Summer is stunning in Iowa. Flowers bloom, skies are blue and fields are lush and green. It’s a beautiful time of year to enjoy the outdoors and a bit of needed time away on a one-of-a-kind road trip. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon getaway or a weekend adventure, these are a few of our favorite Iowa day trips to take with the kids from Des Moines in the summer.
We’ve made the trip over to Council Bluffs and Omaha a few times now with the kids. It’s an easy trip west on I-80 only taking a couple of hours to get there. Council Bluffs is known for its casinos and we’ve stayed at a few of them with the kids, but we don’t really end up spending much time there. The area is also well known as a crossroads of sorts. Many early explorers and settlers made their way through the area, by water, wagon and train. You can enjoy the history and charm of Council Bluffs and Omaha year-round, but summer is our favorite time to visit. You can make a day of it or easily roll it into a weekend getaway.
Railroad Days, July 11th & 12th, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. An annual celebration of all things trains and track. A family pass is $15.00 and includes admission to Lauritzen Gardens, The Durham Museum, RailsWest Railroad Museum, Union Pacific Railroad Museum and the Historic General Dodge House.
Henry Doorly Zoo, 3701 S 10th St, Omaha, NE. It really is a can’t miss. It’s one of the most popular attractions in the Midwest and is Family Fun magazines #1 Animal Attraction for 2015. All of the attractions at this zoo and aquarium are pretty spectacular. We particularly like the nocturnal exhibit, which is soothing on a hot summer day and the penguins always seem to put on a good show.
Lewis & Clark State Park and Lewis & Clark National Historic Visitor Center. On August 10, 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the site where Lewis and Clark State Park now lies. They spent some time there exploring the region and making observations on the geographical conditions, plants and animals in the area. There is a keelboat replica display at the state park and the visitor center is one of many along the expedition’s journey. Kids can receive a Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Junior Ranger patch by completing the Junior Ranger questions provided on the National Park Systems website.
Omaha Children’s Museum, 500 S 20th St, Omaha, NE. The museum encourages hands-on experiences with exhibits and activities in science, culture and the arts for children. I think the museum is suitable for all kids, but kids under eight will find it very appealing. The kids loved shopping in the grocery store and climbing around on the firetruck. The museum has several permanent exhibits, as well as, traveling exhibits. Lego Travel Adventures is currently there until September 6th, 2015.
Union Pacific Railroad Museum and RailsWest Railroad Museum. For your little train enthusiasts. There is all kinds of train memorabilia, artifacts, railcars and model railroads to be found at these two railroad museums. Both are located in Council Bluffs and offer hours of railroad related fun.
Western Historic Trails Center, 3434 Richard Downing Ave, Council Bluffs, IA. Embark on an adventure on the Lewis and Clark, Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. Follow in the footsteps of early pioneers at this interpretive museum and visitor’s center by perusing the educational exhibits, maps, films, and sculpture.
Heading in the opposite direction on I-80, Davenport is another easy drive from Des Moines. You can be there in about two and a half hours. Since the Louisiana Purchase, Saux and Fox Indians, wealthy industrialists, writers, musicians and artists have left their marks on this Mississippi River town. Part of the Quad Cities, the community now supports more than 40 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, several high quality museums and fun festivals that celebrate Davenport’s diverse heritage.
Channel Cat Water Taxi, 2501 East River Drive, Moline, IL. You can’t visit a river town, without getting out on the river. The open-air pontoon like Channel Cat runs between four landings along the Mississippi, one of which is in Davenport. Passengers can get on an off as they like for one ticket price good for all day usage.
Figge Art Museum, 225 West Second Street, Davenport, IA. The Figge Art Museum is housed in a spectacular glass building on the banks of the Mississippi. It is home to one of the Midwest’s finest art collections, and hosts world-class traveling exhibitions. The museum offers two interactive family galleries, plus Family Days. The museum is currently celebrating their 10th anniversary with FREE admission all summer!
John Deere Pavillion, 1400 River Drive, Moline, IL. Your little tractor lov’n future farmer will love a FREE stop at the John Deere Pavilion. It’s all here. The machines. The history. The technology. The innovations. Kids have their own area to explore in the Discovery Zone, where they learn where food comes from, why we need roads and bridges, and how to take care of the environment. The Pavilion also hosts special Kid’s Craft Days that are listed on their calendar.
Putnam Museum and Science Center, 1717 W 12th St, Davenport, IA. Experience fun for everyone at this hands-on Museum and Science Center. The museum was established in 1867 and was one of the first museums west of the Mississippi. The Science Center opened in 2014. There are many interactive and kid friendly activities and exhibits throughout the centers. They also feature an IMAX Theatre with shows running throughout the day.
Decorah is proud of its Norwegian Heritage, is great for outdoor enthusiasts and is home to Luther College. Which makes it quite a hip, happening town with great restaurants and entertainment. I’ve made the 192 mile drive to Decorah for business trips several times. It is a bit of a distance to go for a day trip, but with the longer summer days it can be done. If you’re not up for that amount of windshield time in one day, you can always make it a weekend trip.
Nordic Fest, July 23rd – July 25th. Dance with the Trolls is the theme of this year’s festival. Everything Scandinavian….food, crafts, entertainment…is on display and celebrated.
Canoeing the Upper Iowa River. The 3½ miles between Kendallville and Decorah on the Upper Iowa are among the Midwest’s most scenic, with limestone bluffs and chimneys lining the river. If you don’t have your own canoeing equipment or need a livery you can find one on Winneshiek County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s website.
Decorah Eagles and Fish Hatchery, 2321 Siewers Spring Road, Decorah, IA. Even kids will be excited to ditch the iPad to visit these celebrities in person. The famous Decorah eagles are located near the Decorah Fish Hatchery. You can park at the hatchery, which has restrooms and a park with a shelter and picnic tables nearby. After visiting the eagles stop by and feed the fish at the hatchery. It costs a whopping 25 cents and their holding tanks house a variety of fish that are stocked in local streams.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA. If you have a “Little House” fan they will be able to walk in the footsteps of the famous author. The museum is a former hotel where Pa worked and Laura resided as a young girl. The family only lived here for a year, but it is the only structure on its original site, where the writer lived.
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 502 W. Water Street, Decorah, IA. Tourists from Norway are often amazed by Decorah, commenting that the locals are more Norwegian than they are. That heritage and pride is on display at the museum. One of the many interesting facts you will learn from touring the museum is that the number of immigrants who left Norway between 1825 and 1930 was nearly equal to Norway’s 1825 population; only Ireland gave up a greater percentage of its population to America.
Leave us a comment about your favorite family-friendly Iowa day trips from Des Moines.