Iowa is generally treated as a state you pass through. And even then, there is a general understanding that there’s not too much to do here. After living in Iowa for two years, and tons of research, I’ve discovered that there is actually tons to do on a roadtrip through Iowa.
If you’re already doing a roadtrip through America, it’s easy to add on some of these gems. Keep reading to find the best route for you and all the awesome places you can explore.
West to East (and East to West!) Roadtrip Through Iowa
Perhaps the most common way you might come across Iowa. Route 80 splits Iowa pretty evenly, meaning you can see most of these attractions with just a short detour away from your chosen path.
Iowa City is constantly rated the most underrated city in Iowa. I’m not totally sure I agree, as people are generally only thinking of one city in Iowa, if any at all (Des Moines). However, Iowa City is a surprisingly lovely place to visit.
Bookshops, cafes, a couple of interesting museums, beautiful state parks nearby like Palisades-Kepler and MacBride…what’s not to like?! Highlights here include the Haunted Bookshop, the Old Capital Museum, and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
This place…wow! What a completely shocking and amazing little town this is. Carefully preserving their Dutch heritage through food, museums, and events this is possible the best place in all of Iowa to visit.
Especially if you can visit during the Tulip Time Festival, which I’ve written all about!
Des Moines – Roadtrip through Iowa
The capital of Iowa, it’s perhaps the most obvious spot on this list. But, there are some unexpected things to do in Des Moines. I’m always talking about the state parks, but Ledges (pictured below), Big Creek, and Walnut Woods are all within comfortable distance of this city for nature.
The cafes and restaurants are diverse and exciting, and there is tons of history available at the Iowa State Capital and the Salisbury House & Gardens.
On the very western border with Nebraska is a true Iowa gem. Despite being a well-loved place to visit, amenities here are generally lacking but worth the effort. The hiking trails, the views, the stunning sunsets, and the peace and quiet set the Loess Hills apart.
The geological formations of these hills is pretty different from anything I’ve seen before. Make sure you snag a camping spot with good views to watch as different colors play out over the mounds.
North to South Roadtrip Through Iowa
You will be hitting a few similar things on this path as it will also pass through Des Moines. But, just like the other two itineraries, this one hits one of my favorite places in Iowa (the Bridges of Madison County). And, of course, you could just as easily do this itinerary South to North as it’s all on Route 35 – so whichever works best for you!
Bridges of Madison County – Roadtrip Through Iowa
A mini roadtrip in and of itself, you’d better level-up your dirt road driving skills as that is highly featured in this attraction. There are six beautiful original 100+ year old covered bridges in this county. They are all in something of a circle around the town of Winterset.
And Winterset is worth stopping into as well, an absolutely adorable town with some even better people. The town is the icing on the cake of a perfect Iowa daytrip.
For those who love trains or want to take a trip through the Iowa countryside without needing to focus on the road, this is the stop for you! With a variety of tour options that include lunch, dinner, and children-oriented trips, you’re sure to find something that suits your travel style.
Get the 1920s experience as you ride this train through the valley to a little town called Fraser that used to be known for its mining. Enjoy the fresh air by visiting the open-air caboose! It’s a unique addition to any Iowa Itinerary.
Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption
A bit of a weird one, and a quick stop, but this bizarre art installation has been drawing visitors for years. The world’s largest grotto, designed by a priest and covered in precious and semi-precious stones, it’s worth going out of your way. Now, with a winery on the way, you can combine the trip!
99 Bottles is a winery you can camp at – so no more worrying about drunk driving! If camping here doesn’t float your boat, why not consider McIntosh Woods State Park? There, you can experience sleeping in a yurt (if you can book them fast enough!).
Visiting Iowa from Chicago
This is kind of an odd route for a roadtrip through Iowa that I’ve designed. It’s mainly for people who are living in the surrounding states that are planning to visit Chicago (or even live in or near Chicago) that are willing to go a little further out of their way.
Most of these sites are in the northeast of Iowa and down along the border – so you’re just dipping into the state. But, these are probably some of the most interesting places I have been in Iowa so I wanted to craft an itinerary that would highlight them!
Dubuque Iowa Itinerary
This is the city that seems to constantly expand with things to do. From 100 year old theaters to riverside wineries, this town is a surprising delight. The world’s shortest and steepest railroad also calls this town home!
Add in the Crystal Caves and the Mines of Spain park and you’ve got tons of adventure at your fingertips. Additionally, several Mississippi River cruises depart from here. If you’re looking for more than a dinner cruise, check out:
Mississippi River Cruise to Guttenburg
Riverboat Twilight gives you the opportunity to set sail on an authentic (and beautiful!) recreation steamboat up the river. They include meals and a stop-off in the historic town of Guttenburg to give you a chance to explore. Expect to see tons of local nature and wildlife, with wonderful views no matter the season.
Bellevue State Park
Butterfly gardens and Indian burial mounds are just some of the intrigues you’ll pass by on the hiking trails in Bellevue. Just 30 minutes from Dubuque this state park is just like every other one in Iowa, totally free and kept on the down-low.
The secret is out with the denizens of Iowa, camping books up months ahead but it’s worth planning a stop here.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
If you like caves, then this is definitely one of the coolest stops on any Iowa Itinerary. These Maquoketa Iowa Caves range in size from the massive to the super tiny. Make sure to bring your headlamp to get the full effect!
Iowa for Iowa’s Sake Roadtrip
Of course, there is so much more available for a roadtrip through Iowa if you’re trying to get the full experience. If you’re not just passing through, you’ll have the ability to visit other sites such as Backbone State Park (one of the best hiking experiences in Iowa), Tama Indian Powwows, the Amana Colonies, and local farm tours in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, and more!