May 24, 2018

Orange City Tulip Festival

Orange City Tulip Festival is an annual event occurring on the third weekend in May in Orange City, Iowa. Orange City is a charming small town, I discovered, and it turns out, I’m not the only one who noticed. Orange City has been identified as “where the small town American dream lives on” by The New Yorker and Country Living published a story in 2017 analyzing if Orange City was America’s happiest small town.

Disclosure: Our stay was hosted by the Orange City Visitors Bureau

Orange City Tulip Festival Tips

But let’s talk about the Tulip Festival.The charm of this festival is, obviously, the abundance of tulips, the very “Dutch-ness” of everything, and seeing people dressed in traditional Dutch cost

Held over a few days, there are a number of special events, performances and parades to see. 2018 was the 78th year of this showcase of Dutch traditions. I took the family to it for the first time this year. If you want to plan a trip next year, the next Orange City Tulip Festival will be May 16-18, 2019.

Orange City Tulip Festival Traditions

Having seven decades to establish things, there are many great traditions to see while you’re attending the festival.

The Dutch Dozen performed during the Straatfeest, bringing spectators out onto the street to join in. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

The Straatfeest and Street Scrubbing were my favorites. These occur, parade-like, one after another along Central Street. They are twice a day during the festival.

Tip: The paid, reserved bleacher seats are worth it. We sat in the shade and didn’t have to stake out a spot along the route long before it all started.

The Straatfeest is a chance to see and learn about the different traditional costumes from various Dutch villages, as well as a few performances. They invited kids to join in one of the dances. My daughter looked very serious learning the dances, but I suspect she loved it.

Dancers and spectators line Central Street in Orange City, Iowa during the Tulip Festival. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

The Street Scrubbing was one-of-a-kind. It was exactly what it sounded like. There were quite a few little boys dumping water on each other, so that was fun to watch. I learned that this tradition comes from Holland when homeowners were required to not only care for their property but for the street in front of their property.

Dozens of families walked along Central Street for the traditional street scrubbing during the Tulip Festival.

The Volksparade follows the Street Scrubbing, and it’s more of a typical Midwest parade, with the added bonus of nifty Dutch-themed floats and beautiful traditional costumes.

If you’re taking young kids, note the festival organizers have added a family comfort station with baby-changing stations, extra diapers, chairs for nursing, and snacks/refreshments.

Since 1948, The Dutch Dozen have been performing during the Tulip Festival. It consists of 12 to 14 girls on stage singing and dancing, while their teenage male counterparts add some humor into the show. My son was a particular fan of the boys’ goofiness.

The Dutch Dozen troupe has performed at the Tulip Festival for 70 years. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

What to eat in Orange City

There are typical carnival food vendors at Tulip Festival, but when in Rome–I mean, in Holland?–you eat Dutch treats. I headed to the Dutch Bakery to try Dutch Letters, a flaky pastry.

Dutch letter pastries can be purchased at the Dutch Bakery in Orange City. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

And while probably not super traditional, I bought a box of chocolate clogs because, why not? I heard the Little White Store was the place to go for poffertjes, but I didn’t make it to there.

There were plenty of options for fair food at the Tulip Festival, as well as traditional Dutch food options. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

I did make it to Nederlander’s Cafe for a little Dutch dinner. The dinner itself wasn’t super special (though, I can now say I had “snert,” or split pea soup). However, the dessert at Nderlander’s was absolutely worth the visit. We tried their famous bread pudding, a huge treat that was enough for four.

Best photo opps at the Tulip Festival

For cute photos of the family with a beautiful backdrop, head to Windmill Park. There are a variety of tulips in the garden, as well as a bridge and windmills for great family photos.

Windmill Park in Orange City is a good spot to snap photos. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

There are the silly photo opps, too, like sitting in a huge wooden clog and sticking your head in a cutout.

If you’re interested in photos of people in their traditional costumes, we found people cheerfully gave us permission to snap a photo. Just ask! While we were at Windmill Park, we found several photogenic families.

Photos courtesy Kevin Reiner

The Straatfeest and Street Scrubbing were my favorite events for more action photos that capture the atmosphere of the day. If you’re not bashful, hop out into the street and get a photo of the performers with the carnival rides in the background.

A father and son walk in Orange City during the Tulip Festival. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

Can the festival done in a day?

Sure, we did it in a day…and nope, not really.

