Iowa, doesn't exactly strike most people as a major tourist destination and well,
it isn't. In the process of spending 5 weeks in Des Moines however we found quite
a few places that are worth a visit if you're in the area. Note that we did not
spend any time along the Mississippi river area in Iowa but we covered quite a lot
of the rest of the state. This picture is of the state capital building in Des
Des Moines is the largest city in Iowa and really is quite a cosmopolitan place for its size.
There is a wide selection of restaurants (we don't recommend straying too far into the ethnic
market though if you're expecting authenticity) a couple of nice microbreweries downtown and
a fairly lively nightlife on weekends at least. The metro area extends in all directions
but most of the interesting stuff appears to be towards the west side.
We didn't find the selection of museums in Des Moines to be of any note, but what did clearly
stand out was the park system. There is a truly extensive system of parks, biking and hiking
trails and greenways crisscrossing the city of Des Moines and most of its suburbs. Waterworks
park downtown, the Clive and West Des Moines greenways and Ewing Park (the Lilac arboretum is
shown here) are some of the best. Des Moines is also a fantastic city for disc golf (aka frisbee
golf) if you're into the sport. There are 16 courses within 40 miles of Des Moines.
One of the local side trips of note is the town of Pella, famous (so to speak) for its Dutch
heritage. Of note they have a crowded tulip festival in May every year which culminates in the
crowning of Tulip royalty in the park shown here. Pella is one of those towns that has seized
on a rather tenuous connection in an attempt to draw tourists. They've retrofitted the 'historic'
downtown area to look like a Dutch town, and added an assortment of shops selling wooden shoes
and other trinkets from the Netherlands.
They even have their very own so-called authentic Dutch windmill (note tulips in the foreground).
There is a historic Dutch village as well which also contains the extremely non-Dutch boyhood
home of Wyatt Earp which was moved here from somewhere else. There is even a poor facsimile of a
Dutch canal (we say poor because it runs for about a half a block through a plaza specifically
built to contain it.) You the reader probably already know if you like this sort of thing, if you
do, Pella is the place for you.
For contrast we'd also like to present the 'authentic' Danish windmill in the town of Elkhorn
located about halfway between Des Moines and Omaha. Elkhorn is a tiny town which has also taken
some advantage of it's heritage, from Denmark in this case, replete with Danish flags flying
throughout the town. This is roadside America at its finest but don't try to eat here on
Mother's Day at noon.
Let's move on to German heritage now, and the rather better known Amana Colonies. There are
seven Amana colonies of which only Amana is big enough to spend more than an hour in. We spent
an hour total on five of the smaller towns. This is West Amana which is fairly typical for the
outlying colonies. The historic buildings are easily recognizeable by their stonework (trust us,
it will be obvious). The colonies were established in the 1850s by a communal society that had
come to the US from Germany.
Amana itself was suprisingly interesting and we spent longer there than we'd expected (not just
because of the Millstream Brewery). Amana is a mixture of some rather unique historical sites
and some touristy developments based around them. For instance, the Amana Woolen Mill contains
an assortment of old wool-spinning and dyeing machines attached to a store which sells about
10% woolen mill products and 90% any other merchandise they feel like selling. Baskets, candles,
meats, cheeses and wines (mostly from fruit other than grapes) are also made locally. Unless you're
a vegan don't miss the smokehouse. We missed the traditional maypole dance by a week but here's the
finished product in the picture.
Moving on to the natural attractions in Iowa: it's not all flat fields of corn as many people
seem to think, although that certainly exists as well. The Des Moines river valley is one
source of interesting parks and wildlife areas. This is Ledges State Park near Ames, Iowa.
Ledges has a couple of nice hiking trails along bluffs near the Des Moines river. We saw
quite a few deer, pheasants, rabbits and smaller rodents.
The Loess hills run along the western border of the state paralleling the Missouri river.
These are ancient windblown silt hills so they look like sand dunes for a good reason. We
spent an afternoon in Preparation Canyon State Park and the surrounding forest. On the east
side of the hills we came across this nice tallgrass prairie strewn with campground sites.
The hills themselves are covered in a thick forest with lots of scenic streams and a ton of
wildflowers in the Spring. When we first arrived in Iowa I asked a couple native Des Moines-ians what the local
food specialties were and they kept telling me that there weren't any. Well, they're wrong.
For instance, search for 'Steak de Burgo' on the internet and see how many non-Iowan references
you get. This is beef filet cooked in white wine, cream, butter and garlic. Also popular is
the rather unusual taco pizza which is certainly more common in Iowa than in other places and
the ubiquitous pork tenderloin sandwich (usually breaded and fried).