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An Insider’s Guide to Iowa: 52 Travel Ideas, Tips, Trivia and Other Tidbits

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1. Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2009, includes 206 known prehistoric American Indian mounds within the borders of the park, 31 of which are shaped in the likeness (effigy) of bears or birds. The 2,526-acre park is divided into two units (North and South) by the Yellow River. The complex is managed by the National Parks Service.

2. Cedar Rock in Quasqueton is considered one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most complete designs. Nearly everything in the home bears his imprint. Wright designed the furniture, selected the carpets, chose the draperies and even picked out the accessories. A signature tile can be founded embedded into the home’s exterior. When the owner’s died, they left the home to the Iowa Conservation Commission and the people of Iowa. The home is cared for by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and is open to the public for tours from May through October.

3. When Prohibition outlawed the manufacturing of alcohol, residents of Templeton became outlaws and created Templeton Rye Whiskey. Known as "The Good Stuff," the whiskey sold for $5.50 per gallon at its peak (which would be $70 today). It was also Al Capone’s whiskey of choice and barrels of it were shipped to him and his gang to distribute through speakeasies. It is still made – now legally – today. Tours are offered occasionally.

4. The Park Inn Hotel, the only remaining hotel in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is located in Mason City. A dedicated group of citizens is working to restore the hotel and hope to have it open in September 2010. Mason City also boasts the Frank Lloyd Wright Stockman House, the only middle-class home of his Prairie School period open to the public in the U.S.

5. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake is where rock-and-roll legends Buddy Holly, J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson and Richie Valens performed their last concert on February 3, 1959. The trio, along with their pilot, died in a plane crash just outside of town. Their rock and roll legacy is preserved at the annual Winter Dance Party held in late January/early February. One of the Surf’s most popular events, the party gives rock and roll fans the chance to dance the night away to music by the three legendary rockers. In 2009, the Surf will be designated a Rock ‘n’ Roll Landmark by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

6. The Wilton Candy Kitchen, the world’s oldest on-going ice cream parlor/soda fountain/confectionery, can be found in Wilton. The sweet shop was established circa 1856.

7. The home used as the backdrop for Grant Wood’s "American Gothic" is still standing in Eldon. (Fun fact: The woman in the painting was Wood’s sister; the man was Wood’s dentist.) Visitors can view the home, built in 1881-1882 and now owned by the State Historical Society, from the outside only. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The visitor’s center has costumes and pitchfork available for people to recreate their own American Gothic pose.

8. The Sergeant Floyd Monument in Sioux City was the first registered national historic landmark in the United States. The 100-foot-tall white stone obelisk commemorates Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only fatality of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

9. Pancake Day in Centerville has been conducted annually since 1949. On the last Saturday of September, local businesses and organizations cook up pancakes which they provide for free to their customers to show thanks for their continued patronage. The day also includes a morning kiddie parade, a larger afternoon parade, a queen contest and free entertainment.

10. Lying on industrial scaffolding in a downtown building in Waterloo, artist Paco Rosic, a 27-year old Bosnian-born artist, recreated Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling using cans of spray paint to interpret the world renowned masterpiece in his own style. Rosic recently extended the ceiling art down onto to the walls and floors of his award-winning fine dining establishment.

11. The Kate Shelley High Bridge on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad line in Boone is the world’s highest, longest, double track railroad bridge. The same line also boasts the Bass Point Creek High Bridge, which is the highest steel interurban railroad trestle in the U.S. The tourist line railroad travels 15-miles round trip through the beautiful Des Moines River Valley. Special train rides include Valentine’s Dinner in February and Santa Express in December.

12. Ripley’s Believe It or Not named Burlington’s Snake Alley the Crookedest Street in the World. The alley consists of five half-curves and two quarter-curves over a distance of 275-feet. The street was constructed in 1894 as an experimental street design. Three public-spirited German immigrants conceived and carried out the idea of a winding hillside street reminiscent of vineyard paths in France and Germany. Unfortunately, the switchback design proved to be less successful for horse carriages than the city had anticipated so no more streets were constructed in this manner.

13. Built in 1927, the Legend roller coaster at Arnolds Park in Okoboji is the 13th oldest wooden roller coaster in the world. It has been named one of the top 10 wooden roller coasters in the country. Constructed in the late 1800s, Arnolds Park is the oldest amusement park west of the Mississippi River.

14. Dyersville is home to the baseball diamond featured in the movie Field of Dreams. There are no organized activities but visitors can bring their own bats and balls and play, run the bases or walk out of the corn like the famous ghost players in the movie.

15. The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque, measuring 296 feet in length and elevating passengers 189 feet, is the world’s shortest and steepest scenic railway. It was originally constructed in 1882 by Mr. J.K. Graves as a means to shorten his daily commute home for lunch.