We spent Saturday afternoon at Tulip Festival and felt like we had as good as an experience as you can with two little kids. In addition to seeing the Straatfeest, Street Scrubbing and part of the Volksparade, petted animals in the petting zoo, tried one of the Dutch games, browsed art vendors, peeked in a store, and watched The Dutch Dozen performance.

Tulip Festival vendors

There were a few tents of vendors at Tulip Festival selling everything from paintings and pottery to jewelry and unique wind chimes. Photo courtesy Kevin Reiner

We also fit in a little time to we played at Windmill Park and jump in a bounce house.

My daughter’s favorite part of the Tulip Festival was the petting zoo.

However, we missed a lot. We had value books of coupons that allowed for things like a free Dutch game, attendance to the Dutch Dozen and carriage rides & pedicab rides). I wanted to do it all, but a mix of rain and tired kids cut our evening short.

My kids will be first to tell you some of the “biggies” we didn’t do, that they wanted to do. We did none of the rides at the Midway and did not take a pedicab nor horse-drawn trolley ride.

horse-drawn trolley Orange City

Horse-drawn trolley rides were an additional cost, but tickets were available in the value books.

The things I had on my to-see list that we missed included: Wooden shoe carving demo, tours of the Vogel Old Mill and the Century Home, and the Fietsen Zangers and puppet show performances. (And if you look at the full schedule, you’ll see even MORE that wasn’t on my list and yes, we missed them all.)

You can purchase clogs or watch clog making demonstrations during the Orange City Tulip Festival.

So, yeah, we missed a lot.

If I could do it again, I think we would attend Friday and Saturday (or maybe just Friday night and the full day Saturday). I think it would be fun to attend the fly-in breakfast held really early on the Saturday morning of the festival.

But I don’t regret just going one day this year.

Where to stay during the Tulip Festival

We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Orange City. While it’s not quite within walking distance of the festivities, Orange City is not a huge city, so it was conveniently near it.

The hotel had the required essentials for traveling families: A pool and a complimentary hot breakfast.

Check back for a review of Hampton Inn & Suites soon, plus details on what families can do in Orange City when it’s not the Tulip Festival.

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May 16, 2018

5 Things For Kids To Do At Loessfest 2018 {Giveaway}

When they announce Loessfest events each year, I listen. You should too, because events at Loessfest are FREE and most are kid-friendly. With everything planned, I can tell this year is going to be a great for families, so read on to find out what all kids can do at Loessfest 2018.

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

Loessfest 2018

What is Loessfest 2018?

 

There’s a fireworks show at Loessfest following the Omaha Symphony concert on May 28, 2018. Photo courtesy Loessfest

Loessfest 2018 is four days of events held on the Council Bluffs side of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. It’s an annual festival, and this year, it’s held May 25-28. In addition to nightly activities, a new, permanent water feature will unveiled.

Keep reading because I’ve got a giveaway for kids who are fans of the May 25 headliner!

Things For Kids To Do At Loessfest 2018

 

River's Edge Park water feature

Kids can play in the new water feature at River’s Edge Park. It opens on May 25, 2018.

Like everything at Loessfest 2018, everything listed below is FREE thanks to sponsors.

Disney Junior’s Choo Choo Soul Concert 

When: Friday, May 25

What: Friday is going to be the big night for families. It starts off with a free performance by Disney Junior’s Choo Choo Soul with Jeff and Paige opening the show. Kids will have seen Choo Choo Soul on Disney Junior. It’s an entertainment act featuring singer Genevieve Goings as a hip-hop train conductor and her partner, Constantine “DC” Abramson, a breakdancer and beatboxer, as her railroad engineer.

 

“The Incredibles” Screening

When: Friday, May 25

What: Settle the kiddos down on the grass to watch the popular Disney animated movie, “The Incredibles.” Bring some snacks or purchase items from vendors at the park. You can come early for the concert and let the kids dance out their energy before settling down for the movie.

 

Water feature 

When: Opens Friday, May 25, on-going after that

What: Think water splash garden that looks beautiful, with jets, bubbling water, a flooding wading basin, a cool 10-foot-tall water wall, and a fog feature that’s totally new to the metro area.

 

Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons

When: Saturday, May 26, 7:30 p.m.

What: Frankie Valli is the original Jersey Boy, and some of his hits include “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Grease,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man.” It’s the kind of music kids will want to dance to. Keep in mind there is an opener, though, so Frankie Valli will be taking the stage at around 9 p.m.

