The wind rushing past your ears, the jerk of a fish hooked on your line, the exhilaration of riding a Jet Ski swooping through the water, the scrape of skis on snow, the awed gasp of viewing great art. All of these experiences are possible in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from its larger sibling, Omaha, Nebraska. You’ll find that Council Bluffs is a growing, vibrant city with a wide variety of public art, outdoor recreation, and attractions.
Council Bluffs is in Pottawattamie County, the “Trail Capital of Iowa.” Whatever your pleasure, though, your long weekend will disappear quickly. But the pleasant memories will last.
Things To Do In Council Bluffs
Enjoy Peace And Comfort In Lake Manawa State Park
The word manawa literally means “peace and comfort.” The state park surrounds a 772-acre oxbow lake, an 1881 flood’s gift to Council Bluffs. Whether on land or in the water, the park offers visitors a variety of experiences. Bring your boat and your bike and explore to your heart’s content.
Mountain bikers will enjoy the eight miles of mountain bike trails near the Missouri River boat ramps. Cyclists, walkers, and mobility-impaired guests will enjoy the paved Lake Manawa Recreation Trail. Take the kids or grandkids to the Dream Playground, Iowa’s largest ADA accessible playground.
If you like to sail or watch races, Lake Manawa Sailing Association’s racing season lasts from June to September. You can also improve your sailing skills with a class. If you prefer human-powered watercraft, rent a boat at Lake Manawa Beach.
Sixteen fish species swim in Lake Manawa. You can fish from fishing jetties, the shoreline, or a boat. You must have a fishing license.
Pro Tip: Buy a park permit in advance.
Cannonball Down The Wabash Trace Nature Trail
Start your Wabash Trace trek at Lake Manawa. The trail runs 63 miles through four counties on the former Wabash Railway route in southwest Iowa. The track is relatively flat. It also features patches of shade, making it suitable for all skill levels. In the winter, enjoy cross-country skiing. Pay the daily fee with exact change at the trailhead, or purchase yearly passes online.
Pro Tips: On Thursday evenings from spring to late fall, join the 20-mile Thursday Night Taco Ride to Tobey Jack’s Mineola Steak House. If tacos aren’t your favorite dish, try the pork tenderloin. The ride attracts up to 1,000 riders, so make your restaurant reservation early. No bike? No problem. Rent one at three Heartland B-cycle locations.
Experience A Prairie Oasis In Council Bluffs
Vincent Bluff is a Council Bluffs icon, one of the first landmarks visitors see when they cross the Missouri River into Iowa. Climb to the top of Vincent Bluff State Preserve in the middle of Council Bluffs for breathtaking views of the Missouri River, Council Bluffs, and the Omaha skyline. Watch for wild turkey and deer. Many migratory birds stop off at the bluff.
Pro Tip: Bring your binoculars or long lenses to augment the views.
Stand In Two States At Once
The seven-mile Iowa Riverfront Trail runs north to Big Lake Park on Council Bluffs’ levee system. The views are gorgeous. At Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, turn aside from the trail and walk across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, also known as “Bob the Bridge.” Take a picture of your feet straddling the Iowa-Nebraska line.
At Big Lake Park, fish for trout usually stocked in the lake during February and October.
Pro Tip: Stay in the bike lanes on the sections where the trail shares the road with motor vehicles.
Head Back In Time At The Western Trails Center
Four significant historic trails passed through Council Bluffs. The Western Trails Center interprets them. More than 200 sculptures explain the trails and Native American cultures. The Western Historic Trails Center Link connects the Veterans Memorial Trail in the south and the Iowa Riverfront Trail in the north.
Float Or Paddle The West Nishnabotna Water Trail
Could a river have a more musical-sounding name than the Nishnabotna? Enter the lazy, brown, tree-lined river from the cities of Avoca on Interstate 80, about 45 minutes east of Council Bluffs, to Macedonia. At Botna Bend Park, visit the bison and elk herds.
Sandbars in the river make lovely picnic areas. Maybe you’ll catch your lunch, pulling in flathead catfish, gar, or even a walleye.
Pro Tips: The trail association’s brochure (PDF) provides a trail map, a wildlife sighting checklist, and safety information. No boat? No problem. Rent one from Rubber Duck Outfitters.
Wander The Loess Hills
Council Bluffs is the second-largest city on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. The yellow hills smiling down on the Missouri River are windblown dunes of glacier-ground soil formed over millennia. On the byway route, Iowa’s culture, history, ecology, and geography converge into a fascinating melange.
Tour Iowa West Public Art
Iowa West Public Art includes 31 artworks in three areas: the Riverfront, Mid-America Center, and Historic Downtown/Loess Hills.
The artworks range from Grant Wood’s murals to The Gateway by Ed Carpenter to Haymarket Rabbits by Deb Masuoka.
Pro Tip: To find the artworks, download IWPA’s PDF tour brochure or the free Otocast app.
See Railroad History Come Alive
In 1859, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln stood on the Missouri River’s eastern bank with engineer Grenville Dodge. Dodge had anchored the Rock Island Railroad’s western terminus at Council Bluffs. Across the river, the wide, flat Platte Valley beckoned, the perfect route for the nation’s Transcontinental Railroad. Dodge lobbied Lincoln about making Council Bluffs the new Union Pacific Railroad’s eastern terminus.
Dodge’s lobbying was successful. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, mandating that the railroad start in Iowa, across the river from Omaha. The railroad split its operations between the cities. More than 4,000 Union Pacific employees still reside in the area.
An obelisk marks the spot where Dodge and Lincoln met. In 1939, Council Bluffs also erected the Golden Spike Monument to commemorate the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion.
Two museums preserve railroad history. The Union Pacific Railroad Museum inhabits the Beaux Arts–style Carnegie Free Library. Learn about the Transcontinental Railroad, railroad passenger service, and Lincoln’s relationship with the railroads. The RailsWest Railroad Museum is in the renovated Rock Island Railroad depot. Here, you can examine numerous historical artifacts.
Experience The Dodge House and The Black Angel
Dodge built a glamorous mansion in Council Bluffs. Admire the beautiful woodwork, including parquet floors. He even installed central heating and hot and cold running water, which were unusual for the time and place. Enter the house museum next door at the August Beresheim House.
His wife Ruth Anne Dodge died eight months after her husband. Before her 1916 death, she dreamed three times of a woman, presumably an angel, who asked her to drink from a bowl. Dodge twice refused to drink but then accepted. The proffered liquid transformed her into a spiritual being. Her daughters commissioned Daniel Chester French to depict their mother’s dream vision after her death. Even though French later sculpted Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, he considered The Black Angel as one of his favorite works.
Fun Fact: People recount strange legends about the sculpture’s activities. Supposedly, bad things happen when visitors meet the angel’s eyes or touch its outstretched hand.
Seek The Squirrel Cage Jail, If You Dare
If you think The Black Angel seems a bit creepy, just wait until you tour the Squirrel Cage Jail. The jail was a three-story metal jail that rotated. The jailer turned a crank to open offenders’ cells, but the turntable often became stuck. The building is supposedly haunted.
Marvel At The Bregant House
Jean and Inez Bregant met when they both performed at Coney Island in New York. Both of them were short; neither reached 4 feet in height. After they married, they moved to Council Bluffs. They built their home to fit their stature, except the doors were regular size for their guests’ comfort. The house is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Best Restaurants In Council Bluffs
Our recommendations include an iconic ice cream shop and terrific drinking options.
If you haven’t eaten at Christy Creme, you have missed a Council Bluffs icon. The seasonal restaurant offers a different homemade sherbet every day. Their menu isn’t limited to just cold treats. You can also enjoy delicious diner classics. The food has the seal of approval from celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and Cameron Diaz.
The place a first-class bar meets an upscale deli is where you’ll find Cellar 19. The restaurant makes its soups and desserts from scratch. Eat the Cajun roast beef melt or the Alexander James sandwich.
712 Eat + Drink
Named for Council Bluffs’ area code, 712 features farm-to-fork cuisine, 23 craft beers and prosecco on tap, and a wine list. Try the Easy Like Sunday Morning brunch cocktail. Eat the 712 Cubano sandwich or the Shorty Melt.
Best Places To Stay In Council Bluffs
Whether you prefer farm charm or the ching of casino winnings, Pottawattamie County has options.
Big Grove Village
Big Grove Village bed and breakfast offers a relaxing experience hidden in rural Pottawattamie County, just half an hour from the city. Reserve the 1850s log cabin hidden within the main house. In the onsite restaurant, eat the berry pie with the walnut crumb crust. Delicious!
Hotel And Casinos
Council Bluffs is a gaming center. Choose between Ameristar, Harrah’s, or Horseshoe casinos, which all have on-site hotels.