Iowa is home to a variety of lake destinations. Depending on your vacation goal – relaxation or play time or a mix of both – I know a good lake for it. Here are three of my favorite lake vacations in Iowa: Lake Icaria, Clear Lake and Okoboji.
Vacation goal: Relaxation and getting away from it all
Consider Lake Icaria your bucolic lake destination. You’ll feel removed from crowds and traffic at this large lake located in rural western Iowa. There are trees and with occasionally rocky shorelines.
Lake Icaria is a county park, where you can have your pick of RVing, tent cabin, and my favorite, cabins. Even with cabins, you have the option of roughing it (cabin without water) or having all of your creature comforts with a large fully-equipped cabin.
This lake is great for fishing, tubing and water skiing, plus it has a small beach. There are a playground and a trail around the lake, as well.
It’s not totally remote, though. In the summer, food trucks park near the beach. We had barbecue one afternoon there, enjoying our lungh to-go in the covered picnic area facing the lake.
The nearest town is Corning, which has a few restaurants if you don’t feel like catching your dinner or grilling. We went to Three C’s Diner, which has the distinction of winning Iowa’s best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich one year.
I’m eager to go back and visit Primrose, which I heard about after our trip to Lake Icaria. Primrose is a creative farm-to-table restaurant. There’s also a winery that’s fairly close to the park.
Vacation goal: Relaxation with a coffee shop within easy reach
Clear Lake is a hidden gem in Iowa, offering modern conveniences within easy reach of lake relaxation. This is the place to go when you want a getaway that’s relaxing, but you aren’t about to rough it (unless you want to try a yurt).
If you’re looking for live music, a nearby grocery store, art center, or perhaps, a tiki bar on the beach, Clear Lake is your place.
Our motel was located directly on the shore of the lake. We ate breakfast outdoors and walked on the pier to watch the sunset. It was nothing fancy, but perfect for a family.
Clear Lake is small town of about 8,000 people with plenty of shopping, restaurants (and coffee shops), and cultural attractions. The Surf Ballroom is in Clear Lake, the historic concert venue and museum. Music fans can make the trek to the nearby field where the plane carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens crashed.
When we went to Clear Lake, we did the beach thing (of course…there are THREE beaches), rented a boat to cruise the lake, and explored a community garden. Our visit timed out with the Fourth of July celebration, so we also spent an evening riding rides and overeating cotton candy.
For restaurants, I highly recommend Starboard Market for great sandwiches and PM Park for a meal with a view – and that tiki bar I mentioned before. We actually went there for breakfast and lunch, and if I had to recommend one thing to try, I’d say go for the french cakes at breakfast.
Since my last visit, a brewery opened in Clear Lake that I’m eager to check out.
Vacation goal: Lakeside fun and a variety of entertainment options
Okoboji is the place to go in the Midwest when you don’t want to feel like you’re in the Midwest (though, you still can’t escape it). You’ll find a lakeside bar where boaters regularly drive up and park to enjoy lunch, live music, and perhaps, a beer or cocktail.
There is enough variety of lodging options that place you in the middle of all the fun or far away from it. Our hotel, Crescent Beach Family Resort, was far enough away that we could have quiet nights on the beach, and then in about 10 minutes, be right in the center of all activities.
The towns that make up the resort area of Okoboji has A LOT of dining options. My favorites included the great and quirky coffee shop Arnolds Perk, Tweeters for lunch and Pub 19 Bar and Grill, serving great pizza on a golf course in Spirit Lake. You can’t go to Okoboji in the summer without getting a Nutty Bar.
You’re going for the lakes, obviously, where you can boat, fish, kayak, and splash in the beach. But, if it’s a rainy day, you’ve got options too. We went to the Dickinson County Nature Center, which had a fun climber for the kiddos, as well as the surprisingly great Pearson Lakes Art Center, with the second-largest collection of Russian impressionist art outside of Russia, as well as a swell little art space for kids.
There’s just so much to do in Okoboji, it’ll be hard to ignore it all while you sit on a lounge chair with your feet in the sand.
Other Iowa destinations for water adventures
If lakes aren’t your thing…then why are you still reading? Just kidding. If you want some more ideas for a water adventure in Iowa, I shared quite a few of them in this list of 101 Things To Do In Iowa, including white water rafting, waterfalls, and moonlight kayaking on a river.
No matter which place you choose, be it a lake or a river or somewhere all together different, I think you’ll enjoy the Midwestern hospitality that’s common throughout Iowa. Happy travels!
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I’ve been planning trips to Iowa (and through Iowa) for years now. And there’s one thing I’m starting to see as a trend: Iowa doesn’t get the love it deserves for having amazing restaurant experiences. Time to set the record straight so you can plan your next road trip accordingly and visit a great restaurant.
I recruited some of my fellow travel bloggers to contribute their favorites to my list of the must-visit Iowa restaurants.
If you have a favorite restaurant in Iowa, leave a comment and let me know about it!
Eastern Iowa restaurants
The Mississippi River runs along the eastern side of Iowa, and the terrain is more unique (in my opinion) than the rest of the state. After you’re done exploring the outdoors, you’ll want some restaurant suggestions. Here are some eastern Iowa recommendations.
Brazen Open Kitchen
Why you should go: Brazen Open Kitchen is a farm-to-table restaurant, with a constantly changing menu and a focus on using locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
From their craft cocktails to their no-freezer focused kitchen, Brazen headed by Kevin Scharpf hits all the points of a top restaurant in Iowa.
Leah and Jay from Gatronom Blog were pleased by everything they ate at the two meals we had there.
They can’t tell you what to order, though, as the menu is constantly changing, but you won’t be unhappy with anything you order!
The restaurant is memorable for many reasons, she noted, including, the location. The scenery offers views of the Mississippi River and the Great River Road.
