The Hawkeye State of Iowa is right in the heart of the Midwest, between Wisconsin, Illinois and the Great Lakes to the east, Minnesota to the north, South Dakota and Nebraska to the west plus Kansas and Missouri to the south. It has a surprising variety of attractions, but natural and man-made, to make for a diverting and diverse vacation.
1. Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines
This incredibly grand, active government building sits in a dominating position, towering over the downtown from Grand Avenue. Unlike many state capitols, it isn't white - but rather a dark limestone that can look pink, yellow or orange depending on the sun. In a Renaissance style, it was built in the late 1800s and is on the register of historic places. Inside, it is an opulent display of power and beauty, with 24 carat gold leaf and marble, art and columns. The dome is particularly impressive. Tours are available within normal working hours from Monday to Saturday and this is a great chance to see not only some of the best in nineteenth-century architecture, but also the workings of government. The state capitol is home to the General Assembly, some sessions of the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives, Governor, Secretary of State and the Attorney General.
2. Amana Colonies
The Amanians are a people often compared to the Amish, but they are quite separate groups, both of whom have chosen to live a more isolated, simplistic lifestyle in rural surroundings. The Amanians came first from Germany in the early 1700s and managed to live a good, independent and sustainable life apart from and without communication with the mainstream US economy for over 200 years. Now, the Amana colonies - seven villages near Highway 151 and Interstate 80 - are an unusual and highly popular tourist attraction. People come here to visit the artisans and workers who have sustained the Amana region for hundreds of years. These master craftspeople have created everything from cheese to shoes, wheels, wine, baskets, art and furniture. The saying always went "If we couldn't make it ourselves, we believed that we just didn't need it!" This is an arty, simple and agrarian life to experience and enjoy with some great home-style restaurants and places to stay.
OK so the first challenge is to be able to pronounce it! This tiny city, of under 900 people, has a sensational location in the lakes area of the far north of Iowa. Right on the shores of West Okoboji Lake, it is fast becoming a major summer vacation destination with friendly resorts, golf clubs and sailing. The main draw is undoubtedly the chain of lakes, carved out by glaciation. From the stateline with Minnesota, the lake district embraces some 15,000 acres. West Okoboji is fed from underground springs and is incredibly clear, blue and over 130 feet deep. Enjoy a cruise in the sunset, listen to local music and savour the wonderful restaurants.
4. Effigy Mounds National Monument
There are thousands of prehistoric mounds in the Midwest, but only in one small corner are there earthworks shaped as animals. There are over 200 of these mounds and effigies - including amazing depictions of birds, mammals and reptiles - here in the National Monument. This 2,500 acre+ park is right on the border with Wisconsin, right on the Mississippi River. So this isn't only an important archaeological site, but also a naturally beautiful one. It's quiet, wooded and free from traffic, with no roads but fifteen miles of hiking trails. The river is dotted with green islands and there are wetlands and tall grass prairies to explore. This is a sacred land to many, where Native Americans created these mounds over 1500 years ago. Some are burial mounds but others were purely ceremonial, for purposes still unknown. The area is open from dawn till dusk year round and, since early 2011, it has been free of charge to enter.
5. Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines
The lake itself makes up 100 acres of this 167 acre city park, where people come to jog, meet, walk and cycle. A two mile path circles the water and is very well used for strolling, exercising or just taking in the wonderful lake and downtown views. You can also take to the water on rental canoes, kayaks, sailboats and pedaloes. Swimming is also permitted from the beach, as is fishing from designated areas. Fully lit, it is a safe green space in the heart of the city. This park was only officially created in 1998, providing the residents of Des Moines with a great planned space for fun. Find it on Fleur Drive, in the heart of downtown, open until midnight throughout the summer ... free of charge.
6. Iowa Great Lakes
Just south of the stateline Minnesota, there are five interconnected glacial lakes: East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Minnewashta, West Okoboji and Lower Gar. Just to the north is Spirit Lake, which is Iowa's largest at over 23 square kilometres. Above Spirit Lake there are even more ... Little Spirit Lake, Loon Lake, Pearl Lake and several others. There are many state wildlife management areas here reflecting the diversity of animal life, particularly birds and fish. This whole area is a freshwater delight, amidst the fields and plains of this Midwest state. Many people come here to relish the pleasures of lake living. Fishing is of course one. Under the docks are crappies, bluefish, bass and perch. You can also find walleyes and muskies here amongst the reefs, under bridges and off the sandy beaches. The beaches of course also attract the swimmers, and there are several excellent spots. Pikes Point and Terrace Park come very highly recommended.
7. Iowa City
With fourteen buildings on the register of National Historic Places, Iowa City packs a great deal into a very small place, with just over 67,000 people living here. Iowa City is on Interstate 80, 115 miles east of Des Moines and just over 220 miles west of Chicago. Iowa City is often paired together with Coralville and North Liberty and, together, they offer over 2,200 beds for visitors with a huge range of accommodation choices. You can stroll along the Iowa River, take a round of golf, go to the theatre or get healthy in one of the many parks. Its scenic and lively, low rise and bustling.
8. Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines
The only accredited zoo in the state, Blank Park lies in the south of Des Moines and very close to the airport. In 22 acres, the zoo is a really fun and affordable day out for all the family. It was first opened as a children's zoo in the mid Sixties, but now has hundreds of animals from all over the world. In the Great Cats exhibit alone are Siberian tigers, snow leopards and lions. The Discovery Centre, completely enclosed, allows you to walk amongst the plants and animals including Red pandas, caiman, macaws and flamingoes. Opening in 2012 is the fantastic Rocky Shores enclosure, with penguins, sealions and seals. From the African Boardwalk you can view the tallest land animal - the giraffe - the biggest bird, the ostrich and many more creatures from the savannah. Yes, all the biggies are here and the zoo also has significant conservation and education programs.
On the banks of the Mississippi and the border with Illinois is the great little city of Burlington. City might be stretching it a bit, as just 25,000 people live here. It has superb recreation on both the river and Lake Starker in Crapo Park. The world's most winding street is here at Snake Alley; there are more than ten buildings on the Register of Historic Places and church spires dot the skyline. Crapo Park is definitely worth a visit (despite the name!) ... 85 acres of woodland on the river with its own lake, Hawkeye log cabins, a botanic garden and arboretum. Trails take you up to the cliff over the river on boardwalks and wooden steps. And by the way, it's pronounced Craypo.
This nice nineteenth-century town is in the north eastern corner of Iowa at the junction of Highways 52 and 9. Unusually, it has a strong Nordic heritage that is celebrates in style. Norwegians came here in the 1850s and a fiercely proud of their joint culture. Decorah hosts the Nordic Fest each summer and has the only Norwegian-American museum in the country: the Vesterheim. It has unusual, beautiful homes, rushing brooks and wooden bridges, lots of wildlife and parks. It offers great cycling, particularly for mountain bikers. You can also canoe the calm stretches of the upper Iowa River and fish for no less than 148 different species in rivers, creeks and Lake Meyer which is just a quarter of an hour away. No wonder it has been described at one of the best small town getaways in the Midwest.
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