Essential Iowa RV Travel:
An Affectionate Tour of the
Hawkeye State’s Unexpected Experiences
by Suzanne Wright
For a relatively small state, Iowa looms large. Every four years, it’s the focus of national attention, kicking off the U.S. presidential primaries. Iowa also leads in the production of cattle, corn, hogs, and soybeans with more than nine-tenths of its land devoted to farming. Beyond agricultural and political influence, underappreciated Iowa offers four seasons, open land, and a congenial Midwestern welcome. Look deeply: there’s a butterscotch glow to Iowa. Listen closely: there’s a musicality in the rustle of corn, the buzz of crickets. A bridge between eastern forests and western high plains, the heartland is alive with quiet surprises. Just ask: unassuming but proud Iowans will point you along the way.
Greater Des Moines
Fast-growing Des Moines, in central Iowa, is the gold-domed, majestic state capital (yes, you can tour the building). Start your excursion at the Principal Riverwalk, a recreational park district featuring a 1.2-mile trail, and two pedestrian bridges connecting the east and west sides of downtown. America’s largest skatepark, the professional-level Lauridsen Skatepark is an exciting place to watch the acrobatic athletics. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and Iowa Arboretum are lovely places to stroll, especially in mild spring and fall weather. Over 11 days in August, the Iowa State Fairgrounds are bustling. Open seasonally, Adventureland Park recently debuted the Phoenix, a spinning roller coaster sure to elicit screams from everyone. Head to trendy West Des Moines for the best in dining, entertainment, and shopping.
It’s well worth the 30-mile drive to Newtown to shop at the Maytag Dairy Farm Store for its award-winning blue cheese specialties. Popularized on the TV sitcom Roseanne, the admittedly unappealingly named loose meat sandwich is a thing in Iowa. Somewhere between a hamburger and Sloppy Joe, the finely ground and seasoned meat is served with a squeeze of mustard and pickles. According to USA Today the state’s best loose meat sammy is served at Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa. That’s about an hour and half out of Des Moines, but you’ll also find it on menus at bars across the state.
Where to Stay:
Open year-round, the Des Moines West KOA Holiday has seemingly everything in a quiet setting not far from I-80. All spacious pull-through sites have full hookups, fire pits, grass, and picnic tables. Plus there are two dog parks, ladder ball, 24-hour laundry, trampoline basketball, and organized activities.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed concrete, glass, and steel Cedar Rock home in the eastern grasslands is a must-see for fans of prairie architecture. One of seven FLW residences in Iowa, it’s open from mid-May to mid-October. The highest point in Iowa, Backbone State Park, has stunning vistas. The narrow ridge of bedrock is why it’s called Devil’s Backbone. In Onawa, the Lewis & Clark State Park houses full-size replicas of Lewis and Clark’s barge and dugout canoe. The Loess Hills in western Iowa were shaped by windblown soil during the Ice Age. The ghost town of Preparation, now Preparation Canyon State Park, was founded by a break-away group of Utah-bound Mormons in the 1850s. It’s a quiet, remote enclave for backcountry hiking amid bur oak, columbine, ferns, and jack-in-the-pulpit. Bobcats, deer, great plains skink, songbirds, and turkey are among the native animal species. The Hitchcock Nature Center located in Honey Creek, has a 45-foot tall observation tower from which to view the Loess Hills. Birdwatchers gather from September through December to witness thousands of eagles, hawks, and other raptors. In summer, sunflower fields blanket Badger Creek State Park near Des Moines. Dubbed “Little Switzerland” for its rugged topography, the Volga River State Recreation Area in scenic northeast Iowa, attracts wildlife watchers to spy beaver, deer, and red fox. Less than an hour from Des Moines, the sandstone shelves of Ledges State Park sit 100 feet above the Des Moines River. There are several structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a winding canyon drive through the dramatic cliffs and valleys. Bright lichen are legion in the park.
Where to stay:
There are numerous camping options in Iowa State Parks. A full listing is here.
The Amana Colonies, one of the oldest utopian societies in the U.S., are situated in the peaceful Iowa prairie 30 minutes from Cedar Rapids. A National Historic Landmark, it was founded by a group of German Pietists who fled their homeland in the 18th century to escape religious persecution. The seven villages recall yesteryear with their historic brick, stone, and clapboard homes, flower and vegetable gardens, and lantern-lit walkways. Experience Gemütlichkeit, a state of warmth and friendliness, as you dine on schnitzel, shop, and tour. The 26,000 acres also offer biking, canoeing on the Iowa River, and fishing. The Czech Village and New Bohemia neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids are home descendants of Bohemian, Moravian, and Slovak immigrants. Stop by Sykora Bakery for the famous rye bread or jam-filled koláče pastries. Visit the Netherlands without leaving the state in Pella, another refuge for Europeans seeking religious freedom. The Dutch Village features the Vermeer Mill, the tallest working grist mill in the country. Sample speculaas, spice cookies and small-batch gouda cheese. Colorful tulip time is in early May.
Where to Stay:
The 80-acre, full service Amana RV Park is just a half mile from the villages. There are more than 450 level RV sites with full and partial hookups; it’s open from April through October. There are also laundry and shower facilities with free Wifi and a camp store. Midway between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, the family-friendly Lazy Acres Campground in Urbana gets high marks from RVers. It’s big rig-friendly with 92 long, gravelled sites, all with picnic tables and fire pits. Plus there’s free Wifi and paddle boats, sand volleyball, a splash pad, and turbo bikes to keep the kids amused. Ten minutes from Pella, Wallashuck on Lake Red Rock, offers 83 campsites with electric hookups and showers.
Field of Dreams is the heart-tugging movie that makes grown men cry as ghosts of baseball players slip in and out of the corn. One asks, “Is this heaven?” To which Kevin Costner answers, “No, it’s Iowa.” The Field of Dreams Movie Site is open all year, and located 25 miles west of Dubuque in Dyersville, along the Mississippi River where Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin meet. Another iconic movie, The Bridges of Madison County, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, forever immortalized the scenery here. Madison County boasts the largest group of covered bridges in the western half of the Mississippi Valley. Take the 82-mile Covered Bridges Scenic Byway to the most famous bridges, the Winterset birthplace and museum of “The Duke” John Wayne, and the Iowa Quilt Museum.
Where to Stay:
The Winterset City Park Campground is open seasonally April until mid-November. There are 40 sites with 50/30/15 amp electric service, water, sewer hook-ups, fire rings, picnic tables, and showers. Reservations can be made starting on the first Monday of the new year for the upcoming season.
Is this India or Iowa?
The town of Vedic City, in southeastern Iowa, features architecture based on ancient Hindu principles that promote balance, harmony, and natural law. The open-air Maharishi Vedic Observatory is not a traditional observatory—don’t expect telescopes—but a collection of outdoor masonry sundials arranged in a circle to align with the sun, moon, and stars. The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa is the only spa outside of India specifically built to offer traditional Ayurveda rejuvenation treatments. The 36,000 square-foot facility is located on 100 acres of rolling meadows and woodlands.
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway
Passing through 10 states, this is one of the nation’s most significant drives. The Iowa portion, which follows the Mississippi for 328 miles, includes 18 interpretative centers. Highlights of the route include the sacred Effigy Mounds in Harpers Ferry. More than 200 prehistoric American Indian burial and ceremonial grounds that date from 500 B.C. are scattered over 2,500 acres of forested land. The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque is home to live animal exhibits including the new stingray touch tank, hands-on historical exhibits, a 4D theater, and a splash zone. In Clinton, you can board a naturalist-guided pontoon boat cruise at the Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center.