16. Maharishi Vedic City (incorporated in 2001 near Fairfield) is Iowa’s newest town. It was designed as a model of ideal city life. The name "Vedic" comes from the Sanskrit word "Veda," which means "knowledge." The name "Maharishi" is in honor of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who is renowned throughout the world for bringing to light in a scientific, systematic manner the complete Vedic science of consciousness. This includes 40 approaches to promote life supported by total Natural Law and enhance the quality of every aspect of life. All homes feature Vedic architecture, where all buildings face east.

17. The National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa includes an extensive collection of vintage motorcycles, thousands of photographs, posters, postcards and pieces of motorcycle memorabilia, including the original Captain America bike from the 1969 movie "Easy Rider."

18. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art houses the world’s largest collection of Grant Wood paintings. The Museum also owns the property at 5 Turner Alley that Wood used for a home and studio from 1924 – 1934. It was in this studio that Grant Wood painted one of the world’s most famous works of art – American Gothic – a work that was shown at and purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930 for $300. ("American Gothic" will return to Iowa and be on display at the Des Moines Art Center from January 31 – March 29. Admission is always free.)

19. Imes Bridge is the oldest of the six remaining covered bridges in Madison County. (It was built in 1870. There were originally 19 covered bridges.) The 122-foot-long Holliwell Bridge is the longest of Madison County’s covered bridges. The bridges were immortalized in Iowan Robert Waller’s book – The Bridges of Madison County – and the film by the same name (some of which was shot on location in Iowa).

20. At 106 feet tall, the Cordova Park Observation Tower near Pella is the Midwest’s tallest observation tower. It also has the longest continuous fiberglass staircase in the world. Admission is just 50 cents.

21. The Loess Hill formations in Western Iowa sometimes exceed 200 feet. While loess (windblown soil) is found throughout the United States and Iowa, there are only two formations of loess with these extreme depths in the world – western Iowa and China.

22. Le Mars, home to Wells Blue Bunny Dairy, is the Ice Cream Capital of the World. More ice cream is produced there than any other city in the world. Early morning arrivers to the Ice Cream Capital of the World Visitors’ Center in LeMars can enjoy a cinnamon roll topped with icing made from melted ice cream.

23. The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is one of the oldest and largest state fairs in the country. It is Iowa’s largest tourism event, annually attracting more than a million Fairgoers. In 2004, USA Weekend magazine named the event the number two place for summer fun in America.

24. The design and size of the Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs make it a one-of-a-kind structure. It was one of 17 revolving ("squirrel cage" or "lazy Susan") jails built; it is the only three-story one ever built. Built in 1885 at a cost of about $30,000, the unique jail has three floors of revolving pie-shaped cells inside a cage. The cell section remains much as it did in 1969 when it was closed by the county. The signatures and dates of many of its infamous prisoners remain scratched in the cell walls. The jail was in continuous use until 1969. Today, only three revolving jails remain; all three are preserved as museums.

25. Pat Acton of Gladbrook is world-renowned for his matchstick models. He has glued more than two million matchsticks together to create 50 extraordinary models and has been featured in Ripley’s "Believe it or Not." The Matchstick Marvels museum in his hometown displays several of his models including the U.S. Capitol, Space Shuttle Challenger and Terrace Hill (Iowa’s Governor’s mansion). He is currently working on Minas Tirith, the city in Lord of the Rings.

26. Van Buren County is the only Iowa county without a stoplight.

27. Decorah is home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, the largest ethnic museum in the United States. On Thursdays, admission is free and the museum is open until 8 p.m.

28. King’s Pointe Resort in Storm Lake is home to the Midwest’s most cutting-edge waterslide technology. Riders can choose from eight adventure themes – including sharks and thunderstorms – then experience the sights and sounds of that theme on the way down.

29. Through a generous gift from John and Mary Pappajohn, a new sculpture park will be created in Des Moines this year. The Pappajohns donated 20 sculptures valued at nearly $30 million for the park, believed to be the single largest public donation of art in Iowa history.

30. The Upper Iowa River in northeast Iowa offers stunning views of river bluffs, especially when seen from a canoe.

31. Sac City built the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball, weighing in at 3,100 pounds, in 2004. They will attempt to set a new record in February 2009.

32. In 1931, nearly 100 buildings in Spencer burned to the ground as the result of a youngster dropping a burning sparkler into a box of fireworks. (Which explains why the sale and/or use of private fireworks is banned in Iowa.) The buildings were rebuilt in the art deco architecture style, making the downtown area the largest and most diverse collection of 1930s Art Deco architecture in the Midwest.

33. Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids offers some of the darkest skies in the Midwest, making for wonderful star gazing during the annual Iowa Star Party or anytime.

34. At the 400-acre Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve and Center in Rockford, visitors can see Devonian fossils, 80 acres of native prairie and dig up their own fossils to take home with them.

35. The Blank Park Zoon in Des Moines boasts up close viewing of lions and tigers, a walk-through Australian exhibit and a new red panda exhibit. The zoo is also one of only a few that breed their flamingos.

36. Iowa’s first destination state park, Honey Creek Resort, is located on the shores of Lake Rathbun near Centerville. The 850-acre state park includes a lodge, outdoor patio, 105-room hotel, indoor water park, conference center, 180-hole golf course and interpretive nature programs.

