The Best Things to do in Iowa

The 25 Best Things to do in Iowa

Although it’s home to some of the country’s most scenic byways, picturesque rolling hills, and charming towns with picture-perfect Main Streets, Iowa is one of the most overlooked US States. Outdoor activities are seemingly endless here, and its famously photographed covered bridges, historic landmarks, and Midwest farmland landscapes perfectly embody quintessential Americana. 

Iowa’s wide-open spaces offer access to beautiful state parks and underground caves, while the capital city of Des Moines is home to some of the state’s most fascinating cultural attractions. Iowa is also a diverse state where you can discover something new around every corner, from the Scandinavian heritage in Decorah to traditional German culture on display in the unique Amanda Colonies. 

You’re spoiled for choice in opportunities to get up close to Iowa’s picture-perfect landscapes, from hopping aboard the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad to enjoying water-based adventures in the Iowa Great Lakes. Families are well-catered to as well, with iconic amusement park rides and kid-friendly fun at Arnolds Park and the renowned Iowa State Fair. 

With so much to see and do in the Hawkeye State, it’s difficult to know where to start. We’ve gathered a list of our favorite things to do in Iowa, whether you’re craving the outdoors or are looking for a family-friendly getaway. You can make the most of your trip with these unique activities, which we think should be on any Iowa bucket list!

25 Fun and Unique Things to do in Iowa  

1. Explore Maquoketa Caves State Park

Best Things to do in Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park

If you’re craving outdoor adventures, Maquoketa Caves State Park is one of the must-do things in Iowa. Featuring more caves than any state park, Maquoketa Caves offers access to a six-mile trail system that winds its way through geologic formations, moss-covered rocks, towering stone walls, and forests full of natural beauty. 

There are scenic views around every corner of this park, from the towering bluffs to a hiking system that links caves with dramatic outlooks. Some of the highlights include the Natural Bridge, which stands 50 feet above Raccoon Creek, and the 17-ton Balanced Rock.

Cool Things to do in Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park

You can learn about the geology of the cave formations and park history at the interpretive center, Sager’s Museum. However, if you want a first-hand look at the unique landscapes, explore the 1,100-foot Dancehall Cave or one of the other 12 found at Maquoketa Caves, including Hernado’s Hideaway, Shinbone Cave, and Wye Cave. 

Camping is a popular pastime in this park, with its on-site campground nestled among the beautiful pine trees. Perfect for a day trip, the park also features two picnic shelters and an on-site playground for little ones. 

2. Savor Downtown Views from the Iowa State Capitol

Unique Things to do in Iowa: Iowa State Capitol

For photogenic views overlooking downtown Des Moines, plan a trip to visit the Iowa State Capitol. Located atop a hill on Grand Avenue, it also features a large 23-karat golden dome that is visible for miles and is one of the top Iowa attractions. 

This historic site offers a glimpse into the city’s rich cultural heritage and 170+ year history and is home to the Iowa House of Representatives, the Iowa Supreme Court, and offices of the state’s elected officials, including the governor. Besides serving as Iowa’s government, it’s also a masterpiece in architecture and design. 

Self-guided tours are available (although they require reservations) to see the beauty of its famous gold dome interior. It’s also home to historical artifacts that will interest history buffs, while its central location means you can combine it with one of Des Moines’ top attractions. 

Take a stroll through the 15,000 acres of green space in Water Works Park, see more than 20 sculptured art pieces in the 4.4-acre John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, or take a self-guided tour of the planted collections at Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens. The Des Moines Farmers’ Market has been a popular community event since 1975, featuring around 300 vendors selling local produce and handmade goods.

3. Drive the Most Scenic State Byway in Iowa

Must do things in Iowa: Driftless Area Scenic Byway

While Iowa is home to a long list of scenic byways, the Driftless Area Scenic Byway offers one of the best things to do in Iowa. The 144-mile route zigzags its way across the landscape in northeastern Iowa past Allamakee and Winneshiek counties. 

This area of Northern Iowa was once bypassed by glaciers during the Ice Age, and unlike other land surrounding the region that was flattened, this terrain is unique. Along this famous byway, you’ll pass through beautiful valleys, forests, farms, and iconic limestone outcroppings that make up the Mississippi River bluffs country. 

