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25 Local Summer Activities

Kids Summer Adventure List in Iowa City





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Hi, I'm Emily.

Ever since my kids were young, but especially now that they are school age, summertime has been a time for all the day trip adventures. Since I’m a wedding photographer, summers are typically very busy so short little bursts of adventures are the perfect way to make memories and have fun without committing a lot of time or money.

I finally feel like I’ve had enough summers as a mom of planning these fun adventures together that I am confident compiling a solid, though not comprehensive, list to help other families get out and make memories together too. 

For reference, I have two children; a son (9) and a daughter (6). We live in the Iowa City area so these spots are close to us, and I will be sharing in another post about some of our favorite state parks and other day trip adventures that require some travel.

Iowa City & Cedar Rapids

Pick berries – Summertime is for berries and we love picking (and eating) fresh raspberries and strawberries from Wilson’s Orchard and The Berry Basket Farm

Go to an art museum – We are very lucky to have the Stanley Museum of Art in town and have gone many times. It’s free and they have scavenger hunts (and prizes!) for the kids. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is another great museum and, as a bonus, Greene Square Park is directly outside so there’s lot of outdoor fun too.

Let loose at The Iowa Children’s Museum – It’s made for kids and it’s something I always wish I would’ve had when I was young. We have a membership here and we typically reserve this for rainy or really hot summer days when we need an indoor activity. It’s also great for late afternoon slump when everyone is just getting cranky. An hour at ICM will lighten everyone! Favorites are the airplane room, the skateboarding room, the art room, and the pizzeria, where I get to sit while they play waiter. 

Hike the [many] area trails – My kids sometimes claim beforehand they don’t want to go hiking, but every single time, I have to drag them back to the car because they’ve been having so much fun. Some of our favorite area trails are Squire Point & Woodpecker, Hickory Hill Park trails, Lake MacBride (North Shore Trail and Beach to Dam Trail are our favorites), and Kent Park trails.

Swim – Anyone with young kids knows that going swimming isn’t an “easy, simple” activity. It’s a whole hands on, pack-like-you’re-moving thing. (It does get easier as they get older, I promise, but I’m still not at the place where I can sit in a chair and read a book while they swim.) I grew up on a farm in the country and I can count on one hand the times I was allowed to go to the pool in town with friends, mostly because it would require someone to drive me there and come back and pick me up. (I don’t recall a single time that our family swam together aside from vacations. Farm life is not for leisure.) So though it takes work for me to take my kids swimming, I want them to be good swimmers and also want them to have memories of us playing in the water together. We have three local public pools and I like them all for different reasons (though I have nearly sworn off North Liberty because it’s so packed there daily that it makes it difficult to keep track of your kids in the water with so many bodies everywhere; IYKYK).

Get up close to birds – The raptor center is home to over 15 unreleasable birds of prey historically found in Iowa. “We achieve our goal to preserve raptor populations and habitats through educational experiences that awaken awareness, nurture appreciation and inspire action, as well as through field research on raptor nesting habitats, migration routes, and wintering grounds.” There are no dogs or pets allowed and, because there are sleeping owls, you’ll want to keep reasonably quiet. My kids always approach this area with near reverence. Seeing the bald eagles up close is always mesmerizing too. If you’re lucky (or unlucky), you might be there during feeding time where you get to witness lots of dead mice, rabbits, etc. in the cages. There are lots of trails around that we love to explore when we’re there.

Ride the Cambus – My kids, particularly my son, have always, always been excited by big vehicles, including buses. The University of Iowa Cambus is free and not at all crowded during the summer when the students are gone. Our favorite route is the 52 Finkbine-Pentacrest route. It’s not too long of a route (around 30 minutes) and it’s super easy to pop on by the Pentacrest downtown. 

Picnic on the rooftop – We have two favorite places for this activity, the Cedar Rapids Library and the Voxman, but, honestly, the best thing is just to pick a place unexpected. The top ramp of nearly every parking garage is completely empty and it’s so easy to drive right up there, lay out a blanket or pop the trunk, and have some food. It’s never about what you pack so much as it is about eating in an unusual or unexpected place. Bonus is that the kids can look over the railings and see the world from a different vantage point. PB&J and a view.

Learn about our history – Right next to the Old Capitol is the second oldest museum in the United States west of the Mississippi River. The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History was established in 1858 and is free to visit! It’s a perfect indoor activity! Do not miss the Laysan Island Cyclorama or Mammal Hall, both on the third floor.

Climb the walls – Just not in your house. My kids love the Fun Station and it’s mostly because they want to climb the rock walls for hours. I reserve this for days when it’s too hot to play outside or it’s rainy. It’s a great way to get out of the house and safely burn energy. (Yes, I know there is a trampoline park in town, but it is not on this list because, after a full leg cast experience, I will never take my kids to a trampoline park again. The orthopedist at the hospital said, “Oh, trampolines keep us in business.”) Anyway, no trampolines at the Fun Station so have fun, kids!

Eat ice cream – This is an obvious one, I know, but let me just say Dane’s Dairy (Iowa City), Heyn’s Ice Cream (North Liberty), and Dan & Debbie’s Creamery (Ely) serve up some of my personal favorites.  

Search for murals – It started as a fun, informal mural hunt in 2019 when Perrin was little. There were several murals at that time, but honestly, new ones just keep popping up! We put the remaining murals on our summer bucket list last year and, wouldn’t you know, there are even more now! Here’s a guide that I created for you to find the murals: Iowa City Mural Guide

Splash in the waterfallsLake MacBride State Park is truly one of our best treasures locally and we go there for everything from kayaking to hiking. I have a stand up paddle board, but it’s really a one-person sport so for water sports, we rent double kayaks from the lake boat rental. (This is a family sport if both kids are along because they aren’t skilled enough yet to paddle themselves so my husband and I split up and each take one.) There are so many trails to hike, including some that are graveled and some that are true dirt hiking. But perhaps one of the best activities that won’t make your kids complain about their legs being too tired to move is the Lake MacBride waterfalls. The amount of “falls” will vary drastically based on recent rain. When it’s low, you can easily make it all the way to the other side; when it’s high, you’ll want to keep them closer to you. (A sneaker lost its life in the depths of the water and mud one time.) The wet rocks are slippery so water shoes are ideal, but mostly, pack some hand sanitizer (for afterwards!) and dry clothes, plastic cups of various sizes, droppers or pipettes, a magnifying glass, etc. and let them play. I’ve overheard them come up with everything from playing lion in the jungle to scientist curing a disease to world-famous chef!

Play tag at our local Stonehenge – If you’ve never been to Harvest Preserve, it’s a beautiful, quiet piece of land on the east side of Iowa City. It is gated and requires membership or you can purchase a day pass for $5. There’s a pond with just enough sand at the edge for kids to play, a play house usually filled with art supplies and paper, and beautiful nature trails sprinkled with sculptures. Our favorite is to hike the Brinblock Path to the pasture where the Sacred Stone Circle is, which always reminds us of Stonehenge. The stones are from the Island of Flores and were quarried with stone chisels more than 4,000 years ago and moved to Iowa City in 2004.  They are buried about half their length, which is incredible when you stand next to them and see how tall they are! 

Hunt for fossils – The Devonian Fossil Gorge is one of our favorite places to play! There are lots of fossils to find in the rocks (most are marked) and, as a bonus, it’s a gorge so it’s slightly cooler in there when the weather is hot. We go all year around and sometimes catch and release tadpoles, spot wildlife (a beaver, a huge snapping turtle eating a frog, deer), throw rocks into the water, build dams, jump over the “ravines,” or test out the ice in the winter. Depending on recent rain, it could be very muddy to very dry or any range in between.

Paddle on the lake – If you have a kayak, canoe, or paddle board, there are several great drop points at Lake MacBride. If you don’t, Lake MacBride has boat rentals that are easy peasy to use. (On a busy weekends, you can call ahead just to see how busy it is, however, they don’t make reservations or holds so it’s first come, first serve.) When we take the kids out, we get two double kayaks.

Play in a nature playscapeWickiup Hill is filled with fun! The educational nature center (indoors) has lots of habitats and exhibits and bird and wildlife viewing area. There is so much to do inside that you almost forget (but please don’t!) about the outdoor playscape. Swing in a hammock, decorate trees with fabric pieces, use a wheelbarrow to move around and build with life-size Lincoln-style logs, zip line, make music with the various drums and xylophones, pump water into a trough, make sand cakes in the outdoor sand box kitchens! If you still have time, the wetland boardwalk is also a good time. Take bug spray and a picnic lunch or plenty of snacks! (The nearest food is a Culver’s about 10 minutes away, which is a great pitstop afterwards for frozen custard!)

Pet some farm animalsOld MacDonald’s Farm is located in Bever Park in Cedar Rapids and is a delight. In the spring, the animals are all babies and so small and by the end of summer, they are much stronger and bigger. Farm animals vary every season, but we usually see pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, goats, lambs, and rabbits. There are also some fun toys there to use like peddle tractors, a corn box (like a sandbox, but with corn), and, of course, since it’s located in a park, there’s lots of playground areas nearby as well. 

Splash in a creek – There are so many tiny creeks around the area to splash in! Be prepared for lots of mess as there’s usually sand and mud and, obviously, creek water, but my kids always, always love going creek splashing and I enjoy a good book while they get dirty. I have been known to handle a three year old meltdown by throwing us all in the car and driving the couple minutes to our nearest creek. Works like a charm. (I heard once that water play is the best way to brighten moods and that is true!! Whether it’s a bath, a water hose, play water table, creek, pool, or puddles to jump in; water is a wonder!)

Go bowling – We’ve taken the kids to bowl at SpareMe several times and highly recommend. (Do be prepared that there’s arcade games there as well!) You pay by the hour so get in however many games you can get during that time. They have good food there as well to eat while you’re bowling! If you’re looking for something on a smaller scale, Field Day Brewing Co. has duckpin bowling. That means shorter lanes and smaller bowling balls. It plays just like regular bowling, but you don’t need special shoes or equipment. (If you’re meeting up with friends, this is a great option because the kids can play while the adults eat and chat. It’s more independent bowling, especially for younger kids.)

Climb a mountain – Okay, it’s not actually a mountain—we live in Iowa—but Mount Trashmore (real name, I kid you not!) provides a great physical activity as well as a good view of the city from the top. The first time we went, I really hyped it up as a mountain that was created out of trash (it is), but my kids thought we’d be climbing an actual trash heap. This is a landscaped, trailed hill, which was highly disappointing for them. To note: avoid hot, sunny days. There is absolutely no shade until you get to the top where there is a sitting area. It’s best to go on cloudy, cooler days, still taking plenty of water and snacks. (I always save the snacks for the top, as incentive.) 

Watch airplanes take off and land – The Iowa City Airport is a great place to go to watch (at a pretty close distance) small planes take off and land. It has an observation deck as well as a tiny playground area.

Scooter around town – My kids have always loved to scooter and scooters are the easiest thing to throw in the car. They love going around the Pentacrest area and making all those intersecting sidewalks their own little city streets, but we’ve also gone to the NewBo District and explored there. Paved trails like the Clear Creek Trail, Iowa River Trail, and Muddy Creek Trail are perfect as well. Anything that requires a decent amount of walking is made better with scooters! (I always check beforehand that any route we are planning on going on is paved, whether that is sidewalks in the city or walking trails.)

Build sandcastles – Yes, I do realize we are in a landlocked state, but we still have some fun beach spots to play: Kent Park, the Coralville Reservoir, Lake MacBride, Palisades-Kepler State Park, and Terry Trueblood to name a few. All kids really need is some sand and water and their imaginations! I always keep baby powder in my trunk for reasons just like this! When you’re done, dump powder in heaps all over their legs to easily brush the sand off before they get back in the car.

Take a handcar for a ride – Handcars are surprisingly harder to move than you’d imagine, but I think that may have also been in part because I was holding a child while I was pumping it with another child. This was a super fun outing that happened by chance. I had noticed a barn with a train track coming out of it one time when I drove by so I started calling around to the Johnson County offices to see if it’s ever open to the public. Turns out, the county employee in charge of it was so kind and generous and met us one day so we could see it all! We got to go inside the caboose and see the entire little “house” in there and take the handcar for a spin on the rails. It was a fascinating tour of a historical train!! (I do not have the contact information anymore, but if you want to do this, call the Johnson County Administrative Building and ask about the train off of 245th Street in Solon next to the original Celebration Barn, now Cangleska Wakan. They’ll be able to direct you to the correct person.)


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