We went there. Here are my tips on where to stay and where to eat in Decorah 

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Kayaking the Upper Iowa River, biking, and climbing a waterfall in Decorah, Iowa - Here's how to have an active getaway in eastern Iowa around the Driftless Area #thisisiowa #outdoors #adventure
July 9, 2018

Tips For Visiting Blank Park Zoo In Des Moines

Blank Park Zoo is a hidden gem that’s a bit off the beaten path in Des Moines, Iowa. My family is most familiar with the downtown area and, of course, Adventureland; however, we decided this summer, it was time to pay this zoo a visit. I’m glad we did! I just wish we had allowed more time to explore – we visited on the last day of a great weekend in Des Moines.

Headed to Des Moines, Iowa? Here's why you don't want to skip a trip to Blank Park Zoo if you're going with kids! #thisisiowa #zoos #familytravel

Disclosure: Our trip was hosted by Catch Des Moines. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

You can explore the zoo in an afternoon – there are 22 acres of exhibits and facilities to see.

Indoor rainforest at the zoo in Des Moines
The zoo in Des Moines has an indoor rainforest with a low-hanging rope bridge.

Here are some of the things we discovered at the Des Moines zoo:

Not-to-miss animal encounters

Blank Park Zoo loads their summer days with animal encounters, keeper chats, feedings and more. You can see a schedule here. They are, of course, subject to change. We caught one of the Look & Learn educational programs near the penguins. It’s held daily at 11 a.m. If you arrive to the area at 10:45, you can watch the penguins being fed and then you’re just a few steps away from the animal program.

There are other encounters for an additional fee. My kids begged and begged to ride the camel, so we forked over the $6 each for them to ride.

Des Moines Zoo Camel Ride
For an additional fee, kids can ride a camel at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa.

A few of the other activities that are an additional fee include feeding parakeets ($2 for a feed stick, $1 for admission only), the train ride ($2.25 per person or $2 for members), and the carousel ($2.25 per person or $2 for members). They also had a face painting stand, which seemed like a sweaty mess waiting to happen.

One of my favorite add-ons was the giraffe feeding, which I thought was reasonably priced. My daughter and I also fed giraffes for $2 a treat (which was actually like several lettuce leaves). I thought it was more fun getting up close to giraffes than camels, but my daughter may have a different opinion about it.

Feeding giraffes at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa
Feeding giraffes at Blank Park Zoo was an additional fee but definitely a memorable experience.

Behind the Scenes Tours

I can’t vouch for how a one-on-one tour with a zoo keeper and animal goes, but Blank Park Zoo has several different Behind The Scenes Tours that sound awesome. Sign me up for the sea lion and penguin experience, pronto.

Note that each tour has a different age restriction, so younger kiddos might not be able to take some of the tours. Prices for non-members are $50 for kids younger than 11 and $100 for kids 12 and older.

If your family loves incredible animal encounters and small-group tours, check out Tanganyika Park in Kansas!

Most unique ways to see animals

I appreciate it when a zoo finds an interesting way to get you (safely) close to animals to observe them. Two of my favorites were at Blank Park Zoo.

There’s an underwater viewing area for the sea lion exhibit that was one of our favorites. The animals would swim past the windows frequently.

Des Moines Zoo Seal Viewing Window
The seal exhibit had above water and below water viewing areas. We especially enjoyed watching the animals swim underwater.

My kids liked crawling through the prairie dog tunnels and popping their heads into the bubble in the exhibit. Only attempt crawling through them yourselves if you don’t mind looking super awkward.

There’s also an area called the Australia Adventure. In theory, this exhibit sounds awesome – the animals, like a wallaby, roam freely as you walk the trail. However, the trail was closed the day we visited, so I’m not sure how many animals one would actually get to see in the exhibit. If you’ve visited and got to walk the trail, let me know how it was!

Best kids play area

Des Moines Zoo Kids Area
Inside the Kids Kingdom at the zoo in Des Moines, you’ll find a petting zoo and wooden playground.

Having visited many Midwest zoos, there always seems to be a playground of some sort planted somewhere within. Blank Park Zoo has a fantastic space that’s tied in with its petting zoo. Don’t skip Kids Kingdom, with plenty of room to climb and play.

Playground at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa USA
The playground at the Blank Park Zoo could be a destination in itself. It keeps kids busy for a long time.

And so you don’t have disappointed kids, you’ll need a $1 per food cup so your kids can feed the goats and llamas.

