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Feature Story

Hit the road: The finest and quirkiest road trip destinations Iowa has to offer

6/1/2022

One summer, my dad took our family across the state on a road-trip frenzy. Every weekend brought us to a new destination.

We visited the Field of Dreams, where the 1989 baseball flick of the same name was filmed. We took photos behind Buddy Holly’s giant rimmed glasses, marking the site of the plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper “The Day the Music Died.” We walked along the High Trestle Bridge, glowing with blue light on a windy night. We stood outside the American Gothic House, posing like the farmer and his daughter in Grant Wood’s 1930 painting.

The highlight — or perhaps lowlight — of that summer culminated after nearly an hour drive to the small town of Adair. Looming up by the side of the interstate: a yellow water tower, with two cartoon eyes and a mouth printed on the side.

Was it interesting? Mildly, I suppose. Was it worth the hour’s drive of gas? It was to PD Legaspi. Any excuse to load a few snacks, a mini Igloo cooler and the kids into the family Toyota Corolla. Good old Dad.

Although some of our family road trips were hilarious flops, Iowa really does offer a wealth of things to see within a few hours of Des Moines. Although we couldn’t include them all, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite road trip destinations in Iowa, from picturesque towns and natural wonders to fascinating museums and off-beat stops. They’re at least as cool as a smiley face water tower — dare I say, even better.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Remember to do your research before embarking on an hours-long drive. Open hours, admission pricing and event offerings are always subject to last-minute changes.

Must-see towns & cities

Pella’s Vermeer Mill is the tallest working grain windmill in the country. Photo courtesy of Visit Pella

Pella
44 miles (1 hour) east of Des Moines

Experience a “Touch of Holland” at this town founded by Dutch immigrants in 1847. Although best known for its annual Tulip Time Festival in May, there’s never a wrong time to visit. Appreciate Dutch history and architecture with historic buildings and gardens, the Klokkenspel carillon, waterway and drawbridge in Molengracht Plaza, and Vermeer Mill. Visiting foodies will love the town’s bakeries, meat markets and restaurants for Dutch letters, Gouda cheese, poffertjes and other delicacies.

Amana Colonies
104 miles (1.5 hours) east of Des Moines

In the mid-19th century, German Inspirationists established a communal society of seven villages in east-central Iowa. Today, Amana offers visitors a quaint look at years past, where the pace of life seems to slow down. Stores sell antiques, plus local and handcrafted goods you won’t find elsewhere. Local breweries and wineries boast award-winning libations. The area hosts 10 festivals annually, including Iowa’s original Oktoberfest.

Iowa City
115 miles (2 hours) east of Des Moines

As the former state capital, Iowa City is home to a wealth of museums, many offering free admission. Those in Iowa City and its neighbor, Coralville, include: Old Capitol Museum, Iowa Children’s Museum, Antique Car Museum of Iowa, University of Iowa Museum of Natural History featuring Rusty the giant sloth, and the UI Stanley Museum of Art scheduled to open this fall. The city boasts top-notch restaurants, shopping, arts and, of course, the Hawkeyes.

Dubuque
202 miles (3 hours) northeast of Des Moines

Iowa’s oldest city became the place “Where Iowa Started” after French-Canadian fur trader Julien Dubuque arrived in 1785. Today, the city offers a picturesque setting for outdoor markets, ziplining, many miles of walking and hiking trails, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, and Fenelon Place Elevator — the world’s steepest scenic railway.

Arnolds Park in Okoboji includes a raceway and “Legend,” one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the United States. Photo by Tom Gustafson

Okoboji
205 miles (3.5 hours) northwest of Des Moines

The Iowa Great Lakes region includes the largest natural lakes in the state. Carved by glaciers, the chain of six lakes covers more than 12,000 acres with nearly 70 miles of shoreline. You could spend days on end enjoying parks, beaches, fishing, boating and water sports. Lake life! Also in the area: golf, vineyards, museums and Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

Wonders of nature

Loess Hills
143 miles (2.5 hours)west of Des Moines

This unique landform rises from Iowa’s flat terrain in sharp ridges and swelling hills. The formations consist of loess soil — wind-blown glacial silt deposits that are fine as flour. As you hike along the spine, you’ll see some of the last remnants of prairie grass in Iowa. While they stretch 200 miles along Iowa’s western border, the Loess Hills State Forest is located in the heart of the hills. Visitor center located at 206 Polk St., Pisgah.

The Preparation Canyon Unit of Loess Hill State Forest. Photo by Matt Scott of Iowa Parklands

Backbone State Park
180 miles (2.5 hours) northeast of Des Moines

Dedicated in 1919, Iowa’s first state park contains the highest point in the region: The Devil’s Backbone. Camp, climb, fish, picnic, boat, or hike through the 21-mile trail system. They’re not your average trails — you’ll climb rocky ridges and rough staircases through rugged cedar trees. Explore the park’s history at the Iowa Civilian Corps Museum by the west gate. Located at 1347 129th St., Dundee.

Decorah Ice Cave
190 miles (3.5 hours) northeast of Des Moines

Need a natural way to cool off this summer? This cave stays icy year round — in fact, explorers of this geological phenomenon will find the thickest ice in June. Bring a flashlight and kneepads if you plan to explore the cave’s recesses. Located at Ice Cave Road, Decorah. While you’re there, stop by Dunning’s Spring Park with its 200-foot spring-fed waterfall, and the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

Maquoketa Caves
180 miles (3 hours) east of Des Moines

The 1,100-foot Dancehall Cave at Maquoketa
Caves State Park. Photo by Lot Legaspi

Didn’t think Iowa’s terrain encouraged spelunking? Think again! Maquoketa Caves State Park encompasses about 13 caves with varying degrees of exploration difficulty. Six miles of trails will take you to Dancehall Cave, Hernando’s Hideaway, Wye Cave and others. The park also includes the “Natural Bridge” 50 feet above Raccoon Creek, the 17-ton “Balanced Rock,” limestone formations and rugged bluffs. Located at 9688 Caves Road, Maquoketa

Pikes Peak State Park
204 miles (3.5 hours) northeast of Des Moines

Pikes Peak is a must-see for lovers of the outdoors. An observation deck atop a 500-foot bluff offers panoramic river views, and a half-mile boardwalk takes visitors to Bridal Veil Falls. Plus: Bear Mound and 62 other effigy mounds, 11.5 miles of trails, and the Point Ann bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and town of McGregor. Located at 32264 Pikes Peak Road, McGregor.

Magnificent museums

The Iowa Aviation Museum is open daily through November. Photo by Debbie Bates

Iowa Aviation Museum
58 miles (1 hour) west of Des Moines

If you’re an airplane buff or enjoy attractions off the beaten path, you’ll love this place. The museum is home to the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame and several vintage aircraft dating as early as the 1920s. Located at 2251 Airport Road in Greenfield. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays. More information at flyingmuseum.com.

John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum
110 miles (2 hours) northeast of Des Moines

Hundreds of artifacts and historical John Deere equipment are displayed at the site of the first Deere tractor factory. Admission is free. Located at 500 Westfield Ave., Waterloo. While in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, look up area attractions: Lost Island Waterpark, Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, Phelps Youth Pavilion, Grout Museum, Hartman Reserve Nature Center, Bluedorn Science Imaginarium and the University of Northern Iowa.

Visitors to the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum will trace Deere’s history from the first steel plow to today’s giant machines. Photo courtesy of John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum

Hobo Museum
118 miles (2 hours) north of Des Moines

“Hobos were migratory workers who helped satisfy America’s labor needs starting after the Civil War. They were ‘homeless’ by choice; they worked to travel and traveled to work.” That’s how the Britt Hobo Days Association describes the group of people it commemorates. Not only do they have a museum — there’s also the National Hobo Cemetery, Hobo Jungle with a boxcar, and National Hobo Convention and Hobo Days festivities on Aug. 11-14 this year. Museum at 51 Main Ave. S., Britt. More information at britthobodays.com.

Squirrel Cage Jail
127 miles (2 hours) west of Des Moines

The Historic Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail is one of a kind: the only three-story revolving jail ever built. Built in 1885, it was used until 1969 and preserved for historical purposes shortly after. The jail is also an official museum of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association. Located at 226 Pearl St., Council Bluffs. More information at thehistoricalsociety.org.

Figge Art Museum
170 miles (2.5 hours) east of Des Moines

Davenport’s premier art museum is located on the banks of the Mississippi River. The Figge houses thousands of pieces: the Grant Wood Archive, many historical and contemporary works, and one of the largest collections of Haitian art in the country. Located at 225 W. Second St., Davenport. More information at figgeartmuseum.org.

Quirky destinations

The Grotto of the Redemption is the world’s largest man-made grotto, with an estimated value of $4.3 million. Its museum houses the largest collection of precious stones and gems in one location. Photo by Leziga Barikor

Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption
132 miles (2.5 hours) northwest of Des Moines

Perhaps the most unique attraction in Iowa, the Grotto has been referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Father Paul Dobberstein began construction in 1912, following a decade of collecting rocks and precious stones. Nine separate grottos portray the fall of mankind and its redemption by Jesus Christ. Admission is free. Located at 208 First Ave. N.W., West Bend. Information at westbendgrotto.com.

Cast les of Ida Grove
138 miles (2.5 hours) northwest of Des Moines

Nestled in Ida County are several medieval-inspired castles — largely thanks to one man’s efforts. Byron Godbersen, founder of Midwest Industries in Ida Grove, began constructing castle replicas in the 1970s. Today, you’ll see them everywhere — from the town’s entrance, to the golf course, skating rink, and even an airport hangar. More information at idagroveia.com/activities/castles. 

Snake Alley
167 miles (2.5 hours) southeast of Des Moines

Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” called Snake Alley “The Crookedest Street in the World.” With five half-curves and two quarter-curves, it’s actually shorter and steeper than the famed Lombard Street in San Francisco. While you’re in the Burlington area, visit Cobblestone Alley, Des Moines County Heritage Center, Garrett-Phelps House Museum, Crapo Park Log Cabin and Catfish Bend Casino.

The 1989 sports fantasy film “Field of Dreams” starred Kevin Costner and was nominated for an Academy Award. Photo courtesy of Field of Dreams Movie Site Content Creator

Field of Dreams
178 miles (3 hours) northeast of Des Moines

“Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa!” Get a taste of movie magic in Dyersville, where a baseball field carved out of a cornfield was the filming site of “Field of Dreams.” In 2021, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees made history by playing the first Major League Baseball game at the farm. This year, the Chicago Cubs will play the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 11. Located at 28995 Lansing Road, Dyersville. More information at fieldofdreamsmoviesite.com.

Ice Cream Capital of the World
223 miles (3.5 hours) northwest of Des Moines

Home to the manufacturer of Blue Bunny ice cream, Le Mars is the perfect place to satisfy that summer sweet tooth. The Visitor Center and Ice Cream Parlor offers family fun with a theater, virtual soda fountain, freezer robots, and colorful Instagram-worthy backdrops. You can, of course, choose between 40 flavors of ice cream, plus other treats. The city’s annual Ice Cream Days festival is June 16-18. Located at 115 Central Ave. N.W., Le Mars. Find information at ilovewells.com. ♦


Nearby oddities

Take the road less traveled to these unusual attractions, all within an hour of downtown Des Moines.

ELWOOD THE GNOME
The world’s largest gnome stands 15 feet tall, with a very pointy red hat.
Reiman Gardens, 1407 University Blvd., Ames
Photo courtesy of Reiman Gardens

SOUTH DES MOINES SCULPTURE PARK
S.W. Eighth Street and McKinley Avenue, Des Moines
facebook.com/SouthDesMoinesSculptureParkArtFestival

The sculptures at this offbeat park include the world’s largest binder clip, a flying woman, and an egg-shaped UFO hovering 27 feet above the ground. Step aside, Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

CAPITOL II THEATRE
116 First St. N., Newton | capitol2.com

This locally owned historical movie theater has something others don’t: Joy the mini-pig! Visit her dressing room, or, if you’re lucky, watch her perform tricks under the marquee between shows. Call ahead to make sure she’ll be there — Joy has a full schedule.

PERRY OIL SERVICE STATION
1223 Willis Ave., Perry 
facebook.com/PerryOilServiceStation

ALBERT THE BULL
45 tons and 28 feet tall
E. Division Street, Audubon

Visit a 90-year-old Sinclair gas station, restored to its former glory. The 5-cent gas may seem like it’s too good to be true — and it is. The station isn’t operational. Sorry!

BOONE & SCENIC VALLEY RAILROAD
225 10th St., Boone | bsvrr.com

Journey through the scenic Des Moines River Valley on a historical train. Options include dinner, lunch and picnic trains, basic excursions, electric trolley rides and motorcar rides.

One Comment

  1. Dale Brandt says:

    The newest museum in Iowa might be the Earthmoving Museum built by John Moyna in Elkader, Iowa. It would be about a four hour drive to the northeast of DesMoines.

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