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Iowa’s Fall Bucket List: 25 Must-Do Experiences

Few places shine as brilliantly as Iowa does in the fall. As the landscape transforms, the state puts on a display of fiery reds, sun-kissed oranges, and deep maroons, turning its rolling hills and vast farmlands into an unforgettable scene. And with the season comes a huge range of fall activities. From scenic drives filled with fall foliage to harvest festivals and football games, there are weeks’ worth of experiences waiting for residents and visitors.

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Leaf Peeping & Nature Trails in Iowa

Iowa’s reputation might predominantly revolve around its farmlands, but come autumn, its state parks and natural reserves become must-visit destinations for those seeking nature’s vibrant display. A standout is located in the northeast region of the state: Effigy Mounds National Monument. The national monument near the Mississippi River is a protected land preserving animal-shaped burial mounds built between 850 to 1,400 years ago. Visit sometime during the first two weeks of October to really see the leaves pop.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Two more nearby parks to see the changing colors: Yellow River State Forest and Mt. Hosmer City Park. There’s a post highlighting great trails at both parks and Effigy Mounds National Monument to immerse yourself in the fall scenery!

Ledges State Park in central Iowa is another great spot. Its canyon roads and stone bridges offer a front-row seat to a cascade of colors. The sandstone ledges, dotted in hues of amber and russet, provide both a serene setting and remarkable photo opportunities.

Backbone State Park near Dundee, named for its unique limestone ridge resembling a dragon’s spine, is another fall favorite. As Iowa’s oldest state parks, its woodlands glow with autumnal brilliance. The trails here wind through dense forests and by rocky outcrops.

On western side of the state, two standout state parks for leaf peeping and easy hikes are Stone State Park in Sioux City and Lake Manawa State Park in Council Bluffs. These two are particularly great for families. Stone State Park has a wonderful nature center nearby (Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center) and outdoor playscape. Lake Manawa has an epic playground. A third park that I love in that area, Hitchcock Nature Center, has excellent trails, a top-notch a nature center, and a lookout tower.

For a unique hike, look into the Fall Llama Hikes at Rector Llamas. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like!

For those looking to combine the pleasure of a drive with the beauty of fall, the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway is an unbeatable choice. Stretching over 200 miles along the western edge of Iowa, this route showcases the undulating hills formed from wind-deposited soil. In the fall, those hills are draped in a patchwork of golds, reds, and oranges. As you cruise through, take your time to stop at overlooks and take a hike or two.

Fall at Lake Manawa State Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa

The Historic Hills Scenic Byway is another great drive, this one in southern Iowa. Don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing the road with horses and buggies – this area is home to communities of Mennonites and Old Order Amish. The 105-mile route passes through forests, towns, and rolling hills.

Corn Mazes & Pumpkin Patches

Few symbols represent the heartland’s fall festivities better than the intricate patterns of corn mazes and the vibrant sprawl of pumpkin patches. Rooted in the agricultural abundance of Iowa, corn mazes are not just a playful challenge for visitors but a testament to the state’s reverence for its primary crop: corn. Originally designed as a way to celebrate the harvest and draw communities together, these mazes have grown in complexity and creativity, becoming seasonal labyrinths that offer both fun and reflection.

A boy walks in the corn maze at Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard in Council Bluffs, Iowa
Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard

Want to try one of these natural puzzles or find the perfect pumpkin? Here are some of the state’s best farms and orchards to do that:

  • Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard (Council Bluffs) – They change the corn maze design each year and this year’s design at Ditmars is sponsored by Hy-Vee, so expect some sort of H involved in it. Plus this family-run orchard has a playground, hayrack rides, and a large pumpkin patch.
  • Bass Farms (Mount Vernon) – Has fun events throughout the fall to entice visitors to stay a little longer after they pick out their pumpkins. The Fall Festival and Halloween at the Farm are two events at Bass Farms in October. They haven’t unveiled the design for their 2023 corn maze, but I bet it’ll be impressive.
  • Harvestville Farm (Donnellson) – This fifth generation farm has everything from farm-to-table dinners to a sunflower festival. Come fall, you can explore Harvestville Farm‘s 35 acres of pumpkins, a 12-acre corn maze, and enjoy wagon rides and family play areas.
  • Howell’s Pumpkin Patch (Cumming) – Howell’s is the quintessential pumpkin patch. There’s a tractor-pulled wagon ride, goats to meet, a large slide, and a large corn box to play in. There’s also a corn maze, as well as other fun games on the farm.

Fall Football Games

In the realm of fall festivities in Iowa, there’s one pastime that transcends the allure of nature: College football. The sport, with its deep-rooted traditions and passionate following, encapsulates the spirit and fervor of the Hawkeye State, particularly through its two major teams: The University of Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State University Cyclones.

The Iowa Hawkeyes, hailing from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, have a storied history in collegiate football. Kinnick Stadium, their home ground, becomes a sea of black and gold on game days. With traditions like the famous “Iowa Wave” to the Children’s Hospital, attending a Hawkeyes game is more than just a sporting event; it’s an experience steeped in camaraderie and community spirit. Check their 2023 schedule here.

On the other side, the Iowa State Cyclones from Ames have equally passionate fans, flooding the Jack Trice Stadium in a whirlwind of cardinal and gold. Cyclones’ game days are punctuated with traditions, from the raucous cheers of the student section to the festive tailgates that transform parking lots into vibrant hubs of celebration. Check their 2023 schedule here.

