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