If you’re looking for the best views, marvel at the bluff vistas from the Paint Creek Overlook and Larkin’s Overlook in Harpers Ferry, or drive to Decorah to explore Will Baker/Pulpit Rock Park and Dunning’s Spring waterfall. Lansing is home to the official Driftless Area Visitors Center and Mt. Hosmer Overlook, where you can view 50 miles of the Mississippi River valley from a 450-foot bluff. 

Other notable stops include Waukon City Park in Waukon as well as the Yellow River State Forest and State Bird Conservation Area in Harpers Ferry. One of the best times to drive the Driftless Area Scenic Byway is in fall, as the hardwood timbers are bursting with seasonal foliage. 

4. Visit the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is dedicated to the 31st president of the United States, who is currently the only president to come from Iowa. You can learn more about this notable figure in the town of West Branch, where you can check out his humble beginnings and hear about his long career in public service. 

This memorial landscape tells his story, from a child of simple beginnings to the presidency of the United States. Start at the Visitor Center to pick up a map and guide, then see some of the most iconic structures, including the Birthplace Cottage, the Blacksmith Shop, the Schoolhouse, and the Friends Meetinghouse. 

When he died on October 20, 1964, Herbert Hoover was laid to rest in the quiet hillside of West Branch. You can pay your respects at his gravesite, then visit the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum or snap a photo of the 7.5-foot-tall statue “Isis, Goddess of Life” dedicated in gratitude for Hoover’s famine reliefs in the First World War. 

In West Branch, there’s also a Herbert Hoover Highway stretching from Iowa City to Lowden, as well as the Hoover Nature Trail. If you’re up for a scenic stroll, you can follow the trail along the railroad that passed through the president’s hometown.

5. Photograph the Bridges of Madison County

What to do in Iowa: Bridges of Madison County

Iowa’s Madison County is world-renowned for its collection of picture-perfect covered bridges, with the largest group of covered bridges that exists in one area in the western half of the Mississippi Valley. With six of the original 19 remaining, these historic sites served as the backdrop of the best-selling novel and popular movie “The Bridges of Madison County.” And visiting this place is a must on any Iowa bucket list!

Winterset, the county seat, is about 40 miles southwest of Des Moines. The city’s Welcome Center has maps for a self-guided tour, where you can take a scenic drive for a few hours to photograph these beautiful bridges. You can book a personal guided tour of the covered bridges at the Welcome Center, but before you leave, stroll the quaint historic town square in Winterset.

Stop in the small-town retail stores and restaurants and visit in the fall if you want to see the trees surrounding the bridges bursting in color. If you’re looking for unique things to do in Iowa, time your visit for the annual Covered Bridge Festival in October for a weekend of kid-friendly activities, special events, food, and local vendors!

6. Hike to Bridal Veil Falls in Pikes Peak State Park

Best Things to do in Iowa: Pikes Peak State Park

Pikes Peak State Park is one of the most beautiful Iowa attractions, famous for its majestic vistas of the Mississippi River. It’s one of the best things to do in Iowa if you’re a nature lover, featuring 11 miles of trails where you can marvel at scenic bluffs and valleys. 

The most popular activity is venturing down the half-mile boardwalk to see Bridal Veil Falls and Bear Mound, which is an effigy built by Native Americans. There are actually more than 200 mounds in the park, and they were thought to be used for ceremonial or burial purposes. The two-mile Fire Point Trail features more than 20 mounds alone! 

Pikes Peak is a hiker’s delight, offering a look at where the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers meet atop a 500-foot bluff. If you’re looking for a longer adventure, opt for the four-mile trail to Point Ann to marvel at scenic views overlooking the town of McGregor and the Mississippi River. 

After a long day of hiking, you can camp in one of the several campsites (with electric and non-electric sites available). You can also take a break at the rustic stone picnic shelter and two gazebos located in the main picnic and overlook area, which offers scenic views of the upper Midwest. 

7. Visit the Amana Colonies

Cool Things to do in Iowa: Amana Colonies

One of the coolest things to do in Iowa, the seven villages that make up the Amana Colonies were founded in the 1850s by German Pietists. Once isolated, self-sufficient religious communities, this area has transformed into a popular travel destination where visitors come to experience traditional handicrafts and foods. 

