Want to take your Iowa trip itinerary to the next level? Spice it up by adding in some of the best day trips from Des Moines, IA. All easily accessible from Iowa’s capital city are charming small towns, city skylines, and untouched wilderness reserves that’ll make the Hawkeye State your new favorite destination.
Des Moines, Iowa, is a top-rated Midwest city thanks to its shopping, nightlife, and dining selection, along with an array of botanical gardens and urban parks. There’s so much to do here, you’ll never want to leave. That said, it’d be a shame not to experience some of the great attractions nearby while your feet are on Iowa soil.
If you’d like an escape from the big city, check out nearby destinations like Ledges State Park or quaint towns like Pella or Elkhorn. Alternatively, go city-hopping and check out the likes of Cedar Rapids and Omaha.
Hoping to enhance your holiday? This list of the greatest Des Moines side trips will have you wishing you’d booked a longer stay in Iowa’s capital!
Top-rated Des Moines side trips
For a heavy dose of small-town charm, set out on a journey to Pella. Just one hour outside of Des Moines, this pretty little historic village will leave you feeling like you’ve flown across the world to Europe. Initially settled by Dutch immigrants, the community bears several similarities to the Netherlands and other Northern European countries.
Pella offers the postcard-perfect setting for a romantic day out, not to mention it’s a perfect match for those with a penchant for sightseeing. At the top of your bucket list should be hitting main attractions, from visiting historic windmills dating as far back as the 17th century to traipsing through the tulip fields.
You should also be sure to pick up some yummy pastries and other goodies from one of the many traditional bakeries in town.
Ledges State Park, IA
Looking to fill your lungs with some crisp forest air? Ledges State Park is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. This scenic road trip is also dog-friendly, making it the perfect addition to your Des Moines itinerary if you have a canine companion tagging along. Since the trip is only 45 minutes long, your furry best friend won’t need to endure a never-ending car ride and will be rewarded with plenty of space to run and play once you arrive.
Ledges State Park is especially striking during the autumn months with a fabulous display of fall colors straight out of an oil painting. However, visiting in warmer weather is equally rewarding.
Discover historic bridges and buildings from the 1930s, descend Pea Creek “Canyon,” a 100-foot sandstone gorge, or pack a picnic and splash in the creek for an afternoon of summer fun.
Of course, if you’re feeling a little more active, you’ll have four miles of hiking trails to help you detox from the hustle and bustle of the city. Not afraid to get a little wet? Embark on the Streamwalk. This hike involves wading through ankle-deep waters but is by far the most invigorating and beautiful path within the park.
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If you have a little extra time, it might be worth turning this daylong excursion into an overnight camping trip. Ledges State Park is known for having some pretty epic stargazing; there’s hardly a more relaxing way to end your vacation.
Fort Dodge, IA
Want a city that splits the difference between urban life and outdoor recreation? Fort Dodge is the way to go. With a small time investment—just 1.5 hours travel from your home base in Des Moines—you’ll find yourself floating on the Des Moines River or sipping an adult beverage at a selection of local breweries and vineyards.
If you’d like to center your visit to Fort Dodge around the natural landscape, there are dozens of activities to choose from. This city is surprisingly known as the tubing destination of Iowa. Slipping into the waters at Lizard Creek and feeling your adrenaline rush as you glide through the rapids is always a great place to start.
For those in your crew who prefer to stay on dry land, a day hike through the bluffs at Dolliver Memorial State Park is equally impressive. From wooded footpaths and hilltop prairies to cliffs and canyons, the natural beauty here is a spectacle you’ll want to savor forever.
Mason City, IA
The perfect combination of eclectic museums and nature reserves, Mason City, IA, is the perfect destination for travelers looking to take it easy. At 1 hour and 50 minutes away from Des Moines, this is an itinerary add-on that could span over a single afternoon or an entire weekend.
Although there are plenty of traditional museums in town, largely exploring the area’s pioneer history, the most unique museum in town has got to be Ranchero Deluxe. This “art park” is a weird and wonderful assortment of vintage bikes, street signs, and other oddities.
If you want to switch up the vibe, strap on some bowling shoes at Mystic Lanes or pick up some time-weathered collectibles at the Oak Leaf Comic Store for some old-school family fun.
Clear Lake, IA
For a waterfront oasis with plenty of urban amenities, Clear Lake, IA. The drive is an easy one hour and 40 minutes by car, but can also be easily accomplished with a $40 roundtrip bus ticket. Once you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a friendly neighborhood of pubs (including a popular tiki bar!), lakeside entertainment, and even a beachy state [ark.
One of the most popular attractions in Clear Lake is the Lady of the Lake. This 1.5-hour river cruise will take you on a relaxing journey around the bay on a historic paddlewheel boat. In fact, it’s one of the only ones left in operation in the United States!
