My high beams wash over the curves of Jackson County’s country roads, bouncing off hand-painted signs in the overgrown grass: “Keep Going … You’re Almost There.” Asphalt turns to gravel, which turns into a cow pasture dubbed a parking lot by another wooden sign. We hop in line by a cattle gate and wait for Marvin to arrive. He packs us shoulder to shoulder in an open-air trailer behind his John Deere tractor for a bumpy ride through the woods. Then a clearing emerges. Codfish Hollow, they call it. But Wonderland feels more fitting. It’s a meadow of flickering lights and barns. The old farmhouse has been converted into an art gallery, and a stage in the airplane hangar-like barn has hosted Dawes, Norah Jones, Counting Crows and other national acts.
One-off destinations like Codfish Hollow have long drawn day-trippers to Iowa’s far-east elbow: The state’s largest public park for caving. Mississippi River vistas. The Field of Dreams Movie Site. (Ready to feel old? The film is 30 years young in 2019.) But now Cedar Rapids and Dubuque have caught up, with lively cultural and dining scenes that make the region more weekend-able than ever. Pick a city to explore—or add a day to see them both—and use these tips to road-trip through the land between them.
Sudan Archives performs in a Codfish Hollow Barnstormers show near Maquoketa. Outside the barn, firepits flicker, and glowing tents and a VW van sell crafts, food and drink.
Iowa’s second-biggest city has long had a reputation for food—namely, the smell of Cap’n Crunch wafting from a Quaker Oats plant. But in the wake of devastating flooding in 2008, diverse eats have sprung up across the city, even spreading into nearby towns.
ln the Czech Village neighborhood, visit art studios, shops, and the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. Through September, Revolution 1989 explores Czechoslovakia’s peaceful Velvet Revolution, which overturned 50 years of Communist rule.
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art houses the world’s largest collection of works by Iowa native Grant Wood. Nearby, visit the studio where he painted American Gothic.
Under James Beard nominee Andy Schumacher, Cobble Hill is one of Iowa’s best restaurants, where local farmers inspire each dish and elegant cocktail. Don’t leave without tasting the Parisian gnocchi. Andy also runs Caucho, a Mexican spot serving novel salsas and drinks. The fresh tortillas are made with masa ground in-house on lava stones.
More than 20 vendors (and occasional pop-ups) fill NewBo City Market. Buy truffles and other chocolatey goodness at Lori Anne’s Candies, grab Indian street food at Melting Bite or fill a cooler with creative brats and links from Sausage Foundry.
NewBo City Market
In teeny Solon, 20 miles southeast, Big Grove Brewery serves standout bar food with its brews. Farmer-owned Salt Fork Kitchen pairs house kimchi with omelets. Twenty minutes east of Cedar Rapids, Mount Vernon is a picturesque college town. Lincoln Wine Bar dishes incredible wood-fired pizza (and live weekend music).
Steeples and smokestacks crown the bluffs, and 25-plus murals by artists from across the U.S. cover downtown, thanks to a nonprofit project started in 2017. Spot them from the Mississippi riverfront to the burgeoning Millwork District in Iowa’s oldest city.
Dubuque mural project.
In Cable Car Square, ride 189 feet up “the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway” via Fenelon Place Elevator Company for a tri-state view above the city.
Fenelon Place Elevator Company
An elegant lobby at Hotel Julien Dubuque preserves 180 years of history in wood-paneled columns and golden elevators. Small, cozy updated rooms overlook the Mississippi River.
Turtles and alligator gar fill freshwater habitats at The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. You can get up close to the octopus and touch live stingrays in the Gulf of Mexico exhibit.
At Brazen Open Kitchen, taste the work of Kevin Scharpf, fresh off a winter appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef. Try an elderflower gin cocktail frothed with egg white, salmon with vegan risotto or duck confit tacos, featuring tomato ceviche and cilantro.
Brazen Open Kitchen
Brazen Open Kitchen
Into the Wild
Whether nature is your overnight sanctuary or a stop to stretch your legs, these parks beyond Cedar Rapids and Dubuque have you covered.
1 Blankets of green surround the caverns at Maquoketa Caves State Park. Follow lighted pathways to the 1,110-foot-long Dance Hall Cave and cross the towering Natural Bridge. A park overhaul last year built a new footbridge and boardwalks. Brave visitors bring headlamps and belly-crawling clothes, but casual hikers find plenty to see, too.
2 Pikes Peak State Park sprawls above the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. It’s a bit of a detour, but worth it for the best view in Iowa (and you can drive straight to the top). Plus, the scenic 55-mile drive from Dubuque follows the Great River Road. Plan a pie and ice cream stop at Sadie’s Sweet Shop in McGregor.
Pikes Peak State Park. Photo: Jay Wilde
3 Hikers and rock climbers share the namesake trail at Backbone State Park. This gateway to northeast Iowa bluff country boasts trout fishing, 21 trail miles, two campgrounds and affordable cabins.
Bucket list stops
Pack your mitt for a visit to the actual Field of Dreams baseball diamond and filming location in Dyersville. The site 25 miles west of Dubuque offers tours of the farmhouse and lets you step onto the field.
Ten years ago, Codfish Hollow Barnstormers turned a round barn storing wagons and hay into an iconic Midwest concert hub. Watch the show calendar and plan a weekend around the experience. Ticket holders can camp on the farm, but Dubuque and Davenport hotels are just 45 minutes away.