The 20 Best Day Trips from Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines is a vibrant city that is quickly becoming a cultural capital in the Midwest. It’s also the state capital of Iowa, and features a mix of modern attractions and historical architecture that’s sure to please travelers from all over the world. 

Des Moines is home to many museums, parks, sculpture gardens, and a dining scene that foodies will not want to miss out on. But one of the best things about Des Moines is that it’s located in the center of the state – and is surrounded by a plethora of charming small towns, outdoor recreation opportunities, and historical attractions that are must-see destinations.

Read on to learn more about the top 20 day trips from Des Moines, Iowa and make the most out of your trip by going on fun day trips with the whole family. 

1. Madison County

Escape the big city buzz and head into Madison County, located about 45 minutes south of Des Moines. This rural area is the perfect day trip for those looking to take a scenic drive through Iowa’s countryside. 

Drive by countless creeks, verdant hillsides, and limestone bluffs, but the most notable are the six historic, covered bridges located around the county. Five of the six have made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, and the beauty of these bridges has even inspired novels and movies.

After you’ve taken stock of all the bridges, you can explore some of the quaint towns in the area. Winterset is one of the more popular destinations in Madison County, mostly due to its historic downtown area. You’ll find lots of dining options around town, along with a John Wayne museum and a cidery. 

2. Okoboji

Okoboji has is one of Iowa’s most popular vacation destinations, and it’s not hard to see why. Situated on the banks of West Okoboji Lake, the breathtaking scenery surrounding this glacially carved area has been attracting visitors for generations. 

Boats and beaches are really the best part of Okoboji, and you’ll find plenty of places around town to take a dip or launch your watercraft. If you didn’t bring your own vessel, you can rent paddle boards, kayaks, tubes, or rafts from one of the many vendors along the lake. 

Arnold’s Park is another great place to spend the day, and this old-fashioned amusement park has rides, carnival food, local shops, and spectacular views of the lake. 

If you’re visiting in the winter, plan your trip around the annual Winter Games festival. This is one of the biggest events of the year, complete with a chili cook-off, fireworks, games, and winter sports. 

Okoboji is quite a drive from Des Moines (about 3.5 half hours), so you may want to consider turning your day trip into a weekend getaway. After all, there’s plenty of attractions here to keep you busy for days on end!

3. Boone

For a closer day trip from Des Moines, head 1 hour north to the city of Boone. 

Its quaint downtown area has some historical buildings and cute shops, but the main draw to this small town is the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The train will take you on a historic route through the scenic countryside surrounding Boone, the highlight being the trek across the Bass Point Creek High Bridge. You can even enjoy a meal, some drinks, and dessert if you take a trip around dinner time. 

The nearby Seven Oaks Recreation Center draws outdoor enthusiasts to the area year-round and offers river tubing, kayaking, and camping during the warmer months. Once the snow starts to stick, you’ll find great slopes for skiing and snowboarding. 

4. Altoona

Image: Flickr / Carol VanHook

Altoona is one of the best day trips from Des Moines and has activities that the whole family will love.

Adventureland is arguably the biggest attraction in Altoona, as this large amusement park boasts hundreds of rides, tantalizing carnival food, and beautiful parks and playgrounds. 

Adults will love the 24-hour casino, complete with live horse racing from May through October, and foodies will be equally as satisfied with the great dining options that the city is known for. 

Perhaps the best thing about Altoona is that it’s only 20 minutes away from Des Moines!

5. Dubuque

Dubuque is a charming town in eastern Iowa located on the banks of the Mississippi River. Although a bit far from the capital, Dubuque is one of the best day trips you can take from Des Moines. What was once a modest mining town is now a vibrant city with lots of shopping, eating, and sightseeing opportunities. 

Start your day with a ride up the old-school Fenelon Place Elevator for sweeping views across the city and river, and take a stroll through the historic downtown area to check out the Town Clock, which is on the National Registers of Historic Places. 

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is a great place to learn more about the area’s flora and fauna and the ecosystem that helps them thrive, and the nearby William M. Black Steamboat will give you a look into Dubuque’s past. 

If you decide to stay the night, check one of the town’s many breweries, or make your way down Main Street’s large assortment of eclectic saloons to admire the colorful street art around every corner. For a truly unique experience, head into Paul’s Tavern. Come for the delicious burgers cooked on an early 1900s grill, and stay for the funky atmosphere invoked by the taxidermy-filled walls. 

