Iowa typically brings to mind rolling fields of farmland, and while there's no shortage of this kind of terrain, the state has so much more to offer. In fact, it's a wonderful place for a day trip no matter what your age or interests. Families with children can explore the caves in the spectacular Maquoketa Caves State Park, history lovers can visit the Amana Colonies, and photography enthusiasts will find no shortage of stunning scenery to capture. If you're looking for somewhere to cool off in the summer, try the beautiful lakes around Okoboji or the charming town of Clear Lake. Certain attractions may be temporarily closed or require advance reservations. Some restaurants are currently offering pickup only. Hours/availability may have changed.
One of the cities within Greater Des Moines, Altoona boasts a friendly, welcoming community and plenty of attractions for visitors of all ages. The city's restaurants serve up mouthwatering steaks and barbecue dishes, and there is a 24-hour casino that hosts live horse racing events between May and October. If you're traveling with children, you'll likely want to stop by Adventureland, a large amusement park with more than 100 rides and attractions, including a waterpark with plenty of slides. However, there are also plenty of beautiful parks and playgrounds if you're looking for something a little more sedate.
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Established in 1855 by a group of German Pietists, the Amana Colonies are a collection of seven historic villages that have been declared a National Historic Landmark. The Colonies adopted a communal lifestyle that allowed them to remain almost completely self-sufficient for almost 80 years after they were established, and today, they're a popular tourist attraction known for their fantastic restaurants and their artisan shops. Visitors are welcome to explore the streets of the villages on their own, but if you'd like more information about the colonies' fascinating history, guided tours are offered between May and October.
622 46th Ave, Amana, IA 52203, Phone: 319-622-7622
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Nestled in the heart of central Iowa, Ames is an artsy, progressive city that offers plenty of opportunities for recreation and entertainment year-round. The city is best known for being home to the Iowa State University, which boasts some of the area's best things to see, including the Brunnier Art Museum and the beautiful Reiman Gardens. Outside of the university, popular attractions include the Octagon Center for the Arts and the handful of local breweries. There are also more than three dozen parks scattered throughout the city, and visitors are welcome to walk, cycle, and jog along their 50 miles of paved multi-use trails.
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4.Backbone State Park
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Encompassing just over 2,000 acres, Backbone State Park was the first state park in Iowa. It features a lake that offers excellent swimming and fishing, and there are 21 miles of hiking trails meandering through the forest, some of which are also open to cyclists. However, the highlight of the park is the "Devil's Backbone", a narrow limestone ridge that can be reached by climbing up a steep, rocky staircase. Plenty of excellent rock climbing and rappelling cliffs can be found in the vicinity of the ridge, and all climbers are required to register at the park office.
1347 129th St, Dundee, IA 52038, Phone: 563-924-2527
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If you're interested in getting a feel for central Iowa, consider visiting Boone, another inviting city in the Des Moines Township. Visitors can learn about the city at the downtown Boone History Center, but the bulk of the city's other attractions can be found in the surrounding area. The Boone & Scenic Valley railroad offers train rides through the countryside, while the Seven Oaks ski resort provides the opportunity to ski and snowboard in the winter or float down the river in the summer. Last but not least, be sure to sample some of the area's excellent local wine and beer.
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With its unique Czech and Slovak heritage, Cedar Rapids is one of the most European-feeling cities in Iowa. The New Bohemia Main Street District is the perfect place to experience the city's culture in real time, but if you'd like to learn more about the history, you can do so at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. The city is also well known for its vibrant art scene, and art lovers should take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, where they can see Grant Wood's quirky art studio and admire more than 7,000 pieces of 20th-century artwork.
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Named after the beautiful lake on the shores of which it sits, the city of Clear Lake is an enjoyable place to visit no matter what the time of year. Stop by the iconic Surf Ballroom, enjoy a meal at one of the city's excellent restaurants, or browse the downtown antique store and boutique shops. Of course, it would almost be a crime to leave without spending some time on the lake, so take a paddlewheel boat tour around the lake or head to one of the city parks to swim, stroll along the beach, or simply admire the views.
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8.Des Moines Art Center
Home to a world-class art collection consisting of sculptures, paintings, and more, the Des Moines Art Center is an extraordinary museum that was established in 1948. The permanent collection consists primarily of modern and contemporary pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries, but it also features artwork from other periods, including 18th-century Japanese woodblock prints and spectacular Impressionist paintings. The museum also operates a 4.4-acre sculpture garden downtown, which features works by two dozen artists and can be visited every day between sunrise and midnight. The museum is open itself every day but Mondays, and there is no admission fee.
4700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312, Phone: 515-277-4405
Set on the banks of the Mississippi River, Dubuque has transformed from a humble mining town into a modern city with a wonderful array of things for visitors to see and do. Take the incredibly steep Fenelon Place Elevator up Fourth Street for some incredible views, visit the Dubuque Museum of Art, or stop by the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium to learn about the aquatic life in America's riverways. If you want to spend as much time as possible by the water, you can visit the William M. Black steamboat in the harbor or cruise down the river in an inflatable military-style boat.