Breitbach’s is a German restaurant and is said to be the oldest food and drinking establishment in Iowa. Perched high on a hill in Balltown, the view was breathtaking.
The Breitbach restaurant was opened by Jacob Breitbach, the great-great-grandfather of the present owner. Jacob worked for the original owner and purchased the tavern in 1862. Ever since this has been a family business and the current owners are the sixth generation.
The original building has suffered from two devastating fires, but the Breitbach family rebuilt both times and although not the original building, it is built on the foundation and the building is filled with old country charm and is decorated in turn of the century furniture.
Breitbach’s makes everything fresh from scratch. They are the winner of Iowa Pork Producers’ best breaded Pork Tenderloin 2012. Cindy loved the food and the view and said she celebrated her birthday in style (which ended with an amazing snicker pie)!
Where: Iowa City
Why you should go: Dumpling Darling is a woman-owned restaurant in Iowa City. They started as a stall at the farmers market, and now they have a standalone restaurant in downtown.
It’s a casual, order-at-the-counter type place with indoor & outdoor seating. Great for people-watching in the summer, according to Cadry at Cadry’s Kitchen.
Over half of their menu is vegan or vegetarian. They’re always introducing new creative vegan specials like buffalo cauliflower dumplings or peach pie dessert dumplings.
On their regular menu, don’t miss the miso soup dumplings, chipotle tofu dumplings, roasted ramen salad, and fried Brussels sprouts in Korean BBQ sauce.
Luna Valley Farm
Why you should go: Dining at Luna Valley Farm was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in Iowa. This is a working farm, but on the weekends in the summer, the owners serve up pizza, beer and good times (in the form of live music).
I went with my sister and friend, and together we delicious wood-fire pizza alongside some local beer. You can’t go wrong with any of the toppings – a lot of the ingredients are grown or raised on the farm.
Even with a bit of rain, the atmosphere and crowd attitude was joyful. How could you not be with lights strung up and a band playing?
Tip: It’s off the beaten track, and you’ll make a trek from your car to the barn with the food, so wear comfortable shoes!
Ox Yoke Inn
Why you should go: Amana is the largest town in the famous Amana Colonies and its home to the “Big 3” of popular Amana restaurants. Each is known for large, hearty family-style meals.
Of the three, Ox Yoke Inn was the standout for me for food and service. You’ll want to get the fried chicken. I also recommend not passing on the homemade strawberry jam.
Northern Iowa restaurants
Northern Iowa is home to remarkable small towns and beautiful great lakes. And, lucky you, there are also some great north Iowa restaurants.
Central Perk Coffee House
Why you should go: Central Perk Coffee House is the kind of coffee shop you wished you had in your own town, according to Thrifty Jinxy. Not only do they have amazing coffee, but they also make hand-crafted smoothies, shakes, and Italian sodas.
What really stands out is their fabulous lunch menu with unique sandwiches and delicious salads. You can try both with their “pick two” option. (Try the Berry Salad – you won’t regret it!)
You can enjoy all this in their artfully decorated space with a heavy emphasis on wood and cozy spaces to enjoy your meal and/or chat with friends.
Where: Mason City
Why you should go: When you are ready to try one of the best steaks of your life, Melody from Wherever I May Roam recommends to go to Mason City, Iowa, and come hungry! Sink your teeth into a delicious Greek-style filet mignon, which is served swimming in its own natural juices.
Pair your perfect piece of meat with a side of Greek spaghetti, flavored by the steak juices, plenty of butter, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
The menu is small and the inside is dated, but you’ll never have a better meal than from this 1920 Iowa institution!
Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill
Why you should go: Located in a small town in northern Iowa, you’ll find one of the best Mexican restaurants in the whole state: Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill. And it’s locally-owned and -operated, to boot.
Mexican food in America is a finicky thing. Some people want TexMex while others want traditional Mexican food. Katy from Flint & Co. said Tequila’s has managed to find a happy balance.
Katy noted that the food is piping hot and fresh with large portions. She recommends going for the chicken nachos.
While the food is amazingly delicious, the service is just as good, she told me.
Central Iowa restaurants
Central Iowa is home to Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines, as well as quite a few excellent restaurants.
Where: Des Moines
Why you should go: If time allows, Des Moines is always a pit stop for us on any Iowa road trip, and Fong’s Pizza is where we head. There are several locations, but I recommend the downtown Des Moines location for max kitschiness.
When there, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to order a crab rangoon pizza. And if you’re of age, get one of their fun tiki drinks.
Honorable mention for Des Moines: If I don’t feel like eating pizza in Des Moines, my next go-to is Zombie Burger. It’s another favorite of mine.
The decor alone would be reason enough to visit (especially the east end location). The food, though, is superb and creative.
Where: Urbandale (there’s also a location in Davenport)
Why you should go: A reader also reminded me of a restaurant near Des Moines that should be on the list (and I agree with him on this): Machine Shed.
We had dinner at this huge restaurant one our Great Iowa Road Trip, and the decor and huge servings were all memorable. Try, try try to save room for dessert.
Good luck with that!
Western Iowa restaurants
Western Iowa is known for the trails through the beautiful Loess Hills and its connection to Lewis & Clark. And now, as you’ll learn, it’s known for some great restaurants, too!
Where: Le Mars
Why you should go: Located in Le Mars, Iowa—the self-proclaimed “Ice Cream Capital of the World”—Archie’s Waeside is a classic supper club and steakhouse with a cult-like following, according to Megan at Olio in Iowa.
Opened in 1949 by Archie Jackson, the supper club was once just a roadhouse with a carry-out window and two small booths. Today it is a full-service steakhouse complete with classic cocktails, an impressive relish tray, and melt-in-your-mouth steaks.
Be sure to arrive early! On any given weekend night, a crowd begins forming outside of Archie’s Waeside in anticipation of its 4:30 p.m. opening.