 

Omaha Symphony Concert & Fireworks

When: Monday, May 28, 8 p.m.

What: Omaha Symphony is going to perform some classics while you sprawl out on the lawn. The song list includes Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band,” Lowe’s “My Fair Lady,” Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” Williams’ “Marion’s Theme and Raider’s March” from Indiana Jones, Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” It’s going to be impressive. Best part? The concert ends with a fireworks show.

 

There are even more events at Loessfest that your family may love. Check out the full schedule here.

Tips for families going to Loessfest

 

Loessfest is an annual weekend of concerts, movies, bike rides and more held at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs. It is held May 25-28, 2018. Photo courtesy Loessfest

Seating: This is a large grassy space, and it’s recommended you bring your own chairs or blankets to sit on.

Waiting with kids: You’ll want to arrive early to allow time for parking and walking to the park…which means you will be waiting for the event to start. For events like these, I always pack a bag of toys, books, and maybe a card game to entertain the kids while we wait.

Bring a towel: While you wait for events to begin, kids will want to check out the new water feature at the park, so bring a towel. I recommend the kids wear a swimsuit, or at least, have a change of clothes.

Food & beverages: You may bring a cooler of food and drinks, but no alcohol is permitted to be brought in. Also, leave glass containers at home. Alcohol may be sold at some events, but not all. There will be vendors at Loessfest and patronizing them helps keep the events free.

Inclement weather: They may delay an event, but make every effort to keep everything on schedule, so bring an umbrella if it looks like a rainy night. Things will be canceled if the weather is severe. Updates will be posted on Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park’s Facebook page and the Loessfest Twitter account.

What to leave at home: Tents, shade awnings, glass, alcoholic beverages, tarps, unruly dogs

Loessfest Giveaway!

Disney Junior’s Choo-Choo Soul performs at Loessfest on May 25. Disney Junior’s “Choo Choo Soul” stars D.C. Abramson and Genevieve Goings. Photo courtesy Disney Junior/Craig Sjodin

Loessfest has provided a giveaway for one lucky reader (or more likely, one lucky reader’s child). I’m giving away a Choo Choo Soul CD and autographed picture! The giveaway runs through Sunday, May 20, at 11:59 p.m. CST. Must be 18 or older to enter. I’ll email the winner via email within 48 hours of the giveaway ending, and the winner has 48 hours to respond before another winner is drawn. 

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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May 13, 2018

8 Great Places To Get Breakfast In Council Bluffs

Council Bluffs, Iowa is beginning to grow a thriving dining scene and, lucky for me, my favorite meal of the day has some shining stars. There are several locally-owned restaurants serving delicious breakfast in Council Bluffs. I asked readers on Facebook what’s new in Council Bluffs and what old favorites are still serving great food (good news, Duncan’s is). There were several that I can’t wait to check out.

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

restaurants in Council Bluffs

Ready for pancakes, donuts and heaping servings of hash browns? Here are eight great places to get breakfast in Council Bluffs:

712 Eat + Drink

One of the newest restaurants in Council Bluffs, 712 Eat + Drink, is the go-to place for brunch on Sunday.

Where: 1851 Madison Ave.

Why: “712 was so good! I went this AM for the first time,” said Katy J. Another reader, Jenna G. let me know that it was toddler-friendly, too, so while my kids are older, I know I’m good to take them there. Note that 712 only serves Sunday brunch; the rest of the time, it’s lunch and dinner.

Learn more about 712 Eat + Drink here

 

Duncan’s Cafe

The Council Bluffs breakfast staple, Duncan’s Cafe, has been serving huge portions since the 1970s.

Where: 501 S. Main St.

Why: “Duncan’s has awesome breakfast food. Love their cinnamon rolls and breakfast sandwiches,” said Courtney C. My first experience at Duncan’s involved a plate of hash browns that, I swear, was as large as a hubcap. And it was awesome.

Learn more about Duncan’s here

 

Main Street Cafe

Main Street Cafe is located in downtown Council Bluffs near Bayliss Park.

Where: 102 S. Main St.

Why: This is a traditional cafe with down home comfort food. And… “The pancakes are huge,” said Katie B.

Learn more about Main Street Cafe here

 

Stay Sweet Nicola’s

Stay Sweet Nicola’s is a good spot for coffee drinks and baked goods in downtown Council Bluffs.