And, when these two teams clash in the annual Cy-Hawk Series, the state truly divides (if only for a day). The rivalry game showcases not just the competitive spirit of the teams but also the deep-rooted love Iowans have for football.

Apple Orchards & Cider Houses

Autumn in Iowa is incomplete without the crisp bite of a freshly picked apple or the sweet tang of a glass of cider. Several apple orchards and cider houses have etched their names into the must-visit list for fall enthusiasts. 

Kim with a bag of apples at Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard
Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard
  • Wilson’s Orchard (Iowa City) is one such gem. With over 120 varieties of apples, this orchard provides visitors with a delightful pick-your-own experience amid scenic surroundings. Wilson’s Ciderhouse offers farm-to-table food and hand-pressed ciders. Their variety of hard ciders are fantastic. Try the Honeycrisp Hard Cider, or if you like tart, the Old Blue Hard Cider (flavored with blueberries).
  • Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard (Council Bluffs) is back on another list for this post. Most people’s introduction to Ditmars is through the U-pick apples orchard. And you can’t leave without trying their freshly-made apple cider donuts or apple cider slushee.
  • Deal’s Orchard (Jefferson) is known not just for its juicy apples but also for its fun family activities, from hayrides to a corn maze. Located in central Iowa, Deal’s Apple Acres opens in late August, and then, a few weeks later, return to wonder around the pumpkin patch.
  • Since 2013, Fishback & Stephenson Cider House (Fairfield) has been offering up artisanal ciders, balancing traditional apple flavors with inventive twists. They were awarded Iowa Cider Producer of the Year for three years straight from the New York International Cider Competition (2020, 2021, and 2022). It’s not just ciders at F & S Cider, they also have a restaurant on sight, and word is, their burgers are amazing.

Prost! Breweries & Wineries in Iowa

Iowa’s fertile soils not only yield bountiful crops but also provide the perfect environment for crafting distinctive wines and beers. As the leaves turn and the air cools, the state’s breweries and wineries become especially inviting.

An up-close picture of a glass of beer at Keg Creek Brewing Co. in Glenwood, Iowa

The craft beer scene in Iowa has seen a surge in recent years. Breweries such as Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in Decorah and Peace Tree Brewing Co. in Knoxville are garnering national attention for their innovative brews. A visit to these establishments often means more than just sipping a pint; it’s an opportunity to delve into the art and science of brewing, with many offering insightful tours of their facilities.

Smaller breweries are cranking out good brews as well. Some favorites include Keg Creek Brewing Co. in Glenwood and Marto Brewing Co. in Sioux City. And let’s not forget the state’s oldest brewery, Millstream Brewing Co. They have an Oktoberfest beer that’s a must-try in the fall.

Iowa’s wineries are crafting wines that reflect the unique terroir of the state. Places like Park Farm Winery in Durango offer stunning fall views of the Driftless Region paired with their wines, as well as brick oven pizza if you’re hungry.

Haunted Houses & Paranormal Places in Iowa

Beyond the idyllic landscapes and pumpkin patches, Iowa harbors a darker, more mysterious side — one that delves into tales of the supernatural and the echoes of the past. The state is home to various haunted houses and paranormal hotspots, each with its own spine-tingling stories waiting to be explored.

The exterior of the Villisca Axe Murder House and a sign

Villisca Axe Murder House in Villisca is, perhaps, the most infamous. The site of a gruesome unsolved mass murder in 1912, this house now stands as a testament to the chilling events of that fateful night. Those brave enough can even book an overnight stay (though most people opt for the guided daytime tour). There have been reports of eerie occurrences from children’s laughter to unexplained footsteps.

Malvern Manor in nearby Malvern is another haunted home. And like the Villisca Axe Murder House, visitors can take a daytime tour or make a reservation to stay overnight. The home has been featured on “Paranormal Lockdown” on T.L.C. in 2017 and “Destination Fear” on the Travel Channel in 2021.

For a scare without the supernatural, head to Scream Acres at Bloomsbury Farm in Atkins. There are three indoor haunted houses and one haunted cornfield.

Cultural Events & Fall Festivals in Iowa

When fall hits, the special events start rolling out in Iowa. One annual that has become synonymous with autumn is Okotoberfest. And there’s no more of a German community in Iowa than that of Amana Colonies. Drawing inspiration from German traditions, this festival transforms the seven historic villages of the Amana Colonies into a lively hub of polka, dance, and beer. The event is held one weekend at the end of September or early October.

An advertisement on a brick wall in Walnut, Iowa

Walnut is an antique shopper’s kind of town any time of year, but it’s a dream to visit in the fall during Walnut Antique Fall Festival. Vendors set up shop indoors and outdoors one weekend in October each year.

The Scenic Drive Festival in Van Buren County is Iowa’s largest arts and crafts festival held in mid-October each year. Stretching across multiple villages, it showcases handcrafted goods, antique treasures, and local foods, all set against the picturesque backdrop of the state’s countryside.

Clear Lake’s Harvest Festival takes place in early October each year. There’s wine and beer samples, shopping, and a huge outdoor farmers market. Activities include a homemade salsa contest, grape stomp competition, food trucks, live music, and hay rides.

A round up of Iowa's best fall events, pumpkin patches, festivals and more.

From the crimson hues of its foliage to the sips of its homegrown wines, Iowa embodies the essence of autumn. Whether you’re a lifelong resident or a first-time visitor, Iowa in the fall invites you to craft memories and relax in a laid back pace of celebration. So, don your coziest sweater, step into the crisp air, and let the Hawkeye State show you the wonders of autumn.

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