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Top 10 Scenic Drives in Iowa

When you think about Heartland America, Iowa likely comes to mind. The state is known for its rural farmlands with fields of corn and small communities that seemingly spring up out of nowhere. While this is definitely a part of Iowa and the stuff of some great scenic drives, there is far more to this region. It is a place where both the past and present live, seen in its historic landmarks and thriving Amish and Mennonite communities living much like they did generations ago. Art, culture, good food, and spirits can also be found, so use one or more of our favorite routes as guidance to begin exploring Iowa beyond the cornfields for yourself:

No. 10 – Glacial Trail Scenic Byway

Glacial Trail Scenic Byway Iowa
Flickr user: Don Graham

Starting Location: Sutherland, IA
Ending Location: Linn Grove, IA
Length: 18 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

Passing through a region of the state with landscapes of wooded valleys and rolling hills carved by glaciers, this leisurely drive is a nice way to spend part of a morning or afternoon. The town of Peterson about halfway through is especially full of Native American history with the Prairie Heritage Center, Jim’s History Barn, and the beginning of the Inkpaduta Canoe Trail. In Sutherland, be sure to photograph the Bogenrief Studios with its ornate stained glass dome.

No. 9 – Northeast Iowa Tour

Northeast Iowa Tour Iowa
Flickr user: Brandon Newendorp

Starting Location: Waterloo, IA
Ending Location: Gunder, IA
Length: 269 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

Although primarily a tour of the farmlands of northeast Iowa, this route has a certain appeal to the testosterone inclined, as it passes through places manly men may appreciate. Beginning with the John Deere Museum in Waterloo and ending with the Maquoketa State Park caves, there’s no shortage of things to see and do. You can even stop in Dyersville to see where Field of Dreams was filmed, or peek at two-wheeled machines at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa.

No. 8 – Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail Iowa
Flickr user: moon shot

Starting Location: Keokuk, IA
Ending Location: Council Bluffs, IA
Length: 296 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

The entire trail stretches across five states (Illinois to Wyoming) and follows the way the Mormons once traveled to escape persecution, but this portion is also a good way to see the variety of landscapes present in Iowa. See a wide variety of bridges and historic buildings with a stopover in Ottumwa. In Council Bluffs, don’t miss the Kanesville Tabernacle, which outlines some of the Mormon history in the area.

No. 7 – Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

Loess Hills National Scenic Byway Iowa
Flickr user: Michael Leland

Starting Location: Akron, IA
Ending Location: Hamburg, IA
Length: 177 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

This nationally recognized route travels along the western edge of the state with a terrain characterized by loess, or hills formed in the Ice Age by the accumulation of fine windblown soil. Since these loess hills are among the tallest ones in the world, expect panoramic views of the nearby valleys. The Loess Hills State Forest is a great place to picnic or just stretch your legs, and the Mile High Lake Scenic Overlook in Glenwood is known for being photogenic.

No. 6 – Historic Hills Scenic Byway

Historic Hills Scenic Byway Iowa
Flickr user: Melissa Johnson

Starting Location: Moravia, IA
Ending Location: Donnellson, IA
Length: 88 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

Travel back in time to when hard work and simplicity were values people held dear on this drive through some of Iowa’s Amish and Mennonite communities. This route isn’t all about people watching, however; Honey Creek State Park and Shimek State Forest afford opportunities for a close look at the state’s nature trails and wildlife. The Villages of Van Buren are known for their homespun charm and one-of-a-kind shopping.

No. 5 – Northwest Iowa Tour

Northwest Iowa Tour Iowa
Flickr user: Kelli Koob

Starting Location: West Bend, IA
Ending Location: Sioux City, IA
Length: 232 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

This tour of northwest Iowa is especially appealing to art lovers and foodies with its array of galleries in towns along the way and unique eateries. The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend where this route starts (or ends) is a must-see, with the largest collection of precious gems and stone in the world arranged to depict nine different scenes from the New Testament. For those with a sweet tooth, don’t miss the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum in Le Mars or the Old Tyme Candy Shoppe in Sioux City.

No. 4 – Iowa Wine Trail

Iowa Wine Trail Iowa
Flickr user: Phil Roeder

Starting Location: West Branch, IA
Ending Location: Decora, IA
Length: 354 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

Although it is possible to complete this drive in a single day, it is better suited for a weekend excursion because travelers will want to stop and explore each of the nine wineries along the way. Much of the route passes through rolling hills and rural farmlands with stops in sleepy yet quaint towns. The wineries of note are as follows, in order from West Branch to Decora: Brick Arch, Sutliff Cider Company, Daly Creek, Tabor Home, Wide River, Park Farm, Eagles Landing, Engelbrecht, and Winneshiek Wildberry Winery.

No. 3 – Great River Road

Great River Road Iowa
Flickr user: Jason Mrachina

Starting Location: Keokuk, IA
Ending Location: Lansing, IA
Length: 349 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

Part of the longest and oldest National Scenic Byway, Iowa’s portion of it won’t disappoint its travelers. As it snakes along the Mississippi River and the eastern border of the state, there is a variety of terrain and plenty of opportunities for water recreation. Stop in Muscatine for a refreshing sample of hand-crafted beer at Contrary Brewing Co, or take a tour of Bangert Gardens in Burlington to see a wide array of native flora and fauna.

No. 2 – Delaware Crossing Scenic Byway

Delaware Crossing Scenic Byway Iowa
Flickr user: Phil Roeder

Starting Location: Hopkinton, IA
Ending Location: Buck Creek, IA
Length: 76 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

This route through the heart of the Maquoketa River Valley often makes travelers feel they have been transported back in time with its plethora of historic sites and markers. Stop and explore the Amish community in New Dehli and perhaps purchase crafts as a souvenir from the trip. For more outdoorsy types, Backbone State Park near Dundee is full of hiking trails, horseback riding tours, and camping spots.

No. 1 – Historic U.S. Route 6

Historic U.S. Route 6 Iowa
Flickr user: Rich Herrmann

Starting Location: Davenport, IA
Ending Location: Council Bluffs, IA
Length: 327 miles
Best Season to Drive: Spring, Summer, and Fall
See this drive on Google Maps

You don’t have to travel the entire 3,652 miles of Historic U.S. Route 6 to get a taste of what it has to offer; the bit that passes through Iowa provides a nice slice of Americana and beautiful scenery. Don’t miss the world’s oldest ice cream fountain in Wilton, where both Gregory Peck and Brooke Shields have stopped for an ice cream soda. The Amana Colonies are another popular stop, which is a community founded by German Pietists and remains largely self-sufficient to this day.

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