With oceans of scenic corn fields, spacious state parks offering miles of forested trails, and new whitewater parks cropping up, Iowa has a remarkable outdoor recreation scene. Here’s a sample 3-day itinerary, complete with can’t miss cupcakes and must-have Amana Colonies souvenirs. My daughter and I highly enjoyed our taste of Iowa Outdoors Adventure.
Exploring Iowa’s Outdoor Wonders
Iowa recently welcomed my 11-year-old daughter and me to a delightful tour full of Midwestern charms. Travel Iowa provided us with a 3-day itinerary filled with diverse activities from whitewater kayaking (in Iowa?!) to a visit to a former Colony. We had a wonderful time, and I’d recommend his itinerary to any who are looking for a new, authentic outdoor-themed adventure.
Iowa Outdoors Tour ~ Day 1
We flew into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and arrived rather late. The second largest city in Iowa, Cedar Rapids has a relaxing population of 128,000. I love the hustle and bustle excitement of traveling, but I have to confess that arriving at a small airport is a relief. Five minutes to grab a rental car. And only five minutes to drive to our hotel for the evening, The Hotel at Kirkwood Center.
My middle school daughter’s thrilled reaction to our posh room with Euro-chic décor was adorable. Had we holed up and stayed in that gorgeous room for all three days, I think she would have been content. But adventure was out there!
And it started first thing the next morning with breakfast downstairs in the hotel restaurant, The Class Act. This property is on the perimeter of a college campus and employs culinary students in the kitchen. Every morning they serve up hot, cooked to order breakfasts, complimentary with your stay at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center.
Our itinerary for our first day included multiple outdoor recreation spots. Donning our raincoats, we were determined to enjoy some Iowa fun despite the gloomy weather.
Manchester Whitewater Park
Fascinatingly, Iowa has started converting dangerous low head dams into free, public whitewater parks. Paddlers come from all around to enjoy this racy recreation, using inflatable inter tubes, rafts, canoes, or kayaks. Our first stop, Manchester’s Whitewater Park, includes 6 features, which enhance a beautiful stretch of river winding right through the heart of town.
A short three block walk away, we stopped in for lunch at The Coffee Den.
After sampling the smoothies and wraps, we were on our way to the Manchester State Trout Hatchery, located just outside of town. This proved to be a self-serve setup, with fish food and cups available outside the fenced-in ponds. We didn’t spend a great deal of time here. It was dumping rain on us at this point, I think the staff inside thought we were crazy! But it was worth the stop to see the fish flounder and wrestle on top of one another to score a food morsel.
Backbone State Park
Our final destination for the day is a true Iowa gem, Backbone State Park. This gigantic, thickly forested area surrounds a lake and includes 21 miles of hiking and multi-use trails. A park ranger tipped us off to the famous rock spine trail, the “Backbone Trail.” A short 1 mile, it was an ideal place to explore. I should have worn hiking boots, as the terrain was rocky and slippery with rain. But we loved exploring the mossy rock crevices, and got a kick out of walking along a (fairly wide) rock spine with scenic drop offs on each side.
We’d had a full first day! Our headquarters for the next two days would prove to be the utterly charming Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Check out these free things to do in Cedar Falls.) I loved it the second we drove down the quaint, university-town-feel main street lined with eclectic stores, restaurants, and a cupcake bakery we couldn’t wait to try.
Dinner that night was right on Main Street, at the popular local favorite Whiskey Road.
My daughter loved the beer cheese and pretzel bread appetizer, and thought the burgers were tasty. I was less impressed than she by the food we tried, but the plate of prime rib that passed by our table looked pretty incredible.
Iowa Outdoors Tour ~ Day 2
We moved to the Black Hawk Hotel for our second night. Although it’s an older hotel, waking up right on Main Street is an uncommon treat. The staff takes great pride in their establishment, and we appreciated special touches like a rubber duckie in our shower, and snacks available for purchase at the front desk.
Tipped off to a local’s favorite, my daughter and I were in for an authentic Midwestern experience that morning at Maid-Rite. Pull up a bar stool, be ready to scoot your plates down to make room for newcomers, and make sure to order the hot, fresh mini donuts or a classic loose meat sandwich.
The whitewater park action was about to get real, as we had some Iowa kayaking gurus lined up to meet us at the Charles City Whitewater Park. Due to heavy rainfall, the flow was ripping at four times its normal volume. This meant we Colorado kayaking rookies ended up being bystanders, but it was still a thrilling sport to watch.
