Imagine yourself as a major movie star on Iowa’s Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. If you watched movies in 1995, you know this byway. The bridges were central characters in the hit movie The Bridges of Madison County. Madison County is an easy 45-minute drive from Des Moines, Iowa’s largest city.
The bridges’ starring role should come as no surprise: Covered bridges have long been romantic destinations.
Follow in the footsteps of Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) and Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) in Madison County. You’ll feel like a star! Plus, you can celebrate the movie at Madison County’s three wineries and one cidery.
Start On Winterset’s Courthouse Square
Whatever season you choose to visit, Stop 1 on your covered bridge journey is the Madison County Welcome Center in Winterset. Take a selfie at the Welcome to Madison County sign above the covered bridge model. Be the first to pin your hometown on their maps. Pick up a byway map or download a PDF version.
Movies are not the only art form celebrated in Winterset. Stop 2 is a four-minute walk around the courthouse square from the Welcome Center. On this walk: The Iowa Quilt Museum, which is full of unbelievably artistic quilts. Quilt exhibits change several times a year, so you will always have something new to admire. Make sure to browse their gift shop.
Don’t leave the courthouse square without visiting Stop 3, the 1875 Madison County Courthouse. The interior woodwork and staircases are crafted from local oak and walnut. On the third floor walls, examine drawings and writings left by those who were held there.
Stop 4, the former Madison County Jail, is also on the courthouse square. Nearby 1st Avenue Collective is a gift shop and artisan market.
Before you start bridge hunting, visit Stop 5, Northside Cafe in Winterset. Try one of the huge pork tenderloins. Robert James Waller wrote the book The Bridges of Madison County while sitting in one of the cafe’s booths. In the movie, Kincaid meets Lucy Redfield here. At the movie’s end, Redfield and Johnson became best friends.
Follow Kincaid and Johnson to Stop 6, the Pheasant Run Pub and Grill. The pub is famous for its Bloody Mary cocktails. When Kincaid and Johnson went dancing, Pheasant Run was the lounge’s interior.
Start Your Bridge-Hunting Excursion
You’ll find Stop 7, the first of the famous bridges, in Winterset City Park. The 1871 Cutler-Donohoe Bridge is the second-oldest of the covered bridges. The county moved it to the park in 1970. The movie’s lovers enjoyed a picnic at the stone bridge south of the covered bridge.
Pro Tip: From the bridge, drive or walk two miles south in the park to Clark Tower, Stop 8, and climb the stairs to the roof. You’ll enjoy a beautiful view of the Middle River Valley. Before taking pictures, set your phone’s camera to the panoramic setting.
Enjoy Middle River Views At Holliwell Covered Bridge
Holliwell Covered Bridge, Stop 9, is two miles southeast of Winterset. Holliwell is Madison County’s longest covered bridge at 159 feet long. Built in 1880, it’s still in its original location. In the movie, the lovers meet here after Kincaid visits Winterset. A short, steep trail from the bridge leads to the Middle River. The river views at the end are worth the hike.
Pro Tip: If you enjoy kayaking, canoeing, and/or rowing, Holliwell is the last developed point on Stop 10, the Middle River Water Trail. Enjoy navigating the meandering river below the bridge.
Wine, A Covered Bridge, And Antiques In St. Charles
Stop 11 is the Madison County Winery west of St. Charles. It’s your first opportunity to toast your Madison County tour. Relax and enjoy a wine tasting. If the weather permits, sit on their lovely patio and enjoy the views. They also offer chocolate and cheese platters. I loved the Hunter’s Moon, a semi-dry white wine.
The Imes Covered Bridge, Stop 12, is on the eastern edge of St. Charles. The oldest bridge in Madison County, built in 1870, today, the 110-foot bridge stands in its third location.
At Stop 13, Two Saints Winery east of St. Charles, your quest for the Holy Grail is complete. Absorb the Holy Grail wine’s pear, mandarin orange, and pineapple notes to satisfy your knightly desires. If dry wine is more to your taste, try the Genesis.
