Read on to see the top things to do in Western Iowa along I-80. You’ll find historic homes, a Danish windmill, and even patriotic boulders!
We were continuing on our Midwest road trip, having just left Lincoln, Nebraska. Our road trip through Iowa was about to begin! We were pretty excited to experience some of the scenic drives in Iowa and to stop at some of the attractions along I-80. We would slowly be making our way east over the next few days…
Council Bluffs is the first city in Iowa that you’ll drive into along 1-80. We recommend that your first stop be the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. It’s 3,000 feet long and the first walking bridge to connect two states. It’s also one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the country.
We thought the S-shape design of the bridge was really unique and we also loved that you could stand over a center line and have one foot in Nebraska and one foot in Iowa. It’s no wonder Travel+Leisure Magazine named it one of the World’s Most Spectacular Pedestrian Bridges!
Next, we recommend visiting the Historic General Dodge House. This beautiful Victorian home was built in 1869 by Grenville M. Dodge and his wife Ruth. Dodge was a respected Civil War veteran, attaining the rank of Major General. But he was also a politician, banker, and railroad builder. He was considered one of the most influential men of his time and ended up one of the wealthiest men in Iowa.
When the Dodge house was built, it was considered very extravagant for the time and had rare amenities like central heating and hot and cold running water. The three story building was built on a hill looking over the Missouri valley. It is currently the only registered National Historic Landmark in Council Bluffs.
We think another one of the top things to do in Council Bluffs is to head over to the Lewis and Clark Monument Scenic Overlook. The monument honors the expedition of Lewis and Clark in 1804 and their historic meeting with the Otoe and Missouria Indians. There are placards that detail the events of the strategic meeting and visitors will also be graced with expansive westward views.
Some other Council Bluffs attractions include the Hitchcock Nature Center, Historic Squirrel Cage Jail, and Union Pacific Railroad Museum. Although we didn’t have time to visit them, they came highly recommended.
If you’re looking for where to eat, we think one of the best restaurants in Council Bluffs is 712. It’s named after the local area code and offers contemporary American cuisine. They locally source as many products as they can and have 23 craft beers on tap.
During our visit, we had the Grilled Cheese on sour dough bread with beer braised pork belly, hot capicola, havarti cheese, yellow cheddar, house cheese sauce, kimchi mayo, and arugula. We were blown away by the amazing flavors!! This is definitely one of the top 3 grilled cheeses we’ve had in our lifetime.
As for where to stay, we recommend the Ameristar in Council Bluffs. Whether you’re planning on doing some gambling or not, the hotel is in a good location and had clean and comfortable rooms. The hotel also has nice amenities and multiple eateries.
As we continued on our Iowa road trip, we headed east to Elk Horn. There is a rich Danish history in Iowa, so we wanted to visit the Danish Windmill. It is the only authentic and working Danish windmill in America. It was originally built in 1848 in Norre Snede, Denmark but like many other windmills, had deteriorated over time.
Then in the mid 1970s, Harvey Sornson thought it’d be a good idea to bring over a windmill and place it in Elk Horn because it has one of the largest concentrations of Danes in the US. So with the support of the local towns people, he was able to raise enough money to purchase a windmill in Denmark, have it disassembled, shipped, and reassembled in Elk Horn.
Fun Fact: There’s a Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach that was also taken apart at it’s original location in Spain, shipped, and reassembled in Florida.
Visitors can now take a tour around and inside the windmill. There is also a short video included in the tour that goes more in depth about the history of the windmill. Many of the windmills parts have been restored over the years, but they are currently collecting money to replace the 76 foot sails. Unfortunately, that meant that during our visit we didn’t get to see the sails turning.
Just outside of the windmill is a bust of Hans Christian Andersen. The popular thing to do is to kiss his nose, so of course we had to do it too. It’s tradition! And a fun photo op lol!
While at the windmill, we heard that there was also a Danish museum nearby, so we decided to stop there too. The Museum of Danish America was originally called the Danish Immigrant Museum and its mission is to preserve the history of Danish immigration to America.
The museum has over 35,000 artifacts, many of which have been donated after being passed down through generations of Danish families. We also read personal stories of Danes who came to America, looking for a better life. It was quiet interesting.
Just 5 minutes north of Elk Horn is the town of Kimballton. We didn’t know about it until we chatted with one of the women working at the museum. She recommended we drive up to see the Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid and Sculpture Garden. It sounded interesting, so off we went.
At the garden, we found an exact replica of the famous Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, Denmark. There were also 8 other smaller statues depicting some of Hans Christian Andersen’s other fairy tales.
Visiting the original Freedom Rock was an absolute must for us. As we continued east on I-80, we stopped in the town of Menlo. There we found The Freedom Rock, a 12 foot tall boulder that weighs over 50 tons. Every year in May, artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen repaints the boulder to honor veterans on Memorial Day.
While there, we learned that Sorensen plans to paint smaller Freedom Rocks and put one in each Iowa county (there are 99) in order to continue to honor veterans and to promote Iowa tourism. Eventually, he’d also like to have a Freedom Rock in each US state. You can read more about Sorensen’s goal by clicking here.
The first couple of days of our Iowa road trip really set the stage for what would be an incredible week. There are so many unique things to do in Iowa! We loved the history of the area and its quirky I-80 attractions. And knowing we were just getting started made it even more exciting. We quickly realized there’s a lot more to Iowa than people think!
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**A big thank you to Travel Iowa for helping us set up this fantastic itinerary. As always, all opinions are our own.**