We scored big time with the recommendation to try Pub on the Cedar for lunch, just a couple of blocks away from the whitewater park. Great service, a scrumptious mini-mozzarella stick appetizer, and a round of pool later… I was having a really good day. Then my juicy ribeye steak sandwich arrived, and things got even better.
Art and Cupcakes in Iowa
Soon it was time to head back to downtown Cedar Falls. Our visit had pleasantly coincided with the 11th Annual Artpalooza. Staying downtown at the Black Hawk Hotel was ideal to enjoy this venue. We took the opportunity to not only browse the Artpalooza art and craft booths, but also shop at the Cedar Falls downtown stores. Best find of the day: “Recycled” flannel shirts (in other words super cozy and already broke-in) that had been country-glam customized with crocheted flowers on the pocket and a rear lace kick pleat. We definitely each needed one of those to bring back home to Colorado!
And then it was cupcake time. Oh, those amazing cupcakes.
Pure bliss, and only $2 a pop. Taking our travel reporting duties seriously, we each ordered two to get the full effect of the lusciousness being created and served at Scratch Cupcakery.
Also located on Main Street, this bakery makes more than 200 flavors of cupcakes, with a rotating flavor menu every day.
Feel free to work a cupcake break in again (and again), during your 3-day schedule. We did! I have no regrets.
Speaking of food, we wrapped up our awesome Day 2 right there on the Cedar Falls Main Street for dinner at Tony’s Pizzaria. Being able to get a delicious individual sized, wood fired pizza was the right way to end our day of shopping and adventure.
Post dinner, we walked off some of the pizza and cupcakes by exploring the scenic riverside Cedar Falls Bike Trails. We found a cool railroad bridge and historical school house, and listened to a live band playing at a park shelter.
Even as darkness approached I felt safe here. It reminded me of childhood days in South Dakota. I talked to my daughter about how many things were different in this part of the country. It was a peaceful scene, and watching that Midwest sky change from dusk to dark was a lovely way to wrap up our day.
Iowa Outdoors Tour ~ Day 3
Rise and shine… last call for Iowa adventure! OK, actually we slept in. This was the first morning we didn’t have an appointment to meet someone, so we took advantage of a relaxing start to our day. The downside to our laziness was that we didn’t have time to visit Allen’s “u-pick” Orchard in Marion.
Breakfast brought us to an Old School trendy diner, Newtons’ Café, just a short 15-minute drive away in Waterloo. Although the breakfasts on nearby tables looked amazing, our late departure had us ready for lunch.
We embraced our wild hair to sample Iowa culture one last time. I ordered the breaded pork loin sandwich. Even though the menu forewarned, “You won’t believe your eyes”… I still laughed out loud when my entrée was presented to me. Six times the size of the bun it was served on. Very tasty! Just be sure to bring five friends to help you eat it.
Before leaving for our Iowa Outdoors adventure, my dad told me a bit of family history. Apparently, my great grandparents use to live in this part of Iowa. As a little boy, my dad often visited the Amana Colonies. This added some nostalgia to my already huge curiosity about the place, the last stop on our 3-day Iowa Outdoors itinerary.
A former German colony, today Amana Colonies remains as a cluster of seven small villages that have become a tourist destination. It’s no longer a working colony, but historical buildings have been preserved. They now house quaint shops selling down-home goods such as jellies, fudge, candles, leather, woodworking, silver, blankets, and other handmade crafts.
Somewhere I had caught wind of there being a woolen mill, so I specifically sought it out. This was one our favorite finds of the day, located two blocks down from the main drag. The looms and giant spools of yarn on display were fascinating, and the row of high quality, hand woven blankets available for sale were gorgeous.
Amana Colony Blankets are well-known, come in an impressive range of colors and patterns of either wool or cotton, and range in price from $100-150. It’s a fantastic souvenir and a quality craftsmanship piece to own. Other kitchen items such as aprons and placements were also available.
An Iowa Outdoors Tour is Worthwhile
What a whirlwind tour! All in all, we covered a handful of small Iowa towns in the north central region. The driving portions of our tour were never longer than an hour, and were absolutely part of the experience.
The lovely, unending oceans of corn were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As if that weren’t enough country beauty, fields were frequently dotted with massive, classic style barns. Even with no mountains on the horizon (I’ll admit I’m biased in that area), the landscape was unique and beautiful.
We thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse of the outdoor fun, and so much more, that Iowa’s countryside has to offer.
Have you visited the wonders of Iowa outdoors? What was your favorite thing to do?