Pick up a map at the Visitors Center, then make your way between towns (you’ll need to drive to experience it all) to see the array of historic buildings and craftspeople at work. In addition to German holiday festivals, shopping and indulging in German sweet treats are highlights. 

Unique Things to do in Iowa: Amana Colonies

Almost half of the residents here are descendants of the original German colonists, which means you’re sure to enjoy an authentic experience. Ox Yoke Inn has been a staple in Amana Colonies since 1940, world-famous for its German food served “family style,” while Millstream Brau Haus serves one-of-a-kind brews alongside German-style pub food. 

You can also browse some of the locally owned stores for specialty products. For the perfect souvenir,  purchase one of the classic quilts on offer at Heritage Designs or bring home some smoked hams, bacon, summer sausage, and cheeses from Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse

8. Plan a Lake Getaway to Lake McBride State Park

Fun Things to do in Iowa: Lake McBride State Park

Lake McBride State Park is a popular lakeside destination in the Hawkeye State for a reason. With its long list of family-friendly activities, multi-use trails around the lake, and native bird sightings, this is another one of the must-do things in Iowa. 

In summer, this park comes alive with warm-weather activities. You can soak up the sunshine while kayaking, paddling, or swimming in the lake, while the two campgrounds on-site mean you can make it a multi-day adventure. Fishing for prized bass is also an option!

This popular lakeside destination features a variety of hiking options. More than seven miles of hiking trails wrap around the lake and traverse through the oak and hickory forest. In the fall and spring, it’s possible to enjoy the unique sounds of native birds, such as shorebirds, waterfowl, and ospreys. If you’re with the kids, follow the flat interpretive trail around the lake. 

You can boat in the lake or throw out a towel and relax on the beach with a refreshment from the concession stand. If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a pontoon, motorboat, canoe, kayak, or paddleboard and get out on the water. In winter, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling excursions are also available.  

9. Drive the Great River Road National Scenic Byway

Must do things in Iowa: Great River Road National Scenice Byway
Images courtesy of Iowa Tourism Office

If you’re looking for a great road trip in Iowa, follow the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. Following the course of the Mississippi River through 10 states, the Iowa portion includes charming river towns, sacred Native American sites, museums, and nature preserves. 

Along the 328-mile Iowa section of this All-American Road, you can linger in quaint towns for shopping, dining, and exploring. Pikes Peak State Park starts (or ends) a trip on this scenic byway through Iowa, located just outside of McGregor, where you can catch a peek at the plunging Bridal Veil Falls, one of the top Iowa attractions.

Make a pit stop in towns such as Dubuque and LeClaire to get a glimpse of some of Iowa’s most charming towns. In Dubuque, you can take the Fenelon Place Elevator to the “world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway,” which overlooks three states (Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois). Alternatively, visit top-rated Iowa attractions such as the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and Eagle Point Park

LeClaire is another must-stop on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway as you drive past rolling farmlands and tiny towns with only one stoplight. Antique Archeology is a treasure trove of vintage goods, while The Shameless Chocoholic is a popular place for sweet treats with local handmade chocolates and over 120 varieties of truffles. 

10. Encounter Wildlife at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Must do things in Iowa: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Deserving of a spot on our best things to do in Iowa list on its own, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is a gem in the Hawkeye State. Operated by the Dubuque Historical Society, it’s part aquarium, part museum, and part science center. 

Visitors of all ages can have fun exploring the interactive exhibits and observing the array of animals. You can have fun while browsing the Aviaries with bald eagles, the Backwater Marsh wetland habitat, and the saltwater Gulf of Mexico Aquarium, home to the resident green sea turtle, Dot. Other must-sees are the Blacksmith Shop, Conservation Lab, and Otter Habitat.

Iowa Bucket List: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

As you explore this attraction, you’ll have the chance to get up close to a wide variety of animals. Exhibits feature everything from American alligators and ball pythons to gopher tortoises, sturgeons, and giant geckos. In the Rivers to the Sea exhibit, you’ll find 12 aquariums with 100 species of marine animals.

If you have the time, you can also go on one of the special tours. The Behind-the-Scenes Aquarium Tour allows you to visit rooms used to care for and house the animals and interact with expert aquarists.

