Break up the monotony of an interstate road trip through Iowa with a few stops. There are some interesting things to see and do if you take a moment to exit Interstate 80, so I’ve made a list of some of the highlights. Some of these are quick Interstate 80 stops for quirky photo ops, and others will take longer to explore.
This list is written as if you were traveling Interstate 80 from east to west. Happy travels!
Quad Cities (Exit 306)
The area of Quad Cities (Davenport) I’m most familiar with is not just an exit ramp off I-80, unfortunately. If you have time, check out a few of the museums and the view of the Mississippi River from the Skybridge in Davenport.
For just-off-the-interstate things to do, I recommend learning about Buffalo Bill’s connection to the area in Le Claire. If history and shopping is more of your thing, Antique Archaeology is also in Le Claire. It’s home to “American Pickers,” the hit show on the History channel.
Walcott (Exit 284)
How can you drive I-80 and not stop at Iowa 80, The World’s Largest Truckstop? If you love “world’s biggest” roadside attractions, this one is right up your alley.
Just how big is it? There are eight restaurants, a movie theater, chiropractor, and trucking museum, as well as all the other features you’d expect at a truck stop (store, private showers, etc.).
Each July, Iowa 80 is the home to the Truckers Jamboree. The next one will be July 14-16, 2022.
Where: Iowa 80, 755 W. Iowa 80 Road, Walcott
West Branch (Exit 254)
The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch is home to several worth-while things to see and do, including the gravesite of the president and Mrs. Hoover, Presidential Library and Museum. Park rangers recommend a half-day! For the purpose of a road trip stop, it takes an estimated hour to see the 12-minute intro film at the Visitor Center, and then walk to the Birthplace Cottage, Blacksmith Shop, Schoolhouse, and Friends’ Meetinghouse.
Kids do have the opportunity to complete the Junior Ranger Program for the National Historic Site. And there are also a little more than 2 miles of trails through the tallgrass prairie.
Where: Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, 210 Parkside Drive, West Branch
Iowa City (Exit 244)
Devonian Fossil Gorge is an archeological marvel – and you can walk on it. The gorge is what’s left of the ocean floor from 375 million years ago. Get down close to look at the fossils imbedded in the limestone, but don’t remove any of them. Damaging or taking fossils from the strictly is strictly prohibited.
Where: Devonian Fossil Gorge, 2850 Prairie Du Chien Road NE, Iowa City
Amana Colonies (Exits 225 and 220)
The Amana Colonies consist of seven villages that have retained their German influences. The most scenic towns, Amana, is a bit of a drive from the interstate, for sure. But, it’s worth it if you want to explore the shops, iconic restaurants like the Ox Yoke Inn, and Iowa’s oldest brewery, Millstream Brau Haus.
A much closer stop from the interstate (exit 220) is the Tanger outlet mall in Williamsburg.
Where: 622 46th Ave., Amana and Williamsburg Oulets, 1991 O’Donnell Road, Williamsburg
Newton (Exit 168)
If you ever dreamt of driving a NASCAR car of your own, plan a stop at Rusty Wallace Racing Experience at the Iowa Speedway. Plan on 2 to 3 hours if you’re driving on your own, or less than 2 hours if you do a ride-along.
There are limited dates available, so this isn’t a stop-in and drive kind of thing. You’ll want to book your driving experience ahead of time.
Where: Iowa Speedway, 3333 Rusty Wallace Drive, Newton
Altoona (Exit 142)
Adventureland Amusement Park is more than just a quick stop, but if it’s summer time and you’re a thrill seeker or traveling with kids, you are going to want to plan a day here. Adventureland has more than 100 rides, plus shows and games. Your ticket also covers Adventure Bay Waterpark.
Where: Adventureland Resort, 3200 Adventureland Drive, Altoona
Des Moines (Exit 137A)
Many of the highlights of the capitol city of Iowa are a distance from Interstate 80 since they’re located downtown. A few options that make for quick stops once you make that drive downtown:
- Heritage Carousel of Des Moines (about 8 miles south), 1801 Pennsylvania Ave., Des Moines
- Pappajohn Sculpture Park (about 10.5 miles south), 1330 Grand Ave., Des Moines
Of course, if you have more time for a longer stop, there’s the Iowa State Capitol, Greater Des Moines Bontanical Garden, and the Science Center of Iowa, to name just a few more.
