Recently my husband had some out of town work meetings to attend for several days in central east Iowa so I decided to tag along and while he was set up in meetings 14 hours a day (poor guy!) my 1 year old and I hunkered down and looked for something to do. We stayed between Marshalltown and Anamosa give or take a bit. In the town we stayed at there was nothing other than a small city park near a busy road so I began to widen my search. After 2 separate trips (a total of 3 days) we have hit up all of these places to visit in Central East Iowa. So if you find yourself looking for something to do – look no further than scrolling down below and seeing all that I found! I found some of the ideas through Roadtrippers (my favorite travel site!) as well as Roadside America.
Edinburgh Manor – The spookiest place to visit in Iowa. Seriously – don’t watch their episode on The Travel Channel on Ghost Adventures if you get scared easily – it’s pretty intense! Although it wasn’t open when I drove by it’s totally worth the drive if you’re up for a haunted geocache on site! If you’re really brave look into their overnight options.
Edinburgh Pioneer Village (AKA Ghost Town) – Literally right down the road from the haunted Edinburgh Manor this original town has been restored and is only open certain times of year so make sure you check before you stop by!
Black Angel – Deemed the 2nd most haunted location in Iowa the Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City is home to the Black Angel. I didn’t find this spooky at all but quite stunning and gorgeous. And the log shaped tombstone next to it fascinated me! There are many stories and legends behind the Black Angel in Iowa so google it and take your pick! The cemetery itself is filled with century old tombstones which makes it an amazing place to walk through and pay your respects.
Museum of Natural History – Also in Iowa City nearby located on the University of Iowa campus is what I’d call a mini-Smithsonian museum. It’s absolutely worth the stop in and although a little difficult to figure out where you’re going the exhibits are packed with large and lesser seen skeletons and taxidermy animals. My kids were just fascinated! Don’t forget to stop in their small gift shop. You can find metered parking right across the street.
Herbert Hoover Historic House & Museum – We chose to visit the Herbert Hoover birthplace and the museum / presidential library mainly because they participate in the Junior Ranger Program and is only one of two National Parks in Iowa. (The other is the Effigy Mounds.) It reminded me of visiting Lincoln’s home in Springfield. A nice little film to watch and “touch me” museum for kids and then a short walk around the original house, school, blacksmith shop, etc. The Museum is privately owned and does charge a fee. Personally I wouldn’t pay for it with my kids as they weren’t terribly interested (which I was surprised because normally they love museums) but if you like old documents this is the place for you. This one had more written papers and documents than anything. And make sure to pay your respects to President Herbert Hoover and his wife’s burial area on site.
Devonian Fossil Gorge – This is a fabulous treasure for your prehistoric lovers! Walk through acres of rocks packed with fossils which are easily visible to the eye as you walk down into the gorge. My kids could have spent hours there looking at the fossils! If you look closely at the puddles in the gorge you might find some incredibly prehistoric little creatures running around. I have no idea what they were but it really made us feel like we had stepped back in time.
Iowa City Children’s Museum – A fun stop for your younger kids – mine (6 & 8) were a bit too old for this one. It’s a great museum for kids to touch everything in! Plus there’s a carousel right there in the mall. It’s easily right off of I-80 too!
Anamosa State Penitentiary – I stopped here at this stunning and HUGE penitentiary while out poking around Edinburgh and Anamosa. The entire building takes up more than a full block and while it is a functioning penitentiary for some of Iowa’s toughest criminals there is a section open to the public with a history museum attached. Sadly it was closed for the season when I was there but I really want to go back to check it out!
Matchstick Marvels – This little treasure is tucked away in Gladbrook and is absolutely worth the drive. It’s extra tiny but the stunning designs here are all made of matchsticks! This truly is an incredible place to stop in and although it won’t take long to walk through the one room you’ll be glad you went! You can also find these matchstick marvels all over the country at various Ripley’s Believe it or Not locations.
Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan – This quirky roadside attraction in Brandon is pretty much “what you see if what you get”. I was expecting some ginormous frying pan but it’s still a fun stop to stretch your legs and take silly pictures at!
Grout Museum District – Needing to “waste” a little more time during one of our trips we stopped into the Imaginarium in Waterloo which is a small but highly educational and hands on museum. Although it was older and small it has pretty impressive exhibits to keep the kids busy for part of a day. Next to it are also the Grout Museum of History & Science, Rensselaer Russell House Museum, Snowden House and the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum.
Twister Movie Site – I totally drove right past these signs shown above on my way into Eldora as I was heading to Pine Lake State Park and quickly made a U-turn! Twister was one of my all time favorite movies and I couldn’t believe that I had actually driven right past a movie site! These signs are displayed just before you enter town on Hwy 175 but the actual house in the movie can be found by heading east out of Eldora, turn south on Avenue Y and follow the dirt road about 2-3 miles down just south of 245 street. You’ll see the house on the left.
Here is the updated house from the movie Twister. Although it’s a private residence it was still neat to see. If you look off to the right of the house when you are there you can see an imploded barn remains piled there still.
Pine Lake State Park – Just as you head into Eldora on the right side is the entrance to Pine Lake State Park. It was a fabulous place to hike around in! A beautiful little beach with hiking trails as well as a dam and historic bridge – it’s the perfect picnic park.
Wapsipinicon State Park – ALL of the photos from here to the end of the post are of Wapsipinicon State Park – I had such a wonderful time here and it’s 100% worth making the trip to! I went specifically to hike into the Ice Cave and Horse Thief Cave as I’m a nut about caves – especially ones that are easy to access without paying for a tour!
As you drive through the park you can’t miss the signs for both caves. You can literally just stop your car right there and explore.
I do, however, recommend bringing a flashlight at least for the Ice Cave. And if you’re claustrophobic you won’t want to head into this cave. It’s extremely tight and narrow and I couldn’t even make it all the way back.
As you can see the path is just big enough for one person at a time. And as you would expect it’s quite cold in there! It was my first ice cave to visit so I was pretty excited – even if it was small but long!
The park is just absolutely gorgeous with a small stream running through. You could spend all day hiking and picnicking here.
Horse Thief Cave, as the name explains, was a legendary cave for horse thieves to hide in! Just park near the sign and take the grassy path next to the stream until you see a rocky set of stairs.
The path up was easy enough for my 17 month old to climb up on her own.
The cave is just at the top of the stairs and SO much larger than I was expecting! It’s very large and open with plenty of light shining in so even those who don’t like tight spaces will be fine here!
Just stunning. Above I am inside the cave looking out – a great hiding place! There’s a small opening in the back of the cave to a tiny closed space but I couldn’t fit back there. I’m SO glad I stopped in here!
Did I miss a great spot in central east Iowa? Please leave a comment and let me know what else I need to go back and check out! If you venture over to the Des Moines area check out our photo gallery of the state capital building – it’s stunning!