Pro Tip: Stop 14, the St. Charles Welcome Center, is a restored brick church. You’ll find a wide selection of arts, crafts, and antiques for sale. Proceeds support the center.
The Famous Cedar Covered Bridge Northeast Of Winterset
Stop 15, the Cedar Covered Bridge, is the only Madison County covered bridge that you can still drive through. Don’t just drive through and keep going. You’ll want to stop and take pictures of the wildflower gardens. The park features two Victorian-style gazebos which are very popular for weddings.
In the film, the lovers met here, and the bridge is featured on the novel’s cover. In 1993, Oprah Winfrey hosted an episode of her talk show from this bridge. She told the world how much she enjoyed the book, setting off a tourism boom that continues to this day.
Drive By Francesca’s House
Much of the movie takes place inside Stop 16, Francesca’s home. It’s a two-story farmhouse 16 miles from Winterset. After the movie’s smash success, the owners opened the house to visitors. An arsonist ended public access in 2003, but you can still drive by the house. Unfortunately, the house still bears wounds from the flames.
Covered Bridges Winery And Winterset Cidery
Winterset Cidery, Stop 17, was Iowa’s first cidery. Their apple orchard includes more than 30 apple tree varieties. To get a real kick out of life, try the lime habanero flavor. The apple pie flavor is also a must-try. While you’re drinking, sit on the patio and enjoy the orchard views.
Take a tasting tour of the bridges at Covered Bridges Winery, Stop 18. The Imes, Roseman, Hogback, Holliwell, and Cedar bridges all have their own wines. I was amused by the Francesca’s Folly wine. Does its name refer to Francesca’s decision to have an affair, or her decision to stay with her husband?
Hogback And Haunted Roseman Covered Bridges
Stop 19, Hogback Covered Bridge, built in 1884, gets its name from neighboring Hogback Ridge. Inside the bridge, write your story in the Hogback Dreamers Journal, a wooden pocket nailed to the bridge’s interior. The caretaker and his wife have assembled numerous volumes of the journal since 2011, each containing about 300 messages.
The 1883 Roseman Covered Bridge, Stop 20, is pivotal to the novel and movie — so pivotal that both lovers’ ashes are spread there. If the characters weren’t fictional, perhaps they would haunt the bridge.
However, the Roseman Bridge is said to be haunted by someone real. Two sheriff’s posses trapped a jail escapee here in 1892. According to legend, the man screamed wildly after his capture. He rose up straight through the bridge’s roof and vanished. He was never found. People decided he must have been innocent. A guilty person could not perform such a feat, they said.
More Madison County Movie Magic
Beyond the bridges, Winterset has another movie claim to fame: Iconic actor John Wayne was born here. Stop 21, the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, is the only museum dedicated to the actor.
After touring all the Madison County movie ties, you should watch a movie in Winterset’s movie palace, Stop 22, the Iowa Theater.
Where To Stay In Madison County
Pro Tip: If you’re coming for October’s Covered Bridge Festival, reserve your accomodations well in advance.
Things To Know
- All the bridges are accessible, although some of the gravel paths will be difficult for wheelchairs to traverse.
- Only Clark Tower’s first level is wheelchair accessible.
- Leashed dogs are welcome at the bridges. Iowa summers are hot and humid. If you come in the summer, please bring water for your pets. People also need to stay hydrated.
- Parking is available next to each bridge, but wear comfortable shoes.
- Many of the bridge roads are well-maintained gravel.
- Every season in Iowa has its charm, but fall is the best time to tour Madison County. Winterset hosts Stop 23, the Covered Bridges Festival, every October. Enjoy The Pumpkin Ranch pumpkin and honey farm, Stop 24. Ride the zip lines, explore the corn maze, and more. Pick your own pumpkin at Howell’s Pumpkin Patch and Greenhouse, Stop 25. Howell’s has a wide selection of dried florals and seasonal decorations.
- Want help getting around? Open and save our 25 Perfect Stops On Madison County’s Covered Bridges Scenic Byway Google map.
Vacationing in Iowa? These are the eight best hikes to experience, plus nine under-the-radar Iowa towns and why you should visit.