11. Discover Scandinavian Heritage in Decorah

Something you might not expect to learn on a trip to Iowa is about Scandinavian heritage. The small town of Decorah is tucked among the bluffs of northeast Iowa and showcases Scandinavian culture through its quaint downtown shops and fascinating attractions. 

One of the most popular places to visit is the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, which features over 24,000 artifacts. With 16 historic buildings to explore, it’s the most comprehensive museum dedicated to a single immigrant group in the United States. Notable pieces include the 25-foot wooden sailboat TradeWind and an immigrant log house from 1853.

For a deeper look, see if you can coincide your visit with the annual Nordic Fest in July. A celebration of Scandinavian heritage, culture, and food, it features traditional crafts, sporting events, a colorful parade, and a fireworks display. 

While you’re in Decorah, you can also add a visit to Dunning’s Spring Park and Ice Cave Hill. Along with hiking trails, a stone arch bridge, and an ice cave, it’s home to a picturesque waterfall surrounded by limestone cliffs. 

12. Go Museum Hopping in Iowa City

What to do in Iowa: Kinnick Stadium

Home to the Iowa Hawkeyes and the University of Iowa, Iowa City is where you’ll find some of the most fun things to do in Iowa. While catching a Saturday Hawkeye football game at Kinnick Stadium might be at the top of your itinerary, museum-hopping in this vibrant city is also worth your time. 

Standing proudly in Iowa City for over 170 years, the University of Iowa is an acclaimed Big Ten university that offers public access to a variety of museums. You can see a world-class collection of artwork in the Stanley Museum of Art or visit the second-oldest museum in the United States west of the Mississippi River – the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

Set within the city’s Old Capitol, the Old Capitol Museum is a National Historic Landmark. It features three floors of exhibits that can be explored on a self-guided tour. The Supreme Court Chamber, Senate Chamber, House Chamber, and Hanson Humanities Gallery are some of the most notable areas. 

When you’re done visiting museums, you can visit the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall, which is a 12-block area downtown dotted with shops and restaurants. Prairie Lights Books & Cafe – where Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and Langston Hughes once visited – is a favorite with literary enthusiasts with its 2.5 stories of books.

13. Hop Aboard the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad

Iowa Things to do: Fraser Train

All aboard, train enthusiasts. The Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad offers a variety of fun and scenic excursions in Iowa. From steam locomotive tours to themed kid-friendly trains, this is your ticket to seeing some of Iowa’s beautiful countryside. 

The Fraser Train is the classic excursion train, where you can travel from Boone to the old coal mining town of Fraser, crossing the Des Moines River Bridge along the way. The 11-mile round-trip journey passes through the river valley and lasts around one hour and 45 minutes. 

Other tours include the Dinner Train with an elegant dining experience aboard historic 1950s passenger cars. Families love the Picnic Train, where you can pack a lunch and travel in the climate-controlled comfort through the Des Moines River Valley. The back of the train features a large observation platform for panoramic views. 

You can also visit the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum while you’re there. The 9,000-square-foot facility features a research library, theater, and memorabilia from all eras of railroading in Iowa. With the collections of toy trains, track equipment, dining car china, and lanterns, this is one of the best things to do in Iowa for train lovers!

14. Experience Dutch Culture in Pella

Best Things to do in Iowa: Pella

Iowa offers visitors a chance to explore many diverse cultures, including Dutch culture in the city of Pella. Founded by refugees from Holland in 1847, this charming town southeast of Des Moines is a hidden gem. Proudly displaying its Dutch heritage, it’s home to the tallest working windmill in North America. 

Start your exploration of Pella at the Pella Historical Village, where 19th-century life is showcased through 22 historic buildings. Along with Wyatt Earp’s boyhood home, you can visit the Log Cabin, moved piece by piece from a local farm, as well as Werkplaats, the place where wooden shoes are made. 

Pop into the refurbished working Bakery and Meat and Cheese Shop, then take a look at the antiques and costumes in Heritage Hall. You can also browse the 175-year-old Scholte House and enjoy a Dutch “koffie tijd” in Maria’s Team Room. 

In Pella, Jaarsma Bakery is another popular stop. Specializing in authentic Dutch pastries made from scratch daily, this family-owned and operated shop that dates back to 1898 is known for its almond-paste-filled Dutch Letters and Almond Butter Cake. For a full immersion, every May, Pella hosts the annual Tulip Time festival with a variety of Dutch-inspired events. 

