We were so happy there were so many interesting things to do and see in Iowa. As we took a road trip from Milwaukee, WI to Eden, Utah, we spent more time in Iowa than we expected. We saw and did so many fun things with our kids, many of them free. Here’s what to do in Iowa with kids in three days.
What to do in Iowa with kids in 3 days
We planned as we went, and were happy with everything we did. If you find yourself near any of these towns, or want to plans trip, you will be pleasantly surprised and many even stunned at all there is to do in Iowa with kids.
1. Devonian Fossil Gorge in Iowa City, IA
To think we almost didn’t stop here actually upsets me as this was one of the highlights of our entire month-long vacation. We were driving along I-80 toward Cedar Rapids when I read about the Devonian Fossil Gorge. Our kids enjoy fossils so when we saw a sign I told my husband to take the exit. It was almost dusk as we followed our way to the site. We saw some beautiful homes, lush landscape and several deer.
Approximately 375 million years ago, the Devonian sea covered most of the United States. This site was uncovered in 1993 when flooding overtook Coralville Lake. You will be able to see, touch and even walk on the ocean floor — covered in fossils — from 200 million years BEFORE the dinosaurs.
What to do at Devonian Fossil Gorge
Look for fossils
All of this is free. There is parking very close to the site to see the fossils. Once you get out, you will see there are nice displays so you can learn about the area and the fossils you will see. There is a small water feature and a slowly declining ramp past large boulders which have hundreds of fossils on them. So if someone in your can’t walk on the actual ocean floor, he or she can still see all the fossils on the boulders.
If you proceed down the ramp you will be walking on the actual layers of earth that are covered in fossils. Some are in broken off pieces and some are on intact slabs. It’s truly magnificent to discover so many types of fossils in “real life.”
You will easily find all of these fossils:
- Colonial: Favosites, Hexagonaria
You will be walking along some small pools of water. When we visited the first time it was in the evening and we heard frogs and saw water bugs. The next day we went in the late morning/early afternoon, and saw a snake and some type of fast-moving rodent.
Be sure to pick up a pamphlet before you go down so that when you see the numbers, you will know they types of fossils you can find. Be eco-friendly and return it when you leave if you won’t use it again. You will enjoy seeing the large dam and across from it is the site you will love exploring.
Devonian Gorge Visitor’s Center
We went here on our second day and were interested to see more fossils as well as life-sized animals, including a bald eagle, coyote, red fox, badger and more. There is also a small theater with a video presentation.
Enjoy outdoor recreation
There is a lot to do right in this area. There were RVs and trailers. People were fishing and having picnics. There were playgrounds and a sandy beach for swimming.
Leave fossils for everyone to enjoy
Do not take the fossils. Please leave the fossils for everyone to enjoy. There is a fine for removing them. If you want to split rock to find and keep fossils, visit Fossil Safari near Kemmerer, Wyoming.
If you are anywhere near Iowa City, take a few hours to check out the Devonian Fossil Gorge. We saw hundreds of fossils. It was incredible.
2. World’s Largest Wooden Nickel in Iowa City
You can drive right past this site in Iowa City and not even see it at first, as we did en route the first day on our way to the Devonian Fossil Gorge. It is easy enough to pull to the side of the road for a picture as it isn’t on a busy road. The nickel is behind a barbed wire fence.
Stand in front of the World’s Largest Wooden Nickel for a picture, and you can be on your way.
3. The Flying Wienie Restaurant in Cedar Rapids
Where to eat in Cedar Rapids with kids? There is a kid-friendly restaurant called The Flying Wienie. Our kids will eat anywhere there are french fries so this place was perfect. They offer beef sandwiches, hamburgers, Chicago-style hot dogs, gyros, French fries and more. This little place was fun.
The beef sandwiches are excellent and you can even order a half a sandwich — still plenty big — with fries. There were fountain drinks as well as an entire refrigerated case of sodas. We enjoyed a Millstream root beer from the local Millstream Brewing Company in Amana, Iowa. We will definitely go there next time.
4. Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan in Brandon
Next we headed to see Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan in Brandon, Iowa. This frying pan weighs half a ton and can hold 44 dozen eggs. Locals built it to increase awareness of the local annual Cowboy Breakfast which the town hosts every September.
This was a fun stop as you can sit right in the pan for a picture. We love free roadside attractions for kids.
5. Matchstick Marvels Museum in Gladbrook
In between the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area and Marshalltown is Gladbrook. Wow! What a find. If you are ever within a few hours of Gladbrook, Iowa, make a day of it and visit Matchstick Marvels.
This is a must see attraction. There were incredible matchstick masterpieces with descriptions of how many hours it took the artisan, Pat Acton to build, as well as how many matchsticks he used.
Whether your kids love building, art, history, or exploring new places, Matchstick Marvels Museum is definitely something to do in Iowa with kids.
We stretched our stay to an hour, taking our time learning about each exhibit but you can see it much faster if you are short on time. Like anything, it’s what you make of it. My kids and I enjoyed noting the details of the displays.
Matchstick Museum hours
Located next to the Gladstone Theater, the Matchstick Museum is open everyday from 1pm – 5pm. Know they are only open April through November, so be sure to time your visit. There is a small admission fee which helps keep the museum open.
How long will I need at Matchstick museum?
We were there about 55 minutes. We lingered around each exhibit, reading all about how many matchsticks Pat used and how many hours they took to build.
