Whether you’re a native or just touring the heartland, there’s enough adventure to be had in Iowa to warrant weeks (or a lifetime) of exploration. If you’re pressed for time, however, Iowa’s got more-than-enough fun to pack a memorable trip into three days of RV adventuring. Of course, take your time if you can. Most of my favorite Iowa destinations are worth more than just a breeze through.
For a three-day run based out of Des Moines, start by heading east on Interstate 80. The first ‘can’t miss’ destination on your route is just two hours away, at the Amana Colonies. These seven villages were formed by German Pietist migrants from New York, who lived communally here from 1855 until the 1930s. Their self-sufficient spirit lives on today, as the Colonies have grown into one of the country’s most impressive collections of artisans, creating everything from furniture to clothing to gifts on-site. Days could be spent watching craftsmen, browsing for mementos, and enjoying traditional Colonial-era cuisine (there are several impressive campgrounds, as well), but we’ve got an adventure on a time schedule!
Continue east another hour to Le Claire, directly on the Mississippi River, outside Davenport. Here we’ll get a taste of the old Wild West, touring the Buffalo Bill Museum, honoring Iowa’s famous frontiersman, “Buffalo Bill” Cody. At the museum see Native American artifacts, a Civil War encampment, and visit the Lone Star Steamer, a wooden steamship that worked the river for 99 years, three times longer than the average working vessel (they usually caught fire!).
For a late afternoon treat (for the adults!), drop into the Mississippi River Distilling Company for a tour, and pick up a carefully handcrafted spirit like their River Rose Gin to enjoy when you get to your campground.
It’s just over an hour up the river to your last stop today in Dubuque. If you leave yourself time, visit the Mines of Spain, a National Historic Landmark. In addition to a monument marking the Spanish-controlled lead mines here in the 18th century, it’s a fantastic place to spot wildlife along the Mississippi River. The E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center offers a jumping off point to spot bald eagles, deer, wild turkey, and bobcats in the wetlands, creeks, and prairies around the river’s bluffs.
Begin day two by continuing up the Mississippi to Effigy Mounds National Monument. These prehistoric sites date back to 500 BC, featuring 206 earthen mounds built by Native Americans, some in the shape of animals. The hilly bluffs here provide fantastic views of the Mississippi at its wildest.
Keep your hiking shoes on, because the rest of your day will be spent at Yellow River State Forest, where the 25-mile “Backpack Trail” offers a rare opportunity to hike into heartland wilderness. Hike as short or long a section of trail as you please, but as you head up steep, wooden hillsides, relish in the “I can’t believe I’m in Iowa!” moments and remember what a diverse state it truly is.
It’s time to head west again. For a glimpse at the history of farming (and possibly the future!), stop by the Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, just half an hour from Yellow River. This impressive organization catalogs and saves heirloom seeds from around the country, preserving varieties of apples, vegetables, grapes, and other treasures that might otherwise fade into the past. Their gardens and historic orchard are well worth a visit.
Less then an hour west is the Hayden Prairie State Preserve, a perfect spot for a picnic. Sadly, 99 percent of Iowa’s tall grass prairie has gone the way of the Dodo. At Hayden Prairie’s 240-acres, you can catch a glimpse of what the entire state once looked like, with over 100 species of wildflowers growing free on the tiny tract.
From Hayden, it’s a quick three hours back to Des Moines. Stop on the city’s western outskirts at Living History Farms, an interactive outdoor museum that lets people play and engage on a 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, an 1850 Pioneer Farm, and a 1900 Horse-Powered Farm. Live demonstrations explain how Iowa transformed from prairie land into world’s most productive farmland.
After touring a large portion of the state, Living History Farms sheds an invaluable light on Iowa’s history and its relevance to the country and the world.
Conclude your Iowa tour with an evening stroll through the East Village of Des Moines, admiring the State Capital and taking your pick of eateries and shops that rival the hippest metropolitan districts in the country.
Still have more time? From Des Moines, it’s just four hours heading northwest to the lakes of the Okoboji region, a one-stop destination with enough family fun and natural beauty to fill an entire week-long vacation. Have just one extra day? Elk Rock State Park is just half-an-hour away, with plenty of swimming, boating, and horseback riding to please the whole family, and a small campground with electric hookups.
Whichever direction you steer, there’s no reason to head out of Iowa! And with gas prices where they’re at, we’re lucky the heartland offers so much fun for RV adventurers right around Des Moines.