37. Each year, the Iowa Pork Producer’s hold a contest to find the best breaded pork tenderloin in the state. The reigning champion is Augusta’s in Oxford, a restaurant opened by Hurricane Katrina refugees.

38. Davenport locals love a hot fudge sundae from Lagomarino’s. Each one is served with a pitcher of hot fudge on the side.

39. In December 2008, "Food Paradise," a show on the Travel Channel, announced that the Machine Shed Restaurant in Iowa is the "best breakfast place in America." There are two locations: Des Moines and Davenport.

40. Stanton is home to Virginia Christine, better known as "Mrs. Olson" of the Folgers’ coffee commercial fame. She returned to town to serve as the parade Grand Marshal for the Centennial celebration in 1970. Stanton celebrated the connection, along with its own Scandinavian coffee roots, with a 120-ft. Coffee Pot Water Tower erected in 1971. The "Swedish-style" pot, painted with decorative hearts and flowers, holds 40,000 gallons of water (that’s 640,000 cups of coffee). Sitting atop a 90-ft. tower, the pot measures 35-ft. high, 20-ft. wide, with a 10-ft. high, 6-ft. deep spout and 15-ft. high handle. In 2000, a 96-ft. tall coffee cup water tower was erected to complement the pot. Its capacity dwarfs the old pot, holding 150,000 gallons of water ready for percolation. It even won the 2000 "Tank of the Year" award from the Steel Plate Manufacturer’s Association.

41. Donna Reed, an Oscar winner for the movie From Here to Eternity and a star of her own television show, was born in Denison in 1921. The Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts in Denison houses the Donna Reed Heritage Museum, Donna Reed Theatre and Reiney’s Soda Fountain. Her Oscar is on display at the W.A. McHenry House, also in Denison.

42. Since 1999, talented artist Ray (Bubba) Sorensen II, has created a Memorial Day tribute to servicemen and servicewomen, both past and present, by painting on a large granite boulder near Greenfield known as the Patriotic Rock. He repaints the rock each year in time for Memorial Day.

43. Designated in 1910, the original White Pole Road followed along the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad from Des Moines to Council Bluffs. Poles along the route were painted white and drivers were encouraged to travel "The Great White Way." Today’s re-created 26-mile section links the communities of Dexter, Stuart, Menlo, Casey and Adair. Along the way, visitors can enjoy fork dipped chocolates, a historic church, the site of a Bonnie & Clyde bank robbery (the building now houses the town’s police department) and the Friendly Gas Station Man (a neon-outlined service station attendant).

44. One of the most famous – and longest – scenic and history drives in the United States meanders along Iowa’s eastern edge. The Great River Road offers a multitude of breathtaking views of the Mississippi River from the bluffs.

45. Originally built as a family retreat by the Wells family (of Wells Dairy), the "Hole N’ the Wall Lodge" in Akron is open to the public. The lodge sits on 2000 acres and includes a five-star lodge with fifteen rooms, a three-story great room, huge bar, elegant dining facility and game room.

46. The Farmhouse B&B in Fredericksburg is a real working farm where guests can milk the cows, feed the calves and chickens, stroll through the vineyard, fish from the pond and enjoy an evening campfire.

47. Iowa has more than 60 wineries across the state. Many have tasting rooms and offer tours and special events.

48. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in West Branch honors the only president born in Iowa.

49. Brucemore in Cedar Rapids is one of 29 properties of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 26-acre estate in the heart of Cedar Rapids includes rolling lawns, a formal garden, 1915 Lord and Burnham greenhouse and 1927 swimming pool. The 21-room Queen Anne-style mansion was built in 1886. Bluesmore, an annual blues concerts, draws thousands.

50. Spook Cave in McGregor is only accessible by boat. Visitors can take the 35-minute guided tour through the 47 degree cave and learn about its discovery and the surrounding scenic valley.

51. The Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines contains the only fully functional clear toilet in the Northern Hemisphere.

52. The modest four-room home in Winterset where Marion Robert Morrison, better known as John Wayne, was born on May 26, 1907, has been restored to reflect its appearance of the year of the Duke’s birth. An impressive collection of John Wayne memorabilia includes unique items such as the eye patch worn in the movie True Grit, a hat worn in Rio Lobo, and a prop suitcase used in the film Stagecoach. Hundreds of rare photographs of the Duke are on display as well as letters from Lucille Ball, Gene Autry, Maureen O’Hara, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan and George Burns.

 

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About the Author

Alexa
Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring the Northwest United States.
  • Jim Marwedel

    Not too big of a deal, but Van Buren County is not the only county in Iowa without a stoplight. Guthrie County, where I live, does not have one. Though I have not been there, the information for O’Brien County says you cannot take a CDL test there because there are no stoplights. Someone from Butler County claimed there are no stoplights there (but that was 10 years ago). I bet there are others without stoplights as well. There are a lot of rural counties in Iowa.