Where: 805 S. Main St.

Why: Stay Sweet Nicola’s is a charming, small cafe on the south side of downtown Council Bluffs. I can only vouch for the coffee being delicious. Lucky, I have readers to share tips on the food: “Stay Sweet Nicola’s has some amazing cinnamon rolls and coffee!” said John S.

Learn more about Stay Sweet Nicola’s here

 

Sugar’s Diner

Sugar’s Diner is open seven days a week and, rumor has it, serves a mean Bloody Mary.

Where: 2725 E. Kanesville Blvd.

Why: Sugar’s Diner has a loyal fan base, not just consisting of breakfast lovers. But, I’m sharing breakfast spots, so let’s focus on that, shall we? “Sugar’s has amazing blueberry pancakes and omelets!” said Nicole L.

Learn more about Sugar’s here

 

Mad Ox Bakery

Go in to Mad Ox for the superhero decor, stay for the cronuts.

Where: 215 W. Broadway

Why: Get your sweet fix here. Mad Ox bakery has gourmet donuts with flavors ranging from Red Velvet Glazed and Pink Champaign, and apparently has a pretty tasty fried croissant (AKA cronut) with optional fillings.

Learn more about Mad Ox here

 

Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard

donut in Council Bluffs

Where: 19475 225th St.

Why: Their apple cider doughnuts, especially when you get them freshly made, are addictive. They are so good. While the orchard doesn’t serve breakfast (they’re not even open that early), doughnuts are a classic breakfast item, so I’m counting it, folks.

Tip: This is a seasonal place, so check their hours before going. Make an afternoon of it – here’s a list of other things to do at Ditmars besides eating a ton of doughnuts.

 

Fresh Market Square Buffet

Fresh Market Square Buffet is located inside Harrah’s Casino, and offers kid’s prices to the buffet. Photo courtesy Caesars Entertainment

Where: Inside Harrah’s Casino, 1 Harrahs Blvd.

Why: I’ve got to include a buffet, right? There are three casinos in Council Bluffs, and this is the only with a weekend brunch buffet that includes children’s prices for meals. Come hungry!

Learn more about Fresh Market Square Buffet here

 

Want more ideas? Unleash CB has a full list of Council Bluffs restaurants.

 

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March 26, 2018

My Iowa Bucket List

The more I travel through Iowa, the more I realize I’ve just scratched the surface of what families can do in Iowa. The Great Iowa Road Trip highlighted fun on the water and by rail, and our weekend in the Amana Colonies gave us a taste of the cultural offerings of the state. But, there’s a lot more we have yet to see and do in Iowa.

Here’s my Iowa bucket list for exploring the rest of what the state has to offer:

Things to do in Iowa

Ride the world’s steepest, shortest scenic elevator – Bet you didn’t know that existed. It’s called the Fenelon Place Elevator, and it’s one way to discover a great view of Dubuque (not to mention see two other states while at the top).

Explore caves – Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa is on my must-visit list, with its 16 caves you can explore (better pack the flashlight). If it’s on yours, too, make note you have to attend a brief program before setting out on your adventure. Unfortunately, we all have to wait for construction to end first (scheduled to run through Aug. 24, 2018).

Arnolds Park is an amusement park in the Iowa Great Lakes Region. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa Great Lakes Region – I’m one of those rare people from Omaha who has never been to Okoboji or any of its nearby towns surrounding the lakes. It’s taken on mythical vacation status in my mind since everyone I know has fond childhood memories of trips there or goes every summer with their kids now.

Things I want to do there: Take the kids to Arnold’s Park; try a local brewer, like West O Brewing Co.; and I thinkThe Barefoot Bar at the marina looks incredibly fun. There’s also the new Dickinson County Nature Center that just opened, and it has a human-sized honeycomb to crawl through that I might attempt just to embarrass my kids.

Bernie’s Barnyard – So get this, my kids have never been to Adventureland in Altoona. I think 2018 will be the year since the theme park is opening a new kids area with two rides, games, and a playground. It’s been decades since I’ve been to Adventureland, so I don’t think we’ll spend our whole day at the barnyard, there’s a lot to see and our ticket would get us into Adventure Bay Waterpark.

