Road Trip: Iowa Style!

By Ann Thelen

With Memorial Day marking the unofficial start of summer, there's nothing quite like hitting the open road when the sun is shining and the days are longer! A road trip doesn't have to take you across the country. In fact, you don't need to leave Iowa to find a bounty of scenic stops and sights.

Iowa's rolling highways and ribbons of county roads are more than just a means to an end, they are part of an interlocking story of hardworking families, modern agriculture, noteworthy attractions and rich history. And of course, great food! Whether you enjoy the beauty of our state's lush green landscape or the feeling of warm Iowa breezes drifting through your car, grab your sunglasses, gas up the car and head out on this route through north central Iowa.

While this road trip is perfect for any summer month, we’ve added a few highlights specific to Memorial Day weekend festivities. In addition to these stops – all summer long you’ll find small-town Iowa bustling with county fairs, sweet corn festivals, farming shows, city celebrations and more!

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our two-part summer series on Iowa road trips. By clicking the links you will be leaving a partially funded checkoff site. 

Start in Ames

With most college students on summer break, begin with a beautiful summertime stroll on Iowa State University’s campus in Ames. With a focus on science and technology, Iowa State is well-known for its many research patents and inventions including the first digital computer, fax machine technology, Maytag blue cheese, the round hay baler and many more! From Nobel Prize winners to boasting the largest concentration of faculty involved in sustainable agriculture and research, students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries come to Ames to choose from 100 majors. Plant scientist extraordinaire George Washington Carver got his start at Iowa State. Talk about planting seeds that continue to grow!

Hungry for one of Iowa’s Best Burgers?You can find it at two restaurants in Ames! The 2018 winner in the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and the Iowa Beef Industry Council's Best Burger Contestis at Café Beaudelaire in Campustown. The Brazilian-inspired restaurant, which has been in business 28 years, serves a hand-pattied burger with a simple combination of salt, pepper and oregano on a handmade patty of Certified Angus Beef. Together with a toasted bun and a variety of toppings, the result is nothing short of amazing!

Brick City Grill bacon cheeseburgerIn north Ames, Brick City Grill was the 2014 Best Burger winner. The winning recipe includes a proprietary chuck blend delivered fresh to the restaurant. There, it is hand-pattied and flat-top grilled to order with only salt and pepper added. The flat top sears the burger and lets it cook in its juices, so you get a juicier burger this way.

While we’re talking beef, cattle are raised in all 99 counties. In 2016, Iowa’s beef industry generated an estimated $6.30 billion of economic activity for the state. Delicious beef provides 10 essential nutrients and today’s beef is leaner than ever. In fact, 69 percent of all beef muscle cuts sold at grocery stores are lean.

Your taste buds will thank you if you stop by The Café, whose motto is good food, good drink and good company. Much of their food comes from local farmers and purveyors, and the chefs relish the interaction and community they get from buying directly from the people who grow it.

Meat lovers will never walk away hungry from long-time community favorite Hickory Park, which is known for tender and juicy smoked pork ribs. Approximately 15,000 guests are served during an average week, and we can assure you their famous ice cream sundaes are worth the wait!

Head North to Alexander and Belmond

Enchanted AcresAlexander is home to Latham Hi-Tech Seeds. As the third generation of seedsmen, President John Latham says the company continues to build their business on the foundation his grandfather Willard provided with a commitment to personal service and tailored solutions, and the same spirit of families helping families.

In her “spare time,” company Vice President Shannon Latham owns and operates Enchanted Acres in nearby Sheffield. Here she brings together her passion for people, animals and agriculture and raises Boer goats, chickens, oats and pumpkins on her small farm.

Enchanted Acres welcomes families near and far to escape reality for a few hours and simply enjoy spending time together in the great outdoors. Make a note of this area in the summer and come back in the fall for all kinds of fantastic pumpkin patch events!

Spend some time in nearby Belmond, and you’ll be in for quite the treat! The 2015 Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin Contest Winner can be found at the Belmond Drive-in. The Iowa Pork Producers Association has held a Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin contest each year since 2003. This year’s winner will be crowned in October during National Pork Month.

Speaking of pork, here’s something to squeal with delight about… Iowa is the number one pork producing state in the U.S. That’s right – No. 1, and most of Iowa’s pig farms are family-owned enterprises.

Drive North to Clear Lake and Mason City

Clear Lake is a major stop along Interstate 35 and a summer vacation hub in the middle of farm country. In the days before everyone had TVs, musicians regularly toured small towns by bus, drawing capacity crowds from miles around to places such as the Surf Ballroom.

Driving up to the Surf Ballroom may make you feel like you should be driving your shiny ’57 Chevy or wearing a poodle skirt! The original ballroom, built in 1934, hosted all the famous acts of an earlier era: the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Count Basie and Lawrence Welk. The site of Buddy Holly's last concert, the Surf Ballroom still has concerts and can be reserved as a convention hall or reception site. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum dedicated the Surf Ballroom as a historic landmark in 2009.