6. Cedar Rapids

Known for its thriving art scene and unique eastern European heritage, Cedar Rapids is home to a wide variety of attractions, with nature, culture, art, and history at the forefront, making for a day trip full of fun.

To learn more about Cedar Rapid’s history, check out the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, or opt to experience this culture first-had by wandering through the New Bohemia Main Street District.

Art lovers should head straight to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, a massive edifice with over 7,000 pieces of contemporary art. 

Although Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in Iowa, you’ll be able to find your fair share of nature right outside the city center at Indian Springs Nature Center. Spend the whole day wandering around miles of hiking trails as you keep your eyes peeled for rare plant species, birds, and an abundance of critters who call the park home. 

8. Pella

Although less than 1 hour away from Des Moines, a day trip to Pella will have you feeling like you left the country altogether and landed in 19-century Netherlands. 

Founded by Dutch immigrants in 1847, Pella is a charming town with a very distinct character. You’ll find historic buildings marked with Dutch inscriptions, old fashioned windmills, and even a canal.

Over 20 buildings date back to the 1800s, and you could easily spend the whole day perusing the shops in the historic downtown area or learning more about this area’s history at the Pella Historical Village & Vermeer Windmill.

The best time to visit Pella is during the month of May when, in true Dutch fashion, thousand of tulips carpet the city’s green spaces.

8. West Bend

If you’re looking for an interesting day trip from Des Moines, take a road trip to the tiny town of West Bend, located about 2.5 hours north

This little place packs a big punch, and one of the best photo ops in the state is tucked away in this unassuming place. The Grotto of the Redemption is a spectacular shrine constructed in honor of the Virgin Mary, and it is truly a sight to behold. Bedazzled in topaz, jasper, quartz, petrified wood, and fossils, the shrine is as unique as it is sacred. 

After you spend some time in the tranquility of the grotto, you can learn more about the town’s history at the West Bend Historical Society, or check out the original post office and other historical architecture around town. 

9. Ledges State Park

Those looking to delve into nature on a day trip from Des Moines should head north to Ledges State Park. Verdant walking paths, massive sandstone bluffs, and beautiful river views all come together to make Ledges one of the state’s most popular parks.

There are over four miles of hiking trails, many of which will reward you with scenic vistas. Lost Lake is a popular place to take in views and nature’s tranquility, and after you work up an appetite you can head to one of the park’s many picnicking areas for lunch. 

If you can, visit the park in autumn when fall foliage is at its peak. 

10. Omaha, Nebraska

Head across state lines and explore the booming city of Omaha. Perched on the Missouri River along the Nebraska-Iowa border, Omaha is scenic city with a cornucopia of things to see and do. 

Start your day with a walk a long the river, and make your way into the Old Market neighborhood – where you’ll see some historic architecture, do some shopping, and pop into one of the many mouthwatering cafes and restaurants in this area. 

The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is a great spot for families. It houses the world’s largest indoor desert, a massive rain forest, and many other impressive exhibits that kids and adults of all ages will love!

11. The High Trestle Trail

More active visitors to Des Moines will find the best day trip along this 25-mile path that winds through five nearby cities. The trails starts about a 20 minutes north of Des Moines in the town of Ankeny. From there, the path makes its way through Sheldahl, Slater, Madrid, and Woodward

The most impressive part of the trail is the High Trestle Trail Bridge, one of the largest of its kind in the world. This massive structure boasts unique architecture and some seriously stunning views of the Des Moines River below.

The most common way to traverse the trail is via bicycle, but you could also choose to hike a portion or two of it if you have the time. 

12. Amana Colonies

The Amana Colonies are a collection of seven small villages established by German Pietists in 1855. The colonies are located about an 1.5 hours east of Des Moines and make for a great day trip. 

The colonies thrived by establishing a community-centered lifestyle, and you can learn more about their history at the Amana Heritage Society’s Museum, located in the Amana Village. The colonies have been declared a National Historic Landmark, and are a thriving tourist destination today. 

Known for their food, wine, and beer, you’ll find plenty of places to sit back and discover local fare in each of the villages. Work up an appetite by biking between the colonies, or set up a guided tour to learn about the area from a local. 

