The Historic Hills Scenic Byway in Southeast Iowa spans 105 miles and offers many fun family adventures. You’ll find gorgeous farm scenery, mom and pop shops, one-of-a-kind restaurants, amazing murals and museums among some of the oldest towns in Iowa.
Starting in Moravia in the west and going all the way to Donnellson in the east, your family won’t want to miss the adventures along this byway. There are so many amazing things to do that we were not able to see everything. Following are highlights from eight towns on the Historic Hills Scenic Byway you don’t want to miss.
While it's not on the main Historic Hills Scenic Byway route, the American Gothic House and Visitor Center is listed as an activity on the byway's PDF map and guide. Located just outside Eldon, the free visitor’s center is a stop that should be on every travel bucket list for Iowa. Not only can you learn about Grant Wood’s life and art, you can also take amazing family photos. The Visitor's Center has replica outfits in a wide range of sizes which the friendly staff will help you dress in. Then, they'll even take your picture in front of THE house that inspired Grant Wood’s most famous painting, American Gothic. We took the best family photos in front of the American Gothic House and had a great time there. Read more about our adventures at the American Gothic House here.
After visiting the American Gothic House and Visitor Center, make sure to head over to Chommy's Sports Bar for one of their famous tenderloin sandwiches. Located in a nondescript building near Eldon’s train depot, they serve a wide variety of bar food. The tenderloins are huge, so you may want to share! Our kids had a great time playing pool, too.
From Eldon, our family headed west toward Moravia, called the Gateway to Rathbun Lake and Sundown Lake. It was cold during our trip, so we didn’t make it to the lakes but we did enjoy driving around the town which played a role in the Mormons trek from Illinois to Utah. If you’re starting the scenic byway from the west, definitely drive through Moravia. If you’re coming from the east and you’re short on time, it’s the one stop our family thinks you can skip (unless the weather is nice and you want to go to the lakes and the fish hatchery).
On the way to and from Moravia, we drove through a tiny town called Drakesville, home to many Amish and Mennonite families. Our kids were enthralled by the Amish horse-drawn wagons and buggies. We even saw one pulled up to a pump at the gas station, presumably buying propane. Drakesville was fun to drive through, but we didn’t stop at anything in this town.
The Davis County Courthouse located in Bloomfield’s town square is one of the most beautiful courthouses in all of Iowa. It was built in 1877 for a cost of $45,210! I have driven past this courthouse for years and never tire of looking at it. Bloomfield also has a large Amish and Mennonite community, one of the only Civil War sites in Iowa, many fun Amish stores, and plenty of opportunities to find more horse-drawn wagons and buggies. You’ll find restaurants and stores on the streets around the courthouse, but the real draw for our kids in Bloomfield was ice cream at Elena's Ice Cream Shop, just down from the courthouse. We loved the Salted Caramel Pretzel, Pumpkin Pie, and Michigan Pothole ice cream best of all!
One of the most interesting stops was visiting the Wickfield Farm Sales Pavilion outside Cantril. This four-story round barn was built in 1918 to serve as a sales building for the largest Hampshire hog farm in the world, and has also been a packing plant, a dormitory, and “speakeasy” during prohibition! The door is unlocked and visitors are invited inside to tour the building.
Like Cantril, Bentonsport is another historic town and one of the Villages of Van Buren. Bentonsport, platted in 1839, is a National Historic District situated on the Des Moines River and houses several bed and breakfasts, a restored 1840s village and the oldest wagon bridge of its type.
Between Farmington and Donnellson, you’ll find Westercamp Rent a Horse. Offering three-hour trail guided rides through Westercamp land and the gorgeous Shimek State Forest, this stop was the real highlight for our children. We felt right at home saddling up on the horses and mules with dogs, cats, geese, and chickens running around, but if you’re from the city, be prepared for a true country adventure at this family owned operation.
Located on the far eastern edge of the Historic Hills Scenic Byway, Donnellson offers up a variety of family friendly activities. We thoroughly enjoyed the fall festivities at Appleberry Orchard. It's the oldest working orchard in Iowa and is located in an historic 1882 barn. Featuring a corn maze, pig races, a pumpkin launcher, homemade apple cider donuts, petting farm and kids play area, this stop is great for families!
Whether you’re able to travel the entire 105 mile Historic Hills Scenic Byway or just a portion of it, you’ll certainly find enough fun adventures to fill an entire weekend! Add this scenic drive to your Iowa Travel Bucket List. Download a PDF map and guide here and load up the car. You won’t regret visiting this beautiful area of Iowa.
Story and photos by Michelle Marine from Simplify, Live, Love