We took an impromptu family road trip detour that had me looking for quick family things to do in Iowa.
Iowa or Kansas – that’s the choice we had to make on our family road trip from New England to the Pacific Northwest and back. Running tight on time since we decided to make a kid’s birthday wish come true and visit family in PA, we couldn’t hit up both. We settled on Iowa and looked for quick stops along our way.
The Wild, Wild Midwest with Jesse James Gang
Corn, cows, and wind machines. And some interesting claims to fame. That’s Iowa. As navigator, I was the one calling the stops and when I saw Adair, Iowa on a road sign I scrambled to get directions for the historic site of Jesse James and his gang’s first train robbery.
Who says TV can’t teach you anything? We had just watched a rerun of Expedition Unknown that featured Jesse James. Amazingly my husband asked no questions – a rather unusual thing. (By the way, I highly recommend incorporating a bit of history in any vacation you take. It is so much more real and alive when you get to see it, walk in the paths, and touch it.)
Anyway, it was a quick pile out of the car and take a few pictures of the kids, read the sign, pile back in, and get on the highway again. The miles of corn and cows and wind machines gave me plenty of time to research other things to do in Iowa along our route and when I saw the American Gothic House Center located in Eldon, IA just a bit off the highway I knew we HAD TO GO. Like seriously, who didn’t learn about this artwork in school at some point?
Camping at Adventureland Resort in Altoona, IA
Since we spent the first half of the day at Pioneer Village in Minden, NE, we didn’t make it the whole way through Iowa in one day. Instead, we found a great campground in Altoona, IA at the Adventureland Resort campground for the night. It is a good location because it’s in a business area so there are plenty of grocery store options nearby, including ALDI, where I grabbed dinner supplies and stocked up on snacks and water.
Things to note for this campground is that there aren’t specific marked spots. They just tell you to “drive to the back of the campground past all the RVs and you’ll see the tent camping.” Except no other tents were set up so you just kinda park yourself near a picnic table. You will need to rent a fire pit if you want to have a fire but they are only $10/night. The bathroom is a bit of a walk but they were clean, well lit, and have plenty of toilets, sinks, and showers.
Science Center of Iowa
First thing in the morning we packed everything up as quickly as we could and headed to the Science Center of Iowa. Be watching for a post on our time there.
Tip: If you have a membership to your local science center, check your reciprocal benefits. You may get in free!
American Gothic House Center
Once you’re off the highway you have to pay attention to your directions and the signs because the American Gothic House Center is in this small town that doesn’t really look like it would be home to much of anything touristy – AND IT’S FREE! That is one of my favorite things about our road trips – bumping down an old town street that doesn’t look like much to get to a treasure. Definitely much better than the hair-raising tale we shared in Yellowstone in a day. You should check THAT out.
The American Gothic House Center was just what we needed after hours on the road with a need for fresh entertainment, a bathroom, and yet something that wouldn’t take up a ton of time. We even bought the souvenir to prove we were there…now where did I put that postcard?!
We went into the Visitor Center for the bathroom and to read the informational displays. Then discovered a dress-up option that only my daughter was inclined to “suffer through” for me. We snapped a few shots with dress-up gear (that I can’t find) and a few without. Then we discussed the house and some of the details we remembered learning about it. P.S. This was, hands down, my favorite in the list of things to do in Iowa. Except if it had been tulip season….that would have been my favorite.
After about 20 minutes we piled back in the van and headed toward the Ohio border with a stop at Jeni’s ice cream and the Columbus Zoo on our radar.
Things to Do in Iowa Quick Info Guide
Site of First Train Robbery (Jesse James)
- You can read more about whether it really was the first train robbery in the American West.
- Address: Google Map Coordinates
- Address: 401 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Des Moines, IA
- Hours: Summer: Monday-Saturday – 9AM-5PM; Sundays – 12PM-5PM/Winter: Monday – Closed; Tuesday – Saturday – 10AM-5PM; Sunday – 12PM-5PM
- Admission: Adults – $13; Children (2-12) – $9; members free – if you have a membership to another science center or museum check for reciprocity!
- Parking: parking garage across the street: $1 first hour + $1 for every hour after that; Yu can also order a daily parking pass on the website for $6
- Time: 2+ hours
- Ages: Any
- Address: 300 American Gothic Street, Eldon, Iowa 52554
- Hours: Center: Sunday-Monday – 1PM-4PM; Tuesday – Saturday – 10AM-5P/House: April-October, every second Saturday from 10 AM-4 PM
- Admission: Free (donations accepted)
- Parking: Free
- Time: up to 1 hour
- Ages: Any
Do you ever visited any of these places? What are your favorite things to do in Iowa?