Summary: A perfect 2-day trip from Chicagoland for those looking for a passage to a bygone era. Madison County and the town of Winterset offer a quaint setting and charm at a relaxing pace without the hassle of weekender congestion.
In the midst of returning from a 7-day whirlwind around Colorado we chose to take the trip home slowly. Instead of a 1-day marathon home from the Estes Park area, we broke the drive into two segments, with the 2nd part of the drive beginning from Lincoln, NE. During the evening we spent in Lincoln we mapped out a few possible stops in the Des Moines, Iowa area. We decided on Madison County, the area made known to us through the popular 90’s book/ movie.
The western 1/5 of Iowa along I-80 is really quite beautiful from the highway. The hills roll and many of the farmlands are terraced, a stark contrast to the the flat corn and soy fields seen throughout most the state. The change in scenery is pleasant but not necessarily magnetic enough to pull casual travelers off the road to explore unless they have an idea of what lies beyond the freeway.
Having really only seen Iowa through the lens of I-80, we were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful surroundings that greeted us as we exited the expressway and headed to our first stop-the Welcome Center in Winterset, IA. On the way to the visitor center, we saw a sign for the first covered bridge, so we stopped there on the way. Bright red and hovering above a large stream, the rustic setting certainly had a draw. Though many of these bridges exist out east, it’s a rarity that we’ve stumbled across them in our travels. The century-plus year-old bridge, embraced by trees, wildflowers, and little else, certainly painted a wonderful image of Americana. Though we didn’t stay too long, the bridge was enticing enough to pull us further into the county rather than push us back to the highway.
The village of Winterset, IA has a quaint downtown area where you will find the Welcome Center along with a few stores, cafes, and the town hall. The Welcome Center had some great info to help us plan our day.
Winterset pulls in a fair amount of visitors, primarily folks coming to see the bridges, but the town is also the birthplace of iconic actor John Wayne, who has his own museum on the edge of the town square. While we did not take time to visit that museum, we leisurely walked the square, stopping for coffee and to see a few of the trinket shops. If visitors chose to eat at one of the restaurants or take some time at the John Wayne Museum they could easily fill a few hours in the town.
After a quick stop for coffee and some browsing in the stores, we headed out to see some of the other bridges. The roads were clearly labeled, which made finding the attractions very easy. Mixed in with the bridges were a few other neat stops.
We took the winding drive to see the Clark Tower. If you are willing to walk up the narrow staircase, you will be rewarded with a beautiful view. We also stopped at the Madison County Historical Complex. While we did not enter the museum, the grounds were interesting and provided about a half hour of exploring.
3 or so hours into the area at this point, we made the decision to head out to the last 2 of the covered bridges which after about a 20-minute drive through the rural area led us to I-35 just south of Des Moines.
For those looking for a leisurely paced visit to the past, this was a diamond in the rough. We only spent a few hours in Madison County, but we agreed it would be a great place to return. The town boasts several fests during the year- we are most interested in the Covered Bridge Festival in the Fall, as we can imagine how gorgeous the area will look with the changing leaves!