Archie’s Waeside isn’t just about comfort food. The restaurant has received some notable culinary honors. In 2015, Archie’s Waeside was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s American Classics Award.
Where: Elk Horn
Why you should go: From the moment that you walk into Larsen’s Pub, you know that this is the place to eat, Thena at HodgePodge Hippie tells me. With pork tenderloins the size of your head, there is no way that you’re going home hungry.
Their pork tenderloins huge, and they’ve also been voted “Best Tenderloin in Iowa,” as well. And if you’re a lover of sides, like Thena is, you don’t want to miss out on their fries and potato salad.
This ambiance in this pub is one that will have you coming back time and time again.
Stanley’s Snack Shack
Where: Honey Creek
Why you should go: Quite literally, Stanley’s is a shack in the middle of a field. And it’s worth a trip to visit!
Stanley’s opened after the success of the goat’s milk gelato the Honey Creek Creamery had been selling at farmer’s markets. Now you can go straight to the source for the gelato. While they sell burgers, I’ve only ever wanted the gelato.
When we visited, they had a few goats nearby to meet. We had quite an experience there – one of the employees came out to greet us and show us how to milk one of them.
Iowa is one of my favorite Midwest states to explore because it is full of wonderful outdoor opportunities, great food, and cultural attractions. Plus, Iowa has its fair share of quirky and strange road side attractions!
Read to explore Iowa? Here’s a list of 101 things to inspire your next Iowa road trip! I’ve divided up the list into sections:
Top on my list is Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa – it has 16 caves to explore. There’s Spook Cave near McGregor, where you can tour the cave by boat.
Crystal Lake Cave is one not too far from downtown Dubuque. It’s a cave where you can take a 90-minute Wild Cave Tour that takes you deeper into the cave, with some passages requiring belly crawling.
Rock climb in the Midwest
Head to central and eastern Iowa to find rock climbing opportunities. Chief among them is Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon, Backbone State Park near Dundee and Pictured Rocks County Park near Monticello.
Don cross country skis or snow shoes for the annual Candlight Ski along Waverly Rail Trail in Waverly. The event, held on the first Saturday of February, is held on a.11-mile portion of the trail.
Catch a harness race
If you’ve never heard of harness racing, head to the Taylor County Fairgrounds in June. Rather than racing on the horse like a jockey, horses race as they pull a small, two-wheel cart and rider.
Kayak and canoe rivers
Voted as one of the most scenic in America, the Upper Iowa River is found in Eastern Iowa. You can launch near Decorah. If you time it right, you can try kayaking by moonlight!
Why just do yoga or standup paddleboard when you can do both? Try it at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo.
Take a train ride
It’s a bit of a drive to get to, but Boone is home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The railroad offers out-and-back rides and many of them are themed (and appeal to families) – imagine something along the lines of Thomas the Tank Engine and “Polar Express.”
Take a mini train ride
Each summer on the weekends, kids can take rides on the miniature steam train at Watson Station in Missouri Valley. The ride includes a bridge and a pass through a 50-foot tunnel.
Not for the faint of heart, but definitely a lot of fun, RAGBRAI is an annual bike ride across Iowa that takes several days to complete. Bike all day and enjoy the fun all night. The host cities change each year, so the festivities change.
Scenic bike rides
If you have a mountain bike or hybrid, try the crushed limestone Wabash Trace Trail that runs north to south in western Iowa. Road bike? Try the Trout Run Trail in Decorah. Another trail I’ve heard is good, even for road bikes, is Cedar Valley Nature Trails.
Do the Taco Ride
Keeping with the bicycle theme, there’s one last item on this list to be done on two wheels – the Thursday night Taco Ride along the Wabash Trace Trail in Western Iowa. Leaving from Council Bluffs, cyclists ride about 10 miles to Mineola for dinner at Tobey Jack’s Mineola Steakhouse, and they pedal their way back. Hundreds of people do it each week and it’s a blast!
Tip: Wear a helmet, bring a bike light, and watch for cyclists on the way back who may have had one too many drinks at the half-way point.
Bison were once native to Iowa, and now, there are just a handful of places to see them. In central Iowa, visit the Van Meter farm Bare Bison on a Saturday to meet them. In Western Iowa, Botna Bend Park in Hancock is home to a small herd of bison.
Stay in a yurt
What’s a yurt, you ask? It’s like a more permanent tent, like not quite a glamping experience but definitely a step above camping. Find two yurts at McKintosh State Park in Clear Lake. The view is worth it!
Ski in Iowa
The closest ski resort to my home is in Honey Creek called Mount Crescent Ski Area. You can also find ski slopes at in Dubuque and Seven Oaks in Boone.
Attend a maple tree tapping
You might associate maple tree tapping and maple syrup pancake feeds with more northern states, but visit Botna Bend in Hancock at the right time and you can attend an event for each.
Play in the Iowa Great Lakes
The Okoboji region is a popular summer destination for families. Consisting of six lakes, AKA the Iowa Great Lakes, the region is the place to go for boating, fishing, and my kids’ favorite, playing on the beach.
Find your Christmas tree at a tree farm
It’s like a scene out of a movie: Finding the perfect Christmas tree at a bucolic tree farm. I’m most familiar with the Council Bluffs tree farm, Dappen Tree Farm. Here’s a list of seven other Iowa tree farms where you can find a great fir or pine.
If you know me, you know I LOVE waterfalls. Iowa has some pretty ones. An easy one to climb is in Decorah.
Iowa is home to whitewater rafting parks, including one in Manchester and another in Charles City.
Splash at a waterpark
Adventureland in Altoona has a large waterpark that’s included with admission to the amusement park. You can also cool off at Lost Island Waterpark in Waterloo.
Pick apples at an orchard
Iowa is home to a lot of apple orchards, but a few that have been vouched for by my travel writing friends include Wilson Orchard near Iowa City and my favorite, Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.