Adventureland in Altoona, Iowa, is home to the only rollercoaster in the Western hemisphere with a negative-G loop. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Need For Speed –  One of Adventureland’s rollercoasters (The Monster) has the only negative-G loop in the Western hemisphere (which means you feel like you’re falling out of the coaster). I’m not totally convinced I want to have that feeling, but I’ll admit at least sounds cool. Ziplines are more of my speed. For the longest, fastest and highest ziplines in Iowa, I think I’ll head to Sky Tours Zipline in Dubuque.

Effigy Mounds is a national monument overlooking the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Visit Effigy Mounds – I’ve seen pictures of this unique site in Harpers Ferry. Effigy Mounds is an American Indian burial and ceremonial site located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. The national monument contains more than 200 mounds, and many are shaped like animals.

The Midway at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa State Fair – To be included in the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die,” the Iowa State Fair must be something that truly stands out over other fairs. For that reason alone it should be on every Iowa Bucket List. But there are also butter cows, legendary corn dogs, and Ye Olde Mill to see. Read Iowa State Fair tips here.

An artist’s rendering of what the Sycamore Falls will look like once it’s opened at Reiman Gardens in Ames. Illustration provided by Iowa Tourism Office

Reiman Gardens – I heard these gardens on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames are beautiful to visit. Expansion plans for Reiman Gardens should conclude fall 2018 or spring 2019, and will feature multiple waterfalls and a reflecting pool. While there, I think we’ll look for Elwood, the World’s Largest Concrete Garden Gnome.

RAGBRAI – Someday, not this year, but someday, I will ride RAGBRAI with a fun group of friends and Mr. Wonderful. If you’ve never heard of it, RAGBRAI is a huge bike ride across Iowa each year. Each stop is a chance to see a new community and enjoy the festivities they’ve planned for the bikers who are in town for a mere night.

Snake Alley in Burlington is called the “Crookedest Street in The World.” Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Walk the “crookedest street in the world – Burlington is home to Snake Alley, deemed by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the “CROOKEDEST Street in the World.” I’ll walk it, not ride my bike up it, thankyouverymuch.

Exotic Animal Races – Prairie Meadows Race Track in Altoona has live horse racing from April to October, but once a year, things get crazy. Camels, zebras, and ostrich races are held in July (this year, it’s July 15). There are also corgi and dachshund races on the schedule, if that’s more of your speed. Word is it’s FREE and open to all ages but gets very, very crowded (and notably, open to all ages, doesn’t necessarily mean kid-friendly since it is a casino). Arrive early to get good parking, and if you want to beat the heat, make reservations to sit in the third floor club house.

The historic Squirrel Cage Jail is located in Council Bluffs. It may or may not be haunted. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Go to jail – Honestly, there is no good reason why I haven’t been to the Historic Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs. I used to work blocks away from it. It’s one of the oldest rotary jails in the United States (think “lazy Susan”-esque). Word is, it’s haunted, too.

The streets are scrubbed before the start of the Volksparades during the Orange City Tulip Festival. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Have a European getaway – I’d love to take the kids to Europe but realistically, European-inspired towns in Iowa are a more realistic getaway for us at this point. I can get a taste of Holland by visiting Orange City, Pella, or Elk Horn & Kimballton. Windmills? Find one in Pella or Elk Horn. Tulip festivals? Find one in Orange City and Pella (every May). I’m pretty excited to say I’ve got plans to go to Orange City’s this year; it’s held May 17-19, 2018. There are parades, a carnival, performers, and a ton more. I can also venture to Czech Village (Cedar Rapids) or Decorah for a little Norwegian heritage.

The Hotel Pattee in Perry was built in 1913 and has 40 individually decorated and themed rooms, plus a bowling alley. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Stay in a century-old hotel – Iowa has a handful of grand hotels, including the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel that’s still remains, the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City. You won’t find many super close to Omaha except if you consider Perry, Iowa close. There, you’ll find the Hotel Pattee, built in 1913. Besides looking exceptionally charming, it has a bowling alley, and that my friends, is what you call a vacation hit when traveling with kids.

Hot Air Balloon – I just founds this out: You can make a reservation to ride in a hot air balloon during the National Balloon Classic in Indianola. I thought you just went to gaze at all the hot air balloons, but you can make a reservation to ride in one. Sign me up. This event is held annually in late July-early August.

Everything at Matchstick Marvels is built out of matchsticks. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Matchstick Marvels – This museum in Gladbrooke looks like one my kids would love. In the summer 2018, they will unveil a matchstick replica of the 1970 Dodge Charger from the “Fast & Furious” movies that’s more than 11 feet long.

