Northeast Iowa is full of breathtaking views, award-winning museums, destination specialty shops and unique breweries

While Iowa’s not lacking when it comes to terrific outdoor adventures, the state’s northeast Driftless area seems to have gotten more than its fair share. In this Iowa region, you’ll find beautiful limestone bluffs, miles of stunning recreational trails, and flowing rivers that are home to some of the state’s best trout fishing. If whitewater paddling is more your speed, northeast Iowa is happy to oblige with a number of whitewater parks in which to get your adrenalin going.

Elkader Iowa

With its prime location on the Turkey River, Elkader offers an abundance of outdoor fun and adventure. Head to the 98-mile Turkey River Water Trail for stunning scenery, historical landmarks and plenty of wildlife sightings. Visit the Motor Mill Historic Site where you can see five native limestone buildings including the 90-foot limestone flour mill, a stable, an inn, an icehouse, and cooperage. Take in the shops and restaurants of Elkader’s Main Street District where one can find an extensive selection of craft beer and natural wines. In the evening, head to Elkader Opera House, a beautifully renovated 1903 opera house that features ruby glass chandeliers, a horseshoe balcony, decorative brick details and local theater group performances. 

(This article originally appeared in the Iowa Tour Guide.)

Cedar Falls Iowa

Fitting an area with a great college — University of Northern Iowa — Cedar Falls offers a great mix of restaurants, nightlife, culture, and outdoor adventures. Just west of town in Hudson is Hansen’s Dairy. Spend time in the trolley touring around the farm operations, pet the cows and kangaroos, make butter, and even sample the ice cream. Sticking with the dairy theme, make way to Barn Happy for a locally made lunch in the former dairy barn – don’t forget a little Iowa shopping while here too. Reward your hard work with a visit to Cedar Falls Downtown District, where you’ll find craft breweries and restaurants galore, ranging from pizza parlors and bustling sports bars to more refined eateries. Cedar Falls’ nightlife offers charming local theaters and live music. 

Charles City Iowa

Unique public art sculptures and colorful murals are located throughout Charles City, offering photo ops and places to explore in this scenic river town. Engravings, etchings and lithographs from big-name artists (think Rembrandt, Picasso and Dali) are the focus of the Mooney Art Gallery, while the Charles City Art Center, located in an historic Carnegie Library building, features local and regional art. Hart-Parr and Oliver tractors, along with a historical drug store and log cabin are one of many displays at the Floyd County Museum. Explore the girlhood home of suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, a key figure in the passing of the 19th Amendment. Downtown boasts Aromas for fresh-roasted coffee, local craft beer at Tellurian Brewing, riverfront dining, and a variety of destination specialty shops. Stop by Prologue Books & Wine – a hidden gem where you can pick up your favorite book or bottle!

John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum

John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum

Waterloo Iowa

Look no further than Waterloo for your next student group trip that includes award-winning museums, a water park and theme park, and more. Students of all ages will appreciate a visit to the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum, which features plenty of hands-on displays. The Grout Museum District offers three museums with hands-on experiences and two historic homes. Make learning scientific principles fun through interactive exhibits and formal demonstrations as well as honor the service and sacrifice of all Iowa veterans from the Civil War to present. Or maybe American decorates arts, international folk, Mexican art and the world’s largest public collection of Haitian art is more your fancy. The Waterloo Center for the Arts features all that as well as American Regionalist and Midwest art. Cool off at Lost Island Water Park, Iowa’s largest outdoor water park offering 14 major slides, four children’s play areas, and a lazy river. For less water-focused activities, head to Lost Island Themepark, a tropical paradise with nature-themed rides.

Decorah Iowa

Historic yet modern, an outdoor oasis with culture aplenty — it’s no wonder Decorah was included in Midwest Living Magazine’s “100 Best Small-Town Getaways.” It doesn’t hurt that the Upper Iowa River runs right through town. Visit Decorah Fish Hatchery & Siewers, a state-of-the-art trout rearing station near one of the state’s best trout fishing areas. At Dunning’s Spring Park, take in a stunning 200-foot waterfall just minutes from the downtown area. Innovative and active exhibits tell the stories of Norwegian-Americans at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. The best place to start any visit to Heritage Farm, the headquarters of Seed Savers Exchange, is at the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center. While on the farm explore the gardens and learn about the 20,000+ varieties of seeds in the collection. Nearby, find award-winning wines at Winneshiek Wildberry Wine and ciders made from local apple varieties at Convergence Ciderworks.

Dubuque Iowa

As views go, it doesn’t get more dramatic than the one from Dubuque’s Fenelon Place Elevator, the shortest and steepest scenic railway in the world that once you reach the top, you’ll be able to see three states (Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin). If heights aren’t your thing, head to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, dedicated to the history, culture, and ecosystem of this grand river. Afterwards, get an up-close look at the Mississippi River with an American Lady Cruise. At the Mathias Ham House visitors can delve into Dubuque’s history with a tour of a one-room schoolhouse, replica lead mine, miner’s dwelling and Iowa’s oldest log cabin. Head just north of Dubuque to Dyersville to have a game of catch at the Field of Dreams Movie Site and tour the iconic home.

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