I didn’t really know too much about Iowa before moving to the USA. As a British person it’s not exactly a destination that gets any marketing in the UK. My only knowledge of Iowa came from the travel writer Bill Bryson! So of course I went into research mode, hunting out cool things to do, roadside attractions and places that should be on an Iowa bucket list!
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Iowa Bucket List
Updated: October 2021
Fenelon Place Elevator – Dubuque
The Fenelon Place Elevator (also known as the Fourth Street Elevator), is said to be the shortest, steepest funicular railway in the world. Dating back to 1882, it was originally created as a quick way for the inventor to get to and from the top of the bluff to Downtown Dubuque during his lunch break from work. Visitors today can pay $3 for a return trip on the elevator. There’s not a huge amount to do at the top, but the view from the observation platform is pretty cool.
Related Reading: 40 Top Things To Do in Dubuque Iowa, Recommended By A Local!
Field of Dreams Movie Site – Dyersville
The 1989 ‘Field of Dreams’ movie, starring Kevin Costner was filmed on a farm just outside of Dyersville in Iowa. The baseball diamond and the farm house were left as they were in the film and continue to attract visitors to the site. Every summer, Ghost Sunday events see a team of ‘ghost’ baseball players putting on a fun (and free) comedy show and on the first weekend in September the movie site holds a ‘Team of Dreams’ event with real MLB players. 2021 saw the New York Yankees play the Chicago White Sox in the very first MLB game to ever be played in Iowa.
Related Reading: ‘If You Build It, They’ll Come’: Things To Do in Dyersville Iowa
Hula Hoop Tree – Amber/Anamosa
*UPDATE* Unfortunately in April 2020 the Hula Hoop tree was cut down. I’m still leaving it in this post though just because it was really cool and deserves to be mentioned.
The Hula Hoop Tree in Amber is a quirky Iowa roadside attraction which is exactly what it says on the tin, a tree full of hula hoops! No one really knows how it started but over the years more and more hula hoops have appeared! It’s literally on the side of the road, you have to pull onto the gravel, but it’s a fun find! I visited on a windy day when some of the hoops had blown off, so I could have a go at trying to hook one onto a branch too!
Iowa State Fair – Des Moines
As a Brit, I’d never been to a State Fair before. I didn’t quite realise just how BIG the Iowa State Fair actually is! Held in August, you’ll see farm animals (chicken washing demonstrations), big named music acts, a large funfair, food…so much food on a stick, sculptures made from butter, industry demos and so much more! It’s impossible to see everything in one day!
The World’s Largest Concrete Gnome – Ames
Iowa is home to a few large roadside attractions from giant strawberries to large frying pans. My personal favourite is Elwood, the world’s largest concrete gnome. He can be found chilling out in the Reiman Gardens in Ames, so unlike some of the other ‘big’ objects you will have to pay to see him. The butterfly house at the gardens is well worth checking out while you’re there though.
Iowa 80 ‘World’s Largest Truckstop’ – Walcott
Iowa 80 is said to be the world’s largest truckstop! It has enough parking spots for 900 trucks. At the end of the day, it is just a service station with a few extra amenities, a giant food court, a gift shop and a truck accessory shop. It does have the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum across the car park though, which makes it more than just a refill or toilet stop! They also hold a ‘Truckers Jamboree’ truck show for a weekend every July.
Maquoketa Caves State Park – Maquoketa
There are several opportunities to see caves in Iowa, but one of my personal favourites has been Maquoketa Caves State Park. This state park is free to visit and has several large caves that are easily accessible (if you are able to walk up and down stairs…not wheelchair friendly). The main trail follows a figure of 8 loop and passes the majority of the caves.
Stay In A Yurt – McIntosh Woods State Park nr Clear Lake
Some ‘glamping’ experiences these days can cost an absolute fortune. However tucked away in a corner of the McIntosh Woods State Park are 2 very reasonably priced yurts! Each yurt has a double futon, a bunkbed and a small table and chairs. There is electricity (lights, ceiling fan and a power outlet) and the toilet and shower block is just a short walk away. They are very basic but that’s all part of the fun. I love the stairs that lead down to the lake, with it’s own little jetty!
Related Reading: 8 Best State Parks in the Midwest For Adventure Travelers! | USA
Stay In The Only Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel In The World – Mason City
Frank Lloyd Wright was said to be one of the greatest American architects, designing houses, museums, office buildings and more in ‘Prairie School’ style. The Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City is the last remaining hotel in the world to have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are 27 guest rooms altogether. If you don’t stay overnight, you can take a tour of the hotel and learn all about its history. For example, at one point the building was for sale on eBay for $0.99!
For other unique places to stay in Iowa check out this post: 8 Unique Places To Stay In Iowa USA This Year!
The Original Freedom Rock is located in Menlo. The giant 12ft rock is painted each year by Ray ‘Bubba’ Sorensen II as a way to thank veterans. He then came up with the idea to create a smaller, individual boulder for each of the 99 counties in Iowa. Each rock is painted with a unique design and he tries to incorporate local veterans in each painting. Travel Iowa created a Freedom Rock check list with all the locations that you can use to keep track of the ones you’ve visited!
Of course this being a bucket list, I haven’t got to all of the places either. So here are some other cool looking places in Iowa that are on my radar.
Snake Alley – Burlington
Snake Alley has a similar history (1894) to the Fenelon Place Elevator and was originally created as a short cut between 2 streets. Rather than using a railway, it was curved like a switch back mountain road to help horses make the journey down the slope. It looks similar to Lombard Street in San Francisco, yet the turns are said to be sharper, making it more crooked than San Francisco’s. The road is made of bricks, which makes it look a lot like a snake slithering down the hill!
The Grotto of Redemption – West Bend
The Grotto of Redemption dates back to 1912 and apparently still isn’t completely finished! It was started by Paul Dobberstein, a German man who promised to build a shrine for the Virgin Mary if she helped him recover from his illness. The shrine is made from various precious stones, rock, fossils, petrified wood etc in a mosaic like design. I have been to a smaller, similar shrine in Dickeyville, Wisconsin, and was amazed by the detail, so I can only imagine that the Grotto of Redemption is even more impressive! It’s said to be the largest grotto in the world!
High Trestle Trail Bridge – Madrid
The High Trestle Trail is a 25mile hiking, biking and horse trail between Woodward and Ankeny. Along the route is the High Trestle Trail Bridge. It’s 1/2 mile long and 130ft above the Des Moines River Valley. What makes it interesting, is the length of steel ‘squares’ in a corkscrew formation that surrounds the bridge. At night (sunset until midnight in summer and 9pm in winter), these squares light up blue, creating a tunnel of light!
The Covered Bridges of Madison County – Winterset
(Photo Credit: Iowa Tourism Office)
I’d read the book ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ before I moved to Iowa so I was aware of the covered bridges around the Winterset area. The story is based on a National Geographic photographer that comes to Iowa to take photos of the covered bridges. There are 6 bridges all together. They are made from wood and dark red in colour, making them look a little like barns you’d find on a farm! The longest bridge is the Holliwell Covered Bridge, spanning 122ft. Both Holliwell and Roseman Covered Bridge appear in the film version of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’.
Lover’s Leap Swinging Bridge – Columbus Junction
Iowa loves its shortcuts! The Lover’s Leap Swinging Bridge was first built in 1886 as a shortcut between third and fourth street in Columbus Junction. The original bridge was condemned in the early 1900s due to safety reasons. It has since been rebuilt, renovated and reopened into the bridge that it is today, spanning 262ft. Apparently it’s a typical SWINGING bridge, it bounces all over the place if more than one person tries to walk along it at once. If you’re a thrill seeker and not afraid of heights, it sounds like a fun adventure!
I’m sure there are a lot of other things to do in Iowa, that could be added to the list. These are the attractions that are currently on my Iowa bucket list, along with those that I have managed to already tick off! Hopefully you discover something new to add to yours!