Last summer, my husband and I decided to give our kids a 1980s summer. (You can read all about it here.) No camps, activities, or schedules. We wanted lazy days, wide-open for boredom and adventure. We knew our kids probably wouldn’t remember another day of basketball camp, but would remember that time we visited the world’s largest popcorn ball. So we set off to discover the hidden gems in the great state of Iowa and made a million memories in the process.
Here’s how we planned our state tour (and how you can plan your own!).
Our goal was to visit each of the state’s county seats (that’s 99 for you Iowans keeping score at home). Thankfully, they’re usually located 30-60 minutes apart so we could knock out a few counties at a time. We would pray a blessing on the steps of each courthouse, pose for a selfie, and then search for the most interesting landmark in the county to visit. Sometimes that landmark was historic. Other times it was unique or downright odd. If a county was known for a particular food, you can absolutely guarantee we tried it.
We saved the counties within an hour of our home for day trips and then planned weekend getaways to visit clusters of counties a few hours away. Since viewing courthouses and most historic landmarks and museums was free, our trips were relatively inexpensive. Gas for the van, samplings of local delicacies, and the occasional small-town hotel summed up our costs.
We checked out some guide books from our local library (our favorite was Iowa Curiosities by Dan Coffey and Eric Jones) and googled “Interesting Sights To See” in each county. Whenever we were looking for a restaurant to try or a hotel to stay in, TripAdvisor was our savior. It gave us great recommendations each time. Another resource was asking Facebook friends to tell us where to go and what to see in that area of the state. Locals have great insight (and pride) for the local treasures.
The uniqueness of each courthouse and quaintness of the town squares kept each county from blurring into one. Many counties featured Freedom Rocks or beautiful veterans’ memorials. We also loved seeing small, one-screen movie theaters still alive and well.
We were drawn to pop culture landmarks like the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake where Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens played their last show, the Music Man Square in Mason City, and the Field of Dreams in Dyersville. But we also loved the strange sights that make Iowa great like the World’s Largest Strawberry in Strawberry Point, the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball in Sac City, and Albert the World’s Largest Bull in Audubon. Sports stadiums made the list, as did raceways and butterfly gardens.
Our biggest surprise was the beauty of Iowa. We would drive over a hill or around a bend and the green rolling hills and picturesque red barns with white fences would take our breath away. The Missouri and Mississippi river bluffs were stunning as were topographical landmarks like the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Allamakee County and the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway running along the western edge of our state.
We were also surprised with how much our kids loved the adventure. Riding in the car for hours can be monotonous, but stopping at a new county seat every 45 minutes helped to break it up. They began comparing and ranking the different courthouses we saw. Of course, they enjoyed the “fun” sights, but they also grew to appreciate the quiet pace of walking around a town square and stopping at the local café for a piece of pie.
The Adventure Continues
We only made our way through 45 of Iowa’s 99 counties last summer. We picked up three more over spring break, so we still have 51 one to go (FIFTY ONE, people!!!). But, while we initially set out to hit all 99 counties in one summer, the goal quickly changed. We didn’t want to rush from one county to the next just for the sake of checking them off a list. Instead, any time we found ourselves rushing to move on, we would force ourselves to linger a little longer. Inevitably, we would look around and discover something new to experience, learn, or taste.
This summer, take your own tour of Iowa’s counties. I think you’ll collect a bountiful harvest of memories in this great state.