It’s nearly prime leaf-peeping time in Iowa, and our state offers no shortage of stunning views and sweeping vistas, all capped with the distinct yellows and oranges of fall. We’ve compiled five road trips, guided by Iowa’s scenic byways and reaching all corners of the state, perfect for packing up friends or the family for a tranquil weekend drive—and some tasty stops along the way.
Driftless Area Scenic Byway
Perhaps one of the most scenic portions of the state, Iowa’s Driftless Area was spared by ancient glaciers, leaving its geological features intact. Here, you’ll find rocky terrain spotted with lush forests, steep hills, and deep river valleys. It’s gorgeous here any time of year, but especially once the leaves start turning.
The Driftless Area Scenic Byway stretches 100 miles from Postville northeast toward Volney and Harpers Ferry before jutting west again to Waukon and then back to Lansing and New Albin. The dramatic geology allows for panoramic views in many spots along the Mississippi River vista, perfect for viewing autumn colors.
Be sure to stop by the Black Hawk Bridge in Lansing—it’s one of the most unique metal cantilever truss bridges in the country—and the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry. Grab a bite at old-school supper clubs, including Wings Supper Club in Dorchester and the Spillway Supper Club in Harpers Ferry.
Loess Hills National Scenic Byway
Formed by silt-like, wind-deposited soil along Iowa’s western edge, the Loess Hills form dramatic landforms along the Missouri River’s eastern bank stretching from north of Sioux City to the state’s southern border. Here, you’ll find a mix of hardwood forests and native prairie grasses offering scenic autumn views for as far as the eye can see.
The Loess Hills Scenic Byway is one of Iowa’s longest—it spans more than 200 miles and intersects 31 communities—and offers geological features ranging from steep, wooded bluffs to narrow ridges and rolling hills. For a birds-eye view of changing fall foliage, head to Honey Creek and climb the observation tower at Hitchcock Nature Center. Further north in Pisgah, Preparation Canyon State Park offers breathtaking panoramic views and is the perfect stop for a picnic or quick hike.
The region’s unique soil composition makes it ideal for growing grapes, so you’ll find more than a few wineries along the route, including Breezy Hills Vineyard in Minden and Bodega Victoriana Winery in Glenwood. For a fall treat, be sure to stop for cider and apples at Mincer Orchard in Hamburg.
Grant Wood Scenic Byway
Hop on this 80-mile route for an up-close look at the gorgeous Eastern Iowa landscapes that inspired Grant Wood’s most famous artworks. Stretching from Stone City eastward through Anamosa to Maquoketa and Bellevue, this byway spans rolling hills of farmland interspersed with wetlands and limestone bluffs.
Maquoketa Caves State Park is a can’t-miss: This maze of caverns formed by water erosion on limestone bedrock is one of Iowa’s most unique geological features. Farther east in Bellevue, catch panoramic autumn views of the Mississippi River at Bellevue State Park—you might even spot a bald eagle or two nesting in the bluffs along the shore.
For a bite, stop by the Stone City General Store Pub, a historic, family-style eatery built in 1897; Tabor Home Vineyards & Winery, Iowa’s oldest estate winery, in Baldwin; and Bluff Lake Catfish Farm in Maquoketa for all-you-can-eat comfort food.
Covered Bridges Scenic Byway
Made famous by the novel, movie, and musical, “The Bridges of Madison County,” these iconic red bridges dot the 82-mile Covered Bridges Scenic Byway in Central Iowa. Here, you’ll find six bridges in and around Winterset and St. Charles along with historic sites including the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum; one of the earliest Civil War monuments erected in Iowa at Monumental Park; and St. Patrick’s Irish Settlement, established in 1852 and visited by Pope John Paul II in 1979, in Cumming.
Just north of Winterset, hop on Cumming Road to view rolling hills and valleys covered with native grasses, oak and hickory forests, and dotted with century farms. Pammel State Park, one of Iowa’s first state parks, is home to some of Iowa’s oldest oak trees and offers camping and river access in addition to scenic fall views.
If you’re in town the weekend of October 9-10, 2021, the annual Covered Bridge Festival returns, with guided tours of the bridges, a pancake breakfast, and live entertainment throughout the weekend.
Hungry? Make a pit stop at Big Rack Bew Haus for a local beer, Rudy’s Restaurant for homemade comfort food, and Frostee’s, an old-school ice cream shop, for a sweet treat. While the iconic Northside Cafe—the eatery featured in the movie and a Winterset mainstay—is currently closed, be sure to stop by to snap a few photos.
Historic Hills Scenic Byway
Head to the southeast corner of the state to tour this 105-mile route home to communities of both Mennonites and Old Order Amish. The Historic Hills Scenic Byway stretches from Moravia and Blakesburg eastward to Bloomfield, Keosauqua, and Donnellson.
As the home of some of Iowa’s earliest settlers, you’ll find tons of history here, too: Van Buren County boasts Iowa’s oldest courthouse in Keosauqua, Croton marks the site of Iowa’s only Civil War battle, and a portion of the Mormon Pioneer Trail traces through Southeast Iowa. While it’s not on the main route, the American Gothic House and Visitor Center, made famous in Grant Wood’s iconic painting, “American Gothic,” is just outside Eldon and makes the perfect spot to stop and snap a classically Iowan photo.
Fresh cheese curds and Iowa-famous Prairie Breeze cheddar await at Milton Creamery in Milton. Southfork Grill in Bloomfield offers old-school dining and an extensive burger menu—you can even stay the night at the attached lodge. Stop by Appleberry Orchard in Donnellson for an apple cider slush, homemade treats including apple cider donuts, and a signature Queen’s Apple.
Leaf color characteristics of common Iowa plants:
Not sure what types of trees you’re looking at on your trip? This guide from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources should help narrow it down:
- Walnut: Turns yellow in fall; one of the first to turn and drop leaves.
- Red Oak: Brilliant red leaves in fall, although color is likely not as intense as some hard maples.
- White Oak: Subdued red color of leaves in fall before turning brown and often staying on the tree until new leaves begin to grow in the spring.
- Bur Oak: Buff to yellow; turn brown before falling.
- Hickory: Leaves turn yellow, then brown before falling.
- Ash: Leaves turn yellow, but some have a purplish cast. Leaves fall after walnut but earlier than oaks and maples.
- Elms: Leaves turn yellow; some turn brown before falling, while others retain color.
- Soft Maple: Leaves turn yellow and don’t turn brown before falling.
- Hard Maple: Brilliant red hues; red pigmentation of some leaves breaks down before falling.
- Sumac: Red, but often overlooked because it is a small tree confined to openings and edges.
- Virginia Creeper: Bright red; very spectacular when it grows on dead snags.
Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources
by Nicole Wiegand