Easy Iowa Road Trips

My husband and I are huge fans of day trips. They are convenient, relatively inexpensive, fun, and can be spontaneous. We often start with a destination in mind, but may journey off an exit if we see something intriguing. We’re fortunate living in Eastern Iowa that there are several close locations with a lot of kid friendly activities and things to see within a couple hours’ drive. While we’re taking a kid-free airplane vacation this spring break, we took several of these  road trips last summer as a family of three, and they would make great day trips this spring or summer.


Davenport/Quad Cities

Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour

The Quad Cities is a short and easy trip from Iowa City, and there are plenty of gems in the area to explore. Art Museums and kids don’t often go together, but the Figge Art Museum is an exception. There is a family activity center and family gallery located within the museum where kids can create their own art, read stories, or build with blocks. Also, there are often hands-on activities for children inspired by a current exhibit. Figge even has a guide to visiting the museum with kids (this, and other family materials are available to download on their website) to make the most of your visit.

The Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science is a gem in Davenport. The museum provides tons of hands-on learning for kids of all ages. Rotating exhibits come through, offering something new and different every visit. There’s also a science center with 45+ hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) exhibits.

Make sure to check out the Quad City River Bandits if they are in town on your visit. Hot dogs and baseball make any day trip enjoyable.

Family Museum of Arts and Sciences is located in Bettendorf and is a perfect children’s museum for younger kids (8 and under). This place will keep them entertained for hours.

Niabi Zoo is also great to check out if you are in the Quad Cities. While the zoo is small, there are still a good number of animals to see and is perfect for younger kids.


Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour 30 minutes

iowa road trips
Hiking in Dubuque last summer

Dubuque is a beautiful city along the Mississippi River. There are a few walking trails/overlooks that my family is fond of. We love to go hiking on a nice spring/early summer day. Check out Mines of Spain and Eagle Point Park for your outdoor fix.

We visited Dubuque last summer, but didn’t make it to the National River Museum and Aquarium because my daughter was too young. It’s a must visit for us this summer! With everything from history of the river to interactive exhibits for kids, the museum is one that the whole family will find enjoyable.

A great winter or rainy day trip to Dubuque must include a visit to the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark. This indoor waterpark provides the opportunity for kids to swim off their energy without worrying about the dangerous rays of the sun.

On your way out of (or into) town you must make a detour to Dyersville to visit the Field of Dreams, the famous movie site with the same name. Kids can run the bases and parents can relive the magic of the movie. I must admit though–I’ve never seen Field of Dreams! What kind of Iowan am I, right?!  

Des Moines

Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour 45 minutes

There is so much to do in our state’s capital, and with it being only a short drive from Iowa City, you can pack as little or as much as you want into your day. While Adventureland is the big thrill of Des Moines, there are plenty of other things for all ages. If you are visiting Des Moines during the summer, check out the large and popular farmer’s market every Saturday. The food stands are delicious, and there is something for everyone to browse and look at.

I’m a huge fan of zoos, so any city we go to, I have to check out the zoo. Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines does not disappoint. We brought our daughter there last summer, and at 7 months, she loved seeing all the animals. They have a fabulous petting zoo and lots of ways for kids to interact with the animals.

It’s hard to believe it’s almost baseball season, but if you happen to go to Des Moines when the MLB Cubs farm team, the I-Cubs, are in town, check them out at Principal Park. You may even see a future Cubs player up at bat!

The Science Center of Iowa is also a must-visit for families. With a specific area for kids 7 and younger to explore, there is something for everyone. Families could spend hours learning through the online exhibits, or catch an interactive IMAX film.

If you’re looking to spend more time outside, check out the Pappajohn Sculpture Park filled with unique sculptures or take a walk around beautiful Gray’s Lake Park.


Approximate drive from Iowa City: 2 hours 30 minutes

I have Scandinavian blood running through me from my mom’s side, with one grandparent from Norway and the other from Sweden, so the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah is a must-see for me to explore my Norwegian heritage. The Vesterheim is the largest Norwegian museum in the United States, but you definitely don’t have to be Norwegian to enjoy what it has to offer. You can explore the floors of artifacts or just stop in the gift shop to get a taste of what the quaint town of Decorah was founded on.

