Help me make Nebraska and Iowa interesting
August 23, 2010 8:39 AM   Subscribe

Stuffing a 7, 5 and 3-year-old into the backseat of a Corolla and driving from Colorado Springs through Nebraska and Iowa to Madison, Wis. Happy to take the trip over two days and stop frequently to maintain sanity; any recommended pit stops?

We're interested in great parks (city, county, state), roadside attractions, museums, restaurants, scoop shops ... anything along the road from North Platte to Grand Island to Lincoln to Omaha to Des Moines to Waterloo to Madison, via I-80, I-35 and US-20/US-151. (Although if anyone has a non-interstate stretch they'd like to recommend, that's great, too.)

We also have reciprocal membership at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, the Omaha Children's Museum, the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines and the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium in Waterloo, if anyone would like to recommend any of those institutions.
posted by blueshammer to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo would be a nice place to stretch your legs.
posted by soelo at 8:58 AM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The University of Nebraska State Museum is good for kids. They have a great collection of fossil mammoths and there's a children's discovery center. For ice cream in Lincoln there is a Zesto at 11th and South, a gourmet ice cream shop in the Haymarket district (7th and P) and the famous East Campus Dairy Store (38th and Holdredge).
posted by plastic_animals at 9:22 AM on August 23, 2010

In Iowa, you can also make a quick stop to the baseball field from Field of Dreams in Dyersville, IA. The field is also close to the National Farm Toy Museum.
posted by statsgirl at 10:14 AM on August 23, 2010

This route will take you through my hometown of Dubuque, Ia. There's several interesting things you and your kids can do while you're there. First on your list should be the National Mississippi River Museum. Then you can take a ride on the Fourth Street Elevator. The views are stunning. If you feel like having a picnic, check out Eagle Point Park. If you're lucky, you'll get to watch a barge lock through the lock and dam from atop the bluffs.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:56 AM on August 23, 2010

You'll also be going through Des Moines, which is where I currently reside. The Science Center of Iowa will definitely be fun for the kids, and it's conveniently located near some of the better restaurants in town. The Hessen Haus, a German restaurant and beer hall, is right in front of the Science Center. Dos Rios, a Rick Bayless-inspired Mexican place, is a block North on 4th. There's also a British Pub called The Royal Mile. Their Cornish Pasty is highly recommended. Court Ave. Brewing Company is also worth checking out.

These places all turn into bars later at night, but all are kid-friendly during usual dinner hours.
posted by TrialByMedia at 12:21 PM on August 23, 2010

I'll be the first to say it: Nebraska is the worst state in the union to drive through. Because of the boredom. At least this is my opinion. Though the sun flowers are probably up this time of year. The corn should be high in Iowa still, and the drive is pretty stunning actually.

Omaha is a great city and has all sorts of cultural things springing up. It's about halfway for you guys, so you might consider staying there for a night and seeing if there's maybe some cool concert or art thing to go to. I know you'll have kiddos in tow, so it might be tough to get out on the town, depending on when you roll in.

Eagle Point Park is in Clinton (shout-out! I grew up there!). It's the widest part of the Mississippi and it really is quite stunning.

Clinton also has a pretty decent little Children's Museum that has ACM reciprocity, if you've got one of those museum membership things. Clinton also has, erm, uh, well...there's a giant chicken statue outside of a little pizza shop that's pretty silly...

Sorta out of the way, but Cronk's is Iowa's oldest restaurant. The food is, well, Western Iowa - but the experience is interesting, if you have a sociological bent.

Probably not so much with the kids, but Iowa has a burgeoning winery scene.

Here's some of my favorite Iowa state parks: Ledges, Palisades, Prairie Rose, Wapsipinicon, and Geode. My absolute favorite are the Maquoketa Caves!

Not too far off I-80 is the only working Dutch windmill in America - and as a kid I use to love it. It's in Elk Horn.

Dyersville is really close to Waterloo, so definitely check out Field of Dreams (isn't it for sale?).

You could make a small detour off I-80 and see the covered bridges of Madison County.

