Hey there, lovely readers!
I have a real treat for you today! This post is my attempt at a travel blog for a place to which I don’t even have to travel—I’ve lived in Iowa my entire 22 years, and it holds more memories than probably any other place I’ve been. With that in mind, I apologize in advance if I forget or overlook any important details, because most of what I’ve seen is second-nature to a native and happens daily without notice. I hope this post will answer any questions you might have about my home state, and I hope it will inspire you to make a visit to the American Midwest at some point in your life. As with my other travel posts, I don’t have many pictures to include, but most of what I’ll include in this post can be researched further and found on the internet. I recommend following along with a map, as this will reduce the confusion with town names and locations. Happy reading, and welcome!
First and foremost, Iowa is not a state to hit-and-run if you want to truly enjoy your visit. The state’s two major interstates are rather barren in most stretches, and there aren’t any true “cities” to traverse in wonder. There are both rural and populated areas throughout the state, but most of Iowa’s best treasures are found only by talking to and spending time with the locals. I will admit that even I do not know all that Iowa has to offer, as my experiences come mostly from the eastern half of the state and are limited as a result. The main areas of focus for me are north-central Iowa, in the small towns surrounding I-35 north of Mason City, and east-central Iowa, from Waverly to Cedar Rapids or so. I’ll start from the western side of the state and move eastward, telling you about all the details that I think matter.
When you come to Iowa, you’ll want to keep two important details in mind: the culture (both the people and the food) is pretty consistent and bland, while the weather definitely is not. We have four distinct weather seasons, though we often joke that all four can occur in a day (and we aren’t really lying!). Most of the state comes from agricultural backgrounds and Scandinavian ancestry, though there are certainly pockets of Native American communities and city-slickers if you know where to look. The only “spices” you’ll likely taste in our food are salt, butter, and cheese, so if you want cuisine with a kick or without high fat content, you may want to make your own. I do strongly recommend trying some of the local foods though, with what’s available depending entirely on the time of year and agricultural cycle.
Speaking of this cycle, let me try to explain our weather patterns. We start the year with winter, which includes anywhere from t-shirt-and-shorts weather to multiple feet of snow and ice (I’m talking about temps in the range of -20 Fahrenheit at times…). It’s pretty for about two days, and then it lasts until anywhere from late February on a lucky year to May on a bad one*. Most people sled down hills, build objects out of snow, or ride snowmobiles through the fresh powder, but anybody like me stays inside as much as possible during the winter, curled up with a good book and cup of hot chocolate. The winter is a popular time for Norwegian heritage to show its face in Iowa, and you might be lucky enough to find lefse (a sugary potato-pastry) or one of the many other pastries. Most Iowans would agree with me when I say to skip the lutefisk, however (and I’ve never even tried the gelatinous, lye-soaked fish!). Those who enjoy hunting and fishing will also find winter great for venison and pheasant, as well as ice fishing in the lakes across the state. Basketball games and wrestling meets are both popular events to attend during the winter, as sports are quite important in Iowa society. Roads to get there can be very dangerous during the winter months, however, and people not native to Iowa should really ask someone from Iowa to chauffer for them if they need to go somewhere, for the sake of everyone on the road. We just don’t drive in the same manner as people from other states…
When winter’s wrath finally breaks, we enter the sadly short season of spring. It can last until about May or June, and it bridges the cold months and the warm ones. Temperatures range from 50’s to 70’s during the day, and it’s generally a pretty comfortable time. It can often rain quite a bit during the spring though, and a random snow shower or two isn’t uncommon in May. This is often when crops are planted in the state’s vast fields (primarily corn and soybeans, with some other grains and vegetables across the state), and the best foods of which to take advantage are beef and pork, which are often slaughtered in the spring to make way for new livestock. Track and field meets are the major entertainment during the spring, for those who care to catch up on local culture.
