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In and around Iowa’s dynamic capital city of Des Moines, there are a lot of interesting things to check out. From one of the most beautiful state capitol buildings in America to slices of Americana around it, central Iowa is definitely worth taking a day to explore if you’re staying a while in the Des Moines area. We’re talking bridges of Madison County, John Wayne’s birthplace, wineries, a museum dedicated to balloons, and more. This is good for an afternoon, or even a whole day if you want to be really leisurely. This isn’t “specific route” tour as much as it is a general guide for some key destinations…explore as you wish and enjoy!
Let’s start with Des Moines itself, Iowa’s capital and largest city. It’s a burgeoning center of government, financial services, and insurance – in fact, it’s been named the third largest “insurance capital” of the world. The city was named after the Des Moines River; what is now the city was established initially by the Dragoons, a traveling military group built for exploration.
The Dragoons scouted out the area in 1835, and by 1843 a fort was constructed. The Dragoons, by the way, have a trail named after them running from Fort Dodge to near Pella through the heart of Des Moines; you can check out a tour of their trail here. The city’s original name was Fort Des Moines, supposedly from the French “from the monks”, although there are some colorful stories to the contrary. It was shortened to “Des Moines” when the state capital was moved to the city in 1857.
Today, Des Moines has over 200,000 people; suburbs like Ankeny (home to the Best Western Metro North, West Des Moines, Clive (home to the Best Western Des Moines West Inn & Suites), Urbandale, Altoona (home to the Best Western PLUS Altoona Inn), and more bring the metro population to 580,000. Downtown Des Moines is filled with beautiful buildings, abundant activities, and plenty of attractions.
Let’s start with the Iowa State Capitol, perched on a hill just east of downtown offering panoramic views of the city. Completed in 1886, it’s the only five-domed capitol building in the United States; the central dome rises 275 feet and is covered with 23 carat gold. Elaborate columns and cornices extend around the exterior, and wide varieties of Iowa wood along with 29 types of marble are used extensively in the interior.
There’s also a new glass floor section. Monuments and memorials adorn the grounds around the building. Tours are available Monday through Saturday, either self-guided or organized; call (515) 281-5591 for scheduling or details.
Trivia: the Iowa State Capitol’s golden dome is gilded in 23-carat gold; the thickness of this gold is only 1/250,000th of an inch!
The view of downtown from the Capitol is spectacular. The skyline is dominated by the 801 Grand, which rises 45 stories/630 feet and is the tallest building in Iowa; other buildings downtown house major companies, condos and apartments, and a vibrant shopping district. Downtown is west of the Des Moines River; east of the river you can explore East Village, an eclectic district filled with historic buildings, boutiques and art galleries, “hip” eateries, and more.
Along with the Capitol, there are plenty of things to see and do. Stroll the Principal Riverwalk along the Des Moines River, which connects downtown and many of the sights and attractions in the city. They include the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden with its beautiful domed conservatory and gardens; the Wells Fargo Arena hosting plenty of sporting events, concerts and more; Pappajohn Sculpture Park, four acres of sculptures and more featuring artwork by 22 of the world’s most celebrated artists; the Science Center of Iowa, offering a ton of interactive, science-related experiences; for history, the State Historical Museum shares plenty of stories and memorabilia on Iowa and its people; or for sport, take in an Iowa Cubs game at Principal Park, with baseball action of the AAA-affiliate for the Chicago Cubs, with the State Capitol visible past center field.
Not as easily within walking distance but a short drive away, you can check out the Des Moines Art Center, the historic and castle-esque Salisbury House & Gardens, a 42-room historic house museum on 10 acres of woodlands inspired by King's House in Salisbury, England. Or, cut west on I-235 and check out the campus of Drake University or head to Clive and check out Living History Farms, an interactive, 500-acre outdoor museum, featuring working farm sites, 19th century town replicas, and interactive exhibits. The Best Western PLUS Des Moines West Inn & Suites are right there off I-35/80 just north of I-235 and just south of US-6 to offer high-quality accommodations.
Or, on the east side of town, Adventureland Amusement Park offers plenty of rides and fun in Altoona, within sight of the Best Western PLUS Altoona Inn. Both offers easy access to and from Des Moines and the Dragoon Trail, being located where I-80 and U.S. 65 meet.
From Des Moines, let’s actually head to the west side, around Clive, and go west from the city on U.S. 6 (I-80 is a parallel, faster alternative if you prefer) to U.S. 169. Head south through De Soto and into Madison County; it’s time to look at some bridges!
Yes, the historic Bridges of Madison County, made famous by the 1992 novel and 1995 movie (although the Madison County Covered Bridge Festival has been held annually since 1970). Dating back to the late 19th century when covered bridges were more common, Madison County had many covered bridges, as did Iowa… as did many parts of the country.
However, as weather, traffic and capacity needs, and “progress” took their toll, most of the old covered bridges disappeared. Madison County once had 19 of them; six remain, but that’s still the most of any county in the United States. They’re scattered around the county; you could visit one or two in less than an hour, or spend a chunk of an afternoon checking them all out… whatever works for time. Many are within a few miles of the county seat of Winterset, which we’ll also visit.
