One of the states we drove through on our cross-country trip. Now, I had no idea what to expect from Iowa, but I learned a lot. Iowa is full of a lot of random things! For example, I’ve never seen so many windmills in my life. And not just regular windmills, but the only authentic operating Danish windmill in the United States. Who knew? The Travel Iowa website is a fantastic resource for finding things to do as you make your way across the midwestern state.
Denmark in Iowa
Our first discovery in Iowa was the town of Elk Horn, home to a quaint Danish community including the Museum of Danish America. Several signs along Route 80 piqued our curiosity to see the Danish windmill in the random Iowan town. Getting off Route 80 at this particular exit gives you two options: go right to Atlantic, the Coca-Cola capital of Iowa (super teeny tiny town – not a whole lot going on), or go left to Elk Horn.
Unfortunately, the Danish windmill was under construction when we went to visit; the community was currently raising funds to restore it to its former glory. Nonetheless we were able to go inside to a shop that housed more Danish souvenirs than I could have ever imagined! We learned that the Danish settlement in Iowa, headed by one of the townspeople, paid for an authentic Danish windmill to be brought to town and reassembled there.
Across the street from the windmill was the cutest little coffee shop – which was exactly what I needed. The shop, Coffee Girl, is run by a local woman. She offers both coffee drinks and pastries as well as her own line of lotions – which smell amazing! I recommend the “Little Black Dress” lotion. There is a very homey feel to the place, and is perfect for a roadside rest.
Elk Horn also has a sister town, Kimballton, slightly north off the highway. The Danish culture continues there, as they pay homage to Hans Christen Andersen. There is a sculpture garden containing the Little Mermaid along with several other characters from Andersen’s novels. While we didn’t have time to venture to Kimballton, I wish we had. Make sure you add it to your trip!
The Iowa State Fair
Our final, and ultimate, stop in Iowa was at the Iowa State Fair. If you’re ever on a roadtrip and you learn that there is a festival going on, it is a crime not to stop and check it out! Located on the outskirts of Des Moines, the Iowa State Fair is one of the biggest in the country and also the setting of the 1945 film State Fair. Iowans are very passionate about their fair and will rave for hours if given the chance (just ask our parking attendant). I’ve put together a little list of all the interesting things I discovered in my day at the fair.
Parking at the fair is near impossible. Even though they advertised expanded parking lots this summer, don’t expect to get a spot there. Luckily, nearly everyone living near the fairgrounds offers up their front lawns and driveways – for a fee. We paid $10 to park and only walked a few blocks to get in.
They LOVE their craft beer. There were easily over 100 different Iowan craft beers on tap – located at different tents around the fair. You could choose to order full glasses, or split them up to be able to sample several different ones!
At one end of the fair, up on a hill, you can see the Des Moines city skyline. It’s a beautiful sight.
Like most fairs, Iowa has its sculptures too – butter, sand, and straw. The sand sculpture was my favorite of the bunch; it was a bunch of pigs dressed up as comic book characters!
Unlike some fairs, if you buy tickets to a grandstand show, you DO NOT get free admission to the fair. You still have to purchase your tickets at the main gate or in advance.
Iowa is home to some of the strangest contests I have ever heard of at a state fair. To name a few: women’s rubber chicken throwing contest; annual outhouse race; pigtail, ponytail, braid, mullet, and mohawk contest; ladies’ husband calling contest; joke telling contest (YouTube this one – you won’t regret it!); diaper derby; and even a bread growing contest. (We learned about all of these on the big screens while we waited for our concert at the grandstands.)
The buildings are ALL air conditioned. It is an absolutely wonderful aspect of the Iowa State Fair. It offers some great reprieve from the hot days of summer!
The agriculture building was my favorite. They gave out free hard-boiled eggs and had lots of exhibits supporting the local farms. While you’re there, get a cup of the honey lemonade – so delicious and perfect on a hot day!
According to signs at the fair, there is a 20-year waitlist to get a camping spot during the fair days.
Well, now I can cross-off Iowa on my list of states to visit. It definitely had some surprises up its sleeve and made for a few great stops on our cross-country trip.