As the temperatures rise and the thunderstorms become more dangerous, our state transitions into summer. This usually lasts until around September, but if September is especially warm, it can hold on until October. Summer is full of grilling, boating, bonfires, and all sorts of other activities that keep people up way later than they should be awake, but unapologetically so. We use this time to get outside as much as possible, since we are far less able to during the winter. Temperatures can reach up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity sometimes becoming a bother as well. Most days are not unbearable compared to other states and countries, but it can be difficult to enjoy the outdoors nonetheless. Mosquitos are a terrible nuisance in many rural areas, and bug spray is recommended if you plan to spend any significant time out in nature. You’ll also want to watch out for ticks in the spring and summer, as they can dig their heads into your skin and cause very serious diseases if not removed properly. Wildlife in general is more wild in the summer, and all sorts of small mammals make their way through our grasslands. Most are best to avoid, but just about everyone owns some furry friends if you can’t resist the urge to pet one. A consideration to make while traveling in or through the state (and the Midwest) is that nasty storms can come up quite suddenly. A bright, sunny day might turn into a thunderstorm with hail and tornados in a matter of an hour or two, sometimes even less. In these circumstances, finding shelter with a cement basement is your best bet for staying safe. Although not super-common, tornados do ravage towns in Iowa quite badly when they hit, sometimes destroying half of a town or more before dissipating. Summer is a great time for produce, however, with melons, berries, and all sort of vegetables ripening in June through August. July and August are the best time to try our most famous food, the best corn in the entire world (along with porkchops on the grill). I highly recommend grabbing an ear of grilled sweetcorn at a local county fair, with the butter and salt, of course! In addition, we Iowans take pride in the American game of baseball, so summer is a good time to catch a game. Our state parks offer cheap (and often free) opportunities to camp or backpack as well, so, as long as you don’t need mountains to be happy, they might be fun to try as well.
The final season before we return to winter is fall or autumn. This season is my favorite of the four, but it is devastatingly short, sometimes occurring within the span of just a few weeks. A long-lasting fall goes from September until November, and it is during this time that gourds and pumpkins are ready for harvesting, along with apples from the state’s many orchards. Most people enjoy the changing colors of the tree leaves during this time, and the atmosphere of fall in general is one of hope and pure inspiration. Cinnamon and spice permeate the air in most places, and the fresh grass of cross country courses and football fields dominates the olfactory senses. Football is probably the state’s most popular sport, so catching a high school game on a Friday night is a must-do if you visit in the fall. Fall is also a lovely time for a walk in our many wooded areas, and we take pride in celebrating the season with poultry, pies, and assorted savory casseroles. You don’t want to miss out on a midwestern Thanksgiving meal! Weather is the calmest of the four seasons during this time, with temps decreasing from 70 Fahrenheit to about 50’s or 40’s during the day. When temperatures regularly drop below 40, we know that, sadly, we have left fall behind and are headed for a nasty few months of cold leading up to Christmas.
*Our seasons actually do have designated dates (they all start on the 21st of a quarterly month; Dec-Mar for winter, Mar-June for spring, June-Sept for summer, and Sept-Dec for fall; the ranges I gave give a more accurate depiction of what actually occurs, rather than what theoretically occurs).
Next, let me give you a tour of what I’ve seen in Iowa. Maybe some or all of it will pique your interest, but it will be a pleasure for me to describe regardless. At this point, you’ll want to pull up or open that map you have handy…
Starting in the west, let me preface by saying that the western border of Iowa is not a place I’ve really been. I’ve heard that much of it is full of bluffs and is similar to Nebraska or South Dakota, but I’ve only ever been near Council Bluffs and Omaha, in the far south. This section of Iowa was one of the more scenic and pretty parts I’ve seen, despite being through it very briefly, because it is about the only part with elevation changes and large hills to see. In addition, this part of the state does well to keep trees and forest around, and I’m a sucker for a good arboretum.
If you move a bit farther west and go way north, Storm Lake and Spirit Lake are the next places I’ll mention. Spirit Lake and Okoboji are home to the biggest lake in Iowa, and as such, they are always packed with tourists fishing and boating on the lake. I went here once to run a 10k, and I must say that the town was a pleasure to visit. I only spent a day here though, so my opinion might not carry much weight. Storm Lake, a ways south on Highway 71, is home to Buena Vista University and another of Iowa’s largest lakes. I ran my final cross country race on the college’s course, and I must say that the town also had the sort of charm you can only find in the Midwest. It’s probably worth a visit if you’re in Iowa, even if you don’t run at all.
