Iowa is a very road trip-friendly state. Here’s one of my family’s favorite Iowa road trips to inspire your own adventure. This Iowa road trip’s main stops are in Des Moines, Boone and Clear Lake, with a few quick stops for outdoor adventures along the way.
Total travel distance is roughly 100 miles one way. We planned overnights in Des Moines at the start of the trip and Clear Lake at the end of the trip.
Starting point: Des Moines
What better way to dive right into the state than by exploring the capitol city, Des Moines? You can easily fill a weekend going to attractions and restaurants.
Things to do
On this particular road trip, we timed a visit to coincide with the Des Moines Art Festival. This huge festival is held in downtown Des Moines over a weekend in June every summer. There’s a lot to see and do at the festival, plus it’s free.
It’s held near the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, so don’t miss that while you’re in the area. It’s one of my favorite free things to do when I’m in Des Moines.
My daughter’s favorite thing from downtown Des Moines didn’t involve art, though. There’s a hatter feature of a meandering stream, and it attracted a lot of kids, and adults, who dipped their feet in it.
There’s another free activity while you’re downtown. You can take a free guided tour of the State Capitol Building, which lasts about an hour and a half, or do a self-guided tour. We went with option B, which worked out great for our little ones.
You’ll need to plan several hours to explore the next stop in Des Moines: Living History Farms. The 145-acre farm features a 1920s farm site, a late 1800s farmhouse and other structures as well as a modern tractor display building.
The kids enjoyed the farms with animals the most, which meant the 1900 farm was the clear favorite with the horses, mules, cows and farm cat. Both being younger than 7, the hands-on activities were far more appealing to my children than Q&As with the staff dressed in period costume.
One of the more memorable dining experiences was our lunch at the Zombie Burger in the East Village. Everyone recommended Zombie Burger when I had asked for suggestions, and when a crowd tells you to go somewhere, you go.
Totally worth the trip for these burgers!
I tried the Dead Moines Burger and split fries with my husband. The kids had cheeseburgers of their own. To enjoy the sunshine (and to spare one zombie-fearing child), we dined outside.
Zombie Burger’s horror movie decor is fun, but if you have a kid who doesn’t find the undead amusing, you might steer clear.
Our favorite Des Moines restaurant, Fong’s Pizza, is in downtown Des Moines. This quirky pizzeria has several delicious pies to choose from, plus some pretty fun tiki drinks (if you’re kid-free and on vacation).
We had one dinner at the Machine Shed, an iconic West Des Moines/Urbandale restaurant with huge servings of comfort food. Try to save room for dessert. Just try.
Tip: Machine Shed is near Living History Farms. Also, there’s a smaller Zombie Burger located in the Jordan Creek Mall, also located in West Des Moines.
For breakfast, consider a stop at the Drake Diner near the Drake University campus.
Related post: The must-try restaurants in Des Moines
Suggested stop: Ledges State Park
Ledges State Park is a hidden gem in the middle of a cornfield. It’s a little more than 40 miles north of Des Moines and completely worth seeking out.
Things to do
If you’re short on time, head straight for the canyon drive – a one-way route. There, you’ll have to drive over roadways that Pea’s Creek flows over. It’s kinda cool, but it can sometimes completely flood out the road way.
We took a tough hike up one trail to see the “ledges” and then on our way back to the car, we waded through the creek. It was a beautiful park and we will be back to camp and really explore the trails.
Suggested stop: Boone
Just 4 miles north of Ledges State Park is the next stop, Boone.
Things to do
We’ve been to Boone once during the summer and once in the winter. On this particular road trip, we planned just a quick stop to ride the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. It’s an out-and-back ride on an old 1950s train. We sat in the open air coach section.
The highlight is crossing over the High Bridge. You cross it twice, so if you’re slow with the camera, you get a second chance to get a shot like this (better have a strap to hold onto your camera – that’s a big drop).
I should say, that crossing the bridge was the highlight for the kids. I think I enjoyed the good local beer served in the concession train car.
Tip: Save your train tickets. They’re good for a tour in the museum afterward.
