Driving from Pella to Greenfield by way of some magnificent covered bridges

A photographer documents his road trip through the heart of Iowa, where he finds incredible history and endless charm.

Photo: Tag Christof

Marion County

I first arrive in Marion County by way of Davenport and Iowa City, where on each successive stop you can feel the frenzy of big city life disappearing in your rearview mirror. After settling in at a tidy little motel in Pella, I make a beeline for the famous Knoxville Speedway—also known as the “Sprint Car Capital of the World.” Though I’m visiting during the off-season, I’m still able to summit the stands and watch heavy equipment till the soil for the upcoming racing season. The smell of earth mixed with an approaching rainstorm—even with the absence of cars zooming by—evokes nail-biting race nights. And rather than ask what business I have wandering the grounds, workers just wave friendly hellos. Life moves at a human pace in this part of the country.

An empty speedway against a blue sky
Knoxville Speedway. | Photo: Tag Christof

Downtown Knoxville

I leave the speedway and head toward downtown Knoxville, where I park a few blocks from the town’s main square and take in the surroundings: a nicely curated vintage shop, a garage with a few well-maintained classic cars, and a quaint cafe. While on the square, I catch the unmistakable aroma of burgers cooking on an open flame. I follow my nose to a large, wood-fire grill outside of Peace Tree Brewing. I head inside to the main taproom, order the bartender’s choice, and casually tell him I’m visiting Iowa from Los Angeles. Before I know it, I’m being introduced to the brewery’s owner, Megan McKay, and her entire family. With earnest kindness, they invite me to stay and chat, and we spend the evening in conversation about our shared love for Italy, the brewery business, and the wonderful quality of life in the Hawkeye State. In my opinion, any town where you can walk into an establishment without knowing a single soul and linger for hours in good conversation is a real gem.

A white water tower against a blue and purple sky
Scenes from around Knoxville. | Photo: Tag Christof
A woman seated at a bar table with an empty beer glass in front of her
Peace Tree Brewing owner Megan McKay. | Photo: Tag Christof

Downtown Pella

The next morning back in Pella, I’m the first customer at Smokey Row Coffeehouse, where the barista makes a mean americano. I sip my hot coffee and walk Pella’s downtown drag, admiring the gorgeous storefronts—many with quaint Dutch names—where thousands gather every May for the town’s famous Tulip Festival.

Green hills against a blue cloud-less sky with a few bare trees.
A perfectly Iowa scene of rolling green hills. | Photo: Tag Christof

Red Rock Lake

From there, I head to Red Rock Lake in hopes of summiting the famous Cordova Observation Tower. Luckily, my new friends at Peace Tree Brewing shared that I would need two quarters to enter the tower’s turnstile. So, after paying my 50 cents, I climb the 170 steps in the early morning, mid-March air and am rewarded with panoramic views of the placid lake and endless golden cropland.

Looking down from Cordova Park Observation Tower. | Photo: Tag Christof
A tall observation tower with a winding staircase wrapped around the outside
Cordova Park Observation Tower. | Photo: Tag Christof

Downtown Indianola

Thirty minutes down the road, I have a proper breakfast at Crouse Cafe—an Indianola institution and family-run business that has been around since the 1940s. From my vinyl booth, and with a never-ending cup of coffee, it seems as if the entire town has turned out for Sunday brunch.

Breakfast set on a table: coffee, french toast, and ham.
The perfect breakfast at Crouse Cafe. | Photo: Tag Christof
Three people with their backs against the camera, all wearing shirts that say "Crouse Cafe" on the back
Waitress at Crouse Cafe in Indianola. | Photo: Tag Christof

After breakfast, I pop into the Corner Sundry—a vintage soda fountain that just so happens to also be a frequent stop for aspiring national politicians on the Iowa campaign trail.

Three blocks from Corner Sundry sits the home of the Des Moines Metro Opera, a dignified work of architecture that is half steel and glass contemporary and half turn-of-the-century brick. I learn from a passing local that the original structure was once Indianola’s main public library.

A building with tall windows and pillars on each side of the entrance
Des Moines Metro Opera, now housed in the former Indianola Public Library building. | Photo: Tag Christof

On my way out of town, I swing by Summerset Winery. It’s the off-season and the tasting room is closed, but I’m still able to take a long, languid walk among the vines.