If you have any more Iowa-centric questions, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:24 PM on August 23, 2010

it has come to my attention that there is also an Eagle Point Park in Dubuque. Iowa likes their Eagle Points.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:32 PM on August 23, 2010

It would be a slight detour, but Pella, Iowa is a nice place to stop and get a Dutch Letter. Around the turn of the century, I made the drive between Colorado Springs and Baltimore several times, and Pella was one of the more pleasant places I ever stopped.
posted by dilettanti at 1:16 PM on August 23, 2010

If you're passing through Des Moines on a Saturday, do the downtown farmers' market for sure (7-Noon) and then wander over to the East Village for a lot of boutique, non-chain stores. Bagni Lucca has great pizza on E. 5th and Locust. Try Gong Fu Tea and Eden on East 6th and then take the kids to the Iowa Historical Museum right across the street. Also Raygun on East 4th for some truly locally grown, clever t-shirts, and then just 3 more blocks east up the nicely redone gardened hill is the state capital building, which is open for wandering weekdays. The curvy brass staircases in the state law library are cool. Oh, and I almost forgot, check out the Pappajohn Outdoor Sculpture garden just 2-3 blocks west of the downtown in the "Western Gateway Park."

As some other folks have mentioned, the drive on US-151 from U.S. 20 to Dubuque is quite nice as well. Highly recommend Galena, Illinois, just across the Mississippi, too. You might also try stopping in Iowa City for a good campus-town lunch down in the Old Capitol area (instead of going north on I-35 from Des Moines to Route 20, stay on I-80 east to Iowa City (Dubuque Street exit) and then go north from Iowa City on I-380 to catch 151 up to Dubuque. I used to drive that route all the time and it was really one of most enjoyable drives in the state for me. While 151 is now a nice, smooth 4-lane at 65 mph all the way to Dubuque, it's got that rolling, cruising country-road feel to it and passes through a lot of nice NE Iowa towns. Route 20 is pretty much your average E-W straight-shot interstate-wannabe highway.

If you do go along I-80 west from Des Moines, consider driving U.S. 6 from Des Moines to Iowa City. It parallels I-80 and runs through some nice towns, including the Amana Colonies (good fudge, beer and woolens) and Grinnell, home to Grinnell College and a great restaurant in the old train depot downtown. West Liberty by Iowa City has the Hoover library, which isn't the greatest (fitting, huh?), but it's worth a stop if the kids are restless. (If you do go to Iowa City, MeFiMail me and I'll give you some restaurant recs).

Western Iowa, not much to see between Omaha/Council Bluffs and Des Moines. Sorry, just telling it like it is. Feel free to MeFiMail me if you have any other Iowa-related questions. We're all just happy and helpful as can be out here on the prairie.
posted by webhund at 3:07 PM on August 23, 2010

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has the world's largest grouping of Grant Wood works, and not far away is his original studio. Then US-151 is a good, upgraded route to Dubuque; a short detour will take you to Stone City, IA^, where Wood painted the eponymous landscape (if you come in from the south, and stop at the church, you'll be where he was).

If you go a little farther north, and skip Dubuque, consider US-18 through Prairie du Chien and include a stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument. It's one of the world's largest collections of prehistoric Native American mound-building artifacts (most of them are in the Midwest).

And if you're on US-18, then you should definitely swing up to Spring Green to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. If your interests lean a little more toward pop culture and kitsch in the Roadside America vein, or Neil Gaiman's American Gods, then you could go instead to the House on the Rock.
posted by dhartung at 6:30 PM on August 23, 2010

House on the Rock! How could I have forgotten. Even if you haven't read American Gods, wooeee, House on the Rock is a trip.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:53 PM on August 23, 2010

Nebraska is the worst state in the union to drive through

Nuh uh. That would be Illinois. (—50x veteran of both)

Seconding the Doorly Zoo in Omaha. And suggesting Living History Farms in Des Moines, if you are even slightly into that kind of thing.
posted by bricoleur at 6:55 PM on August 23, 2010

The world's largest popcorn ball is in Sac City, Iowa. It's in a small shed across from a gas station but there's not much else going on in town so you almost can't miss it.
posted by thewestinggame at 8:05 PM on August 23, 2010

Western Iowa is a bit bleak but if you are looking for somewhere to stop, Sioux City has a pretty cool Lewis and Clark museum and also a riverboat the public can tour.

Westfield, Iowa is a tiny, tiny town and just east of it (I think on rte 12) is a Nature Conservancy office. You can ask in there about where the bison herd is that day and can sometimes get pretty close to them, especially if they're in the corral.
posted by thewestinggame at 8:12 PM on August 23, 2010

Well, there's the Great River Road Archway near Kearney, Nebraska. I've never stopped, but it's supposed to be pretty great for kids that age with a maze and some other activities.
posted by BlooPen at 9:22 PM on August 23, 2010

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