Isn’t Iowa a Boring Place to Travel? Is Iowa a Flyover State?

 

A graphic illustrating Iowa as a "flyover" state

When I moved to Iowa from Minnesota for college, I heard a lot of people tell me that Iowa would be the most boring place I would ever visit - a true flyover state. I heard the stereotype that driving is nothing but fields of corn, and the only thing you can do for fun is drink. Now that I have been living here full time for several years, do I agree? How does this affect my views on local travel? Let’s dive in.


Living In Iowa is more likely to be boring than traveling in Iowa

I think before we start I need to clarify that when measuring how fun or boring a place is, you need to differentiate between living in one location full time, and traveling. Iowan towns tend to be more spread out and smaller than the part of Minnesota where I grew up, which has specific cons for people who permanently live here. For example, you have to travel further for specialized healthcare, specialty shopping, and some kinds of urban entertainment like theater or pop concerts. And since Iowa has very little city-to-city public transportation, that means you have to drive a car to get to these things. People who grew up in Iowa or who like driving don’t tend to mind these things. Conversely, people who are used to having a wide selection of urban entertainment nearby will experience culture shock. 


Why traveling in Iowa is NOT as boring as you were told


Driving and distance

When I am traveling, I tend to be far more comfortable with driving than during my daily life. In fact road trips are possibly my favorite form of travel. Furthermore, for me, driving distances for Iowa travel destinations tend to be about the same as other states. For example, if you wanted to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona, you would probably fly into Phoenix and then drive or take a bus north to the Grand Canyon. That drive would take about 3 hours. Compare that to driving from Waterloo, Iowa to the capital of Des Moines, Iowa to see Blank Park Zoo, or driving from Waterloo to Pikes Peak State Park- Both trips take about 2 hours. 


Iowa has great outdoor travel destinations

In my experience, most people who complain about Iowa being boring prefer indoor, cultural experiences over outdoor experiences. I have never met an athlete or outdoor enthusiast who thought Iowa was boring. In fact, all of Iowa’s state parks are FREE for day use, making it a great place for budget minded travelers too. Iowa has a well connected bike trail network, and the sport is so popular that every year a huge caravan called RAGBRAI traverses the whole state every year. River Kayaking is also wildly popular. There are also a handful of large lakes with resorts and marinas that remind me a bit of Minnesota lake country. 


It's not all corn

There is a heck-of-a lot of corn, don’t get me wrong. It’s a huge industry here (for better and for worse). Major highways tend to go through the flattest, corny-est sections. However, the scenic byways in Iowa can give you a taste of something different on your way to major destinations. The National River Road is a great example. It has awesome views of the bluffs, hills and forests along the Mississippi river. Additionally there are some areas with interesting geography, such as the hilly driftless area in the north east corner of Iowa or small canyons with great hiking like Backbone State Park and Ledges State Park


Would Iowa be boring if I’m an out of state traveler? That depends on your interests. 


Why not to visit Iowa

As I mentioned before, Iowa doesn’t have super huge cities with top-notch inter-city transportation, which means Iowa is not ideal for backpacking. It also doesn't have national parks or national forests, although we do have national monuments with hiking, such as Effigy Mounds National Monument. This is because Iowa was almost entirely prairie when the first pioneers came, and the prairie was comparatively easy to turn into farmland. Most of the natural areas in the upper midwest exist today in part because it was more difficult for early pioneers to excavate forests and rocky landscapes. We don’t have any mountains either. In fact, the highest point in Iowa is in a flat field a few miles from the Minnesota border. If you are looking for exceptionally rugged nature, you would be better served further west. 


Why you SHOULD visit Iowa

So what kind of travel should someone come to Iowa for? I have two suggestions.

 The first suggestion is a quintessential summer road trip to soak in small town charm. Iowa has the cutest small towns with a relaxed pace of life, and by using scenic byways the travel between them can be a highlight. Almost every town, even the very small ones, also hosts an annual festival, usually featuring a local food or cultural history. Strawberry point has Strawberry Days Festival, Waterloo hosts Irish fest, and Pella hosts Tulip Time.  With a little planning, you could hit several small town festivals in one road trip across the state to get a taste of small town, USA. I think for a family from a more urban area like Chicago, St. Louis or Minneapolis, this could be a fun change of pace. 


My second suggestion is for the most thrifty and scrappy travelers. Iowa has an excellent cost of living (especially when compared to popular destinations like California or Colorado). We also have free state park access as I mentioned before, and highly affordable off-season camping. In spring, I often camp for only $10 a night, including the fee for reserving online. If you have a car camping or tent camping set up, I highly recommend taking a road trip around the state, because you will really be able to stretch your money for more experience. 


Conclusion


Whether Iowa is “flyover country” entirely depends on how you like to travel and what you expect from a vacation. It will certainly appeal more to outdoor enthusiasts, road trip lovers, and DIY vacationers compared to people who expect resorts, museums or nightlife. What do you think? Have you ever vacationed in Iowa? Do you think Iowa is boring? Leave a comment below explaining why.

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