14 Fun, Unique Things to Do Within a 3-Hour Drive of Iowa City

One of the things that makes the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor a great place to live is that there’s always something to do here

Even with so many fun activities in the area, though, it’s still nice to get out of town every once in a while. Sure, jetting off to the beach is always an option, but what happens when you want to get away without flying? What if you want to get away for the weekend, or just for the day?

Luckily, eastern and central Iowa have more to offer than most people realize! Here are the top 14 things to do and see within a 3-hour drive of Iowa City.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

American Gothic House

Where: Eldon
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 93 miles southwest
Driving Time: 1 hours and 30 minutes

Though he was born in Anamosa, Iowa, Grant Wood’s inspiration for one of his most famous paintings, American Gothic, came from further south. The famous painter was on a tour in Eldon, Iowa (near Ottumwa) when he first spotted the little white house with the striking gothic window. This house became the backdrop for the iconic American Gothic, which now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago. Early sketches of the painting show only the house—proving it was in fact the house that served as the inspiration for Wood.  

The white home with the gothic window still stands in Eldon, Iowa. Though the interior of the home is only open once per month (on the second Saturday of each month, April—October), visitors can stop by year round to see the exterior that inspired one of the 20th century’s most famous paintings. 

Photo Credit: WikiArt

General Store Pub

Where: Stone City
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 37 miles north
Driving Time: 50 minutes

Another historic building featured in a Grant Wood painting can be found further north in Stone City, a stone’s throw from Wood’s hometown of Anamosa. This painting, simply titled Stone City, Iowa, was Wood’s first major landscape and was painted the same year as American Gothic (1930). In the painting, Grant included the local General Store building, which sits on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River (the white building pictured on the right side of the painting).

Photo Credit: Bill Whittaker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, the store is called the General Store Pub and is a cozy destination restaurant and bar, complete with a 2-story deck. Make the drive north and grab a bite to eat inside a piece of living history, forever immortalized by Grant Wood’s paintbrush!

Photo Credit: Iowa DNR

Backbone State Park

Where: Dundee
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 78 miles north
Driving Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

While the Corridor is home to its share of beautiful state parks like Lake Macbride or Palisades-Kepler, if you’re looking for a change of scenery, Backbone State Park is an excellent choice. As Iowa’s first state park, Backbone is home to dozens of recreational activities. Hike 21 miles of trails, mountain bike the hilly terrain, trout fish in the stream, climb the limestone cliffs, camp with the family, or enjoy Backbone Lake on a boat, kayak, or canoe. In the winter, the hiking trails double as snowmobile and cross-country skiing trails, so the park has plenty to offer year-round!

Photo Credit: NPS.gov

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Where: Harpers Ferry 
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 120 miles northeast
Driving Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes

Most people from the Corridor know about Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, but fewer folks know Iowa’s second national park site is less than 3 hours away! 

Effigy Mounds National Monument covers more than 3 square miles of wooded area along the edge of the Mississippi River. The park preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by American Indian tribes anywhere from 750 – 1450 years ago. The mounds vary in shape, with the most common formations being round, linear, or in the form of birds and bears. Twenty mound-building tribes created these effigies, which serve as sacred and ceremonial sites.

Because the mounds can be observed in any season, even when they are covered in snow, the park is open year-round. You’ll see more than historic mounds on your hikes, too – there are stunning views of the Mississippi river along many of the trails. With several neighboring campsites and a nearby state park (Pikes Peak State Park), it’s the perfect opportunity to make an outdoorsy weekend out of it!

Photo Credit: Field of Dreams Movie Site

Field of Dreams

Where: Dyersville
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 78 miles northeast
Driving Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Calling all baseball fans! This small-town Iowa farm was the filming site of the famous Field of Dreams movie, released in 1989. The field is open to visitors all year round and will host its second-ever MLB game (Chicago Cubs vs. Cincinnati Reds) in August of 2022. Visitors can take a 30-minute guided tour of the 3-bedroom home attached to the field. Megafans can even rent the home for an overnight stay, or rent out the field for an event! 

Fun fact: contrary to popular belief, the iconic saying is not “If you build it, they will come.” It’s actually “If you build it, he will come”!

Photo Credit: John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum

John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum 

Where: Waterloo
When: Year-round, Tuesday through Saturday
Distance from Iowa City: 83 miles northwest
Driving Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes

Green as far as the eye can see! This John Deere museum is perfect for tractor and farming enthusiasts of all ages. It features a mix of rare artifacts, antique tractors, and fun, interactive displays that are perfect for kids. Even better? Admission is completely free!

Photo Credit: Lost Island Waterpark

Lost Island Waterpark

Where: Waterloo
When: Open daily June – August, 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Distance from Iowa City: 80 miles northwest
Driving Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes 

If you’re looking to cool off somewhere other than your go-to community pool, head north to Lost Island Waterpark! With 16 waterslides and water attractions—from the relaxing lazy river to the Lost Souls drop-slide that drops you at a rate of 28 feet per second, there’s fun for all thrill levels and age levels. 

Just outside the park, you’ll also find mini golf and go-karting, too! Plan your visit here.

Photo Credit: Lost Island Theme Park

Lost Island Themepark

Where: Waterloo
When: Open daily June – August and on weekends in September. 
Distance from Iowa City: 80 miles northwest
Driving Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes 

Lost Island is now more than just a water park! Their new 80-acre theme park features 33 rides and attractions, from arcades to roller coasters, all housed within five themed “realms”—Spirit, Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. Though a few rides are still under construction as of summer 2022, the park is open and operational. 