Des Moines is also my favorite city to stop for lunch or dinner when I’m traveling along I-80. Here’s a list of some of the best restaurants in Des Moines.
Urbandale (Exit 125)
Considered a part of Greater Des Moines, attractions like Living History Farms get lumped into the city of Des Moines. But, it’s in Urbandale. This open-air museum is quite large (500 acres) and will take you through interactive outdoor exhibits that recreate what life was like in Iowa over the past 300 years. It’s pretty fun for kids, especially the encounters with animals.
It is not, however, a quick stop. Also, know that this museum is seasonal for tourism.
Where: Living History Farms, 11121 Hickman Road, Urbandale
Stuart (Exit 93)
This small town’s claim to fame was its brush with the infamous Bonnie and Clyde. On April 16, 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed the First National Bank. They got away with $1,500 (or about $30,000 todays), but luckily, no one was killed.
Bonnie & Clyde’s crime spree resulted in 13 deaths, including nine police officers.
The bank closed in 1944, and the building is now a hair salon. Historical markers can be found at the stop.
Where: Former First National Bank, North Division and North Second streets
Brayton (Exit 70)
For a quirky landmark stop, take the exit for Brayton and head to The Tree In The Middle Of The Road. The 100-foot-tall Cottonwood tree is literally in the middle of the intersection!
The story I heard was that this landmark of Audubon County got its start when the surveyor for establishing county lines places a cottonwood stick into the ground to mark the point where the county lines crossed. That stick grew into the tree.
If you love that kind of oddity, there’s another fascinating tree to check out that’s northwest of this Brayton Tree. It’s called Plow in the Oak, and you’ll find it in a park in Exira. It’s a tree that has nearly grown around a plow.
Two interesting stories have circulated explaining its origin: One says a local farmer named Frank Leffingwell left his plow leaning on the tree when he left to join the Civil War. He never returned, and that’s what’s left of it. Another similar story says that a farmhand for Leffingwell left the plow leaning on the tree and he too joined the military. He forgot about the plow until years later, but it was too late to retrieve it from the tree. See some a cool picture of it from 1934 here.
Where: 2401 350th St., Brayton (at the intersection of Nighthawk Avenue and 350th Street) and on Highway 31 just south of Exira near 310th Street
Danish Villages of Elk Horn & Kimballton (Exit 54)
For a sample of Denmark, take a detour north of the interstate to the small villages of Elk Horn and Kimballton. You’ll know you’ve reached Elk Horn when you spot the windmill at the Visitor Center. This mill happens to be the only authentic, operating Danish windmill in the U.S. It hails from Norre Snede, Denmark and was reconstructed in 1976. The town also has the Museum of Danish America.
Venture to the nearby town of Kimballton, just north of Elk Horn, to see the half-sized replica of The Little Mermaid statue.
Where: Windmill is at 4038 Main St., Elk Horn and the Little Mermaid statue is at 100 Esbeck St., Kimballton
Walnut (Exit 46)
Walnut is called Iowa’s Antique City, if you love to browse antiques, you’re going to want to stop here. In addition to about 15 antique stores, the city hosts various antique festivals around the year including the popular Walnut Antique Show every Father’s Day Weekend.
Where: Antique City Drive, Walnut
Avoca (Exit 40)
Time for a manmade oddity! The Volkswagen Beetle Spider is an eight-legged sculpture that does, in fact, have the body of an old Volkswagen. It’s a true photo opp waiting for you.
Where: 649 S Chestnut St., Avoca
Shelby (Exit 34)
Carstens 1880 Farmstead is an 80-acre living history farm that showcases how rural farming practices once were as well as displays agricultural machinery. Unless you visit during Farm Days over Labor Day Weekend, you should arrange for a tour before you visit. Call (712) 544-2638.
Where: Carstens 1880 Farmstead, 32409 380th St., Shelby
Neola (Exit 23)
To stretch your legs outdoors, stop at Arrowhead Park in Neola. There are trails in this 147-acre park, but the main draw is the pond. People like to fish for bluegill or bass. Seasonally, there are canoes and paddleboat rentals.
Where: Arrowhead Park, 29357 310th St., Neola
Council Bluffs (Exit 1 to merge onto Interstate 29)
Just north of I-80 is Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, another great place to stretch your legs. For kids, there’s a water feature to play in. For those who love a photo op, cross the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge while you’re there. Halfway on the bridge is the state line between Nebraska and Iowa.
And a little tip, locals call it “The Bob.”
Where: Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs