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Over 20 Day Trip Adventures

Kids Summer Adventure List in Iowa





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I previously posted a list of local adventures that we like to do in the summertime, and promised another list, this one including some of our favorite state parks and day trip adventures that require some travel, but not overnight stays.

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. My kids are now 6 and 9 and we live in the Iowa City area and all of these locations are within 2 hours of us.

Maquoketa Caves State Park (Maquoketa)

This has got to be one of my favorite places to visit in Iowa! There are sixteen marked caves in less than a half mile radius with tons of trails (and stairs!) cross-crossing the woods and probably just as many smaller caves that aren’t marked, just crevices there for exploring.

My favorite is Dancehall Cave, but I also love Ice Cave (which, as it suggests, is a very cool respite on a humid day). Henry’s two favorites are caves I refuse to enter—Up-N-Down Cave and Barbell Cave—because they are actual holes in rocks that you have to crawl or scoot through on your stomach before you get to the cavern inside where you could stand up. (When we were there, he got help from another group of experienced cavers.)

If you’re in the Iowa City area, it’s an easy 90-minute drive and it is absolutely worth it!! Take flashlights or headlamps! 🔦

A quick note: most parks have really bad cell service because of the trees and rocks so I always like to print out a map beforehand to take along (my kids love using park maps to be “the guide”) and screenshot one for my phone as well.

Mines of Spain (Dubuque)

This is one of my favorite places to hike because it is just so beautiful! I think, growing up in the Midwest, I have always had this idea that everything here is flat and boring, but it’s not. The Mines of Spain are located near Dubuque on almost 1,500 acres of land by the Mississippi River and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. There is a 15-acre wetland, creeks, forest, prairies, cropland, meadows, and, of course, the Mississippi River. Our favorite trail is the Horseshoe Bluff Trail which has the most gorgeous limestone cliffs that rise above the canyon floor to a height of more than 200 feet! 

Fenelon Place Elevator (Dubuque)

While in Dubuque, we never miss the opportunity to ride the Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s shortest and steepest railroad! My kids absolutely love this, but please know that if you’re scared of heights, this can be a bit dizzying because the incline is so steep. 🛤️ The views from the top are are so gorgeous and vast! We always park at the bottom (use Bluff Street & W 4th Street for GPS to find street parking). There is a delightful ice cream shop on W 4th Street called Sweet Memories that we eat at after riding the funicular railway.

The history behind this elevator is fascinating! It was built by banker J.K. Graves in 1800s Dubuque. He loved just two blocks from his office, but it took longer than an hour to commute. The city was known as an “hour and half city.” Business shut down at noon, so people could go home for lunch. For Graves, that meant driving his horse-drawn buggy around and up the bluff 30 minutes one way. Then, he’d have to grab a quick lunch and head back down, taking another 30 minutes. If only there was a way the former mayor and state senator could cut that time down. 

During his travels across Europe, Graves had seen incline railways. He sought city permission to build himself a railway that would have a cable car to transport him up and down the hill. The original cable car was built for Graves’ personal use. It was made of wood and was operated by a coal-fed engine. The railway used two hemp ropes as cables. He used it for his personal transportation from 1882-84. Then, it burned one night after a fire in the stove spread. He rebuilt it. He then realized he could make some money because he remembered how his neighbors would gather around and watch him ride up and down the steep bluff. He decided to offer public rides for a nickel.

In 1893, the cable car burned again. Suffering during a recession, Graves couldn’t afford to rebuild the car. About 10 neighbors formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Company and Graves gave the company the franchise for the right of way for the track. Company representatives traveled to Chicago’s Columbian Expo for ideas on how to improve the system. They ended up using a streetcar motor to run the elevator. They added steel cable to replace the hemp ropes. A turnstile was even added.

Eventually, the company was owned by one person – C.B. Trewin, who bought up people’s stock as they passed away. He owned the elevator company outright by 1912.

The Fenelon/4th Street elevator was overhauled in 1977, using modern equipment and motor. With its historical significance, the Fenelon Place Elevator Company incline is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

From their website: “Open 8 AM to 10 PM daily April 1 through November 30. Closed Thanksgiving. We do not accept debit or credit cards. Rates (pay at the top): $4 round trip (adults), $2 round trip (5-12), under 5 free.”