13. Ames

One of the best day trips from Des Moines can be found less than 1 hour north in the progressive city of Ames. Home to Iowa State University, Ames boasts a fun atmosphere, lots of green space, and plenty of museums. 

Dozens of parks dot the city, and in the summer its common to find a large swath of residents walking and biking along over 50 miles of multi-use trails. This is a great way to see the city, and the are plenty of scenic spots to enjoy a picnic once you get hungry. 

Exploring the downtown area is a great way to feel the pulse of the city, and you’ll find a variety of charming boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and breweries in this area. 

14. Dyersville

Baseball fans and movie buffs alike will love the small town of Dyersville. This little city is quite unassuming at first glance, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find one of the most iconic baseball fields in the country. 

The Field of Dreams was filmed here, and visitors can spend the day touring the field, house, and farm. There’s even a little gift shop selling souvenirs and memorabilia. 

Once you’re done, you can spend some time in town at the National Farm Toy Museum, check out the beautiful Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, or peruse the stalls at the Plaza Antique Mall.

15. Clear Lake

Those looking for an idyllic day trip from Des Moines would be hard pressed to find a better spot than Clear Lake. Located a little less than 2 hours north, its scenic shores beckon travels year-round and makes for a relaxing setting for fishing, swimming, and walking. 

Spend the day working on your tan at the beach, taking a dip in the cool water, or taking a paddlewheel boat for a tour around the lake. There are also a few state parks located around the lake for those looking for hiking trails, campgrounds, or simply a quiet place to enjoy nature.

The town itself is also worth a visit, as you’ll find a collection of restaurants, cafes, antique shops, and the historic Surf Ballroom where a few famous rock stars held their last performances. 

16. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

History buffs and Herbert Hoover fans will find the best day trip inside this National Historic Site built in the former president’s honor. 

The historic site is situated in Hoover’s birthplace, West Branch, about 2 hours east of Des Moines. Inside the park you’ll find important buildings from his childhood, along with monuments celebrating his later-in-life achievements. There’s also a library, a museum, and a picnic shelter where the president celebrated his 80th birthday. 

Don’t forget to stop by the visitor’s center for maps and other information before starting your self-guided tour. 

17. Iowa City

The verdant town of Iowa City is another great place for a day trip from Des Moines. This university town boasts a rich history, beautiful walking paths, and a host fun and unique activities.

The Old Capital Museum and the Mormon Handcart Site are both must-see spots for history lovers looking to learn more about the area, and those looking for some scenic views of the Iowa River can head to the university campus.

One of the more interesting spots in Iowa City is the Devonian Fossil Gorge – a million-year-old ocean floor where you can hunt for shells and fossils as you walk.

18. Newton

Those looking for a quick getaway from Des Moines can head 40 miles east to the small town of Newton. Although small, Newton is home to the iconic Iowa Speedway, a racing track that hosts special events throughout the year. 

Even if you’re not into racing, come to Newton in the evening to enjoy a movie at the The Valle Drive-In, the state’s oldest drive-in theater. The theater boasts a variety of family friendly double features shown on weekends, and of course, no cinema would be complete without a concession stand. 

19. Van Buren County

For more idyllic small towns and villages, head into Van Burn County – one of the first areas in the state to be settled. The tiny towns here ooze with charm and history. 

One of the most popular ways to see Van Buren County is by simply driving along the scenic byway from village to village, and popping to shops and cafes along the way. You could also explore some of the county’s 38 extinct villages with the help of the Forgotten Village geocaching project.

Other popular pastimes in the area include hiking in Van Buren State Park, kayaking the Des Moines River Water Trail, and checking out Iowa’s oldest courthouse. 

Driving through the area in the fall adds to the beautiful scenery, and if you have time, you may want to consider staying in one of the cozy cabins or bed and breakfasts that this area is known for. 

20. Walcott

Walcott is another unique place to spend the day when you’re in Des Moines – and the main attraction here happens to be a truck stop. 

Before you count it out, the Iowa 80 is more than just a rest stop for weary travelers. This massive building claims to be the world’s largest truck stop, and inside you’ll find an eclectic mix of services, including a dentist, barbershop, movie theater, and even a library, to name a few. 

Of course, you can also find fuel and a convenience store here, along with a museum filled vintage vehicles and other relics from antique truck stops.