Coming down U.S. 169, the first bridge you can access is the Hogback Bridge by following some gravel roads off the highway to Douglas Township Road for a few miles (look for the historic Stone School as you go!) The Hogback Bridge was built in 1884, spanning nearly 100 feet across the North River with what’s called a “Town lattice truss system.” It was built with steel pylons, and was renovated in 1992, though it continues to remain right in its original location (not all of the bridges are). It carried regular traffic until 1993, when a newer bridge was built a few hundred feet away that provides an excellent “from the water” view of the Hogback Bridge.
It’s worth noting that while most covered bridges in Madison County were named after families who lived closest to them, the Hogback was named after a nearby limestone ridge. Near the Hogback Bridge, you’ll find one of Madison County’s three wineries, the Covered Bridges Winery (1895 Kiowa Court, 515-729-9463), which uses both native and French grapes to create a variety of wines near Winterset.
Three of the covered bridges in Madison County are located outside of Winterset and off our official tour route. We’ve listed them here, so pick and choose which ones you’d like to see!
Cedar Bridge, about three miles NE of Winterset. The Cedar Bridge is the one that was on the cover of the Bridges of Madison County novel and the location of a key moment in the novel. Sadly, the original Cedar Bridge – built in 1883 and moved to this location in 1921 – was destroyed by arson in 2002. The replacement bridge opened in 2004. It was built with the original 1883 plans to the original specifications, using materials and techniques from the era.
Trivia: In the book Bridges of Madison County, Cedar Bridge is where Francesca Johnson goes to meet Robert Kincaid to help him take photographs. The following year Oprah Winfrey broadcast a show from the bridge with the novel's author Robert Weller, noting the book as her favorite of the previous year. The wooden stairway next to the bridge built for the show survived the 2002 fire and are referred to by some as the “Oprah steps.”
Roseman Bridge, about seven miles SW of Winterset. It was built in 1883 and is 107 feet long, spanning the Middle River. It still sits in its original location; ask about the legend of it being “haunted.”
Holliwell Bridge, about three miles east of Winterset over the Middle River. It was built in 1880 and renovated in 1995. With a 122-foot span, it’s the longest remaining covered bridge in Madison County and it still in its original setting.
Meanwhile, check out Winterset. This charming town of 5,200 is the county seat, and the lovely Madison County Courthouse anchors a town square surrounded by shops and restaurants that do brisk business with both local residents and visitors. The courthouse was built in 1868 (with sections rebuilt in 1876 after a fire) and the dome towers 136 feet high. Down the street on the southeastern part of the square is a bar called Pheasant Run, which they note was used for interior shots of the Blue Note Lounge in the Bridges of Madison County movie.
Winterset’s most famous son is John Wayne. The John Wayne Birthplace is just southeast of downtown. The modest four-room house where he was born in 1907 features John Wayne memorabilia and is open daily for tours. The block on which he was born includes a display of Wayne, American flags, and more.
Nearby in City Park is the Cutler-Donahue Bridge is right in Winterset in City Park, just southeast of downtown. It was originally a crossing of the North River in nearby Bevington, Iowa. It was moved to Winterset in 1970, when the annual festival started. The Cutler-Donahue Bridge is 79 feet long and serves as the main entrance to City Park. Also in City Park just down a narrow lane is the Clark Tower, a limestone structure resembling a castle turret constructed in 1926. It was named after Madison County’s first European settler, Caleb Clark. The tower rises above the landscape and provides a nice view of the valleys and landscape below.
From Winterset, head south on County P-71 and then east on County G-50. You can cut north to the Holliwell Bridge by following the signs, but otherwise continue east on G-50 to St. Charles, where you’ll find the Imes Bridge. This bridge, the oldest existing of the covered bridges in Madison County, was constructed in 1870. It originally crossed the Middle River further west but was moved to this location in town in 1977, less than a mile from I-35 via Exit 52.
Today the bridge spans a ravine in a city park; it’s 81 feet long and was renovated in 1997 (making it oldest bridge, but the newest renovation of an original). St. Charles offers two wineries: the Madison County Winery (which is also home to the Twisted Vine Brewery, 3021 St. Charles Road, St. Charles, 641-396-2220) and the Two Saints Winery (15170 20th Avenue, St. Charles, 641-396-2102), both of which offer tasting rooms and tours. Wine varieties include raisin and rhubarb.
From St. Charles, head north on I-35 or County Road R-35 to Iowa Highway 92 and head east to Indianola, home of Simpson College and the National Balloon Museum, which is full of hot air, but for a good reason. You’ll find out plenty about lighter-than-air flying, of which hot air balloons are the biggest – but not only – vehicle.
From the National Balloon Museum and Indianola, head north on U.S. 65/69. When you get to the junction of Iowa Highway 5 on the south side of Des Moines, you have the option of heading west on Highway 5 toward I-35, Clive and the Best Western Des Moines West Inn & Suites, heading east and north via U.S. 65 Altoona, Adventureland Amusement Park, and the Best Western PLUS Altoona Inn, or north into Des Moines proper via U.S. 69 for all the downtown sights again.
On the north side in Ankeny, the Best Western Metro North is ready for you. There are plenty of options in and around Des Moines for you!