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If you're a baseball fan, the city of Dyersville is an excellent place to visit on your next day trip. This modest little city has a big claim to fame: It served as the backdrop for the legendary Field of Dreams movie. Visitors are welcome to stop by and take a guided tour of the farm, field, and house, and there's a small store selling memorabilia. The movie site is the city's biggest attraction, but while you're here, you should also make time to visit the National Farm Toy Museum, the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, and the Plaza Antique Mall.
11.Eagle Point Park
Tucked away in the northeast corner of Dubuque, Eagle Point Park is a 200-acre park perched on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Many people come here just to enjoy the views, but other popular activities include hiking during the summer and cross-country skiing during the winter. Visitors can use the park's picnic tables and shelters free of charge, but if you're hosting a larger gathering, and there is a historic lodge that can be rented out for weddings and other special events. The park also features a beautiful stone tower built in 1937, which visitors are welcome to climb for a small fee.
2601 Shiras Ave, Dubuque, IA 52001, Phone: 563-589-4263
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12.Greater Des Moines Botanical Center
Covering approximately 14 acres in downtown Des Moines, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center is a peaceful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. The center offers both indoor and outdoor gardens for visitors to explore; the outdoor gardens celebrate the beautiful plant life native to the Midwest, while the geodesic dome conservatory is home to a wonderful collection of exotic tropical plants. Visitors are welcome to join the guided tours that are held every Saturday and Sunday morning, but weekday tours can be arranged in advance for groups of more than 10 people.
909 Robert D. Ray Dr, Des Moines, IA 50309, Phone: 515-323-6290
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Sitting on a flat sand plain in the Mississippi River, the community of Harpers Ferry is a wonderful place to come if you want to enjoy the river's natural beauty. Numerous public marinas can be found in the surrounding area, and many visitors bring their boats to get out on the water and do some fishing. Clamming is a popular activity as well, and if you'd rather fish from the shore, you can do so in Harpers Slough Park. While you're in the area, it's also worth stopping at the nearby Effigy Mounds National Monument to see the impressive animal-shaped mounds.
14.Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
Created to commemorate the life of the 31st President of the United States, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is filled with buildings from Hoover's childhood as well as monuments celebrating his achievements. It takes approximately half a day to explore the site properly, but before you begin, stop by the Visitor's Center to pick up a map and ask the rangers any questions you might have. You can then take a self-guided tour of the grounds, visit the Presidential Library and Museum, and have a picnic lunch under the shelter where Hoover celebrated his 80th birthday.
110 Parkside Dr, West Branch, IA 52358
Iowa City is the location of the University of Iowa, and it's home to a youthful student population that gives the city a dynamic, artsy energy. The picturesque Iowa River runs right through the university campus and offers some wonderful walking opportunities, but if you're looking for something more unique, make sure to visit the Devonian Fossil Gorge, where you can stroll across a 375-million-year-old ocean floor. History lovers should also visit the museum in the Old Capital Museum and stop by the Mormon Handcart Site to see where 19th-century Mormons prepared for their emigration across the country.
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Located approximately 30 miles outside of Des Moines, the Iowa Speedway is a paved 7/8-mile racing track designed after the Richmond Raceway in Virginia. The track allows cars to reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour, and it regularly hosts events, including NASCAR races. The stadium has more than 25,000 seats, and there is also a special RV viewing area. If you're not able to attend one of the events, you might still be able to participate in one of the track's unique driving courses, which allow visitors to experience the thrill of driving a real race car.
3333 Rusty Wallace Dr, Newton, IA 50208, Phone: 866-787-8946
17.Ledges State Park
Thanks to its dramatic sandstone bluffs and gorges, Ledges State Park is one of Iowa's most popular state parks. During the warmer months, visitors flock here to admire the spectacular natural beauty and explore the park's 4 miles of hiking trails, many of which feature steep portions that lead to scenic look-out points. Another highlight of the park is Lost Lake, which can be reached via a handicap-accessible trail dotted with interpretive signs. Visitors are also welcome to fish in the Des Moines River, take photos of the beautiful arch stone bridge, and relax at the many picnic areas scattered throughout the park.
1515 P Ave, Madrid, IA 50156, Phone: 515-432-1852
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Known for being home to 6 historic covered bridges, Madison County is a truly beautiful part of rural Iowa. The bridges are the focal point of the trip for most visitors; it's easy to see them all in half a day if you have a car, but make sure to leave time to walk around and snap some photos. If you're interested in seeing what else the county has to offer, you can also browse the shops in downtown Winterset, sample the handcrafted cider at the Winterset Cidery, and visit the legendary John Wayne Birthplace & Museum.
19.Maquoketa Caves State Park
Established in 1921, the Maquoketa Caves State Park holds the honor of being home to more caves than any other Iowa state park. The caves range from the spacious Dancehall Cave to narrow passages that can only be explored by crawling, and the park also boasts beautiful rock formations like a 50-foot natural bridge and a massive 17-ton balanced rock. Many of the caves and rock formations in the park are linked by a well-maintained trail system, and there is also an inviting trail that leads past prairie land and through an experimental oak forest.
