Council Bluffs has a notable role in the region’s history: Lewis & Clark passed through the region and Abraham Lincoln has visited. Its history is deeply connected to the railroads and pioneering spirits. And in recent years, it’s developed quite an arts reputation. Exploring attractions related to all of these are free to explore in the city. Here are some of the best free things to do in Council Bluffs, whether you appreciate art, history, or the great outdoors.
Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center
Pottawattamie Arts, Culture & Entertainment (PACE) is housed in the Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center. Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center is the home for the American Midwest Ballet, Chanticleer Community Theater, Kitchen Council, and Kanesville Symphony Orchestra, which are usually ticketed, as well as educational classes for a small fee.
But notably, it is also a place with frequent free events including studio artists’ Open Studios on Friday nights and Hoff Fourth Fridays that include pop-up restaurants and entertainment in addition to Open Studios.
Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center, 1001 S. Sixth St.
Bayliss Park and Veterans Plaza
Bayliss Park and Veterans Plaza in downtown Council Bluffs is pretty visit any time of day, but the modern fountain lit up at night is a sight to see. Veterans Plaza was sculpted by John Lajba, and the wall lists those who died or are missing in action from the Civil War through Desert Freedom.
The park has a splash ground that’s great for kids on hot summer days, too. The park also has free concerts and movies throughout the summer.
Bayliss Park, First Avenue and Pearl Street
Union Pacific Railroad Museum
If you have a train lover in your house or a rails history buff, you need to visit Union Pacific Railroad Museum in downtown Council Bluffs. This free museum features some interactive displays, and lots and lots of memorabilia.
Union Pacific Railroad Museum, 200 Pearl St.
Lake Manawa State Park
Lake Manawa State Park is definitely busy in the summer with boaters, fishers and swimmers enjoying the beach. In the fall, take advantage of the cooler weather to bike the paved trails or if you’re the adventurous sort, the 8 miles of mountain bike trails.
If you’re there with younger children, don’t skip Dream Playground. In early 2019, the park was remodeled and it’s fantastic!
Note: There is no entry fee for Iowa residents. Due to the park’s popularity, there is a small fee for out-of-state visitors.
Lake Manawa State Park, 1100 South Shore Drive
Related post: 19 more fun things to do in Council Bluffs
Rivers Edge Park and the Pedestrian Bridge
Probably one of the Top 5 photographed attraction in the metro area, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge spans the Missouri River, connecting Iowa to Nebraska. The photo opp of all photo opps is straddling the state line.
Summer on Council Bluffs’ side can be pretty busy, especially on the green space of the park near the bridge, Tom Hanafan Rivers Edge Park. There are regular concerts and outdoor movie screenings there.
Tom Hanafan Rivers Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B
Trails for biking and hiking
The city has a few paved trails, many connected, for biking and walkers:
- Indian Creek Trail runs 3.5 miles along Indian Creek from US 275, where it meets the Veterans Memorial Trail and Lake Manawa Trail, to the southwestern edge of Sunset Park on 16th Avenue.
- Iowa Riverfront Trail connects Big Lake Park, Narrows River Park, Roberts Park, Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, Dodge Riverside Golf Club, and Western Historic Trails Center.
- Iowa School for the Deaf Nature Center Trail, 3501 Harry Langdon Blvd., is a one-mile loop walking trail.
- The southern end of the Valley View Trail, 14672-14644 Valley View Drive, links with Lake Manawa Trail and Wabash Trace Nature Trail (not free)
- Lake Manawa Recreation Trail connects to the area’s trail system, including the Wabash Trace Trail ($2 maintenance fee) and the Indian Creek Trail. There are also 8 miles of mountain bike trails in the park, located near the boat ramps on the Missouri River.
For hikes, the city offers a few options:
- Lewis and Clark, 19962 Monument Road, nice scenic overlook
- Fairmount Park, East Graham Ave and Park Entrance, scenic overlook
- Gibraltar Trailhead, Ninth Avenue and High Street, direct access to the Fairmount Park hiking trails
- Vincent Bluff, Thallas Street, is a primitive place in the Loess Hills
Shop for locally-grown produce and foods at the Farmers Market Council Bluffs. It’s a seasonal farmers market held on Thursdays from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the north side of Bayliss Park from early May to late September.
