Exploring on a budget: Here are 5 free places to visit in Iowa

Iowa State Capitol

Photo courtesy of Iowa State Capitol

By Iowa Production Staff

May 7, 2024

Iowa is filled with amazing free attractions that are perfect for exploring on a budget. From parks and museums to zoos and outdoor spaces, there is something for everyone to enjoy without spending a dime. Here are some free places in Iowa that you must visit.

Bask in Nature’s Beauty at Pikes Peak State Park

Pikes Peak State Park is one of the most scenic spots in Iowa. This park invites adventurers, families, and anyone looking to soak in the splendor of nature without spending a penny. Pikes Peak State Park is a premier destination for those seeking sprawling landscapes and panoramic views.

Embark on an adventure through the park’s extensive network of hiking trails, and then imagine standing atop a bluff or gazing out as the Mississippi River carves its way through the valley below. The trails wind through a variety of terrains, from lush forests alive with the chatter of wildlife to dramatic cliff edges that offer heart-stopping views.

To make a day of it, plan your visit around all the Pikes Peak State Park has to offer. You can hike Bridal Veil Falls and explore Bear Mound, an effigy built by Native Americans. You might also want to check out the Effigy Mounds National Monument if you’re interested in history. There’s also Point Ann, a four-mile trail that has gorgeous scenic overlooks of the Mississippi River. If you’re wanting to stay for a bit, there are camping options available.

Pikes Peak State Park welcomes all who wish to experience the splendor of Iowa’s natural landscape. With no admission fee, it’s a perfect destination for those exploring on a budget, offering a wealth of experiences that enrich the soul without emptying the wallet.

Step Back in Time at the Amana Colonies

The Amana Colonies is a cluster of seven villages that offers a picturesque glimpse into a unique way of life that has thrived since the mid-19th century. As you wander through the quaint streets, you’ll be transported back to a simpler time, where community and craftsmanship were the cornerstones of daily life.

The Amana Colonies are renowned for their distinctive German heritage, which is evident in everything from the architecture to the culinary delights found here. Begin your journey with a leisurely stroll through the villages, and be sure to check out the woolen mill, furniture shop, or bakery.

Make sure to stop by the local shops and artisans’ studios. The Amana Colonies take pride in their handcrafted goods, ranging from traditional wood furniture to beautifully woven textiles.

If you feel like splurging, don’t miss the chance to indulge in authentic German cuisine that will tantalize your taste buds. The Amana Colonies are famous for their family-style restaurants, bakeries, and meat shops, offering everything from savory sausages to sweet pastries.

Beyond the shops and eateries, the Amana Colonies also offer a variety of cultural and educational experiences. Delve deeper into the history of the Colonies at the local museums, where you’ll learn about the origins, beliefs, and daily lives of the early settlers. Throughout the year, the Amana Colonies host events and festivals that showcase their heritage, including Maifest, Oktoberfest, and the Prelude to Christmas.

Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of a well-preserved cultural heritage, the Amana Colonies offer a unique and memorable experience for all. It’s completely free to walk around and take in the sights!

Encounter Wildlife at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Dive into the heart of Iowa’s natural beauty at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary dedicated to the preservation of Iowa’s native ecosystems, offering a rare glimpse into the vast tallgrass prairies that once covered the heartland of America. It’s a place where the wild roam free, and visitors are treated to the spectacular sight of bison and elk meandering through their natural habitat.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge provides visitors with the unique opportunity to explore the prairie through a network of hiking trails. For those who prefer to cover more ground, the refuge offers a scenic auto tour that winds through the heart of the bison and elk enclosure, providing up-close encounters from the comfort of your vehicle.

Education is at the forefront of the refuge’s mission, with a state-of-the-art Visitor Center that serves as a gateway to learning about the prairie ecosystem and conservation efforts. Interactive exhibits and informative displays make the complex web of prairie life accessible to visitors of all ages, sparking curiosity and fostering a deeper appreciation for the natural world.

Seasonal programs and guided tours further enrich the visitor experience, offering insights into the unique behaviors and habitats of the refuge’s wildlife. Whether it’s witnessing the dramatic display of a prairie burn that rejuvenates the land or participating in a guided birdwatching walk, there’s always something new and exciting to discover.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a testament to the beauty and resilience of Iowa’s natural heritage. Prepare for an adventure into the wild heart of Iowa, where the beauty of the tallgrass prairie comes to life.

Marvel at Art at the Des Moines Art Center

If you’re someone who finds joy and inspiration in the strokes of a paintbrush or the form of a sculpture, then the Des Moines Art Center is a cultural gem you can’t miss. This esteemed art museum is a haven for those who appreciate the beauty and thought-provoking nature of modern and contemporary art. What’s even more remarkable? You can immerse yourself in this artistic enclave without spending a dime, as admission is absolutely free.

The Des Moines Art Center stands out for its impressive collection that spans various movements and periods, bringing together works by some of the most influential artists the world has seen. Imagine wandering through galleries that house masterpieces by Grant Wood, whose landscapes capture the essence of the American Midwest, or being captivated by the bold, colorful flowers of Georgia O’Keeffe. For fans of pop art, encountering an Andy Warhol piece up close is sure to be a highlight.

The building itself, with its architecturally distinct wings designed by Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier, is a work of art. Its design complements the creative spirit of the collections it houses, providing a visually stimulating environment from the moment you step onto the property.

Visiting the Des Moines Art Center is an enriching way to spend your day, offering a slice of the art world right in the heart of Iowa, all for free.

Walk Through History at the Iowa State Capitol

With its impressive golden dome gleaming under the sun, the Iowa State Capitol dominates the Des Moines skyline. A guided tour of this iconic structure offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the state’s heritage in a deeply personal way.

As you step inside, the grandeur of the interior architecture immediately captivates your senses. From the intricately designed mosaics to the grand staircases and the stunning collection of artwork, every corner tells a story of Iowa’s past and present. The vibrant murals and detailed decorations reveal the artistic mastery that has gone into celebrating Iowa’s cultural and political milestones.

The heart of the Iowa State Capitol is its legislative chambers. Exploring the Senate and House chambers allows visitors to envision where lawmakers debate and decide on the laws that shape the state. The law library is also worth a visit with its towering shelves of legal volumes and the stunning spiral staircase. Embarking on a tour of the Iowa State Capitol provides a glimpse into the state’s government.

Read more: Iowa arcades & drive-ins for maximum nostalgia

This story was generated in part by AI and edited by Iowa Starting Line staff.

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