15. Get on the Water at Iowa Great Lakes

Cool Things to do in Iowa: Iowa Great Lakes

Offering access to endless outdoor recreation opportunities, the “Iowa Great Lakes” region of northwest Iowa is home to several state parks and bodies of water. The string of glacial lakes actually covers around 15,000 acres for boaters and anglers, including East and West Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake. 

Gull Point State Park is a focal point in the Great Lake region and a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and other lake activities in summer. Marble Beach State Recreation Area is another local favorite on the shore of Spirit Lake, home to one of Iowa’s most popular campgrounds and the best fishing in the state. 

Unique Things to do in Iowa: Iowa Great Lakes

For a peaceful getaway, head to the 80-acre Elinor Bedell State Park on the shore of East Lake Okoboji. Emerson Bay State Recreation Area offers impressive views of West Lake Okoboji from its observation tower at Lighthouse Point, in addition to a sandy beach, playground, picnic areas, and boat ramp. 

Anglers are spoiled for choice, with excellent shoreline fishing at Trappers Bay State Recreation Area, Mini-Wakan State Park, and Templar State Recreation Area. However, if you want to take a dip, Pikes Point State Park boasts one of the most popular swim beaches in the area. 

16. Walk Through the Creek at Ledges State Park

Fun Things to do in Iowa: Ledges State Park

Ledges State Park is an oasis for outdoor lovers, featuring picturesque hiking trails that offer views of the park’s 100-foot sandstone ridges. The four-mile trail system leads to scenic overviews of Pea’s Creek “canyon,” while a fully accessible interpretive trail to Lost Lake is also available at the southern end of the park. 

Only around 40 miles southeast of Des Moines, this park is a popular day-tripper’s destination. If you’re not up for hiking, you can also come and enjoy a leisurely drive along the scenic Canyon Road or stop for a quiet waterside picnic. 

If you’re looking for something unique to do, stream walk the rocky Pea’s Creek that winds through the park’s canyons. Accessible from Canyon Road, it’s perfect for both kids and beginner hikers who want to gaze up at the ridges rising from the canyon floor and enjoy a shallow creek walk. 

Camping is also available in one of the newly renovated campsites as well as the primitive hike-in sites. Alternatively, opt to reserve a shelter at Ledges for a scenic setting for your outdoor gathering. 

17. Enjoy Thrills at Arnolds Park Amusement Park

Best Things to do in Iowa: Arnolds Park Amusement Park

Break up your outdoor adventures in Iowa with a day of thrills at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. This historic park is one of the longest-operating amusement parks in the world, located on the shores of West Lake Okoboji. 

There are over 30 rides and attractions, including the newly renovated Legend, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the world. The Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and Tilt-A-Whirl are family favorites, while little ones can enjoy the Kiddie Coaster, Dizzy Dragons, and El Paso train. 

Cool Things to do in Iowa: Arnolds Park Amusement Park

If you’re going for goosebumps, test your bravery on the Log Flume, Roll-O-Plane, and Mad Mouse. Built in 1930, the Legend Roller Coaster is a hit. If you’re not a fan of rides, try winning a prize at one of the fun carnival-style games!

Cruise on the lake in the Queen II steamship and admire antiques in the on-site maritime museum, then enjoy the sun and sand on the Arnolds Park Amusement Park’s sandy, lakeside beach. When hunger strikes, the Funhouse Diner, Benit’s Confections, and concession stands around the park offer places to refuel. 

18. Attend the Iowa State Fair

Fun Things to do in Iowa: Iowa State Fair

If there was ever an event to add to your Iowa bucket list, it’s the Iowa State Fair. It’s not like the state fairs you’ve been to before – this 11-day internationally acclaimed event is considered one of the best state fairs in the United States. 

In addition to unique foods, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is known for its agricultural shows, crazy contests, live music, and thrill rides. Past concert headliners at this end-of-summer event have included the likes of big-name performers such as Elton John, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, and Bob Dylan. 

Filling up with fair foods is a must. Favorites are the deep-fried Snickers bars and pork chop on a stick, while the Iowa Twinkie (bacon wrapped jalapeño) and buckets of Barksdale’s State Fair Cookies are sure to hit the spot. Work off your food by exploring the fair’s 400 acres to see unique sites like the cow sculpture made of butter and pie eating contests.