Taking Highway 20 east from Storm Lake, Fort Dodge is the next destination I recommend. I’ve been here and in the surrounding towns five times in my life, three of which were for state cross country. Fort Dodge doesn’t have a great reputation for being clean or nice, but the small towns around it are great for a picnic, and if you’re in Iowa on the last Saturday in October, I strongly recommend attending the state cross country meet at the golf course here. It’s an exciting environment for everyone involved, and even if you don’t like running, it offers the opportunity to enjoy the fall leaves and a pie from a nearby apple orchard.
Taking Highway 169 south to I-80 and heading east, you’ll come to the capital of the state and another great place to visit. Des Moines’s suburbs offer a great look at what a bigger “city” looks like in the Midwest. Neat and orderly is right across the street from distressed and dilapidated, and the many restaurants and concert venues around the city make for a night or weekend of great adventures. I personally recommend The Old Spaghetti Works, which offers unlimited refills of pasta for a little over $10, and I recommend The Seven Flags Event Center if you’re going to a music concert. It’s small enough to get you to the front row without a fistfight, while it’s still large enough to hold popular bands and several hundred fans. I’ve seen Breaking Benjamin, The Used, and Taking Back Sunday in the venue, and I’ve been able to enjoy the show on every occasion. In addition, the state track meet (and the Drake Relays) is held in Des Moines, and it is even more fun to watch in mid-May than is the state XC meet in October. For those who like winter sports, basketball and wrestling also compete for state titles in the state’s capital.
If you not completely enjoying Iowa yet, head north on I-35 to Ames, the home of Iowa State University. The city itself is another nice place to visit, and the school is quite nice to tour. There are several restaurants to try if you need a bite as well, including Hickory Park, which serves excellent barbecue. Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in Ames, so give it a visit and take my word for what it’s worth.
Much to the north of Ames on I-35 are the towns I visited growing up: Mason City, Clear Lake, Garner, Forest City, and Lake Mills, to name several. These towns all have their own quirks, and they are probably more sentimental to me than they would be to a traveler, but I’ll point out some of their highlights. Starting from the west, Forest City is a nice, semi-rural college town. Waldorf University has a nice but subtle campus, and the town itself has plenty of parks and uptown shops to peruse. Perhaps the best feature of the town is a few miles east on Highway 9, however, in Pilot Knob State Park. The park is basically a series of grass, dirt, and paved trails for running, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Is has a nice forest and prairie dichotomy, while also having the second highest point in Iowa (in the form of a lookout tower). I definitely recommend the park to anyone passing through in the summer months. Clear Lake is another lovely Iowa town, and, like Okoboji, it is popular for summer tourists who have lake houses and/or just enjoy the area. Clear Lake has great roads and routes for running or biking as well, and the town is very family-friendly, with parks and shops for kids and parents alike. I consider Clear Lake to be one of Iowa’s finest towns, and definitely worth the trip, even if you only plan to stop in one or two towns. Mason City isn’t particularly special, with stores and shops here and there, but one note I’ll point out is Like Creek Nature Center, which is of the same appeal as Pilot Knob (if you haven’t figured it out yet, I like forests and wooded trails). A bit more rocky and actually larger than Pilot Knob, Lime Creek has rather flat trails and wide open expanses of hidden treasures, such as deer pastures and abandoned railroad tracks.
Had you taken I-80 east from Des Moines, you would have soon encountered the Dutch college town of Pella. Though my Wartburg family wouldn’t appreciate my mentioning our rival Central’s hometown, there is some appeal to the wooden windmills and tulips throughout the town’s center. I hear the Tulip Festival in the spring is a sight to behold, but I have never personally attended.
Shifting back to the northern half of the state and moving southeastward, Highway 218 will take you to Waverly, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo (better known as the Cedar Valley). Waverly, as you may have seen in my previous posts, is the home to the college I attended, Wartburg. It is also home to a Nestle factory, so the smell of chocolate wafting through the breeze is probably the best draw I’ve ever known for a town. Waverly is a wonderful town with shops uptown to explore and parks to visit, such as Cedar Bend, if we follow my earlier pattern of wooded trails. The college itself might be a sight worth seeing for most tourists, as I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find a more compact campus in all the country (or perhaps the world?). Trust me, I’ve tried and not come up with a rival yet. Plus, the facilities at Wartburg are a treat to behold by their own quality and usefulness. Cedar Falls and Waterloo also contain parks and fine sights, but the main reason I include them in my tour of Iowa is that they have more choices of restaurants and cuisines than practically anyone would ever desire. I often frequently places like The Olive Garden and Hu Hot Mongolian Grill during my four years of college. Cedar Falls is also home to The University of Northern Iowa, which has a lovely campus and fine academic resources. But enough on the Cedar Valley; let’s move eastward.