Once you’ve returned ashore and you’re ready to amp up the energy of your trip, why not go dancing? The Surf Ballroom is the local hotspot for dancing the night away, with frequent live performers and an impressive collection of memorabilia to explore when you’re resting your dancing feet.
A journey to Ames, IA, is the best day trip from Des Moines for travelers who like to experience a little bit of everything. Only a 35-minute drive, this city is easy to get to and offers an extraordinary amount of attractions to explore.
Better suited to adult tourists, Ames has beautifully landscaped botanical gardens, a handful of art galleries, and more vineyards and breweries than you can count on one hand.
Of course, if you want to let your travel anxiety completely melt away, don’t forget to book a visit to “It’s All About Me!” Boutique and Spa. The Chocolaterie Stam is just around the corner, too, so you can treat yourself all day long. (Massages and chocolate truffles: What more could you want in a day trip?)
Elk Horn, IA
If you loved the sounds of Pella, then Elk Horn, IA, should be at the very top of your travel bucket list, too. Just one hour and 15 minutes from Des Moines, this small city is a celebration of Danish heritage through and through. Whether you’d like to learn a little bit more about your own roots or simply get a taste of Europe on this side of the Atlantic, you can do it all in Elk Horn, Iowa.
So, what’s the first thing to do when you arrive in town? Head to the Danish Windmill Museum, of course! Here, you’ll climb inside a historic mill, wander the Ebeltoft Village, and immerse yourself in Danish Christmas traditions. (Don’t forget to bring one of their authentic advent calendars home as a souvenir!) You’ll also learn a lot about modern-day green energy here.
Afterward, take a pause for a pour at the Danish Countryside Winery. Finish your day off with a romantic trip back in time at the Bedstemor’s House.
Do you relish the little things in life? Winterset is all about taking it slow. Only 40 minutes outside of Des Moines, this little city is teeming with historic landmarks, museums, and laid-back entertainment. It’s also a great destination for young families.
Many of the iconic Covered Bridges of Madison County still stand in Winterset. Especially if you’re looking for an easy afternoon car ride, a journey to (and over!) these bridges, and snapping a postcard-perfect family photo at each is an excellent choice.
Ready for some make-believe fun? Head to the historic Clark Tower. Every young princess and knight will love to imagine themselves living in this stone castle.
At night, you may want to check out the live theater scene before returning back to Des Moines. Between comedy and romantic performances, you’ll leave Winterset with a stitch in your side and a warmth in your heart!
Cedar Rapids, IA
A wonderful choice for travel buddies who have already been everywhere together, Cedar Rapids is a city unlike any other. With so much to do and a drive just shy of two hours, you might even want to dedicate an overnight stay to a road trip to Iowa’s second-biggest city.
Cedar Rapids has several exciting neighborhoods to discover, but the Waterfront Core and New Bohemia District are tried-and-true tourist favorites.
After checking into your hotel, it’s time to celebrate happy hour at one of Cedar Rapids’ best microbreweries, Clock House Brewing. Once you’re ready to get your nightlife on, a performance at the Paramount Theater is practically a right of passage.
Before skipping town the next morning, be sure to take a quiet moment to sit by the water. (After all, Cedar rapids is chalk-a-block full of rivers and lakes.) Or take a stroll to one of several city lookouts.
An afternoon race at the Hawkeye Downs Speedway should also be on your radar if you’re planning to stick around for a while. Nobody would blame you if you decided you didn’t want to leave with this kind of excitement around every corner!
If you’re looking to add an urban mecca to your trip itinerary, Omaha is, without a doubt, the top choice. The journey across state lines, into Nebraska, to this famous city is two hours on the nose—and it’s worth every minute.
Whether you want to catch a college baseball game (crackerjacks included) or simply wander the streets and go where the wind takes you, a day trip to Omaha is sure to be a hit with the whole travel crew.
Calling all history buffs and families with young children! If you want to add a bit of structure to your day, checking out the city’s greatest galleries is a great way to spend your time. You’ll become a pro-museum-dweller after just a few hours at the Durham Museum, the Joslyn Art Museum and Castle, or the Omaha Children’s Museum.
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Need a change of pace before heading back to Des Moines? There’s also plenty of opportunity to sprinkle in some time in the great outdoors with visits to the Zorinsky Lake and Recreation area or OPPD Arboretum.
Iowa City, IA
Calling all bookworms and art fanatics! Iowa City is about to be your new bucket-list destination. One hour and 45 minutes from Des Moines, you’ll find this small city’s vibrant theater and music scene. Not to mention, Iowa City was named a UNESCO city of literature in 2008, attracting readers and writers from all over the world.
When it comes to bookish attractions, Iowa City has plenty. Among those with the highest praise are the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, oodles of indie bookstores (Prairie Lights is considered the hottest of them all), and even book festivals! Iowa City also hosts several jazz and film festivals throughout the year.
If you’re looking for something a little different to mix things up, you can also work on scoring tickets to the football game: Iowa City is the home of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.