Photo Credit: American Whitewater

Manchester Whitewater Park

Where: Manchester, on the Maquoketa River
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 66 miles north
Driving Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes 

White water rafting in Iowa? Yep, you read that right! At the Manchester Whitewater Park on the Maquoketa River, you’ll experience thrills you’d normally have to travel outside of Iowa to find. 

The man-made park spans 800 feet of the river containing six 18-inch whitewater “drops.” You can bring your own kayaks, paddleboards, or tubes to float the rapids, or you can rent them from nearby outfitters. Other than this rental fee, the rapids are absolutely free to enjoy! 

The park is technically open 24/7, 365 days a year, though wetsuits are recommended to protect yourself from the freezing water in colder months! For a safe float, keep an eye on the water levels before setting out on your adventure.

Photo Credit: Neal Smith NWR Facebook

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Where: Prairie City
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 100 miles west
Driving Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes 

Located near the aptly-named Prairie City, this wildlife refuge protects 6,000 acres of tallgrass prairie, which once covered 85% of Iowa. Explore the visitors center, walk miles of trails, or drive through the 800-acre enclosure for a chance to spot the bison and elk herds!

Photo Credit: Cliff Jette / The Gazette

Sutliff Bridge

Where: Sutliff (near Lisbon)
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 20 miles northeast
Driving Time: 25 minutes

This isn’t just any old bridge! Sutliff Bridge, completed in 1898, spans the Cedar River in three sections marked by impressive steel arches. Even though it has been closed to traffic since the 1980s, it continues to draw people from all over eastern Iowa and beyond for its beauty. After 100 years of service, it was appointed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. 

Of course, you can’t talk about Sutliff Bridge without mentioning Baxa’s General Store. The store opened in 1899, just one year after the bridge. Like the bridge, it served its purpose as a general store until the 1980s, when it officially transitioned to being a restaurant and tavern. Now, you can enjoy dinner and drinks with a beautiful view of the Cedar River and the iconic bridge.

Three miles north of the bridge you’ll also find Sutliff Farm and Cider House. Open Thursday through Sunday, April through December, this historic farmhouse doubles as a cidery and restaurant. Visit all three at once—the bridge, the General Store, and the Cider House—for a fun-filled, delicious day!

Speaking of bridges…

Swinging Bridge, a.k.a. Lover’s Leap Bridge

Where: Columbus Junction
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 36 miles south
Driving Time: 40 minutes

Warning: this one is not for the faint of heart! This Swinging Bridge spans 262 feet, swaying 8 stories above a ravine commonly referred to as Lover’s Leap. (And yes, it really does swing slightly from side to side!)

Even better: this year marks the bridge’s 100th anniversary. Though the original bridge was built in the 1880s, it was deemed unsafe in 1902 and rebuilt in 1904. The second bridge lasted 16 years before it collapsed in 1920, sending two brothers plunging to the bottom of the ravine (both were unharmed). But don’t let the history scare you away: the current bridge has been holding steady since 1922, with plenty of updates, reinforcements, and regular safety checks so that visitors can continue to enjoy this hidden gem for years to come.

Photo Credit: Quad City Times

Tulip Time

Where: Pella
When: the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in May (May 4, 5, and 6 in 2023)
Distance from Iowa City: 96 miles west
Driving Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes 

Every October and November, the city of Pella plants more than 300,000 tulip bulbs throughout the community. Come May, these colorful tulips transform the town with their vibrant colors—pink, red, white, orange, and yellow tulips as far as the eye can see. 

This festival is specifically timed for when the tulips are at their prime, but Tulip Time is about more than just the flowers. It’s also a celebration of Pella’s strong Dutch heritage. Enjoy multiple parades, street vendors offering Dutch festival favorites (like stroopwafels!), tons of Dutch exhibits, and free admission to the Dutch market. 

Learn more about Tulip Time here

Photo Credit: Randy von Liski on Twitter

Wildcat Den State Park

Where: Muscatine
When: Year round 
Distance from Iowa City: 47 miles southeast
Driving Time: 55 minutes

Take a step back in time to explore Iowa history at Wildcat Den State Park! Bordering the Mississippi river 10 miles northeast of Muscatine, this scenic park features many fascinating rock formations made of 300 million year-old sandstone. Hiking trails lead to the most well-known formations, including “Steamboat Rock,” “Devil’s Punchbowl,” and “Fat Man’s Squeeze.”

The park is also home to two historical buildings that attract visitors: the one-room Melpine Schoolhouse and the Pine Creek Grist Mill. Built in 1848 by Muscatine County’s first official resident, Benjamin Nye, the mill is thought to be the oldest working mill still located in its original site between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a hike to the mill and relax while listening to the peaceful sound of running water! 

To Sum Up

If you’re looking for something between a staycation and a full-blown vacation, look no further than this list! History buffs, nature lovers, thrill-seekers—there’s a destination within driving distance for everyone. Whether you day trip with the family or make a whole weekend out of it, you’re sure to have a great time! 

Wherever your adventures take you, we know there’s no place like home. If you’re ready to buy or sell, reach out—we’ll be your guide to the local area and on your real estate journey! 

Header image credit: Rich Herrmann on Flickr

 

 

 

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