The cashier was so friendly and appreciative of us coming. A few women who said they were local soybean farmers were also there enjoying it and thanked us for coming. I’ve never experienced this anywhere I’ve ever been! Volunteers work in the museum.
We aren’t a big souvenir family and usually only buy the flat pennies which use two quarters and one penny. An imprint of the attraction is pressed into the flattened penny. It makes for an inexpensive and easy-to-carry-and-store memory. Kids enjoy collecting them and remembering all the places they’ve been to. The only other souvenirs we ever purchase seem to be geodes, rocks, polished stones and petrified wood from the Petrified Forest in Arizona. My kids have also wanted and bought Lego sets from Legoland.
There was a small display of souvenir postcards, books and trading cards here. Something very unique was a bag of matchsticks (with the tops cut off) along with directions to construct a matchstick box, though you can make whatever you want. This bag also includes a small bottle of glue. What a fantastic idea. We bought two of them as my kids love building, and they talked all about what they would build.
The matchstick replicas were to scale and were extraordinary. We saw just incredible creations. Our favorites included the Space Shuttle Challenger, the United States Capitol, and the bald eagle. It was amazing to see the details on all of the structures, especially on the Notre Dame Cathedral. They were all wonderful.
It’s interesting to read how many matchsticks Pat Acton used in each masterpiece. The description also includes how many hours Pat spent creating and building them. We learned from the short video that he also does extensive research to ensure his replicas are to scale, etc. Many of his works are in Ripley Believe It or Not museums.
Matchstick Marvel Museum Video
Pull up a chair and watch the video in which the museum’s founder, Pat Acton, talks about how he first started with matchsticks. It was interesting to learn how one “bad weather day” he went to a local store and bought some matchsticks. Using only a razor, sandpaper and a bottle of glue, he built his first matchstick creation in 1977. It was a small church replica with 500 matchsticks. You can see how much he loves history and research. He is a true craftsman and artist.
Also interesting is that for 10 years he cut the tops off of each and every matchstick. My kids really thought that was amazing.
You can see there is lots to enjoy here and in this area, so be sure to plan a trip to see the amazing creations at Matchstick Marvels.
6. Butter Cow Calf Sculpture in Toledo
Norma “Duffy” Lyon sculpted these cow calf statues. They are on a little grassy hill near a tree in Toledo, IA. Your kids will enjoy romping around for a few minutes while you enjoy the view from the hill.
7. Big Treehouse in Marshalltown
We wish we could vacation in a treehouse but thought walking through one would be fun. With over 5,000 square feet of floor space, running water, electricity, appliances, and 13 porch swings, this is something to see.
Unfortunately, we didn’t because it rained the night before, and they canceled our tour for safety reasons. Be sure to call in advance to make your reservation. This looked really unique, and kids would love it. There is a small fee for this attraction.
8. Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines
Continuing on our way to Nebraska, we drove through Des Moines and wanted to stop by the Iowa Capitol Building. You can tour the Iowa Capitol Monday – Saturday by calling ahead. There are also self-guided tours. It is all free. This is fun to do with kids even if they haven’t learned about the government in school yet. This incredible Capitol is the only one in the United States Capitol with five domes. It’s renowned for its architecture and is rich with history. Take a tour or just admire it from the outside.
Be sure to stop by the scaled-replicas of the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty out front.
- Miniature Statue of Liberty: In 1950, the Boy Scouts of America in mid-Iowa donated this replica to Iowa for their annual service project.
- Miniature Liberty Bell: Also in 1950, the US Department of the Treasury gave this statue to Iowa to tham them for their commitment to war-bond drives.
9. Freedom Rock in Menlo
On our road trip through Iowa, we were able to see the works of another incredibly talented artist, Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II. Sorensen continues to honor veterans with his incredible paintings. The Freedom Rock in Menlo is a free attraction and is definitely something to do in Iowa with kids.
Each year, Sorensen repaints the 12-foot-tall Freedom Rock in Menlo to honor American veterans for their service to our country. Not only that, he is working on his goal of painting a patriotic rock in each of the 99 counties in Iowa. There’s some information about his project near the Freedom Rock.
In the 20 minutes that we were there, we met several people who were visiting the rock from other parts of Iowa. It’s their yearly tradition to see the Freedom Rock and what Sorensen has created.
10. Wind farming rest stop in Adair County
This Iowa Department of Transportation’s rest stop has a theme: wind energy. Iowa has a big wind energy industry. Make sure as you continue along I-80 westbound at milepost 80 to stop and see it. There is a huge wind turbine blade sculpture, called “Lift,” that really demonstrates just how large those turbines are. It’s 165 feet tall; you can see it up to a mile away. It was difficult to capture its height on film.
Inside the building, there’s more. There’s the usual: nice restrooms, maps, vending machines, etc. But this one also has plaques which explain how Iowa generates more wind power than any other state. Iowa also makes up more than a quarter of Iowa’s generated electricity. This rest stop is very educational for kids and and adults.
Whatever your child’s age, he or she will think it’s cool to stand next to the blade. There are some nice sculptures here. It would be a great place for a picnic.
Iowa with kids in 3 days
We really loved our travels through this midwestern gem. We had so much fun exploring Iowa and are excited to return on one of many of our visits to Chicago and Milwaukee to see our family. Enjoy Iowa for its relaxed pace, friendly people, and interesting things. There are so many fantastic local attractions. Go to Iowa with kids and enjoy! Learn about great things to do in Nebraska with kids as we continued our journey.