Bike across High Trestle Trail Bridge
The centerpiece of the High Trestle Trail near Madrid, this pedestrian bridge is so unique, it’s was named by the BBC as one of the world’s eight most amazing footbridges Go there by day or night, as it’s lit by mesmerizing blue LED lights.
Watch waterski stunts
I’ve been obseswsed with the idea of water ski stunts ever since I saw a picture of a pyramid of water skiers. The Waterhawks perform stunts on Eagle Lake in Waterloo each summer.
Stroll botanical gardens
There are gorgeously cultivated gardens around the state of Iowa, including Reiman Gardens in Ames and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
Food & drink in Iowa
Sip some wine
Iowa is home to six wine trails! The wineries I’m most familiar with are on the Western Iowa Wine Trail, including Prairie Crossing Vineyard and Winery and Breezy Hills Winery.
Take on some food challenges
Not one to shy away from a challenge? Iowa has some gut-busters for you. Head to Des Moines to try the Adam Emmenecker Challenge at Jethro’s BBQ. It involves all of the basketball star’s favorite foods and you have to eat it all in 15 minutes (including but not limited to brisket, pork tenderloin, a cheeseburger, fried cheese curds and a pound of fries).
While you’re in Des Moines, stop at B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli to attempt to put down the Killosal Sandwich.
Other food challenges can be found in Waterloo, home to the 28,890 Challenge at the Screaming Eagle; Carroll, where you can take on the The Carrollton Challenge at Charlie’s Steakhouse; and Ames, where you can try to eat the Triple Double Food Challenge at Brick City Grill.
Eat pizza on a farm
One of the most unique dining experiences I’ve had was at Luna Valley Farm near Decorah. The farm offers wood-fire oven pizza on special nights, using ingredients they’ve grown or raised on the farm!
When I went, they also had a band playing and had local beer on tap. It was the perfect Friday night.
Try a pork tenderloin as big as your head
You will not go hungry if you attempt to traverse Iowa’s Tenderloin Trail. There are 14 stops on the trail, and some of ginormous sandwiches. (I’m looking at you, Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City)
Participate in a donut eating contest
Head to Elkader in July for the Sweet Corn Days. Among the many activities planned is the donut hole eating contest, held at Pedretti’s Bakery (home to some of Iowa’s best donuts!).
Enjoy the best apple cider donut ever
It’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. I love the freshly made apple cider donuts at Ditmars Orchard in Council Bluffs. Being an apple orchard, they also have u-pick apples, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I purposely go there just for the donuts.
Drink out of a happy cat
I’m a fan of Fong Pizza in Des Moines and we stop for pizza every time we pass through the city. If we’re not in a rush, we order one of their mixed drinks that come in quirky glasses.
Boat up to the Barefoot Bar
The Barefoot Bar is a bit of the tropics in the middle of the Heartland. Boaters pull up daily to grab a few drinks, hear the live music, and maybe cool off by sliding into the lake. Barefoot Bar is located in Okoboji.
Go for some gourmet food
The chefs from one of my favorite Omaha restaurants, Lot 2, moved to Corning to open Primrose, a restaurant that sources its ingredients from local farms.
Dine family-style in Amana Colonies
There are three restaurants in Amana that come highly recommended for their family-style dining. If I had to pick one for you to try, I would recommend Ox Yoke Inn (and don’t pass on trying the strawberry jam and fried chicken…not together…unless you want to).
About five years ago, Iowa ranked 15th in the U.S. for the amount of breweries per capita – 33. There are even more now. A few that I’ve tried (and liked) include Pulpit Rock in Decorah, which is near a biggie among beer nerds (Toppling Goliath Brewery, which sells five beers on the Top Beers of the Year list by RateBeer).
Get an ice cream headache
Iowa is home to the ice cream capital of the world, so you know they love their ice cream (Le Mars is the place to visit the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream).
Additionally, I recommend going to Lagomarchino’s in Davenport. Be sure to head to the original location to be tempted by the candy treats as much as the sundaes.
Some of the more unique destinations include Kalona Chocolates in Kalona, an Amish town in central Iowa where it’s not uncommon to see horse-drawn wagons in transit; The Chocolate Haus in the Amana Colonies; and Palmer’s Candy in Sioux City, which is one of the oldest candy companies in the U.S. (and home to the Cherry Bing).
Eat a Dutch letter
Iowa has its fair share of Dutch communities, and each one (it seems) has a bakery with the best Dutch letter. These “s” shaped pastries are tasty. You can find Dutch letters in Boone County at Van Hemert’s Dutch Oven Bakery or head to Orange City to get one at the Dutch Bakery.
Dine at the Sistine Chapel
OK, full disclosure. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, just an incredible replica of the famous ceiling spray painted on the ceiling of Galleria de Paco, a restaurant in Waterloo.
Ride in the Grapemobile
Iowa has a surprising number of wineries, but few can offering what Tassel Ridge Winery offers at its vineyard in Mahaksa County: The Tassel Ridge Grapemobile. Seasonally, it’s used to take visitors on tours of the vineyard.
Eat a loose meat sandwich
Do you call these things taverns or Maid-Rites? Whatever you want to call them, Iowans have been eating loose meat sandwiches for decades. They’re not quite a hamburger or a sloppy joe. They’re their own thing.
Try the nuns’ candy
Monastery Candy in Dubuque is home to the world-famous caramels made by nuns. Word is, the hazelnut meltaways are the best.
Take a bit of headcheese
For the adventurous eater, head to the Amana Colonies to try headcheese from Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse in Amana. I’ll admit, when we stopped by that shop, we just stuck to sausage and cheese, though.
Only in Iowa experiences
Visit Captain Kirk’s future birthplace
I know, I know, “Star Trek”’s Capt. Kirk hasn’t even been born yet. That doesn’t stop the town of Riverside from celebrating its most famous fictitious resident. Places to stop include Voyage Home Museum with memorabilia and the photo opp in front of the U.S.S. Riverside out front.
Look for the marker of his official future birthplace behind New Image Salon and if you’re really a fan, look for the plaque commemorating where he was conceived (it’s in Murphy’s Bar & Grille).
Find those famous covered bridges
You’ve heard of the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” right? Madison County is in Iowa and you can go find those bridges. Grab a map from the Winterset Chamber of Commerce office or even book a guided tour.
Marvel at Matchstick Marvels
The Matchstick Marvels museum in Gladbrooke contains matchstick replicas of buildings and pop culture icons like the 1970 Dodge Charger from the “Fast & Furious” movies.
Head to Dyersville to see the famous ballpark in the middle of a cornfield made for the movie “Field of Dreams.” In the summer, there are Ghost Sunday events. In 2020, an actual MLB game will be played there.
Stay the night in the Villisca Axe Murder House
If you dare, you can book an overnight stay at the Villisca Axe Murder House. For the rest of us, there’s the option of touring the infamous home in the daylight.
Visit one of the last rotary jails
You can tour Historic Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs and see one of the oldest rotary jails in the United States (think “lazy Susan”-esque). It’s notoriously haunted, and occasionally there are flashlight tours offered.
Visit the first aronia berry farm in the U.S.
Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm in Missouri Valley was the first farm in the U.S. to grow the superfood called the aronia berry. The farm hosts the North American Aronia Berry Festival each September.
Living Loess Tour
Held on the third Saturday of the month from May to October, the Living Loess Tour offers travelers the opportunity to visit farms and rural attractions in western Iowa. My family has been able to make nature art on a farm, milk a goat, and hike when we did a portion of the tour.
Each stop offers a stamp and if you visit all seven on the Saturday of the tour, you can enter your passport in for a prize.
Attend a quirky festival
The quirky festivals in Iowa are year-round, but some of the most interesting happen in the summer. There’s TrekFest held each June in Riverside, the hometown of the fictional character Capt. James T. Kirk.
August has two great ones to consider: Iowa Tugfest pits two teams in an epic tug-of-war across the Mississippi River each August. Find the Iowa team fighting from the Leclaire side of the river. Britt Hobo Days has started up around the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt each August.
See the Little Mermaid
OK, OK, this is not the Disney Little Mermaid I’m talking about. Kimballton is a small town in western Iowa that’s home to a replica of the famous Danish statue of the Little Mermaid. Find it at Mermaid Park (obviously).
Strike a pose with goat yoga
Honey Creek Creamery in Honey Creek offers goat yoga sessions in the spring. While it’s definitely more goat cuddling and ogling than yoga, it’s a refreshing experience to try stretches on a farm.
Milk a goat
Return to Honey Creek a few months later and you might get to milk one of those mama goats. The creamery runs Stanley’s Snack Shack, a tasty restaurant known for their goat’s milk gelatos. Oh, and they have goats located near the restaurant and if you ask nice enough, you can milk one of them.
See a bit of WWII history in Algona
The small town of Algona was once home to a POW camp that housed German, Italian and Japanese prisoners. The story goes that a German POW began constructing a Nativity scene, and in time, he and several others built 65 pieces of a set that’s about half of life-size. It’s on display at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds during the holidays each year.
Reenact a scene out of “The Music Man”
Mason City is the birthplace of Meredith Willson, who wrote the 1962 musical. Head to the Music Man Square to find the 1912 “River City” indoor streetscape, a recreation from the set design of the movie. While there, might as well tour his home and the Meredith Willson Museum, where you can seek out the “76 Trombones” hanging from the ceiling.
Make a music pilgrimage
On Feb. 3, 1959, the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valence and the Big Bopper crashed in a cornfield in Iowa. A memorial exists at the crash site near Clear Lake that fans visit year-round.
Visit the Surf Ballroom
The concert venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and the Big Bopper played was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Concerts are still held there. You can visit any time, even without a concert ticket – take a self-guided tour of the historic ballroom during regular hours.
Be sure to visit the green room where hundreds of autographs dot the walls (and ceiling).
Des Moines Arts Festival
Every June, thousands of art aficionados take to the streets of Des Moines to view works (and maybe purchase one) in this outdoor juried art show. It’s huge! And, if you’re going with kids, there’s a great area for families you’ll want to visit.
Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator
The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque is the world’s steepest, shortest scenic elevator. You can see two other states while at the top.
See a windmill up close
One of the closest windmills to Omaha is in Elk Horn, a small town heavily influenced by its Dutch roots. However, if you want to go inside a windmill, head to Pella, where you can take a tour of the Vermeer Windmill, the largest working windmill in the U.S.
Visit Effigy Mounds
Effigy Mounds, a national monument in Harpers Ferry, contains more than 200 mounds, many shaped like animals. It’s an American Indian burial and ceremonial site located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley.
Snap a photo of the Round Barn
Just north of Bedford, you’ll find the beautifully restored Round Barn. Built in 1907 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The barn is exactly what it sounds like. Find it at the Taylor County Museum.
Go on “America’s Racin’ Vacation”
Boone Speedway, AKA “Iowa’s Action Track,” hosts the International Motor Contest Association Super Nationals each September. For one week, champions are crowned in Modified, Stock Car, Late Model, Hobby Stock, Northern SportMod, Southern SportMod, and Sport Compact races. Many race fans make a week-long vacation out of the Super Nationals.
Visit the only ice harvest museum in the U.S.
Learn what ice harvesting at the Ice House Museum, a round building designed to hold millions of pounds of ice harvested from the Cedar River. There are hands-on activities to try in the museum housed in a former ice house.
See a small town lightshow
The Lewis Memorial Fountain in the Town Square of Sigourney is unique in that it has a nightly rotating light show from May through September. The multicolored, three-tiered fountain has been around for nearly 80 years.
Tackle Snake Alley
Ripley’s Believe It or Not named Snake Alley as the “CROOKEDEST Street in the World.” Find this curvy road in Burlington.
See the Hula Hoop Tree
Head to rural Jones County to find the Amber Hula Hoop Tree, a whimsical sight to be certain. Hundreds of brightly colored hula hoops hang from the tree. Note: There is no place to park there, so put on your hazard lights when you stop to take a picture (which you will want to do).
Tour the capitol building
This building is gorgeous, but most importantly, taking a tour of the Iowa State Capitol means you get to see the most magnificent law library ever.
Ride in a hot air balloon during the National Balloon Classic
If you don’t own a hot air balloon, you can still fly in one during the National Balloon Classic held in Indianola in late July-early August. People can make a reservation for the ride. Of course, you can always just watch from the ground, too.
On the western side of the state, you can attend a balloon glow every September at Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.
Appreciate the (free) public art
The Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines is well worth a detour if you’re near the city. The modern art is creative, huge, and Instagrammable. Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa is also home to a lot of unique public art.
See the Grotto of the Redemption
Here’s a rather unexpected find in West Bend – the Grotto of the Redemption. Taking more than 40 years to complete, this grotto is the largest man-made grotto in the world.
Learn about a Suffragette
Visit the girlhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who fought hard for the right to vote throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. The home is located near Charles City. If you visit with kids, there are a few interactives, including some period costumes to try on.
No need to travel to the coasts to find stunning works of art. A few art museums worth a visit include Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center.
Stay in a historic hotel
Iowa is home to several historic hotels that continue to offer unique overnight stays. Some of the longest running hotels include the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, which opened in 1839, and the Black Hawk in Cedar Falls, which is more than 165 years old.
Other hotels include Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah, which opened in 1905, and Hotel Pattee, a hotel in Perry that was built in 1913.
Learn hobo history
Britt, Iowa, is home to The Hobo Museum and the National Hobo Convention. The museum contains artifacts to preserve the culture of this small community, including items from Frisco Jack and Connecticut Slim.
Visit the country’s first all-organic city
South of Iowa City is the small town of Maharishi Vedic City, established as a meditation-themed community. The city is designed to promote happiness and balance, and everything is designed right down to which direction the buildings face and with rooms at precise proportions. Also, the city has banned pesticides and non-organic foods.
Dive into wrestling history
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo explores the 5,000+ years of the sport, including regular ol’ wrestling and professional wrestling.
Find the Volkswagen Beetle Spider
Just what the heck is this? Well, it’s a black Volkswagen Beetle made into a spider sculpture, of course. Find it in Avoca, a little less than 2 miles south of Interstate 80.
See the world’s smallest church
Built in 1885, the world’s smallest church seats eight people and can be found in Festina, near Decorah. In all, the chapel is 14 feet by 20 feet.
Visit Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum
I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I had my fair share of Cabbage Patch dolls. Even so, I could never compete with what’s on display at Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum in Griswold. See more than 3,000 dolls on display, including some that had the dreaded “Cabbage Patch Pox.”
Family-friendly things to do in Iowa
Visit a pumpkin patch in the fall
Some of the closest pumpkin patches to Omaha include Pioneer Trail Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Council Bluffs and McCurdy’s Pumpkins in Atlantic. For a list of 10 pumpkin patches in Iowa, click here.
We make sure to visit them whenever we’re nearby, thanks to the free admission we get with the reciprocal membership benefits we get through out Omaha Children’s Museum membership.
Go to the Iowa State Fair
Sure, there are butter cows at the Iowa State Fair, but I suspect there is something bigger and even greater to see there. Why else was it included in the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”? Clearly, the Iowa State Fair stands out over other fairs.
Ride a historic carousel
Story City is home to a classic antique carousel that’s still in operation. And rides were pretty cheap!
Walk through history
Living History Farms, located in Urbandale near Des Moines, is an outdoor attraction that recreates farm life from various eras. There are hands-on opportunities and the chance to interact with costumed re-enactors.
Visit a dairy farm…with kangaroos
I don’t exactly know why, but Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson is seventh generation family farm. Take a tour and you’ll meet their kangaroos. Because, why not have kangaroos?
Snow shoe in the Loess Hills
One of my favorite things to try with my kids this past winter was snow shoeing. We rented snow shoes at the visitor center at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, and enjoyed the fresh air and views.
Ride on Thomas the Tank Engine
Got a fan of Thomas? Check the calendar to see when the annual Day Out With Thomas is at the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone. The engine is the legit Thomas.
Feed a giraffe
For just a couple dollars, you can be amazed at the awkwardness and cuteness of a giraffe up close. Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines offers a giraffe feeding experiences as a little add-on to your zoo visit. I highly recommend it!
Exploring Iowa cities
While this list is epic, I didn’t include everything (because that’s impossible). If you want some more ideas, consider these posts for specific Iowa cities:
If you’re planning a trip to Okoboji, Iowa, you’re most likely in need of a hotel or other type of accommodations for your family. Okoboji is not a one-day kind of region to visit. We spent three days exploring the area and still didn’t get to a few places on our list. This guide should help you narrow down where you’ll want to stay during your trip to Okoboji!
Disclosure: We were hosted by Vacation Okoboji, which provided some complimentary experiences and hotel stays. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
Where do you want to stay in Okoboji – near the action or away from it?
When I write about Okoboji, I’m referring to a region of Iowa’s Great Lakes, and not just the town of Okoboji. With several lakes (West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar, Minnewashta and Spirit Lake), you can easily find a location that suits your preference of being near the action or away from it.
The downside to being in Arnolds Park and Okoboji is that you will encounter significantly more traffic and noise.
If that’s not what you’re looking for, consider staying further from the center of activity on the western side of the lakes, like Wahpeton or West Okoboji.
Our resort, Crescent Beach Family Resort, was in Milford (near Wahpeton), which was a quiet region that was still less than 10 miles from all attractions. It’s near Gulf Point State Park.
The downside to Crescent Beach’s location was there weren’t a lot of dining options nearby for a quick bite to eat. The upside (if you’re into doing so while on vacation) was that our suite had its own kitchen to prepare meals.
Is lakeside lodging important to you?
Of course the lakes are a big for vacationers in Okoboji! You’ll find more than 20 hotels, campsites and resorts that are lakeside.
If you are on a budget, look “inland” for accommodations. The perk with these inland hotels will be that you’re more likely to find a pool there, which for traveling families, is almost a required amenity.
There are also cabins, bed & breakfasts, and camping options.
What amenities do you want in your Okoboji hotel?
While typically when traveling with two kids, I just need a place with enough beds and a pool. In Okoboji, the pool was not necessary since we had beaches at our disposal.
What are you looking for in a beach vacation hotel? Okoboji accommodations range from bare minimum motels to spacious resorts that include use of watercraft into their price.
Crescent Beach Family Resort is a mid-range resort that offered regular rooms and suites. We stayed in a two-floor suite with lake views, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. It’s ideal for families.
Beyond the amenities in the room, the resort offered free use of kayaks, SUP boards, paddle boats and putters for its mini golf course.
Plus, it had a large playground, fire put, on-site bar and restaurant, and a complimentary continental breakfast.
If that type of resort appeals to you, check out the options for the region at Vacation Okoboji. You’ll find there’s everything from a resort with an indoor waterpark, plus lakeside resorts with pools, hot tubs, and some in-suite jacuzzis.
Are you looking for a kid-friendly resort or hotel?
Okoboji is an incredibly kid-friendly destination. Most Okoboji hotels will be suitable for families, and some have suites available.
At the Crescent Beach Family Resort, you’ll notice right away that they cater to families – the big playground gives it away.
However, it’s the more subtle amenities that reaffirms its family-friendly atmosphere. They provide kid-sized life jackets when guests check out a watercraft.
Crescent Beach also has a big box of beach toys on the sandy beach. Since I didn’t pack buckets or shovels for the kids for our trip, it was a particularly great find for us.
My daughter spent every chance she had on the beach, digging through the sand and wading into the cool water (it was late May and the water hadn’t warmed much).
If you’re looking for a kid-free getaway, consider staying at a bed & breakfast, which typically cater more to couples and adults looking to stay somewhere quieter.
Do you need an Okoboji rental or hotel large enough for a group?
I think Okoboji would be a great family reunion destination – it’s affordable, it has both indoor and outdoor activities, and it’s in the center of the U.S.
Many resorts are large enough to have rooms or suites for families.
There was a family reunion staying at the Crescent Beach, while we were there. The family had rooms at this resort and met nightly on grassy lawn for a cookout and games.
Crescent Beach does have larger suites and cottages, including one that sleeps 12. You can see in the picture above that the cottage is in the background.
Do your research to find accommodations that suit your group’s needs. If you like the idea of everyone staying in one big home, there are Airbnb options that accommodate 20-30 people.
Start looking for Okoboji hotels
Hopefully, you have an idea of what you’re looking for now and are ready to start planning your trip to Lake Okoboji! Here’s where to find the best lodging for you:
Southwest Iowa is full of day trip adventures for families in the Omaha metro. One county that’s has a lot to offer is Pottawattamie County, which includes cities like Council Bluffs, Walnut and Crescent. Here’s a list of attractions, activities and other fun things to do with kids in Pottawattamie County.
Related post: Did you know Pottawattamie County is the Trail Capital of Iowa? Read about 14 trails you can find there!
Water activities in Pottawattamie County
If your kids are like mine, it’s always best if it involves water. Walnut is home to a cool splash pad that is up and running.
If you guys are pool purists, the Oakland Pool is big, with a short diving board and plenty of room for friends. If you are more about zero-depth and water slides, check out the Splash Aquatic Center in Avoca, complete with a dog park next door for your furry friends.
Pottawattamie County is also home to great summer events. Catch the Carson Rodeo Aug. 1-3. Thursday night during the rodeo is the kids’ night, including a chance to mutton-bust. (No worries, moms, they can just watch, too.) They also have a parade that Saturday of the rodeo.
Speaking of parades, Avoca and Oakland both have Fourth of July parades with plenty of candy to last the whole summer. Underwood also has Fourth of July festivities with a downhome feel.
Rural Pottawattamie takes fairs seriously. Swing through the East Pottawattamie County Fair from July 18-21 for plenty of animals to pet, a tractor pull to watch, and art in the park.
WestFair kicks off July 24-29 in Council Bluffs with livestock shows and carnival rides for everyone!
Best free thing to do in Pottawattamie County
One of the most interesting, educational whole family activities I know of is geocaching. Pottawattamie County has a lot of spots including one outside Oakland, one in Carson, and one near Crescent.
Get a little time in nature and feel the excitement of a treasure hunt with geocaching.
Best southwest Iowa parks
You can’t beat the parks in Pottawattamie County! Double check the one you want to visit is open, as a few are closed due to flooding in 2019. Here are a few you can visit:
– The Shelby Trail has historic architecture and ends at the world’s largest corn stalk.
– Neola has brand-new playground equipment put in May 2019. Arrowhead Park has fishing and camping.
– The grand-daddy of them all parks in Pottawattamie County is Hitchcock Nature Center. It’s is worth the hike. The view is amazing and they have programming year-round.
Tip: Hitchcock Nature Center is part of the 99 Parks campaign in Iowa. Read all about it in this post.
Whatever you’re looking for, it’s only a short drive away in Pottawattamie County.
About the guest blogger
This post was written by a good friend of mine, Erica, who I met when she was a blogger but now she’s the director of Western Iowa Development Association. Have any questions? You can email Erica at EricaForWIDA@gmail.com. She also suggested you all check out the upcoming events at www.WIDAIowa.org.
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Arnolds Park Amusement Park is a nostalgic gem in the heart of Iowa. This historic attraction has played a lead role in memories for many people in Iowa and Nebraska who’ve vacationed in Okoboji. I’ve never been until I became a parent, but now I can finally check it off my list.
Want to plan a visit with your family? Read on for my tips on the park, plus all the important things you need to know about Arnolds Park should you be planning your first visit.
Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Vacation Okoboji and I received complimentary passes. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
What is Arnolds Park?
First off, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about Arnolds Park. There is the town of Arnolds Park in north central Iowa and then there’s Arnolds Park Amusement Park. The amusement park is commonly referred to as Arnolds Park, though.
The amusement park dates back to its first water slide into West Lake Okoboji in 1889. Its most famous ride, the wooden roller coaster called The Legend, opened in 1930. Still in operation, it’s the seventh oldest wooden roller coast in the U.S. and the 13th oldest in the world.
Today, there are about 24 rides and attractions at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. It’s on the small end of amusement parks but I think that’s what adds to the charm. You’re not exhausted by the visit.
Plus, it’s FREE! Well, technically it’s free, but if you want to ride any rides, you’ll need to get a wristband. More on that below.
Hidden gems of Arnold Park
My kids will tell you everything is a gem there. However, there are some hidden gems you should seek out during your visit.
Right outside the amusement park and right in front of a line of souvenir shops, you’ll find Harmony Park. The park has several musical instruments to play.
If your child has sensory overload from all the rides, this is a nice place to sit and chill out. It’s rather calming to play the xylophone and bells.
You may have seen pictures of the huge Arnolds Park slide. My husband remembers the slide from his childhood. It’s no longer in the amusement park itself, but you can find it nearby.
The slide is located inside the Arnolds Park Museum (which I found by going through the Maritime Museum). Because we had day passes to the amusement park, we could ride the slide as much as we wanted.
Both museums are interesting to wander around, but good luck doing that with young kids. Most will be more interested in the slide or going back to the amusement park.
What’s the best age to go to Arnolds Park Amusement Park?
When I visited, my kids were ages 7 and 9 and that was, in my view, the start of ideal ages to go. They were tall enough to go on all of the rides, including the thrill rides.
The height requirement for a few was 48 inches to ride alone. The Legend being the only one that required a ride be 48 inches to ride with or without an adults. My youngest only needed me to ride with her on the bumper cars since she wasn’t tall enough to drive.
And they were small enough to not feel too self-conscious if they wanted to go on kiddie rides. It was perfect!
If your children are younger than grade school age, there are fewer rides for them. But, you don’t want to skip some of the non-ride attractions like the Mirror Maze and the Tipsy House.
Tip: For the best views of the West Okoboji Lake, ride either the Ferris wheel or The Legend.
Arnolds Park hours and prices
Being an amusement park in the Midwest, you can imagine that Arnolds Park operates seasonally. Arnolds Park opens in mid-May through September.
The hours vary, with the peek operating hours being in June and July. Starting the Friday before Memorial Day, the park starts opening daily at 10 a.m. The closing time varies between 7 to 10 p.m. Check the calendar to plan your visit.
If you want a tip about timing the visit, let me tell you, we went on the Sunday before Memorial Day and it was great! The summer crowds hadn’t arrived yet, so we had minimal waits for rides.
In fact, for my kids’ two favorite rides, The Legend and the Rock-O-Plane, they were able to stay seated and ride a few times before having to exit.
Like most summer tourist attractions, weekends are going to busier than weekdays.
Admission is offered by day pass and season memberships. Day passes are $29.95 if purchased online and two-day passes are $49.95.
Tip: The Sunset Pass is only $24.95 and is good for rides during the last two hours of the day.
You can choose to get some add-ons to your day pass, such adding a ride on the Queen II boat or get the Ultimate Pass that includes a $10 food voucher and $20 in game tickets.
Tip: From experience, the Queen II boat ride is tough for young kids to sit through. The excitement dies down after 3 minutes and then you have about 57 minutes to spend trying to entertain them.
Tip: Not totally unrelated to the previous tip…the Queen II does have a bar. For the kids. I mean, you can get soda and popcorn or candy for the kids. And maybe something for yourself.
The only thing not included with the day pass or membership are the Raceway rides on the Family Track and Slick Track. The Family Track requires riders to be age 9 and older. The Slick Track has the height minimum of 54 inches tall.
Also, if you don’t have a season pass or a day pass, the slide at the Arnolds Park Museum is $1 per ride.
Food at Arnolds Park
Expect to find the typical amusement park concessions at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Food available includes hamburgers, hot dogs, and popcorn.
Since you can come and go from Arnolds Park Amusement Park whenever you feel like it, there is the option to leave the park. We left twice during our day there to get food.
Tip: I recommend getting ice cream at Nutty Bar, an iconic ice cream stand located across the street from Arnolds Park Amusement Park.
Arnolds Park events
My visit was a bit early for all the summer events Arnolds Park Amusement Park has each year, but you can plan your vacation to coincide with some great (and sometimes free) events!
Among the events are:
– Live at the Lake: A free concert series at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. These are held on select weekend nights all summer long. Concerts start at 7:30 p.m. at Preservation Plaza.
– Jazzed Up Big Band: Tuesdays from mid-June to mid-August are nights for swing music at Arnolds Park. Music is performed by a 16-piece band.
– Movies at the Park: Every Wednesday night is a different free, family-friendly movie screening. They start at sunset at Preservation Plaza.
– Rock The Roof: Thursday nights are set aside for music and dancing, starting at 6 p.m. Cost is $8 or $15 per couple. Season passes are available.
– Roof Garden Concert Series: This is a ticketed concert series held inside the iconic Roof Garden concert venue. Concert dates, start times and ticket prices vary.