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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Holliwell Covered Bridge
Holliwell is nestled among a thicket of trees on a quiet road and straddles a rugged creek.
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.
Hogback Covered Bridge
Hogback sits openly and proudly in its surrounding landscape, making it the most photogenic of all the bridges.
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.
Roseman Covered Bridge
Roseman is jewel-like and tidy, and feels like it’s straight out of a storybook.
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.
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.
Take this trip.
To see many of the places mentioned above, check out the map below.