I-35 travels north and south through Iowa. Minnesota sits on the north end, and Missouri sits on the south end of this popular route. Iowa is my home state, and I’ve found several fantastic places to stop while traveling this highway. I hope you will hop off of I-35 and take the time to experience some of these incredible places.
1. Top Of Iowa Welcome Center, Exit 214
The Top of Iowa Welcome Center greets visitors in a beautiful Iowa-themed setting. As you approach the welcome center, you will notice the red barn that sits along the road. Iowa-made products are featured as well as tourist information. A picnic area with charcoal grills and an RV dumping station are all on-site. This welcome center is a full-service facility, and it’s an opportunity to learn more about the state of Iowa. Tourism professionals are available during the day to answer your questions.
2. Art, Mason City
Mason City is 7 miles off of Exit 194 on I-35. It is home to more than 50 outdoor sculptures, and River City Sculptures on Parade will entertain you for a couple of hours. Explore these beautiful works of art, and you can also enjoy the murals throughout the town. If you have time, stop by the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum for more artistic inspiration. The Park Inn Hotel offers a unique lodging experience, as it is the last known hotel in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Stockman House, another Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, is also open for tours all year long. This historic property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Before you leave town, indulge in a seasoned Greek steak from Iowa’s award-winning steakhouse, Northwestern Steakhouse.
3. Pilot Knob State Park, Exit 203
Pilot Knob State Park can be found a few miles off of Exit 203. It is home to trails for hikers and horse enthusiasts. Climb to the top of the Pilot Knob Tower, which stands over 30 feet high. Fall is spectacular, as the soybean fields offer a rich, yellow color from above. October is a terrific time to visit, as fall foliage is in full bloom. The trail to the tower is a short, rocky walk from the parking lot. You can enjoy a picnic lunch in one of the shaded picnic areas in the park. Unique to Pilot Knob State Park is Dead Man’s Lake. It is a 4-acre floating sphagnum bog, the only one in Iowa, surrounded by three species of pond lilies unique to Pilot Knob State Park.
4. Buddy Holly Crash Site, Clear Lake
The Buddy Holly Crash Site is approximately 5 miles north of Clear Lake. It is located in a farmer’s field of corn or soybeans. You will see the iconic glasses are you approach the walk to the crash site. Dress appropriately, as the walk can be muddy. It’s a short quarter-mile to the actual memorial. Take your camera with you as it’s quite a sight. To think that more than 60 years later, visitors place memorabilia at the crash site daily is a reminder of how popular he was. After visiting the crash site, drive into Clear Lake and explore the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played his last concert.
5. McIntosh Woods, Clear Lake
McIntosh Woods State Park offers fishing, camping, boating, and hiking experiences. Summer is an ideal time to visit, but winter outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the cross-country skiing and ice fishing opportunities. A fun overnight experience in a yurt is offered in this popular Iowa State Park. One of my favorite times to visit this state park is at sunset. All 365 days of the year provide some beautiful sunsets. There are no fees to visit Iowa State parks.
6. High Trestle Trail, Madrid
The High Trestle Trail is a popular biking and hiking trail in Iowa. This trail’s highlight is the High Trestle Trail Bridge, with 43 twisting, diamond-shaped steel ribs lined with LED lights. I have ridden this trail during the day and at night. Many people ride the trail to experience the bridge. If you choose to visit at night, it is truly an incredible experience, as the bridge is lit up over the Des Moines River Valley. You will want to wear reflective clothing and make sure your bicycle is equipped with lights. You will encounter several people walking along the trail as well as bicyclists. Take your binoculars with you for a different experience, as the bird sightings along the route and on the bridge are outstanding during the day. There are no fees to walk or hike the trail.
7. Reiman Gardens, Ames
Reiman Gardens offers 14 acres of relaxation with hundreds of exotic butterflies, plants, insects, and an opportunity to reconnect with nature. Frank Lloyd Wright fans will appreciate the structures around the gardens designed in the Prairie School of Architecture. Take a selfie with the world’s largest concrete gnome. Depending on the time of year you visit, you can easily spend a full day here or an hour. During the warmer months, pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the inspiration from the gardens. I always recommend that you visit gardens during different times of the year, as there is always something different to experience. There is a small admission fee.
8. Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines
The Iowa State Capitol building stands out from miles around, as it has a well-recognized dome. With its 23-karat gold leaf and its incredible 19th-century architecture, you cannot miss it. The outdoor grounds are beautiful as well as the inside. When you walk through the building, look up, down, and all around. The circular staircase and exquisite architecture throughout will mesmerize you. Guided and self-guided tours are available. Allow 90 minutes for the guided tour. I have visited several state capitol buildings, and my home state capitol building still stands out as one of my favorites.
9. John Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines
The John Pappajohn Sculpture Park offers a self-guided tour of the 31 sculptures. This park was part of a revitalization project in the downtown Des Moines area. This park was the start of new investment and interest in this area of the town in 2009. Today, you can stroll the grounds all year long, from sunrise to sunset. There is no fee to visit, and this park is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and stretch your legs. Over 4 acres offer unique works of art. Spend an hour exploring the grounds and continue exploring the downtown Des Moines area.
10. Bridges Of Madison County, Winterset
The Bridges of Madison County are located in Winterset and the surrounding area. You can visit six bridges in Madison County. They are all open 24 hours a day, and there is no fee to visit. There are picnic grounds near some of the bridges, making for a perfect setting for a picnic lunch with a view. When you walk through the bridges, make a note of the flooring. The natural wood flooring is etched and offers a lot of natural character. You will drive along the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway as you travel from one bridge to another bridge. Your drive will be part gravel and part pavement. Late spring is when the color begins to burst, and the countryside turns to a lush green.
11. John Wayne Birthplace And Museum, Winterset
Winterset sits 14 miles west of I-35, Exit 56, and is home to the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum. He was in 170 movies during his lifetime, which is quite a feat in itself. You can see some of John Wayne’s personal belongings, as well as movie posters, and one of his last customized automobiles on your self-guided tour. You can also read letters and screenplays as you walk through the museum. Two full hours will fly by as you dive into everything on display. There is a small entrance fee, and the facility is handicap accessible.
These 11 stops along I-35 each offer something unique. Every one of these communities will welcome you with Iowa hospitality. The northern route of I-35 is home to wide-open skies. As you travel south, rolling hills and prairies are found along your way. When you see a scenic overlook along I-35 in Iowa, pull over and take in the view. Spring and summer bring new life, as the wildflowers begin to burst with color. Several sculptures and stories about Iowa can be read in many scenic overlook areas and rest areas. Take the time to read them, and you may learn something about the Lincoln Highway. Enjoy traveling I-35 and experience all that Iowa offers, and you will be glad you took the road trip.