Post Updated: JULY 2020
Even if you’ve never been to central Iowa, chances are you’ve heard of the Bridges of Madison County. Made famous by Robert James Waller’s 1992 romance novel and the subsequent movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, these iconic bridges have become some of Iowa’s most notable tourist attractions.
Did you know that Madison County is the Covered Bridge Capital of Iowa? With six remaining covered bridges, the county is home to the largest group of covered bridges in one area in the western Mississippi Valley. While only six of the area’s original 20 covered bridges remain, thousands of dollars have gone into restoring these historic timber bridges and all of them appear on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hop in your car and plan a central Iowa road trip to experience the iconic Bridges of Madison County.
The Remaining Six Bridges of Madison County
Cedar Covered Bridge
In April of 2017, I was among the many whose hearts sank upon hearing the news that the Cedar Covered Bridge had once again been set ablaze. The burnt remnants of the bridge were taken down in May 2018, beginning a more than $700,000 restoration project. During the annual Covered Bridge Festival in October of 2019, the new bridge was opened and officially rededicated.
Technically this covered bridge was a replica of the original Casper Bridge that was built over Casper Creek in 1883. In 1921, the bridge was moved south of Cedar Lake where it is currently being rebuilt. On September 3, 2002, the bridge was set on fire by an arsonist and was completely destroyed. Two days later, an arson attempt was made on the Hogback Covered Bridge and later the Roseman Covered Bridge. The first replica, created from the original bridge’s plans and photos, was completed in September 2004 and was the only Madison County covered bridge that supported vehicle traffic.
Along with the Roseman Bridge, the Cedar Bridge played a large role in Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges Of Madison County. In the novel, Francesca travels to the Cedar Bridge with photographer Robert Kincaid while he documents the area.
Travel Trivia: In 1993, Oprah Winfrey named The Bridges of Madison County her favorite book of the year. She event went as far as to travel to Iowa and interview author Robert James Waller at the Cedar Bridge on May 21, 1993.
Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge
Built in 1871 by Eli Cox, the Culter-Donahoe Covered Bridge was relocated to Winterset City Park in 1970. The bridge was originally located 18 miles northeast of Winterset on the North River near Bevington, Iowa. However, it was moved to its current location in time for the city’s first covered bridge festival.
The area’s covered bridges were most often named after nearby residents. However, in this case, both the Cutler and Donahoe families claimed naming rights for the bridge, leading to its hyphenated moniker.
Hogback Covered Bridge
Built in 1884 by Benton Jones, the 97-foot Hogback Covered Bridge rests in its original location northeast of Winterset. Walk through the bridge and find the wooden framed Dreamer’s Journal where visitors can leave a message or note of their travels. Keep an eye out for the swallows and other birds who roost in the nearby eaves of the nearby roadway bridge and can be seen swooping low over the river.
Thankfully the Hogback Bridge is not named for once nearby residents. Instead its name comes from the limestone ridge located just east of the bridge.
Holliwell Covered Bridge
The Holliwell Covered Bridge was built in 1880 across the Middle River. The bridge carried vehicle traffic until it was bypassed by a more modern bridge in 1986. At 122 feet, this is the longest of the Bridges of Madison County.
Imes Covered Bridge
Built in 1870, the Imes Covered Bridge is the oldest of the original five remaining Madison County covered bridges. Initially the bridge was built over the Middle River near Patterson, Iowa by J.P. Clark. Then in 1887, it was moved fives miles southeast to Clanton Creek near Hanley. When a new concrete bridge was built at that crossing in 1977, the covered bridge was moved to its current location east of St. Charles along Highway 251.
Roseman Covered Bridge
Of all of Madison County’s bridges, the Roseman Covered Bridge is the most well-known. Built by Benton Jones, the 107-foot bridge has resided in the same location southwest of Winterset since 1883. In its long history, the bridge has quite the storied past.
The bridge played a major role in both the book and movie adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. When the story’s protagonist Robert Kincaid stops to ask Francesca Johnson for directions, the Roseman Bridge is his desired destination. It’s also the place where Francesca leaves Robert a note inviting him to dinner.
The Roseman Bridge is also rumored to be haunted. In 1892, two sheriffs cornered a county jail escapee on the bridge where it is rumored he let out a shriek, floated through the roof and disappeared. As local legend goes, he was never found.
Planning Your Own Tour of the Bridges of Madison County
Last year the 82-mile Covered Bridges Scenic Byway was established to further highlight the bridges and surrounding community. There’s lots to see in Madison County in addition to the covered bridges so be sure to stay curious! You can even download a complete scenic byway map here.
In my experience, the roads between each bridge are clearly labeled with markers and way-finding signs to help direct visitors. You can find a map outlining the location of each bridge here.
Especially if you’re not accustomed to taking the backroads, you should be aware that some of the bridges are only accessible via gravel roads. If you want to visit some bridges and avoid driving on unpaved surfaces, the Imes Bridge and the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge are great options. That said, I drive a Honda Fit (aka not an all-terrain vehicle) and have never felt uncomfortable or unsafe accessing any of the bridges.
Share Your Thoughts
I would love to hear from you! Have you experienced the Bridges of Madison County? Which of these unique historical structures is your favorite?