Dunnings Spring Park is an unbelievable site of nature, providing hiking trails and the view of a waterfall…in Iowa! Who would have thought?! The park is beautiful and the falls are spectacular. It is a true treasure in the state and a must-see if you make it to Decorah.

Kids of all ages will love to see and feed the tanks and tanks of fish being raised at the Decorah Fish Hatchery. The hatchery is connected to Trout Run Trail for you to take a walk or bike around on your trip. Stop across the street to see the famous Decorah Eagles as well.

On the way out of town stop for an adult beverage at Toppling Goliath Brewery. If you’re a fan of craft beer you will love Toppling Goliath. Try a Pseudo Sue, one of the many beers that they are known for.

Waterloo/Cedar Falls

Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour 20 minutes

Lost Island Waterpark is a must-visit if you are headed to Waterloo in the summer. This place can provide hours of fun for a family, from their thrilling water slides to the kiddie area. It’s a great place to have fun and cool off on a warm summer day. The price can be a little hefty for a family, so it may not be a frequent place to visit, but definitely one to check out.

If you have little boys or girls that love tractors, trucks, or things that go, check out the John Deere Tractor Museum. There are hands-on displays for kids and tons of big tractors to see. Prior farming knowledge isn’t needed to enjoy the history of this museum.

The Phelps Youth Pavilion is a kids’ museum that offers art-related hands-on activities. From drawings, computer generated activities, life on a farm, and cave exploration, there are many topics available to dive into. On the 3rd Tuesday of every month they offer $1 admission, and every Sunday it is $3 admission, making this a great deal!

The Cedar Valley Arboretum is a great place to visit on a beautiful spring or summer day. Whether you want to stroll through the beautiful flowers or explore the children’s garden with hands-on activities, there is a lot that can be done here. As an added bonus, kids under 5 are free.

Before leaving Waterloo make sure to visit Cedar Falls Main Street. This stretch of road holds many local business and boutiques unique to Cedar Falls. If you like shopping, it is definitely one to check out.


Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour 20 minutes

Burlington offers Snake Alley, which is one of the most crooked streets in the United States. It’s a good taste of what Lombard Street in San Francisco is like without having to pay the price to visit San Fran.

Fun City offers both indoor and outdoor fun for families. There is an indoor/outdoor waterpark, arcade games, go karts, and more.

Finally, a visit to Mosquito Park offers beautiful views of Burlington and the Mississippi River. While the park is small, the views are worth it!


Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour 20 minutes

iowa road trips

Maquoketa may be a small town, but it offers a unique experience of exploring the Maquoketa Caves. Make sure to wear grubby clothes and comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy if you’re off to explore. There are a few caves to walk through, but a lot of nooks and crannies to crawl through. Warning–this may not be the best day trip for you if you are claustrophobic! There are also plenty of hiking/walking trails around if cave exploring isn’t your thing. 

Backbone State Park

Approximate drive from Iowa City: 1 hour 30 minutes

Backbone State Park is located in Dundee and is the oldest state park in Iowa. There are hiking trails to explore, overlooks to enjoy the scenery, and a beach to cool off at. It’s a well maintained park with clearly marked trails that any nature family will love to visit.

Our state has so much to offer and unknown gems to visit. Do you have any destinations to add to the list or any must-see attractions that I missed from the cities above? I’d love to hear!



Elizabeth Kreher
Elizabeth is a personable, outgoing mom living in Cedar Rapids and working as a high school counselor. She met her husband, Ryan, in high school, but were friends for several years. They started dating while they were both at the University of Iowa and have been married since 2009. After enjoying 5.5 years as a married couple with only a dog to be responsible for, they added to their family in November 2014 when their daughter Elin was born. They welcomed their second daughter, Myla, in October 2016. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys being outside, reading, traveling, attempting to be crafty, running, cheering on the Hawkeyes and spending time with family and friends. She’s loved seeing Cedar Rapids through the lens of a mom and all our city has to offer for families.


  1. Maquoketa has a drive in theatre also!! Favorite trip is to cave during the day and do the drive in at night. Very reasonable also!

  2. Looks like there’s a lot to do close to Iowa City! Iowa is such a beautiful state, and as someone who loves to hike, I’d like to take advantage of it’s many trails and parks. Thanks for sharing!


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