The Iowa Bucket List For Your Sweettooth

Usually I roll everything into one list, but today, I feel like singling out food. Upon reviewing the list, it’s better to say this is the dessert bucket list for Iowa.

Try the nuns’ candies – There are nuns making caramels in Dubuque and they’re world-famous. I’ve got Monastery Candy on my list, and you can bet their hazelnut meltaways will be the first I try.

Van Veen Chocolates in Pella is one of the stops on the A to Z Foodie Trail in Iowa. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Complete the A to Z Foodie Trail – This is pretty ambitious and, for me, will likely take a few years. The trail is in Marion and Mahaska counties featuring 26 stops in a loop through Pella, Leighton, Oskaloosa, Knoxville and Pleasantville. I just need to stop at each place, get my selfie with the designated letter of the alphabet and move on quickly.

Dine at The Hall – The Hall in West Des Moines sounds like a pretty unique place for a meal and drink. There are food trucks inside a former 1890s railcar barn and iron foundry, and soon, Foundry Distilling Co. is set to open there.

Thanks to Blue Bunny Ice Cream, LeMars is the Ice Cream Capitol of the World. Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Ice Cream Capitol of the World – LeMars, in northwest Iowa, is the Ice Cream Capitol of the World (granted, this designation is self-proclaimed, but who am I to judge?). It got this designation for being the world’s largest producer of ice cream novelties in one location. The place to enjoy said ice cream has to be the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor.

And while I’m on the topic of ice cream, there’s an old-fashioned soda fountain in Grinnell I want to check out: Candyland Station. Their specialty is made of vanilla ice cream, marshmallow, chocolate toppings and Spanish peanuts.

More things for your Iowa bucket list

So, you’re probably wondering about a few things that seem like pretty obvious items that should be on the list. I agree, there are some that should be on the list. I’ve already seen them or did them, though, so they’re not on my bucket list. But they should be on yours if you haven’t. Here are additional Iowa bucket list items to consider:

Zombie Burger – This Des Moines staple is a visually cool place to visit…if you like zombies; if not, stay far away. The food is tasty and has fun names like the Dead Moines Burger. The wait is worth it.

Sleep in a yurt – You don’t find many yurts around here. I stayed at one in Clear Lake. Here’s how the night went down.  While you’re in Clear Lake, better stop by the legendary Surf Ballroom.

Hike in the Loess Hills – The Loess Hills are pretty unique land formations with soil found only in that small stretch along western Iowa and in China. Here are three of my favorite hikes in the Loess Hills.

Ledges State Park – Don’t skip canyon drive, which is a one-way route where the roadways are sometimes covered by Pea’s Creek. It’s kinda cool, but I’ve heard it can sometimes completely flood out the road way. The park is great for hiking and exploring the water ways.

Story City Carousel – This hand-carved wooden carousel in Story City was built in 1913 and still works. We stopped there for a quick ride and it was a hit with my young kids.

Des Moines Arts Festival – It’s one of the largest arts festival in the region, and pretty fun for families. We visited during our Great Iowa Road Trip.

Iowa State Capitol Building – I’m not one to visit state capitols, but even I had to stop and see the beautiful library there. Find the capitol building in Des Moines.

 

For more ideas, visit the Travel Iowa website or check this Pinterest board and start pinning:

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December 30, 2017

10 Beautiful Midwest Destinations For Families

I’d like 2018 to be a year of beauty and wonder for my kids. The good news is that you don’t have to travel far to encounter some truly beautiful or unique places. There are so many beautiful Midwest destinations! Here are a few of my family’s favorites so you, too, can have a year of beauty and wonder with your family.

I’m stilling brainstorming where we may go in 2018, so I’d love your suggestions! Where in the Midwest should I go with my family for beautiful sights and wonder-inducing experiences?

 

Botanica, The Wichita Gardens

The Monster Trees might have been my favorite part of all Botanica Wichita.

Where: Wichita, Kan.

Why it’s beautiful: Obviously, being a botanical garden, things are going to be beautiful. Must-see pretty spots at Botanica include the koi pond and Chinese Friendship Garden.

Why kids will like it: You must take the kids to the whimsical Downing Children’s Garden to see the Monster Woods, musical maze, the familiar storybook character statues. and, being Kansas, the yellow brick road.

