Des Moines, Iowa, is full of exciting attractions, beautiful parks and gardens, and intriguing restaurants. But sometimes you just need a day away from the city -- or want to spend some time outside the city you’re visiting -- and that’s where day trips come in.
Des Moines is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the state, meaning you can visit just about anywhere within a few-hour drive. Here are the best day-trip destinations, how to get there, and what to do when you arrive.
If you’re ready to put in a long day, the 3.5-hour drive from Des Moines to Okoboji is well worth it. From the beautiful scenery and energizing water activities to the theater and arts in the town, this is a prime day-trip destination. The town is located on the pristine glacial lake of the same name, in an area known as the Iowa Great Lakes terrain.
West Okoboji is the deepest lake in the state of Iowa, so it’s a popular spot for boating, fishing, and other water sports. It’s also loaded with charming restaurants and pubs around the east and west sides of the lake. On the southern end of West Okoboji, you can find Arnolds Park, a retro amusement park where you can spend a fun day riding the coasters, checking out the Maritime Museum, or catching a concert.
The beaches, parks, museums, and outdoor sports alone make Okoboji worth a visit, but the delicious food, stellar shopping district, and theatre will take your day trip to the next level.
For a shorter day trip, visit any of the seven Amana Colonies just 90 minutes by car from Des Moines. The villages, originally founded by German immigrants, boast a host of lovely traditional inns and bed and breakfasts for overnight stays, plus rows of shops primarily owned and run by the descendants of the original residents of the villages.
Start the day with a visit to the Amana Heritage Museum to learn about the culture and heritage of the area. Follow that up with dining in any of the many family-style restaurants -- something the villages are specifically known for -- and shopping in the artisan shops around town. Visit the other shops and boutiques and the Amana Art Guild, or try some delicious sweets made right there in Amana.
When you’re ready for some outdoor fun, pull out your bike or strap on your walking shoes to explore the Lily Lake wildlife trails or the area’s gravel and paved bike trails. Or, if water’s more your scene, you can bring your canoe or kayak for a paddle along the Iowa River.
Field Of Dreams
Movie buffs and baseball fans alike will love this day trip away from the bustle of the city. Dyersville, Iowa, has been home to the Field of Dreams movie site since the late 1980s when the iconic film starring Kevin Costner was released in theaters.
In 1988, the Lansing Family Farm was approached by the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce on behalf of the Iowa Film Board about using the farm for the film. Don Lansing, owner, greeted the visitor with questions. Their interactions ultimately led to Mr. Lansing signing a contract for the rights to film Shoeless Joe at the farm. The title was later changed, and the rest is history.
Today you can visit the location, which is just a three-hour drive from Des Moines, to enjoy an immersive experience that covers the filming of the movie and the history of baseball. Enjoy free admission during seasonal hours.
You can visit their website for more information on hours and to schedule a tour (available 359 days a year) 24-hours ahead of arrival, or just plug the address into your GPS: 28995 Lansing Road, Dyersville, Iowa.
Grotto Of The Redemption
Considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world, the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption is a must-see for anyone with an interest in religious artifacts and shrines. The stunning shrine is the largest man-made collection of fossils, minerals, and petrifications in a single location, and depicts the life of Jesus through its creative design. It took 42 years -- starting in 1912 -- to build the shrine, and nearly 100,000 folks visit the site each year.
The Grotto is located two and a half hours outside Des Moines, near West Bend, Iowa, which is home to other interesting historical sites, a soda fountain, and flavorful dining spots that you’ll want to visit after checking out the shrine.
The shrine is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, while the gift shop is open November through April from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and May to October until 6 p.m. Note that the shop is closed in January. The office of the Shrine is open from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Birthplace Of John Wayne
If you didn’t know the Duke was born in Iowa, you do now. You can even visit the home where John Wayne lived for the earliest years of his life. Winterset, Iowa, is the humble town the star, born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, first called home, and it’s just 45 minutes outside of Des Moines. Wayne’s father was a local pharmacist who worked on the south side of the now-historic town square.
The Morrison’s four-room house has been restored to reflect the appearance of the residence in 1907 when Wayne was born, and the museum that now accompanies the house exhibits artifacts from the actor’s life and career in Hollywood. Original movie posters from his films, costume pieces, scripts, signed contracts, letters, sculptures, paintings, and even one of his last customized cars rest in the museum. In past years, famous visitors have included Wayne’s widow and children, Maureen O’Hara, and President Ronald Reagan.
A bonus: As you explore Wayne’s hometown, you might spot the real bridges of Madison County, also made famous on the silver screen.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
For outdoor enthusiasts, an incredible day of climbing and exploring can be had in the dark caverns at Maquoketa Caves State Park, about three hours away from downtown Des Moines. Its limestone formations, caves, and rugged bluffs help to make this gorgeous park one of the most unique natural destinations in the state of Iowa.
The caves vary greatly, from the 1,100-foot Dancehall Cave, which has lighted walkways, to other caves that range in size and can be explored by walking or, in cases best enjoyed by the adventurous, crawling.
A gorgeous trail system links the caves in the park and includes multiple overlooks and vistas, offering you a beautiful hiking experience that can last for a few hours or all day.
Templeton Rye Distillery
If you’re in the mood for a dive into Prohibition history (and a shot of whiskey), you’ll want to make the 90-minute drive out to Templeton Rye Distillery. Supposedly the rye whiskey from Templeton was Al Capone’s drink of choice. Fans even claim that a bottle made its way to Alcatraz for Capone during his time as prisoner AZ-85.
Duck into the visitor’s center to “experience the good stuff” on a tour, enjoy a shot at the store, or participate in a whiskey tasting. The on-site museum showcases the distillery’s history and ties to the community of Carroll County.
Ledges State Park
For a different kind of outdoor experience, drive an hour out to Ledges State Park. The deep sandstone gorge offers unique trails unlike anything you’ll find outside of the state. Do some kayaking, have a picnic, or go fishing on the Des Moines River, which borders the western edge of the park.
After you’re done playing in nature, drive just a few miles north of the park to the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone. You can take an evening dinner ride or a shorter scenic ride if you need to head back before it gets too late.
If you have a thing for Dutch culture, you’ll want to visit the small town of Pella, a beautiful spot an hour away from Des Moines. Pella was founded by Dutch immigrants in 1847 and since then, the town has thrived on Dutch culture, maintaining a beautiful main street filled with Dutch bakeries, shops, and even a 1850s-style windmill.
After you’ve done some shopping and eaten delicious stroopwafels, head just outside of town to Lake Red Rock to visit the state’s largest reservoir. It’s a popular spot for outdoor activities including camping, hiking, boating, fishing, and picnicking.