In the north, Iowa’s farthest town of interest to the east is Decorah. Decorah is home to Luther College, and it is located among the rocky area west of the Mississippi River. The appeal of the town is mostly its cliff and bluff trails, which wound around and about the town, near the college’s campus. Perhaps by this point you’ve noticed the sheer number of colleges in Iowa, and I think I’ve realized that this is one key element of America: we have nearly countless opportunities for where to achieve a higher level of education than grade school. I think this is unique to the U.S., and I think it’s something visitors to the U.S. would notice rather quickly. It makes me glad to be in a place where education is so highly valued, but it also makes me sad for the countries where there are few-to-no colleges or universities and where higher education is basically impossible to attain.
In the bottom of Iowa’s far eastern “nose,” the quad cities (Davenport and Bettendorf, IA, and Moline/Rock Island, IL) and Iowa City are the state’s final attractions in my blog post. Iowa City is home to The University of Iowa, and it is typical of eastern Iowa cities: it is overgrown with a plethora of shops, restaurants, and malls, and it somehow still has a rural feel, even in the midst of the downtown sidewalks. It feels much more modernized than western or central Iowa, but it does so in a way that bridges Iowa to the greater expanses east of the state’s borders. The quad cities stretch out in much the same manner, and in bridging Iowa to Illinois, places like Davenport and Rock Island offer the opportunity to see what makes the different states of the Midwest unique in their own right. Perhaps you’d have to visit the cities to understand what I mean, but I hold confidence that such a trip would not feel like a complete waste on your part.
My final bit about Iowa, with which I’ll leave you to ponder, is the culture of the people who call the state home. Anywhere you travel, you will find that the culture of a place can sometimes mean even more than any of the beautiful landmarks or delicious foods that can be found. The people determine what is important in their home, and by reaching out to them and becoming aware of the culture (if not ingrained in it), you might also be able to reach an understanding of why the value what they do. In Iowa, the state is very heavily influenced by Scandinavian and German ancestry, as well as by Native Americans, of course. As I already alluded to earlier, this makes for a predominantly Caucasian population, with a mix of Native reservations and racial/ethnic diversity in more-populated areas. Most of the state’s reservations are in the western portion, near South Dakota and Nebraska, as this was largely the land of the Sioux. Amish communities exist throughout the state as well, and they can most easily be found in the eastern half of the state, near Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Many families still celebrate Norwegian, German, Danish, Dutch, and Swedish holiday celebrations and pastimes, and probably just as many people in the state know German or Norwegian as a second language as do those who’ve acquired Spanish proficiency. This (although admittedly a stereotype) tends to make Iowans more stubborn and close to home than people elsewhere might be. Iowans tend to stay in very small radii of their homes, and it is rare to find Iowans who aren’t very invested in their towns or communities. We feel a great sense of purpose and responsibility for our families, and we often take a while to trust anyone outside of our familiar circles. Once a part of our close friend groups, though, a visitor would find comfort in knowing that a whole community will help a single family with taking care of livestock or cutting wood for the winter stoves (though this tradition is nearly obsolete with woodstoves phasing out for more modern technology), and a close friend group is a great tool for discovering the hidden beauties of Iowa’s unique grasslands.
IV. A Final Note
Amid all the excitement of this blog post, I almost forgot my favorite part of Iowa, and the part I meant most to share with you all. Of all the places I’ve been and beautiful landmarks I’ve seen, there’s one part of nature in which Iowa has yet to be overthrown for me. Even though the featured photo for this post and the photo that follows (taken in my own backyard) cannot fairly do the event justice, an Iowa sunset is the most beautifully vibrant sunset in the world, with flares of fuchsia and tangerine light almost every night. I have watched the suns rays dip behind city skyscrapers and tropical beaches, and yet never have they been beautiful in the same way that the Midwest’s sunsets bring hope and solace to my heart. I hope they bring you the same joy they bring me, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading about a short glimpse of my experience in Iowa, and I hope this blog sparks interest and questions for the rarely-traveled state in the heartland of America’s United States.