Read more about this kid-favorite destination!

 

Clear Lake

The view from the top of the carousel at Clear Lake’s Fourth of July celebration.

Where: Clear Lake, Iowa

Why it’s beautiful: Like most Midwestern lakes, there’s a beautiful of the sky reflecting on the water and the serene appeal of quiet, lapping waves on a shore. But, the bonus with Clear Lake is that it’s a getaway without being far from modern conveniences. The town of Clear Lake is literally right at the water’s edge.

Why kids will like it: There are a couple beaches to choose from where kids where it’s shallow enough for littles to enter the water safely. My kids particularly remember Clear Lake for its Fourth of July festival…and the chance to stay overnight in a yurt.

Want to stay in a yurt? Here’s a post about the only yurts in Iowa you can stay in. 

 

Coronado Heights Park

Coronado Heights Park has a structure that looks strikingly like a castle to young children (and grown ups with big imaginations).

Where: Lindsborg, Kan.

Why it’s beautiful: Coronado Heights sits on a sandstone bluff looking over flat pastures. The beauty is the view, yes, but also the stark contrast of an ancient-looking castle set on the plains.

Why kids will like it: The castle, obviously. It’s not really a castle, but go ahead and let them believe there was once a small, medieval castle just northwest of Lindsborg.

Bonus: Don’t just visit the park and miss out on the charming town of Lindsborg. The town wears its Swedish heritage with pride, and it’s utterly charming to visit.

We tacked on a visit to Coronado Heights during our weekend trip to Wichita. Read about that stop here!

 

Ledges State Park

We looked for rocks in the shallow river that flowed through Ledges State Park.

Where: Madrid, Iowa

Why it’s beautiful: This park is an unexpected treasure in the middle of Iowa. The walk along the sandstone gorge carved out by a tributary of the Des Moines River is unforgettable.

Why kids will like it: Playing in the water is a big draw, but part of the fun, too, is Canyon Drive, a route that passes through the sandstone gorge and is often partly submerged under water. The bigger the splash, the better.

 

Loess Hills

They don’t call them the Loess Hills for nothing. Don’t expect a flat hike at Preparation Canyon State Park.

Where: Western Iowa and Missouri

Why it’s beautiful: We’ve hiked a few trails in western Iowa’s Loess Hills, and each have had their own unique beauty about them. Trails along these unique formations can sometimes lead to rolling hills or steep bluffs, and have views of prairies or forests. You’ll find them along the eastern edge of the Missouri River flood plain.

Why kids will like it: This is Midwest nature at its purest.

Here are three hikes in the Loess Hills to consider!

 

Missouri Botanical Garden

The Japanese Garden at Missouri Botanical Garden is 14 acres with bridges, waterfalls and peaceful nooks.

Where: St. Louis, Mo.

Why it’s beautiful: This huge botanical garden has a space that appeals to everyone, but the most beautiful, to me at least, is the 14-acre Japanese Garden. It’s peaceful with its path around the lake, and everywhere you look, you see pure beauty.

Why kids will like it: The kids enjoyed feeding the Koi fish at the Japanese Garden and looking for turtles around lake. However, you’d be making a huge mistake if you skip the seasonal Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden. It’s a lot of fun (pack their swimsuits).

They don’t call this place one of the most beautiful gardens in the U.S. for nothing! Read why here.

 

Smith Falls

A view of Smith Falls on a sunny day.

Where: Cherry County, Nebraska (nearest city is Valentine, Neb.)

Why it’s beautiful: Located in Smith Falls State Park, this 63-foot waterfall is the tallest in Nebraska. You don’t forget the first time you ever see this waterfall.

Why kids will like it: You hear the waterfall before you actually see it, which thrills children to no end. The fun part is that you can stand under the water, if you dare (it’s very cold no matter the season, and the water hits you pretty hard).

Bonus: Getting to Smith Falls from Omaha is half the fun – you drive through the beautiful Sandhills of Nebraska. Plus, most people opt to canoe the Niobrara River to Smith Falls State Park, which in my opinion, is another beautiful thing to experience.

Get Western Nebraska road trip inspiration to visit Smith Falls here!

 

Sylvan Lake

Where: Black Hills, South Dakota

Why it’s beautiful: Sylvan Lake is found within Custer State Park in South Dakota, which is itself, a truly unique and wonderful destination. Visit Custer, and make sure Sylvan Lake is on your list of stops. This gorgeous lake is a worthy destination for any family, either for an easy hike, water sports, or a waterside picnic.