How to get a discount to Blank Park Zoo

If you have a membership to a zoo that belongs to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, you may get 50 percent off or event FREE admission to the zoo. For example, Omaha zoo members receive 50% off admission, while members of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo get FREE admission. Visit this AZA Reciprocal Admission Program page for more details and to check to see if your zoo participates. It’s also a good idea to call ahead to be sure.

I’ve written about the benefits of reciprocal programs for zoos, museums and botanical gardens, so check it out!

Want to explore more of Des Moines?

Living History Farms in West Des Moines, Iowa
My son liked the interactive exhibits at Living History Farms in West Des Moines.

This is the second time we’ve visited Des Moines with the kids. If you’re interested in seeing what there is to do in West Des Moines (like the Living History Farms), check out this post. To learn more about downtown Des Moines attractions, read this post.

To plan your own Des Moines family getaway, start with the Des Moines Bucket List.

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June 21, 2018

Family-Friendly Outdoor Activities Near Council Bluffs

There is a wealth of outdoor activities near Council Bluffs for you and your family to explore. From historical exploration and culture to sports and recreation, Iowa has something for everyone. Here are a few of our favorites.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Unleash CB. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Hitchcock Nature Center

Honey Creek, Iowa is home to Hitchcock Nature Center in Loess Hills, a formation of hills that provides refuge for animals. Hitchcock is situated on 1,268 acres in Loess Hills, and the activities that you can experience with your family will exceed your expectations. One of our favorite things to do at Hitchcock is climb the 45-foot observation deck. Looking into the horizon, you’ll see a 360-degree view of the natural beauty of the Missouri River Valley, the rolling Loess Hills, and the Omaha skyline. Keep walking and take a hike in the gorgeous park while you watch for the variety of birds that live in the area.

The tower at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa.

Hitchcock offers events all year round for children, adults, and families. Hiking clubs, Yoga in the Park, tours of Loess Hills, and even an Insect Club are some of the upcoming events. (There are additional costs for some events.) Park hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and admission is only $3 per car.

Related post:

Botna Bend Park

Another Pottawatamie County treasure is Botna Bend Park, an incredible 119-acre park in Hancock, Iowa. Canoeing, tubing, or kayaking on the Nishnabotna River will have you booking this excursion every year. It’s so easy to get in the water with Rubber Duck Outfitters. They’ll bring everything you need to float or boat from Hancock to Oakland.

What really puts Botna Bend on the list is the elk and bison you’ll see in the park. Bring your camera and snap some shots of these magnificent animals. Like the Hitchcock Nature Center, admission is just $3 per vehicle.

Western Historic Trails

Take a bike ride or walk along the historic trails to trace the paths of the early explorers, including those who traveled the Lewis & Clark, Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.

The Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The center has displays about four trails that have passed through the area: Lewis & Clark, Oregon, California and Mormon Trails

Start at the indoor Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa to plan your outdoor excursions and routes. These sites expand outside of Council Bluffs.

Wabash Trace Nature Trail

On the south end of Council Bluffs, you’ll find the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, a 63-mile crushed limestone trail. The trail has a $1 daily fee to use the trail. It’s ideal for biking and walking, and also home to the weekly Thursday night Taco Ride. If you join in the ride, know that it gets dark on the Taco Ride, so bring a light.

Lake Manawa State Park

Lake Manawa State Park is located within Council Bluffs and feature a large lake for boating and fishing, mountain bike trails, and a sandy beach. The large, wooden playground, Dreamland, is under construction.

Related post: 10 Things To Do This Fall In Council Bluffs

Zipline at Mount Crescent

Take your family to the fastest zipline in Nebraska and Iowa at Mount Crescent Ski in Crescent, Iowa. The ride starts with a ski lift ride followed by a 1600 ft (the length of 5 football fields) high flying zip. Starting at $45 per rider, each person will receive two zip line rides with their reservation. Before you zip, look around the observation deck and the scenic views of the area. View the wildflowers, hills, and wildlife as you soar through the air on your fantastic ride.

Ziplining at Mount Crescent in Crescent, Iowa.

In the winter, Mount Crescent is home to the only downhill skiing hills near the Omaha metro area.

Ditmars Orchard

In the fall, Ditmars Orchard is the place to be for apple picking, pumpkin patch browsing, and navigating the corn maze. There are annual special events at the orchard, as well, including hot air balloon glows, kite flying, and live music festivals.

A balloon glow at Ditmars Orchard in Council Bluffs.

It’s one of the closest apple orchards to the Omaha metro area, and one of my family’s favorites!

With all the outdoor activities in Western Iowa, one summer will not be enough to experience them all. Luckily, Iowa’s parks and recreation centers are open year round for your enjoyment. Come see all that Western Iowa has to offer!

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