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (Prairie City)

When I found out we have bison in Iowa, you better believe I was immediately planning a trip. 🦬 So on a day with no school, we adventured “to North America!” (Perrin) to see bison. The kids’ favorite part, by far, was not actually the animals, but the puppet theatre inside the visitor center that they could’ve spent hours performing in. 

There are 5 different walking trails (some as short as just half a mile and others as long as 6 miles) and a 4.5-mile bike trail. You can use the telescopes inside the visitor center and along the trails to view the bison and elk or, best view in my opinion, drive through the enclosure. Because there is so much land and the animals are free to roam, the animals could really be anywhere, but we were able to get closest by driving. The first time we went, we only saw one up close (sort of), but the second time we went, we lucked out and they were right by the road, surrounding our car! (To note: when driving the enclosure, you must stay on the road though you can pull to the side and stop so long as you’re not pausing traffic. We were there on a days when there was no one else behind us so we parked and watched for a while.) 

Wildcat Den State Park (Muscatine)

This is an amazing, beautiful hiking spot closer to Iowa City (less than an hour drive) than a lot of the rest of these locations. We love the “Devil’s Punch Bowl” and “Steamboat Rock”, but we always, always save time to play by the water by the Grist Mill. We typically try to avoid the weekends for most adventuring due to heavier traffic, however, this place makes a case for the weekends because the one room schoolhouse and the mill are open on the weekends only. My kids spent so long playing school in the school and then they got to tour the historic mill and grind their own corn. (The mill is “one of the finest examples of mid-19th century mills left in the country” and is on the National Register of Historic Places.) 

After many trips there, I’ve found our best parking and trail route is to park by the mill, take the Mill Trail to Lower Picnic Area Trail (for Steamboat Rock), then back to either Canyon Ridge Trail or straight to Punch Bowl Trail. Because Punch Bowl is the coolest area, I save that one for the end/turn-around because they love to climb around there and spend a lot of time playing. We take Mill Trail back to the car and eat our picnic lunch in one of the shelters by the mill, then play there before heading home. (When the kids were smaller, we skipped the Mill Trail completely and I parked over near the campground or Lower Picnic Area and then we’d drive to the mill afterwards.)

Quad City Botanical Center (Rock Island)

This botanical center is a delightful treasure that was a recent discovery on our list! I had never considered that a botanical center would be super kid-friendly until another mom mentioned it in passing. (I had only ever been inside the sun garden for a winter wedding once; never outside.) Next time, I’ll take swimsuits because there’s a whole creek and splash pad (which the kids played in with their clothes, NBD), sand boxes, koi fish, a playhouse, a secret fairy garden, and, 🥁, the true star of the show: the train garden.

We didn’t plan it, but found out that, by luck, it was operating the day we were there because of the riverboat tour schedule. (It typically only runs on Sunday afternoons.) Henry chatted it up with the two operators and ended up being invited on a private backstage tour of the train workshop where the delightful 80-year-old head conductor, Dale, tinkers with trains all year around “to keep my brain sharp.” 🚂 Henry gazed around in awe and said, “This is the dream life.”

Blank Park Zoo (Des Moines) or Niabi Zoo (Coal Valley, IL)

Niabi Zoo is the closest zoo to us and it is fantastic for smaller kids. By the time Henry was about 6 or 7 and we’d been there several summers in a row, we had outgrown the place though. (I’ll never forget the last time we were there and we had walked the entire zoo well before lunch and then looked at each other like, “So…what now?”) And while the Blank Park Zoo isn’t enormous, it is quite a bit larger and more diverse in comparison and still within easy driving distance (just in the opposite direction). One of our favorite memories is a time the kids were playing in the safari car and told me they had a tiger in the back. 🐅 I thought they were just pretending until I realized that the back of the truck was an indoor tiger space and a tiger had indeed come in and laid down in their “backseat.”

Ride the Rails (Boone)

It is so fun to see the countryside from the rails! 🛤️ You can see beautiful views of the Des Moines River Valley and the ride’s showstopper is the 750’ long, 156’ high Bass Point Creek High Trestle, which might make your stomach drop a bit when you first start across it! In total, it’s a 12.5 mile round trip that will take you from open farmland to the Des Moines River. If you’re worried about the peddling, don’t be! We honestly wished it would’ve been harder because most of the time, we had no resistance in our peddles. There’s a propulsion system electric motor on the cars activated by peddling so once you start, you shoot off really fast. 

Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (Dubuque)

Touching the stingrays is the big highlight here. But, truly, there is just so much to do, including going on board the William M. Black dredge boat and touring all the floors, from the engine and boiler rooms to the bunks, kitchen, captains quarters, and even the pilot house! It is easy to spend a whole day here, alternating between animals and play-science exhibits.

Creative Adventure Lab (Dubuque) 

We are so lucky to have The Iowa Children’s Museum right here in town (walking distance from our house!), but this is a fun, albeit smaller, stop while in Dubuque. The rock climbing wall is a favorite 🧗🏻 and the change of scenery overall was a hit. It was very empty the day we were there so the kids enjoyed having the place mostly to themselves and cooling off from the heat outside as well as decompressing from being around other people at our previous stop.

Backbone State Park (Dundee)

One of the best parts of Backbone is the walkable river. With steady, shallow waters, the kids played there for so long, roaming up and down and making up imaginary play. (Take a change of clothes and sand toys!) There are also hiking trails, of course, which we enjoyed and some great picnic spots. But the cool water on a hot day was the real winner here. 💦

Des Moines Art Center (Des Moines)

Des Moines has a stunning, sprawling art museum! 🖼️ The kids played art bingo (from the welcome desk), tried to hold still for 10 seconds (a fraction of the time the children in one of paintings had to sit), I was overjoyed to find a Rodin piece, and the kids could not be even a little mature about naked statues. (We are in the age/stage where butts sends them into fits of laughter; does this end? Send help.) We went through the inside first and then went outside to explore that area, which includes the beautiful rose garden.

Pappajohn Sculpture Park (Des Moines)

This park has over 4 acres of green space right in the middle of downtown Des Moines that is bursting with color thanks to the 30+ art pieces scattered throughout. 🌈 The sculpture park is part of the Des Moines Art Center, which is just 2.5 miles down the road. There’s plenty of metered, street parking, but we did have to buy some pastries at a coffee shop so we could use a bathroom. We usually spread a blanket and eat a picnic lunch while we’re there.

Iowa State Capitol & State Law Library (Des Moines)

Iowa City is home to the original state capitol building, but in 1857, the capital of Iowa was moved to Des Moines in order to be more central in the state. 🏛️ (Fun fact: All the contents of the capitol had to be moved to the new capitol. Moving the contents was a big task and there were no railroads in the state. Roads were only dirt ruts across the prairie and bridges across streams and rivers had not yet been built. Along with the state papers, furniture and books, four large safes had to be hauled to Des Moines. When the teamsters ran into a blizzard they had to leave the treasurer’s safe on the prairie for several days until the storm passed then the safe was hauled on a bobsled over the frozen ground to Des Moines. Can you imagine?) Much like the Old Cap in Iowa City, we have taken scooters to meander the grounds outside the state capitol, but just know there are a lot of steps so you’ll need to carry the scooters at points. (It’s also very walkable so scooters were for fun, not necessity.)

Inside on the 2nd floor is the stunning State Law Library, which is open to the public. 📚 (There aren’t usually a lot of library patrons, so this space is pretty much exclusively used for photos taken by visiting tourists. As such, most of the library collection is off limits to the general public, but if you really need something found in the library index cards (yes, this library still uses index cards), a friendly librarian will be more than happy to retrieve the particular items for you.) Perrin loved this spot because it reminded her of what she imagines the Hogwarts library to look like.

One of the more fun things we did was go into the secretary of state’s large antechamber to see the original Iowa constitution and then were surprisingly given a private tour by one of the employees there, including seeing the secretary of state’s office (and the exact replica Resolute desk!), the vault (which stores papers and records dating back to the beginning of Iowa!), and a secret stairwell. 🤫 I don’t know if we lucked out on a slow Friday afternoon or if everyone gets that tour, but it was really cool!

Science Center of Iowa (Des Moines)

From the Lego room to the paper rocket launcher 🚀, there are so many fun things to do at the science center! I always try to time this so we are there right when they open and we have a long morning there, getting a late lunch when we leave. (If you plan ahead, our library has free passes to here, the zoo, and other places.)

