Best Iowa Road Trips
Spanning the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers, Iowa offers a surprisingly diverse landscape for road trips. Explore river cities such as Dubuque and Davenport; chase waterfalls among the hills of Decorah; branch out from the attractions of the Des Moines metro to small towns nearby; and find intriguing bits of history in destinations such as Cedar Rapids and Mason City.
Despite an elevation below 900 feet, Decorah—in Iowa's northeast corner—feels like a mountain town, a nook hiding more than an hour from any interstate. The land helps, with limestone cliffs and clear streams that dodged the last glaciers. But it's Decorah's 8,000 residents that fuel the town's spirit, with their yen for nature as well as for the town's Nordic heritage. Explore parks with waterfalls; bike or walk the 11-mile Trout Run Trail; and visit Vesterheim, The National Norwegian-American Museum, to learn about area history.
Okoboji and the Iowa Great Lakes
Generations of families gather each year at the Iowa Great Lakes, a chain of five glacial lakes—including Lake Okoboji—in northwest Iowa. Summer fun includes beaches, boat tours, biking, sailing, water-skiing and a visit to Arnolds Park, Iowa's oldest amusement park. The new 38-room The Inn Hotel celebrates the area's golden age with Art Deco decor, tiki drinks at The Beach Club Lounge, and a rooftop pool and bar.
Iowa's oldest city, Dubuque has lively historical districts near the mighty Mississippi. Explore attractions such as the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Fenelon Place Elevator (the world's shortest, steepest scenic railway), Eagle Point Park, Mines of Spain Recreation Area and the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Add other nearby stops to your road trip, too, like the Field of Dreams Movie Site (27 miles west), or make Dubuque a stop along your exploration of Iowa's Great River Road.
Des Moines area
The Des Moines metro has plenty of activities on its own, including the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Living History Farms, Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines Art Center and Adventureland Park. But you can also use Des Moines as a base to explore other attractions within an hour's drive or less, including the High Trestle Trail over the Des Moines River Valley, the Iowa Arboretum in Boone County, Ledges State Park, and the famous covered bridges of Madison County.
Czech heritage permeates this town 30 miles northwest of Iowa City. Top things to do include visiting the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (with the world's largest collection of works by Grant Wood), seeing the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, and shopping at NewBo City Market. In Czech Village, the business hub of the city's Czech community, try a kolache (filled pastry) at Sykora Bakery and browse small shops.
The largest of the Quad Cities on the Iowa-Illinois border makes a convenient stop for travelers on a road trip along I-80 or I-74. Local attractions include the Figge Art Museum, where the Midwest Regional Collection features works by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and others. The family will enjoy visiting the Putnam Museum and Science Center. Two boutique hotels promise luxury stays downtown: The Current Iowa in the 1910 Putnam Building and the century-old Hotel Blackhawk.
Waterloo and Cedar Falls
These two cities on the Cedar River share a metro area with plenty of activities for a weekend road trip getaway. In Waterloo, the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum tells the stories of America's war through the eyes of Iowans. Kids, meanwhile, will love riding a water coaster at Lost Island Water Park. In Cedar Falls, home of the University of Northern Iowa, shop and dine on the historic Main Street. The round Ice House Museum on the Cedar River once stored ice cut from the river; learn about the history of ice harvesting. Step back in time as well at the 1909 Little Red Schoolhouse and the Victorian Home and Carriage House Museum.
Iowa Great River Road
In northeast Iowa, Pikes Peak State Park kicks off (or finishes) a trip along the Iowa Great River Road, a 328-mile scenic byway hugging the state's eastern border. Linger in towns like Dubuque and Le Claire for shopping, dining and exploring.
Windblown silt piled up during the last ice age to form these hills near the Missouri River in western Iowa. A 220-mile scenic byway links towns, prairies, parks, trails and overlooks. Base your road trip out of Des Moines (about two and a half hours east), Sioux City (an hour north) or Omaha (an hour south).
Mason City and Clear Lake
Ten miles apart, these neighbors have distinct personalities. Mason City appeals to architecture buffs. Frank Lloyd Wright's 1908 Stockman House illustrates how Prairie School style suited middle-class homes; the Robert E. McCoy Architectural Interpretive Center next door shows a video on Wright's influence in Mason City. The best stay in town is Historic Park Inn Hotel, the world's only surviving Wright-designed hotel. In Clear Lake, concerts are scheduled to resume in 2021 at The Surf Ballroom and Museum—best known for the gig Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played before all three died in a 1959 plane crash in northern Iowa.
Pella's Dutch heritage shines during the annual Tulip Time Festival (May 6-8, 2021). At Pella Historical Village and Vermeer Mill, see how early settlers lived and worked (note, currently closed due to COVID-19.) Try an almond-paste-filled Dutch letter at Jaarsma Bakery, and cap off your day with a stay at the Royal Amsterdam Hotel.
Tiny and quaint, 1800s ports line the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. Hike or canoe in Lacey-Keosauqua State Park (iowadnr.gov) , or take a leisurely journey through the area on the Historic Hills Scenic Byway. Most weekends find the county fairly quiet, but the annual Scenic Drive Festival in October swells towns such as Bentonsport, Keosauqua and Bonaparte (each with populations of 1,000 or fewer) with crafters, pancake feeds, pedal tractor races and old-time medicine shows.