Special events, kids activities, live music and other festivities are often planned throughout the summer at the farmers market.
Farmers Market, 100 Pearl St.
Spray Grounds/Splash Pads
A free alternative to pools, spray grounds are great places to cool off in the summer forbids. Find spray grounds at Bayliss Park, Rivers Edge and Fairmount Park. Fairmount Park Splash Pad is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
- Bayliss Park, First Avenue and Pearl Street
- Fairmount Park, East Graham Avenue and Park Entrance
- River’s Edge Pavilion, 4250 River’s Edge Parkway
Welch’s Pumpkin Patch
Welch’s Pumpkin Patch is the lone area pumpkin patch that continues to not have a fee to visit. The main reason to visit is to pick your own gourds, obviously, but Welch’s also has a variety of yard games and homemade photo opps.
Welch’s Pumpkin Patch, 17676 Sunnydale Road
Public art in Council Bluffs
Council Bluffs has been a beneficiary of funds from Iowa West, and a portion of the funds have contributed to a booming public art scene. There’s a self-guided tour that visits 12 of the artworks.
Here are a few spots to find art by renowned artists around the city:
- Eagles of Honor “Freedom of Honor,” at RailsWest Museum at 1512 S. Main St., is a hand-crafted bronze eagle statue to honor military veterans. Each community in Pottawattamie County raised funds to have one.
- An original Grant Wood painting, “The Early Days of Kanesville,” hangs in the lobby of the Looft Hall Conference Center of the Iowa West campus, 2700 College Road
- Historic Lincoln-Fairview Neighborhood Murals on Oakland Avenue are three 12-foot tall photo murals on the walls of the CenturyLink building depicting a scene from Council Bluffs around 1910, the Washington School, and the former Council Bluffs Fire Department Central Station.
- Lewis and Clark Trail Markers that commemorate Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition can be found at the Lewis and Clark Monument Scenic Overlook, the Dodge Riverside Golf Club (adjacent to the levee trail), and the Western Historic Trail Center.
- Known in local folklore as The Black Angel, the Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial is a solid bronze structure inspired by three visions by Ruth Anne Dodge, wife of General Grenville M. Dodge, before her death in 1916.
- Western Historic Trails Center has more than metal sculptures by Timothy Woodman.
- The Historic 100 Block of West Broadway passageway mural, 128 West Broadway, was created by local artist and Council Bluffs native, Tyler Kissel.
Bass Pro Shops
Bass Pro Shops is a large, wilderness-themed retail store. While shopping for apparel, and hunting, fishing and outdoor gear, there is a large taxidermy display that is popular to see. The store usually has free activities around the holidays and Easter.
2901 Bass Pro Drive
Council Bluffs Playgrounds
The city has more than 25 parks, and has created a play checklist to inspire families to visit each.
- Bahnsen Park, 1720 Ave. L
- Big Lake Park, 2600 N. Eighth St., has two playgrounds
- Broadway Skate Park, 1300 West Broadway, has a playground with a small climbing wall
- CB Rec Complex, 2900 Richard Downing Ave.
- Cochran Park, 100 S. 21st St.
- Dream Playground at Lake Manawa State Park, 1100 South Shore Drive
- Fairmount Park, East Graham and Park Entrance
- Graham Park, Frank Street and Gleason Avenue
- Iowa West Trailhead Park, Wabash Avenue
- Kimball Park, 1801 N. Broadway
- Kirn Park, 100 1/2 Fifth Ave.
- Malmore Park, 3600 Scott Drive
- Peterson Park, 2500 S. Eighth St.
- Prospect Park, 100 Harrison St.
- Roberts Park, 1000 N. 25th St.
- Sternhill Park, 1031 N. Eighth St.
- Sunset Park, 1000 16th Ave.
- Trolley Park, 2803 Ave. B
- Twin City Park, 3300 Renner Drive
- Valley View Park, 1300 Franklin Ave.
- Westwood Park, 1200 S. 35th St.
Council Bluffs’ skate park
Broadway Skate Park is a poured concrete facility with a snake run, 4′ bowl, fun box, rail, stairs, and a 1/4 pipe.
Broadway Skate Park, 1300 West Broadway
Your turn: I’m sure there are a few great things missing from this list. Leave me a comment to add some of your favorite free activities in Council Bluffs!