Lover’s Leap Swinging Bridge (Columbus Junction)

There is not much else to do in the area, haha, but the swinging bridge is a cool landmark to see if you’re nearby! It was originally built in 1886 to help with a more direct route downtown for those living on the far side of the ravine. (It was built using barrel staves and wire, eek!) By 1904, a much sturdier suspension bridge was designed and built, but then in 1920, two brothers were crossing it when it fell. (They were okay.) After a community-wide fundraising effort, the bridge was rebuilt in 1922 (for a total of $2,500) and is the same one you can still walk today, over 100 years later! There’s a short trail, Possum Trail, that loops the bridge and down below as well.

Family Museum (Bettendorf)

It’s an easy 1-hour drive from Iowa City and, if you have an ICM membership, you get discounted entrance at the Family Museum. It’s has similar vibes to the Iowa Children’s Museum, but different areas, of course, which makes for a very fun outing, especially if you go to the ICM frequently and need a change of play! Some big hits: the combine (where Henry had to learn about taking turns) and farm area 🌽, the fire station 🚒, the play house with the backyard koi pond (a huge touch screen in the floor) 🐠, the enormous water table and barge, and the entire village of Fox Hollow, which includes a clock tower, bakery, post office, vet clinic, grocery market, pizza restaurant, and ice cream cart. A new area that we haven’t used yet, but my kids would basically park themselves there for the day, I know it, is the Dig Zone.

Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens (Dubuque)

My absolute favorite place here is the Formal English Garden–I could sit for hours reading a book–but other lovely spots are the Japanese Garden (and koi pond; take coins if you want to purchase fish food), the Rose Garden (which smells as good as you might imagine), and the Perennial Gardens. 🪻 There’s a playground on site as well as some children’s gardens (Mr. McGregor’s Garden and The Three Billy Goats Gruff Garden), but typically my kids have fun just using their imagination.

Wapsipinicon State Park (Anamosa)

The Wapsipinicon might be my favorite state park name to say out loud in conversation. Try it, it’s a treat. The biggest draw to this park is the infamous Horse Thief Cave. 🐴 It was appropriately named for the antics of bad guys when they actually did ride off on horseback into the sunset with their plunder. The huge opening, some 15 feet high and 30 feet wide, goes back about 100 feet into the bluff before petering out into nothing more than a slender crevice that makes it impossible to scootch in further. It is wild to stand in there and imagine who was there before us.

According to the park manager, Dennis Murphy, “At one time you could go back a long way, but not since the ceilings and walls gave way. They may have fallen on their own, but we think the cave probably was dynamited to keep people from getting too far in there.” He also reports, as do other accounts, that the cave was apparently occupied as a shelter by prehistoric Native American cultures. “After some blasting was done at the entrance many decades past, nine human skeletons, most of them children, were found,” he says. Pottery, bison teeth, a mastodon tusk, spearheads, arrowheads and numerous other antiquated items were found.

Another cave at the park is Ice Cave and it goes back about 70 feet into the limestone bluffs and, unlike Horse Thief Cave, has a very narrow opening. I did not let the kids go in too far because I’m eternally scared of being stuck in small spaces, especially in the earth.

Muscatine Art Center (Muscatine)

I took the kids to the Muscatine Art Center with a friend while Sean Kenney’s Nature Connects Lego exhibit was there, but it is a really cool place even without Legos. I was fascinated with the history of the 1908 Musser Mansion, which was donated by Laura Musser’s heirs in 1965 to the City of Muscatine. Nothing intrigues me more than walking through old spaces and imagining what was going on right there 50, 75, 100 years ago. Beyond the actual cool-factor of an old mansion being turned into an art museum, the exhibits are beautiful 🖼️ and there is a great kid’s room where they can play, read, dress up, and stage a puppet performance.

Pella (Pella)

Pella is known for its spring tulip festival 🌷, which is in May. I do not love crowds of people so we avoid the actual festival itself and prefer to go in the week or days before the festival. While the town is definitely dressed to impress during that time, it should be known that they have the most amazing wooden structure playground in their West Market Park and it’s a delightful, fun place to visit year-round. Do not skip the Vander Ploeg Bakery (buy literally anything or everything!) or Smokey Row Coffee!


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