A lot of people may associate Iowa with cornfields, but you might be surprised by the diversity in the landscape you can experience on the best scenic drives in Iowa!
From prairies to forests, Iowa has an abundance of natural wonders just waiting to be discovered. The state also has a lot of interesting historical sites, which are cool places to stop to learn about early pioneers and settlers who made their home here during the time of western expansion in the United States.
Whether your road trip in Iowa is part of a longer drive across the United States or if you’re looking for a unique way to experience the state, Iowa’s scenic byways are a perfect way to view the best places this central Midwest state has to offer.
1. Iowa Scenic Drives: Loess Hills National Scenic Byway
- Distance: 220 miles
- Time Needed: 5 hours to 1 day
The landscape of Loess Hills is comprised of prairies, bluffs, and rolling hills, making it one of the most scenic places to drive in Iowa.
Along the way, there are lots of historic sites and parks to visit. You can check out places like the Historic General Dodge House, the impressive mansion of a former Civil War general.
Lewis and Clark Monument is another great place to include on this byway in Iowa. This overlook has an impressive view toward the west and marks one of the stopping points of Lewis and Clark, the famous travelers who charted the territory west of the Mississippi. Not only is the overlook a good place to stop for photographs, but there’s also a picnic area where you can enjoy a lunch break on this Iowa drive.
In addition to the 220 miles of the official route, there are 185 miles of excursion loops to appreciate the Iowa scenery. Many of these are gravel routes that offer a way to explore some of the wilderness and feel like you’re really escaping civilization for a while.
When to go: Spring through fall are the best times of year to appreciate the landscape and avoid winter driving conditions, especially if you plan on taking some of the gravel roads.
2. Iowa Scenic Drives: Western Skies Scenic Byway
- Distance: 142 miles
- Time Needed: 3-6 hours
If you’re already planning on traveling Interstate 80, then the Western Skies Scenic Byway is a great drive in Iowa to take. This route may be a bit longer than the direct 1-80 route, but the peaceful scenery makes it well worth the time.
This Iowa scenic drive gets its name from the prairie landscape and open skies. There are also a number of historic locations along the route, including the Harrison County Historical Village, where the drive begins.
Elk Horn and Kimballtown are also great places to stop, both of which began as early Danish settlements and still preserve a lot of their historic charm. Check out some of the local artisan shops in these towns, or pick up a treat at one of the bakeries.
Outdoor enthusiasts will like the variety of activities that can be added to this scenic drive in Iowa. Whiterock Conservancy is a great place to go hiking or even spend a few nights camping in the region known for having the darkest sky and the best star-gazing opportunities in Iowa.
When to go: Spring through fall is typically best, but it’s also possible to drive this route in winter.
3. Iowa Scenic Drives: Covered Bridges Scenic Byway
- Distance: 82 miles
- Time Needed: 2-4 hours
You might guess by the name of this Iowa byway that what makes this particular route unique are the numerous covered bridges along the way. The movie and musical The Bridges of Madison County was actually filmed here, something which some of the towns still take pride in.
Make sure you stop in Winterset, a town near the center of Madison County, which is known for its historic limestone courthouse and has received a National Historic District designation. There are also plenty of local shops and fun restaurants around the town square.
You’ll already have lots of opportunities to see the peaceful landscape along this scenic drive in Iowa, but if you’re interested in a more immersive nature experience, you’ll want to stop at the Madison County Historic Complex.
When to go: Spring through fall has the best views, especially if you want to walk around and explore.
4. Iowa Scenic Drives: River Bluffs Scenic Byway
- Distance: 109 miles
- Time Needed: 2 hours to 1 day (or more)
It won’t take much to convince you that this is one of the best scenic byways in Iowa, thanks to the incredible landscape formed by three rivers: Turkey, the Volga, and the Mississippi.
From your vehicle, you’ll get stunning views of the bluffs for which the route gets its name, as well as peaceful forests and rolling hills. Thirteen small towns dot the route, many of which have a unique historical atmosphere. Thanks to the quaint shops and friendly vibe, this area is sometimes called Iowa’s “Little Switzerland.”
No road trip in Iowa would be complete without adding on at least a few outdoor activities, and you’ll find plenty of options on this route. There are parks with hiking trails, unique caves formed by the erosion of the rivers, and water access points for fishing and kayaking.
When to go: Summer is best for outdoor activities, but spring and fall are also excellent for views of the flowers and autumn colors.
5. Iowa Scenic Drives: Driftless Area Scenic Byway
- Distance: 144 miles
- Time Needed: 3 hours to 1 day
Sometimes considered the most scenic drive in Iowa, you’ll understand how this route got its name once you start to pass through the untouched natural beauty of limestone bluffs and rivers meandering through forests. In the midst of the peaceful nature, relax and let yourself drift away through Iowa’s scenery!
Not only is this Iowa drive stunning, but it also holds endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, like hiking in the state parks or fishing and boating on the Mississippi, Yellow, or Upper Iowa Rivers.
Along with the natural beauty, you’ll also encounter interesting historic landmarks like stone churches and bridges which date back to the time of the pioneers who first settled in the area. Stop for lunch at a local diner at one of the little towns along the way, or pick up a souvenir at a small boutique.
When to go: This is one of the best drives in Iowa in the fall since the entire route is covered with colorful deciduous trees. Spring and summer are also good for outdoor scenery and activities.
6. Scenic Drives in Iowa: Iowa Valley Scenic Byway
- Distance: 77 miles
- Time needed: 2-5 hours
The Iowa Valley Scenic Byway offers a great combination of history and natural beauty. On the western end of the route, you’ll find the Meskwaki Settlement, which is the state’s only official resident Native American community. Visit the Meskwaki Cultural Center & Museum to learn about the history and significance of the region as well as view stunning artifacts of beadwork and weaving.
You’ll find no shortage of quirky and unique stops on your Iowa road trip along this route. Check out Traer’s Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery or Gladbrook’s Matchstick Marvels Museum for something you won’t get to see on other drives!
In addition to the small-town charms, there are also plenty of places to get out and explore the landscape around the Iowa River Valley. Favorite activities include fishing, hiking, and bird watching.
You’ll already get plenty of lookouts over the bluffs, but if you want an even better perspective of the Iowa scenery, you can make a pit stop close to Chelsea, where there’s a lookout platform built in the shape of an eagle which is a perfect place for photographs.
If you’re driving this scenic route in Iowa during July, then a stop at Lily Lake in Amana is a must. Each year in summer, this lake is known for the thousands of water lilies that cover the surface in a beautiful array of gold and white!
When to go: Spring is a good time to appreciate the early wildflowers, while summer is best for outdoor activities. During fall, the river valley will be covered in autumn colors.
More Inspiration And Tips Road Tripping In The Midwest
- Always check weather conditions before you set out, especially in winter; visit www.511ia.org for the latest information from the Iowa Department of Transport.
- Looking for more inspiration beyond Iowa? Check out our round-up of the best scenic drives in the Midwest; plus, we’ve got detailed guides to hitting the roads in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and many more in our scenic driving guides to the United States!
- Never forget a road-tripping essential again! Get your family and your vehicle organized before hitting the road with our road trip checklist (with a printable PDF checklist you can tick off as you go!)
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