Why kids will like it: The trail around lake is mostly easy, but there are some more challenging points that kids love. This is a spectacular spot to immerse yourself in nature.

Get inspired for a Black Hills road trip starting with this post!

 

Table Rock Lake

Jumping into Table Rock Lake to cool off in the summer.

Where: Stone County, Missouri

Why it’s beautiful: Table Rock Lake is a reservoir in the expansive Ozarks region of southern Missouri (and expands well into Arkansas). I particularly enjoyed Table Rock because it offered an peaceful escape from the frenzy of nearby Branson, Mo.

Why kids will like it: Water sports and small cliff jumping is a big appeal here. If you plan ahead, you can rent a houseboat to extend your stay on the water.

Toadstool Geologic Park

Nebraska’s own Badlands, AKA Toadstool Geological Park.

Where: Harrison, Neb.

Why it’s beautiful: This is Nebraska’s own Badlands. It’s off the beaten path, and much smaller than South Dakota’s Badlands, but park is just stunning to hike.

Why kids will like it: I suspect they like it because they’re imagining they’re on the moon. At least, that’s why I liked the park. Please note: The trail can be challenging for young children, and seriously panic-inducing for parents who bring their young children. Hike with care.

Read some Western Nebraska road trip inspiration in this post!

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April 2, 2017

Visiting The Western Historic Trails Center

The Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs is one of those notable historic landmarks within a few miles of Omaha that you know you ought to visit at least once, but you probably haven’t.

The Western Historic Trails Center is located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

At least, that was my family’s case until recently.

 

One unseasonably warm winter day, we decided we wanted to get outdoors, but we were tired of going to the same park, the same trails. And then I remembered the paved trails on the Council Bluffs side of the Missouri River. Why not do something new that combined a hike with a bit of local history?

About Western Historic Trails Center

Some exhibit pieces at the trails center were interactive, making it more engaging for children and adults.

This small center is dedicated to teaching us about four historic trails that passed through this area: the Lewis and Clark, Oregon, California and Mormon Trails. You can learn about the pioneers who traveled the trails, as well. The National Park Service designed and built the center and admission is free.

The exhibit space includes photos, maps, some interactive pieces sculptures, and my kids’ favorite, audio records (must be the thrill of holding a phone? I dunno). There’s also a small theater space to watch a film. If you want to learn more about the area’s significance, read this.

What is it about phones? This might have been my kids’ favorite exhibit just because they could listen to people on this audio device.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time here. Only one child could read, for one thing; for another, they still have a rough concept of time. Everything “old” to my preschooler is 99 years old, no matter what.

Outside the Western Historic Trails Center, you’ll find paved and unpaved trails, as well as interpretive sculptures.

Still, it’s worth peeking in before going on to my favorite part of the area: The trails.

Trails By The Western History Trails Center

Flat terrain make it easy to keep an eye on speedy kids.

The paved trails will take you toward the Missouri River for a nice walk, or if you’re on bike, you can take the trails further along north toward two casinos and the Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, or further south toward Lake Manawa State Park. Part of the trail is unpaved if you’re going to try to get a view of the river.

We weren’t expecting to find a pond along the way to the Missouri River. The kids loved drawing in the sand.

We were on foot and with our dog, so we opted for the easy walk to the river. We passed by a small pond, which was a nice diversion to explore. It was disappointing to see how much trash has been left in the area.

That’s the eastern side of Omaha across the river.

In short order, we made it to the river and got a fairly plain view of Omaha (it was winter, after all). Still, your kids should be able to spot some landmarks, including the zoo and the train engines at Kenefick Park near Lauritzen Gardens.

Events at Western Historic Trails Center

Inside the Western Historic Trails Center.

This year, the center is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the theme is Wild West. Events will be held throughout the year, though I don’t have much details on them. So far, I’ve heard of some documentaries screened there as a part of that celebration. The next screening coming up is on April 30 showing the film “American Experience Documentary: Annie Oakley.”

In the past, there have been music jams, live re-enactments along the trail, and holiday events. I recommend following WHTC on Facebook to keep up to date.

If you go

Western Historic Trails Center

Where: 3434 Richard Downing Ave., Council Bluffs, Iowa

When: Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; closed official state holidays

Cost: FREE

Website

 

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