Des Moines Day Trips: Discovering Everything South-Central Iowa Has to Offer

Des Moines Day Trips is a series of unexpected itineraries for one- or two-day adventures across the state of Iowa. Find ways to explore unique roadside attractions and discover local history without leaving the state!


Des Moines Day Trips graphic featuring attractions across south-central Iowa

Start your day by heading southwest of Des Moines to Winterset, Iowa. First, grab breakfast at the historic Northside Cafe, a local staple that puts a spin on classic comfort foods. Next, head down the street to the birthplace of Hollywood legend John Wayne.

John Wayne Birthplace & Museum (Winterset, Iowa)

White cottage that is the birthplace of John Wayne in Winterset Iowa

Start by visiting John Wayne’s picturesque birthplace and boyhood home just off the Winterset square. According to the John Wayne Birthplace Society, more than a million visitors have toured the actor’s home since the organization was established in 1982. A few years ago, a 6,000-square-foot museum opened adjacent to the home, and houses the largest collection of John Wayne artifacts in existence.

Clark Tower (Winterset, Iowa)

Stone tower called Clark Tower in Winterset City Party in Winterset, Iowa

Depending on the weather (and the amount of time you have to explore), walk or drive to the Clark Tower hidden in Winterset City Park. The tower was built in 1926 in honor of Caleb and Ruth Clark, two early pioneers who settled in Madison County in the 1800s. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower, and enjoy an amazing view of the Middle River Valley, especially in the fall.

Bridges of Madison County (Winterset, Iowa)

Images of six bridges of Madison County near Winterset, Iowa

While you’re in Winterset, it would be a crime not to visit a few of the Bridges of Madison County. Made famous by Robert James Waller’s novel of the same name, these covered bridges are as picturesque as they are an interesting part of the community’s history.

Cordova Park Observation Tower (Otley, Iowa)

Cordova Park Observation Tower with spiral staircase near Iowa's Lake Red Rock

Next, head east toward Lake Red Rock for another scenic view from the top of the Cordova Park Observation Tower. At 170 steps, this is the tallest observation tower in the Midwest. But don’t forget your quarters! It costs 50 cents to get inside the tower’s gate.

Dutch letter outside of Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, Iowa

At this point, you’ve worked up quite the appetite. Continue on to Pella, Iowa to grab lunch and some sweet treats at the famed Jaarsma Bakery. Don’t forget to grab a Dutch letter or two for the road!

Vermeer Mill (Pella, Iowa)

Flags on the blades of the windmill at the Vermeeer Mill in Pella, Iowa

After you’ve refueled, head up the street to Pella’s Vermeer Mill. The mill is the tallest working windmill in the United States and grinds wheat into flour using 100% wind power.

American Gothic House (Eldon, Iowa)

White exterior of the famous American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

Since you’re in the area, it’s time to stop at one of Iowa’s most iconic tourist attractions—the American Gothic House. The original house—with the two iconic Gothic windows—was built between 1881-82 by Catherine and Charles Dibble. Fun fact: When it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the home was listed as the Dibble House, named after its original owners.

Giant fried tenderloin sandwich at Goldie's Ice Cream Shop in Prairie City, Iowa

End your day with a well-earned trip to Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe for a tenderloin as big as your plate. While it may seem hard, be sure to save room for some delicious homemade ice cream!

Des Moines Day Trips: South-Central Iowa on Roadtrippers

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Have you explored southern Iowa? What’s your favorite place to visit?

Spend the day discovering everything south-central Iowa has to offer with a day trip from Des Moines!

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Comments (21)

I have never visited Iowa, but if I ever do your suggestions seem very interesting. This strikes me as a small town …very quiet and without many tourists and not very busy. Sometimes it’s nice to visit these places too.

Thanks for reading, Rawnie! There are definitely a lot of small towns with charm around Iowa, but there are also more metropolitan places, like Des Moines, to explore as well.

Des Moines looks like a fun place to explore! I will admit, it’s never been on my list of places to visit but those covered bridges are something I would love to see in person. I’m taking my daughter to several different US location this year and am hoping to find the not so popular ones. I will now look into this!

Des Moines is a great town, and there’s lots to see around Iowa within a few hours drive! The Bridges of Madison County are beautiful any time of year, but especially in the autumn when all the leaves start to change. Thanks for reading!

Looks like a classic midwestern town! I’m from Michigan and this town looks familiar to many of the towns I grew up around. I’ll ahve to check it out if I ever make it to Iowa!

That’s so true! I spent a lot of time in southwest Michigan growing up, and a lot of Iowa reminds me of that area. There certainly are a lot of hidden gems! Thanks for reading!

Des Moines seems like a pretty hidden gem in America! Small city but so much to see! I love that covered bridge!

It definitely is! I like to tell people it’s the best of both worlds when it comes to a Midwestern city. Plus there’s tons to see within a few hours drive!

Sounds like a lovely location. It’s great to get off the tourist paths sometimes and explore something different!

So true! I love exploring off-the-beaten path destinations. Thanks for reading, Eniko!

This is a part of the world I’ve yet to explore but the more I read about it the more I want to visit! The tower looks really cool and I bet the view is awesome from up there.

There’s tons of interesting things to see in Iowa and throughout the larger Midwest! The tower views are beautiful, especially in the autumn when the leaves start to change. I hope you can plan your Iowa exploration soon!

Wow! These structure are so beautiful. Iowa is definitely on my baucket-list.

There are definitely a lot of beautiful things to see across Iowa! Thanks for reading, Sonika!

Looks nice, both towers seem interesting and the food really caught my eye! Now I feel really hungry :D.

Haha right!? If there’s one things Iowans really love, it’s eating. You won’t be disappointed by all the things to try here!

That’s quite an interesting list on things to do! My most favourite would be to a visit to the Gothic House and yes who would not like to end it all on a sweet note with a delicious ice cream!

Any trip that ends with ice cream is a good trip in my book! The American Gothic House is a great, iconic Iowa attraction. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area! Thanks for reading, Deepika!

This is so helpful for the cross country road trip I’m planning! Vermeer Mill reminds me of being in the Netherlands and Clark Tower makes me think of Repunzel LOL. I also have a thing with covered bridges so this is definitely on my “must see” list!

That’s awesome! The Bridges of Madison County are a must if you’re in the area! Let me know if you need any other recommendations!

Check out Back Roads Wine Trail, a great day trip from DSM. Four wineries on Highway 92, 15 minutes apart. The trail is included in the newest edition of Iowa Wine & Beer travel guide.

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