Clear Lake beachThe Clear Lake Yacht Club has a magnificent view of Clear Lake and is within walking distance of all the downtown shopping and parks and restaurants. Since 1935, the Clear Lake Yacht Club has had a rich history of competitive sailing and is known for local sailing events as well as regional and national regattas. The Memorial Day Regatta will take place May 26-27.

Meredith Willson, author of “The Music Man,” was born and raised in Mason City. He drew heavily on his experiences growing up in the community to write the popular and long-running Broadway play and movie. The community works hard to keep the memory of Meredith Willson alive. The 80th North Iowa Band Festival will take place in Mason City from May 25 to 27. The weekend festival, which celebrates the musical heritage of Willson, includes a parade attended by more than 30,000 people, a carnival, concessions, a wide range of musical performances and a vendors’ marketplace – all in downtown Mason City’s Central Park. 

Take a step back in time with a stay at the Historic Park Inn in Mason City – the last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built hotel in the world. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, you’ll be in awe of this magnificent place, designed by one of American’s most legendary architects. You can't help but wander throughout the entire hotel and enjoy the many quiet and comfortable settings while absorbing a part of history.

Detour to Forest City

If you’re a country music fan, plan to take a detour over to Forest City for the Tree Town Music Festival, May 24 to 27. Tree Town has become the premier country music festival in the Midwest. Tree Town first made its mark in Forest City, Iowa, Memorial Day Weekend in 2013. With over 15,000 fans in attendance, Tree Town made a name for itself in its second year and became known as one of the top ten best country music festivals in the U.S. Now with over 20,000 festival attendees and campers, Tree Town is celebrating their fifth anniversary. The four-day festival will take place on the Winnebago rally campgrounds and Heritage Park in Forest City with headlining acts Keith Urban, Cole Swindell, Alabama and Eddie Money.

Take a Jaunt East to Osage

Stan's Drive-InWho says you can’t make two ice cream stops in one day? In Osage, Stan's Drive-In is a great spot for ice cream, and you can also have lunch at this old-fashioned drive-in restaurant that started its curbside service in 1955.

By the way, dairy (one of things we love so much about ice cream!) is a big business in the Midwest. Iowa’s 1,200 dairy farms produced approximately 560 million gallons of milk in 2016. Milk is local and fresh, taking about 48 hours to travel from dairy farms to the store.

Hometown values are at work at Milkhouse Candle Company in Osage, which grew from company founders' – Eric and Janet Sparrow – deep-rooted ties to agricultural America. Their Midwest upbringing inspired the creation for a cleaner, healthier candle experience. From years of researching, experimenting, and just having fun creating, Milkhouse Candle Company was born. The Milkhouse blend of waxes is simple: pure beeswax and natural soy wax from soybeans grown right here, in America’s upper Midwest. Plus, they are 100 percent all-natural, making them perfect for people with allergies and environmental sensitivities.

While sweet corn accounts for less than one percent of the corn you see growing in fields as you drive down the road in the summer. Steve and Beth Rachut of Osage are a household name in the area because of their farm-fresh produce. With what started as a few rows in his mom's garden, Steve began growing sweet corn 20 years ago and first sold it in Osage in the trunk of her car. While you won’t find their sweet corn ready to eat over the Memorial Day weekend, from mid-July through mid-September, Steve's Sweet Corn & Produce stand can be found in Osage six days a week, plus two days a week at the Mason City Farmers' Market and Saturdays at the Clear Lake Farmers' Market.

Wind Up South in Charles City

Charles City is known for the role it played in the history of the American tractor. The Floyd County Museum in Charles City, Iowa is one of the Midwest's largest rural county museums, with over 50,000 artifacts depicting early and recent prairie life, both agricultural and industrial.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the museum features historic farm tractors, implements and tools of the last century. Charles City is the birthplace of the gasoline-driven tractor, and the museum displays several models manufactured here: Hart-Parr, Oliver and White. Stop by the gift shop for books related to local history, Oliver tractor toys, T-shirts and other gift ideas.

Barn QuiltThe Floyd County Barn and Community Quilt Project is modeled after efforts which started in Grundy County in 2003. The idea was to use the quilt blocks to entice travelers along Highway 20 to get off the highway and come into town. The self-guided tour of more than 30 colorful quilt patterns displayed on barns and buildings may leave you with a desire to fire up your sewing machine to create a fabric replication!

Don’t forget to take care of your sweet tooth during an excursion to this part of the state. Birdsall’s Ice Cream is a north Iowa institution, celebrating 87 years of hot fudge sundaes, peach sundaes, ice cream cones, malts, shakes, banana splits and happy memories. The Chicago Tribune named Birdsall’s as one of the top five ice cream parlors in the Midwest!

There you have it! A glimpse into numerous stops for a summer road trip! Part II of this series will focus on south central Iowa. For a robust list of additional attractions, events and places to enjoy great Iowa food visit