If you plan to stay overnight, I’d recommend planning an afternoon outing to Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone. From May through October, Seven Oaks offers full-service canoeing, kayaking and tubing on the Des Moines River. In the winter, it’s the place to go for skiing and tubing.
Where to stay
Boone can be a one-day stop or an overnight stop. The hotel I’d recommend isn’t actually in Boone, though. The charming suites at the historic Hotel Pattee are great. Hotel Pattee is located in Perry, about a 30-minute drive from Seven Oaks Recreation.
The hotel has a restaurant and bar called Harvey’s.
Suggested stop: Story City
Story City, about 25 miles northwest of Boone, is an optional stop, but a good one for families. We were traveling with young kids, so stopping to ride the city’s antique carousel made sense to us. It’s near a park so it could double as a stop to get some energy out.
The ride was pretty cheap and memorable for the kids.
End point: Clear Lake
The final stop on this road trip involves as much lake time as you can handle. It will be your longest drive: A smidge over 70 miles north.
Things to do
Most people go to Clear Lake for access to the lake. If you have a boat, lucky you. For the rest of us, let’s hit the beach.
There are three beaches in the area. McIntosh Woods State Park has a small, unsupervised beach. The kids played in the water briefly, but if you had a choice of only visiting one beach in the area, don’t make it that one it.
A far more enjoyable beach is Clear Lake City Beach (also, no lifeguard). There’s a small splash garden just off the beach, which made for a nice place to rinse off the sand after the fun was over.
The beach at Clear Lake State Park is a third to consider.
Tip: Whichever beach you choose, wear water shoes!
Clear Lake’s most notable attraction is the historic Surf Ballroom & Museum. It’s free to visit (unless there’s a concert). The kids danced on the stage while I marveled at all the musical acts who’ve played in the historic hall.
Central Gardens of North Iowa is a free public gardens in Clear Lake. It’s a beautiful place to explore, and if you’re lucky, a volunteer may be present to tell you more about what you’re seeing.
One volunteer gave us a tour of the children’s garden, and had the kids help her pull some radishes.
If you visit on a Friday morning in the summer, you might catch some garden activities for the kids and a plant sale (bouquets for a donation).
We ended our final night of the road trip at Clear Lake’s Fourth of July celebration along Main Avenue. This impressive carnival was so much fun!
If you can time your visit to coincide with the weekend long celebration, you won’t be disappointed.
Clear Lake has some wonderful breakfast options. A favorite along the South Shore is PM Park. The kids played on the little pirate ship while my husband and I sipped coffee and waited for breakfast to cook.
I tried their famous Everything Hashbrowns, but honestly, the French Cakes my son ordered were the best. They’re basically french fried pancakes.
Tip: PM Park also happens to have a lakeside Tiki Bar. It’s worth returning to later in the day as they serve food in addition to a good rum drink.
In town, you can have a hearty breakfast at Sevens or a coffee and pastry at Cabin Coffee Co. It’s a fun cafe to visit – you kind have to get your picture taken on one of the saddle stools, don’t you?Sevens felt and was lit more like a bar, but the place was hopping with locals and the food was very good.
For lunch in the downtown area (and walkable from City Beach Park), head to Starboard Market. We ordered delicious sandwiches, and if you get the boxed lunch, they come with a non-meat salad, chips and a house-made cookie.
Lakeside Landing Kitchen + Bar is another good option. We had a quick burger and fries one night. It was so good and the service was super friendly, especially with our kids.
Where to stay
While being a fairly small town, Clear Lake has a big variety of overnight accommodations, from lakeside inns to national chains.
One of the more unique options is to stay in a yurt at McIntosh Woods State Park near Clear Lake. Think of a yurt as permanent tent with some creature comforts (but not quite glamping).
We lucked out and had a cooler than average June night. While the yurt has windows and a fan, I could see how stuffy it could get in there if the summer weather was hot and without wind.
Still, it was nice to have beds that night instead of my slowly-leaking air mattress. And you can’t beat the peaceful location.