Annually attracting more than a million people from around the world, it’s impossible to do everything at the Iowa State Fair. Families will love the Kids Zone with its hands-on activities and Thrill Town with its kid-friendly rides, while older fairgoers can buckle their seatbelts for the amusement rides in Thrill Ville and Thrill Zone. 

19. Visit the ‘Field of Dreams’ Movie Site

What to do in Iowa: ‘Field of Dreams’ Movie Site

“If you build it, he will come” is one of the most famous movie quotes from the film “Field of Dreams” that still speaks to dreamers to this day. Located in Dyersville, the Field of Dreams Movie Site features the film’s farmhouse (which offers guided tours), as well as the famous baseball diamond and corn fields. 

You can see where the century-old farm made movie history in 1989. The field is open from sunrise to sunset year-round, weather pending, and there’s a Baseballism Store on-site. Book a tour to see the Kinsella family household, which has been restored to look like it did in the movie, and hear stories about the home from its early days.

In September every year, the site holds the day-long Team of Dreams celebration with notable figures such as Wade Boggs, Reggie Jackson, and Rod Carew. After your baseball-filled day, Dyersville has other fun attractions to explore. 

The National Farm Toy Museum features two floors of farm toys, pedal tractors, and dioramas, while the Dyer-Botsford Victorian House & Doll Museum is a restored Victorian house with over 2,000 dolls. Pick up antiques and collectibles at Plaza Antique Mall, then fill up with huge pretzels and flat-bread pizza at Textile Brewing Company

20. Escape Along Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

Cool Things to do in Iowa: Loess Hills National Scenic Byway
Images courtesy of Iowa Tourism Office

If you’re looking for a picture-perfect escape from the hustle and bustle, plan a road trip along the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. Connecting Iowa’s western border, this roadway passes through the Loess Hills, which are a unique land formation made almost entirely of windblown soils that date to the end of the last Ice Age.

Stretching for about 200 miles, it’s a sight to behold and one of the coolest things to do in Iowa. The landscape of Iowa’s Loess Hills features prairie and forest-covered steep bluffs as well as narrow ridges and rolling hills. It’s the perfect spot for a road trip, with many memorable stops along the way. 

The Todd House Museum is one of only four existing Underground Railroad Stations in Iowa, featuring school records, photographs, and family histories. If you’re an animal lover, plan a visit to the Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve to see Iowa’s largest remaining prairie and over 200 bison. 

Visit the Loess Hills Lavender Farm in Missouri Valley and cut your own lavender bouquet or take home lavender-scented souvenirs. Afterward, learn more about Loess Hill’s geological formations and native plants and animals at the Dorothy Pecan Nature Center in Sioux City. 

21. Visit Iowa’s Oldest State Park

Best Things to do in Iowa: Backbone State Park

Located in the valley of the Maquoketa River, Backbone State Park is named after the narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the river that forms the highest point in northeast Iowa – The Devil’s Backbone. Dating back to 1920, it was Iowa’s first state park and is still considered one of the most geographically unique locations in the state.

Hikers will find plenty to explore via the 21-mile trail system, which winds its way along twisted and windblown cedars up rocky staircases. Mountain bikers will love the Barred Owl, Bluebird, East Lake, and West Lake trails, while winter enthusiasts can enjoy snowmobile and cross-country ski trails when the weather gets cold. 

Iowa Things to do: Backbone State Park

Local climbers flock to this park to traverse the rugged dolomite limestone cliffs, with Backbone Trial one of the most popular climbing spots. Alternatively, you can opt for a day of fishing for trout in the clear stream fed by Richmond Springs or boat, kayak, canoe, or paddle boat on the picturesque Backbone Lake. 

Planning an overnight adventure in Backbone State Park is easy, thanks to the four-season cabins available. You can also camp in one of the campgrounds, with non-electric and electric sites available. 

22. Explore a Former Manufacturing Town

Waterloo is a former manufacturing town in Iowa and a current hotspot for history buffs to explore. Along with a vibrant downtown district full of museums, you can explore an extensive network of trails and locally-owned restaurants or cool off in a family-favorite water park.

Head to Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum to hear the stories of America’s wars through local Iowans, then learn about science through fun educational exhibits at the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium. This three-floor, interactive science center has hands-on exhibits that will show visitors of all ages how exciting science can be. 

You can take a step back in time at the Victorian-era Rensselaer Russell House Museum, which is set in a restored 1861 house. To see one of the largest collections of Haitian art in the United States, visit Waterloo Center for the Arts

Get outside and enjoy the nature views along the Cedar Valley Trails via bike or kayak, or admire the colorful displays of flowers and plants at the Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens. Families can add a jam-packed day of fun at Lost Island Water Park, which features waterslides, a lazy river, and adventure golf. 

23. Spot Wildlife at George Wyth Memorial State Park

Located near Waterloo and Cedar Falls, George Wyth Memorial State Park is a popular destination for wildlife watching in Iowa. It is abundant with bird species as well as white-tailed deer in its secluded setting. 

Designated as a National Urban Wildlife Sanctuary, this park, which is named after a well-known Cedar Falls businessman, offers a diverse range of outdoor activities. Head to the bird blind near the back of George Wyth Memorial State Park for the best bird-watching opportunities and see if you can spot some of the 200+ species of birdlife that have been recorded here. 

There are more than three miles of paved, multi-use trails as well as 10 miles of multi-use soft trails, while cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat tire biking are popular during the winter. Along with hiking and biking opportunities, you can get out on the water and boat or fish in one of the four lakes. 

In warmer months, George Wyth Lake is a “no wake” lake with a swimming beach. Camping is also possible at its large campground, which features electric and non-electric sites, with modern showers, restrooms, and a trailer dump station available. 

24. See the Longest Living Show Cavern in Iowa

Dubbed “Iowa’s hidden treasure,” Crystal Lake Cave is a family-friendly destination with a history older than the state itself. Beneath the cornfields of Iowa, you can take a guided tour through the 3,000 feet of well-lit passageways and discover an underground wonderland full of intricate and unique formations. 

It offers a unique experience where you can explore the underground panorama, which was first discovered in 1868. In 1932, the cave was open to the public and was eventually named Crystal Lake Cave. Today it’s the longest-living show cavern in Iowa, where families can embark on memorable cave tours. 

It offers a fascinating up-close look at otherworldly landscapes, including crystals such as aragonite, travertine, satin stalagmite, stalactite, and calcareous spar. Kids will also love discovering their own fossils and gemstones in the specialized gem mining area, where they can find hidden treasures like real-life geologists and archaeologists. 

25. See a World of Butterflies at Reiman Gardens

Fun Things to do in Iowa: Reiman Gardens
Image courtesy of Iowa Tourism Office

You can find your zen at Reiman Gardens, a 17-acre site in Ames open for visitors year-round. Along with a big collection of themed gardens with seasonal displays, you can visit a 2,500-square-foot Butterfly Wing with almost 1,000 different butterflies. 

You can stop and smell the roses at the Helen Latch Jones Garden, which features a mix of fragrant roses, then take advantage of the shaded seating areas in the Dunlap Entry Courtyard. There’s an Edible Garden with a raised bed garden displaying flowers with edible parts, as well as an Heirloom Garden with plants common to early 1900s gardens. 

Wander the path up the hill through four themed gardens in the Hillside Water-wise Garden or stop and photograph the colorful tropical collections, waterfall, and pond in the Hughes Conservatory. 

Two of the must-sees are the seasonal tunes played from the campanile bell tower in the Margaret E. Penkhus Campanile Garden and the themed sculptures in the South Field. If you visit with kids, the Patty Jischke Children’s Garden has a hideout, maze, tumbling mounds, butterfly bend, and stock tank with hand pumps to squirt your friends!

There you have it! The 25 best things to do in Iowa. What’s your favorite thing to do in the Hawkeye State?



  • Charity De Souza

    Born and raised in Florida, Charity moved to London after college and caught the travel bug. She then traveled full-time as a digital nomad for over a decade, living in the UK, New Zealand, China, and Thailand.

    With around 60-ish travel stamps in her passport, her favorite memories include skydiving in Switzerland, eating sushi in Japan, island hopping in the Philippines, and camping overnight in the Sahara Desert.

    She’s now a freelance writer living in Portugal with her husband and son.

    View all posts

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *