Everyone loves a road trip, and there are several great day trips from Des Moines, Iowa. You can explore nature, history, and even the great outdoors within a short period of time from Des Moines. Each of these places offers something for everyone. I have highlighted some of my favorite things to do in each of these locations. You cannot go wrong with any of these destinations. Most importantly, get into your car and make the day trip.
Spend the day how you choose to, and let the fun begin. Each of these towns offers more than a day trip of activities, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself planning a longer adventure on your next trip out of Des Moines.
1. Mason City
Mason City is a 1 hour and 45-minute drive from Des Moines on I-35. Architectural lovers will enjoy a tour of the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last known standing hotel in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The River City Sculptures on Parade showcases several incredible sculptures along the 1.7-mile route. Plan a couple of hours to stroll through Mason City and all of its art. A visit to Mason City would not be complete without taking time to explore Music Man Square.
The boyhood home of American composer Meredith Willson is also open for tours. Grab a Michigan sandwich at State Street Deli for lunch, a perfectly seasoned Greek steak at Northwestern Steakhouse for supper, and an ice cream cone from Birdsall’s for your return trip home.
The Town Square in Winterset, Iowa, is most likely the most beautiful in Iowa. Summertime brings incredible beauty to the downtown, as well as the area. Explore the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum. Quilt enthusiasts will appreciate Iowa’s Quilt Museum, which sits on the town square. After you have explored the downtown, drive out to the world-famous Bridges of Madison County. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it by one of the bridges. Each bridge is unique and offers different views. When you arrive at the bridges, you will notice the flooring in some of them. I always find the wooden flooring to be a spectacular part of these bridges. Winterset is approximately 45 minutes from anywhere in the Des Moines area.
3. Fort Dodge
Outdoor enthusiasts will fall in love with Fort Dodge. This town is 1 and a half hours northwest of Des Moines, making it a great place to visit for a day. Load up your kayak and float down the Des Moines River. A short float for anyone wanting to experience kayaking in Iowa is to start at Dolliver Memorial State Park and end at the small town of Lehigh, Iowa. The scenery is incredible with the river and birding opportunities.
Enjoy a picnic lunch in Dolliver State Park before you head down the river. At the top of your list of things to do, it should be to visit the painted grain silos. These silos represent the people of Fort Dodge and are an incredible work of art. Grab supper at Amigos and enjoy its beautiful outdoor seating. Don’t overeat at Amigo’s, as you need to leave room for ice cream from the Dariette before you head home.
4. Clear Lake
Clear Lake is located in north-central Iowa, a 1 hour and 45-minute drive from Des Moines. This charming lake town has lake activities 365 days of the year. The arts, festivals, competitions, and history all add to this fabulous day trip. Grab a cup of coffee at Cabin Coffee and begin your day exploring this lake town. The legendary Surf Ballroom and Museum, where Buddy Holly played his last concert, is a few blocks from Clear Lake City Park. If you are up for more adventure, drive a few miles north of town and walk to the Buddy Holly Crash Site.
With two state parks nearby, Clear Lake is an outdoor water lover’s dream come true. Boating, fishing, and waterskiing are all popular activities on the lake. A favorite stop of mine is to grab a sandwich and dessert from the incredible menu of Starboard Market, with a picnic along the Clear Lake Seawall. Plan to stay through sunset, as Clear Lake offers incredible sunset views from anywhere along the lake.
5. Elk Horn
Elk Horn is a little over an hour west of Des Moines off of Exit 54 on I-80. This charming Danish community will welcome you as you drive 6 miles north, traveling one of Iowa’s scenic byways to the town of Elk Horn. The Danish Windmill will become visible as you approach the town. Stop at there to learn about the town and what activities are happening throughout the day of your visit.
The Museum of Danish America is a fun place to learn about the history of Elk Horn and its heritage. This little town is bustling with Danish enthusiasm. Grab an award-winning tenderloin at Larsen’s Pub before the end of your visit to Elk Horn. Danish Countryside Vines & Vines is a fantastic place to enjoy a glass of wine surrounded by incredible views of the rolling hills of Iowa.
Boone is home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad and is a little under an hour’s drive from Des Moines. Ledges State Park is an incredible park with hiking, camping, and picnicking. If you want a more leisurely activity, book a trip on the legendary Boone Scenic Valley Railroad. Enjoy the views of the Iowa countryside as the train chugs along. Fall is my favorite time of year to ride the train in Boone. The fall colors are memorable and the temperatures are comfortable.
Pella is where the Dutch heritage comes to life in Iowa. This charming town is a short 40-minute drive from Des Moines. The Jaarsma Bakery will quickly win you over with a Dutch letter and baked goods of all sorts. Each spring the town comes to life with its annual tulip festival. After the tulips bloom, the town replaces the tulip beds with colorful flowers. The Pella Historical Society offers a museum and tours of the historical grounds. Stroll the town square for an epic day in Pella. Day trip, complete!
Each of these towns is ideal for day trips from Des Moines. They are all destinations that offer more than a day’s worth of activities. As you visit, make note of the things that you would like to see and do on a return visit. Each of these destinations is great for day trips during any of Iowa’s distinct four seasons. Summertime in Iowa typically brings wildflowers, sunshine, blue skies, and warm temperatures. Winter brings snow and ice, which means ice skating, ice fishing, and cross-country skiing are all popular throughout the state.
I would suggest a day trip to all of these towns during each season of the year. Dress in layers and you will be ready for anything that the weather tosses your way. Stop in the visitor’s center in each town upon your arrival. You can learn what’s going on, where the locals dine, and anything else you want to know. Most importantly, get behind the wheel of your car and take a day trip from Des Moines, Iowa.