Picture of capitol 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 Moines.
Picture of desmoines 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.
Picture of arboretum 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.
Picture of pella1 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.
Picture of pella2 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.
Picture of elkhorn 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.
Picture of west_amana 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.
Picture of amana 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.
Picture of ledges 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.
Picture of prairie 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.
Picture of loess_hills 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).

Back to Trips