9688 Caves Rd, Maquoketa, IA 52060, Phone: 563-652-5833
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Only 20 miles away from Iowa City, Mount Vernon is a quaint little town known for its tree-lined streets and its historic uptown district. The uptown district is full of boutique shops that make for excellent window shopping, and visitors might even be lucky enough to stumble across one of the city's eclectic festivals, which are held to celebrate everything from chili to sidewalk chalk. The area is also surprisingly hilly; the limestone cliffs of Palisades-Kepler State Park are only a short drive away, and during the winter, visitors can also zip down Pres Hill on a toboggan.
3200 Mount Vernon Hwy, Mt Vernon, VA 22121
Situated on the eastern shore of West Okoboji Lake, Okoboji has been a popular vacation spot for generations. Most visitors come here because of the five spectacular glacier-carved lakes in the area, which boast breathtaking scenery and wonderful boating and swimming. Boats can be rented in Arnolds Park if needed. If you need a break from the water, take a tour of the showroom at Okoboji Classic Cars, ride the Ferris wheel or the historic wooden roller coaster at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, or say hello to the animals at the Dickinson County Nature Center.
Founded by Dutch immigrants in 1847, the charming city of Pella is known as “America’s Dutch Treasure”. The best time to visit is in May, when hundreds of thousands of tulips can be seen blooming throughout the city, but there are plenty of things to see throughout the rest of the year as well. With more than 22 buildings dating back to the 1800s, the Pella Historical Village provides a fascinating glimpse at 19th-century life. Other attractions in the city include the Pella Opera House, the sprawling Scholte House Museum & Gardens, and the tallest working windmill in the country.
818 Washington Street Pella, IA 50219, Phone: 641-628-2626
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23.Van Buren County
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Van Buren County was one of the first areas in the state to be populated by settlers, but it still offers a traditional small-town ambiance that welcomes visitors to slow down and relax. It would be easy to spend the entire day driving between the county's many villages, stopping only to browse the quaint shops, but there are all sorts of other things to do as well. Hike through the forest in the Van Buren State Park, visit the Michigan Maritime Museum to learn about the history of the Great Lakes, or discover the county's 38 extinct villages with the Forgotten Village geocaching project.
P.O. Box 9 809 First Street Keosauqua, IA 52565, Phone: 319-293-7111
Tucked away just off Interstate 80, Walcott might seem like an odd place to visit on a day trip, but it's home to some quirky attractions that you won't find anywhere else. Chief among these is the Iowa 80 truck stop, a massive complex of restaurants, souvenir shops, and stores selling truck parts. There is also a display of full-size semi-trucks on display. In keeping with the truck theme, the town's other principal attraction is the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, which boasts a collection of vintage gas pumps, signs, and more than 100 vehicles dating as far back as 1910.
With a population of less than 1,000 people, West Bend is another unexpected road trip destination with something truly unique for visitors to discover. The town is home to the Grotto of the Redemption, a spectacular shrine constructed in the early 1900s. The grotto is decorated with an incredible collection of petrified wood, fossils, and precious stones, including jasper, quartz, and topaz. While in the area, visitors can also check out the West Bend Historical Society, where they can see the West Bend's first post office, the county's first schoolhouse, and a small museum of farm equipment.
25 Best Day Trips in Iowa
- Altoona, Photo: ChrisVanLennepPhoto/stock.adobe.com
- Amana Colonies, Photo: Natalia Bratslavsky/stock.adobe.com
- Ames, Photo: eqroy/stock.adobe.com
- Backbone State Park, Photo: New Africa/stock.adobe.com
- Boone, Photo: faykatriona/stock.adobe.com
- Cedar Rapids, Photo: Jacob/stock.adobe.com
- Clear Lake, Photo: Austinys/stock.adobe.com
- Des Moines Art Center, Photo: Seventyfour/stock.adobe.com
- Dubuque, Photo: EJRodriquez/stock.adobe.com
- Dyersville, Photo: spiritofamerica/stock.adobe.com
- Eagle Point Park, Photo: spiritofamerica/stock.adobe.com
- Greater Des Moines Botanical Center, Photo: Corinne/stock.adobe.com
- Harpers Ferry, Photo: Zack Frank/stock.adobe.com
- Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, Photo: rruntsch/stock.adobe.com
- Iowa City, Photo: soupstock/stock.adobe.com
- Iowa Speedway, Photo: Alexey Kuznetsov/stock.adobe.com
- Ledges State Park, Photo: johnsroad7/stock.adobe.com
- Madison County, Photo: Jaynes Gallery and Danita Delimont/stock.adobe.com
- Maquoketa Caves State Park, Photo: Nick/stock.adobe.com
- Mount Vernon, Photo: jtai/stock.adobe.com
- Okoboji, Photo: Jacob/stock.adobe.com
- Pella, Photo: Laurens/stock.adobe.com
- Van Buren County, Photo: Madeleine Openshaw/stock.adobe.com
- Walcott, Photo: desertsolitaire/stock.adobe.com
- West Bend, Photo: korionov/stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: spiritofamerica/stock.adobe.com
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