9 Must-Visit Destinations In Iowa You Can Get Into For Free

Photo courtesy of Deb Lovett

Coastal folks sometimes refer to Iowa as a flyover state. To live in or have visited Iowa is to know all the exciting, beautiful, and fun destinations across the Hawkeye State. What’s more is that many of the activities and must-visit destinations in Iowa are free.

From caves and gardens to museums and historical sites, we list some of our favorite free Iowa must-dos below. 

Maquoketa Caves State Park

9688 Caves Rd., Maquoketa
Open 4 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily

Maquoketa Caves State Park remains a favorite park of Iowa residents and visitors alike. The 370-acre park includes about 6 miles of trails and 13 caves to explore, including the large Dancehall Cave. The 1,100-foot cave is said to have been a music and dance venue some 150 years ago. For more information about the limestone formations in the park, you can also visit their interpretive center. 

High Trestle Trail Bridge

2335 QF Lane, Madrid
Bridge lights are on from sunset to midnight

Running 25 miles through five Iowa towns and four counties, the Trestle Trail is a favorite among hikers, walkers, and runners alike. The real gem, however, is the 13-story High Trestle Trail Bridge across the Des Moines River in Madrid. It’s especially fun to walk the pedestrian bridge at night when the bridge shines blue making little ones scream in delight and providing the perfect backdrop for a romantic stroll. 

Sanford Museum & Planetarium

117 E Willow St, Cherokee
Open Mon. through Fri. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sat. and Sun. 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

sanford museum in iowa
Photo courtesy of John Snapp

The Sanford Museum serves as a one-stop shop for all types of exhibits, and it’s home to Iowa’s first planetarium. After you take in a planetarium show, you can explore archaeology, art, astronomy, geology, history, natural history, and paleontology exhibits. Many of the museum exhibits focus on Northwest Iowa and the Indigenous people who lived there, but you will also find Iowa native and astronaut Peggy Whitson’s spacesuit and other NASA-related items on display.

University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

Macbride Hall, 17 N Clinton St, Iowa City
Open Wed. through Sat. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

University of Iowa Museum of Natural History
Photo courtesy of University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

As the second oldest museum west of the Mississippi River, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History has some of the largest collections in the country. Visitors can explore various permanent exhibitions—including Diversity of Life exhibits and Mammal Hall—that house a variety of specimens from aardvarks to zebras.

Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens

3800 Arboretum Dr., Dubuque, IA
Open daily from 7 a.m. to dusk

Dubuque arboretum
Photo courtesy of Deb Lovett

The Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens has been growing since it opened in 1980. Today, you can find 60 types of gardens spread over 56 acres. Visitors can walk, run, and bike the trails on the grounds to explore the children’s gardens, the Japanese garden, the prairie garden, the rose garden, and much more. 

State Historical Museum of Iowa

600 E Locust St, Des Moines, IA
Open Tues. through Fri. from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

state historical society of iowa
Photo courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa

Located a few short blocks from the state capitol, the State Historical Museum of Iowa highlights Iowa’s rich heritage through various exhibitions and collections. You can explore information about Iowa before it became a state, the area’s natural resources, the role Iowans played in the Civil War, Iowa’s legacy in movies and television (hello, Ashton Kutcher!), and much more. 

Des Moines Art Center

4700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA
Open Tues. and Wed. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thurs. and Fri. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sat. and Sun. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Des Moines Art Center is home to a vast collection of art, ranging from the 19th century to the present, much of it falling under the umbrella of contemporary art. As you stroll through the galleries, you will find photos, paintings, and sculptures. The museum has several major works from artists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Francis Bacon. 

Union Pacific Railroad Museum

200 Pearl St, Council Bluffs, IA
Open Thurs. through Sat. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

union pacific railroad museum
Photo courtesy of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum

You can find the Union Pacific Railroad Museum tucked away in the historic Carnegie Building in Council Bluffs. The two-level museum has four main permanent exhibits. You can find the Lincoln Collection and the Building America exhibit, where you learn about the history of the transcontinental railroad, on the first level. America Travels by Rail, on the second level, showcases the golden age of American passenger travel. You can also engage with our train simulator in the Working on the Railroad exhibit. 

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

110 Parkside Dr, West Branch, IA
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Herbert Hoover national historic site
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is a collection of buildings, including a visitor center, that showcase the early years of our 31st president. Hoover was born in West Branch in 1874, where he and his wife are now buried. The site is also home to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. You can visit the cottage where he was born, the blacksmith shop where Hoover’s father worked, and the schoolhouse. If weather permits, go for a leisurely stroll on the nearby Hoover Nature Trail. 

by Jessica Lee

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