Wooden post with yellow sun hanging off it and sign that says Winery with a yellow arrow pointing
Entrance to Summerset Winery. | Photo: Tag Christof

Madison County

Next comes the highlight of my trip—Madison County. Yes, that Madison County, with all of its famous covered bridges. The area wears its place in cinematic history on its sleeve, with the 1995 Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood classic The Bridges of Madison County referenced on everything from signage to business slogans to massive murals. I even spot several original movie posters in windows around the town of Winterset.

A storefront window with a 'Bridges of Madison County' movie poster
Proud of its cinematic history. | Photo: Tag Christof
A towering courthouse building
Madison County Courthouse. | Photo: Tag Christof

After a quick lunch at Frostee’s, a local ice cream drive-in, I spend the remainder of the day visiting some of the most charming Madison County bridges: Holliwell Covered Bridge, Cedar Covered Bridge, Hogback Covered Bridge, Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge, and, last but not least, Roseman Covered Bridge.

Each one is worth a lingering visit because, despite their schematic similarities, they all sit in dramatically different landscapes and each have experienced the passing of time in their own unique ways. If you look closely, you’ll see that each bridge has been engraved with different lovers’ names, memorials, and the scuffs and scars of lives well-lived.

Inscriptions inside Holliwell Bridge
Inscriptions inside Holliwell Bridge. | Photo: Tag Christof

Holliwell Covered Bridge

Holliwell is nestled among a thicket of trees on a quiet road and straddles a rugged creek.

Entrance to red covered bridge with brown grass
Holliwell Bridge. | Photo: Tag Christof
Close up with red covered bridge pillars over rocky creek
Holliwell stands sturdy over a small creek. | Photo: Tag Christof

Cedar Covered Bridge

Cedar is the only remaining covered bridge in the county on which you can drive a car. It also happens to be the bridge featured on the cover of The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller.

Entrance to white covered bridge centered between bare trees
The entrance to Cedar Covered Bridge. | Photo: Tag Christof

Hogback Covered Bridge

Hogback sits openly and proudly in its surrounding landscape, making it the most photogenic of all the bridges.

Brown street sign with Hogback bridge picture and arrow
Sign for Hogback Bridge. | Photo: Tag Christof
Entrance to covered bridge among tall grasses blowing in the wind
The entrance of Hogback Bridge. | Photo: Tag Christof

Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge

Cutler-Donahoe is the easiest to access, as it sits in a quaint park within walking distance of the town’s square. It was moved from its original location east of the city in 1979.

Close up of red covered bridge between two trees over a green grassy lawn
Cutler-Donahoe Bridge in Winterset. | Photo: Tag Christof
Close up of brown fuzzy leaves on a tall stick in a field
Nearby fields. | Photo: Tag Christof

Roseman Covered Bridge

Roseman is jewel-like and tidy, and feels like it’s straight out of a storybook.

Red covered bridge with white fence surrounded by brown grass
Roseman Bridge. | Photo: Tag Christof

Greenfield

From Winterset, I drive west through a tranquil, indigo landscape of croplands and silent wind turbines, ultimately arriving in Greenfield. I spend the night at Hotel Greenfield, where one very cheerful innkeeper named Mary keeps me company with stories and scrapbooks of the old property. She shares that the hotel’s recent renovations have transformed it into the town’s informal living room, where tourists and civic groups regularly meet. The hotel and its adjoining buildings are just a few of many Greenfield structures that have made it on to the National Register of Historic Places. Some others include a former library that now serves as the town’s chamber of commerce, the Warren Opera House, and the central courthouse.

Colorful painted mural on a wall in Greenfield Hotel lobby
Old sign inside the lounge at Hotel Greenfield. | Photo: Tag Christof
Stairway and checked tile floor in Greenfield Hotel lobby
Lobby at the Hotel Greenfield. | Photo: Tag Christof

Des Moines

After Hotel Greenfield, I head into Iowa’s capital, Des Moines. I find myself wandering through the city’s historic East Village neighborhood, enjoying the rich culture and quaint shops. As I stroll along the Des Moines River, reflecting on my past week of travels, something tells me I’ll be back again soon. And when I do return, I know that I’ll have new friends and a few lovely bridges to welcome me.

Looking through a white covered bridge with green hills in the background and through the rear opening of the bridge
There are plenty more covered bridges to see. | Photo: Tag Christof

Take this trip.

To see many of the places mentioned above, check out the map below.

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