"Who the heck goes to Iowa on their vacation?!" That's the most common response that I've gotten when I mentioned to people that Iowa was among the stopping points on my trip, and it's easy to see why. Iowa is an agricultural state that's best known for growing lots and lots of corn, located in the Midwest with no major cities and no famous tourist attractions. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about "flyover country", and states like Iowa are often treated with derision as a result. This is one of the states that non-Americans have often never heard about and many Americans struggle to be able to place on a map. Nonetheless, like all of the other locations where I was stopping on my travels, I found that there was no shortage of interesting sights to see in Iowa. This was one of the busiest days of my whole trip as I drove across a good portion of the state, stopped at two major universities, visited a pair of state capital buildings, and explored a botanical garden in Des Moines. Feel free to scroll through some of my pictures and travel reporting from Iowa since, as best I can tell from my pre-trip research, no one else is doing much travel writing about the state.
This was a travel day that involved a lot of driving. As I headed further west and moved towards the open spaces of the Great Plains, the geographic distance between my sightseeing destinations continued to increase. I needed to get from central Illinois to central Iowa, a journey of just under 350 miles / 550 kilometers. Fortunately I would be able to take interstate highways the whole way, and the ground flies past in a hurry at 75 miles/hour speed limits. I woke up at 5:30 AM with the goal of making it to my first stop in Iowa City around 9:00 AM. That was when everything would begin to open for the day and I was trying to time my arrival appropriately. The early morning drive through western Illinois was uneventful, as I crossed over the Mississippi River at Davenport and entered the state of Iowa for the first time. Shortly thereafter I came across the "World's Largest Truck Stop" in Walcott, Iowa along Interstate 80. I thought about stopping here but I was traveling fast enough that it was already in the rear view mirror before I had much time to think. I probably should have spared ten minutes here to take a look around and get a bite to eat. Oh well.
My first stop for the day was in Iowa City, home to the original state capital and the University of Iowa. This was another place where I had a terrible time finding parking, and unfortunately I wasted about 20 minutes before I finally found a parking garage near the college of public health. The University of Iowa has a distinctive campus design due to the fact that it's divided in half by the Iowa River. Unlikely the leisurely small brooks flowing through the campuses of Michigan State and Illinois, the Iowa River is a major avenue of waterborne transportation and it can only be crossed at a handful of bridges. The presence of the river divides the campus into its original, older core on the eastern side of the river and the newer buildings on the western side. I had parked on the western side of the river and these initial pictures were taken in that area.
It turned out that this was the side of the campus that held the athletics facilities for the University of Iowa. The first notable location that I came across was Carver Hawkeye Arena, the indoor arena used most prominently for Iowa basketball. The university has not been a traditional powerhouse, and while there have been some good Iowa basketball teams over the years, they've never won a national championship and haven't won a Big Ten regular season championship since 1979. (Iowa basketball has won the Big Ten tournament twice in upset fashion, in 2001 and 2006.) The featured sport at Iowa is instead wrestling, where Iowa is a juggernaut that dominates not just the Big Ten conference but the whole country. Iowa has won 23 national championships in wrestling, all of them since 1975; that's 23 of the last 43 national titles which means that Iowa has won more championships in that span than all other universities combined. From 1978 through 1986, Iowa won nine consecutive wrestling national championships which is tied for the record of most titles in a row in any NCAA sport. This is one of the only places where you'll see a statue of a wrestling coach out in front of an arena, but Coach Dan Gable's success in his prime was unparalleled.
When I visited Carver Hawkeye Arena, I was struck by the almost nonexistent profile that it presented. Nearly all of the arena was built underground and only the upper concourse and roof are visible from the exterior. I honestly wasn't sure if I was in the right place because it was hard to believe that this rather ugly brown-colored structure was the arena. Carver Hawkeye Arena dates from the early 1980s and has the kind of hardy, functional design aesthetic that one would expect from a state like Iowa. The baseball stadium (Banks Field) was located nearby and looked like a nice place to catch a game. Like many other northern states, Iowa is limited in terms of their ability to field a competitive baseball team due to the cold weather that blankets the area throughout much of the year. I could also see the football stadium in the distance from here, which is where I was headed next.
The football team at Iowa plays in Kinnick Stadium, named after Nile Kinnick who was the only player from Iowa to win the Heisman Trophy way back in 1939. He tragically died during World War II and the stadium was named in his honor afterward. Iowa has traditionally had a successful football program that falls just short of true elite status, often sitting around the #15 to #25 area in the national polls. Iowa football won a single national championship back in 1958 and 11 Big Ten conference championships, and this stadium is never an easy place to play a road game. My own University of Maryland team was thoroughly dismantled in their game at Iowa during the 2018 season, losing 23-0 in a game that was even less close than the score indicated. One other tidbit that I'll mention: Iowa's black and gold colors on their football uniforms always look strikingly like the Pittsburgh Steelers. I don't know if that's due to intentional design, or the fact that having the same team colors causes the uniforms to necessarily come out looking similar.
After leaving Kinnick Stadium, I continued heading east and soon reached the Iowa River. This is the river that gives the whole state its name, as it winds through the eastern portion of Iowa until eventually emptying into the Mississippi. I was crossing over the river via one of the main roads known as Burlington Street, and the view here was not particularly attractive. There were industrial buildings on both sides of the river that gave this crossing point a gritty feeling, not at all what I would expect from a college campus. However, in fairness to the university, I later crossed back across the river further up to the north where more of the campus buildings were located, and this area was much more pleasant. There were several pedestrian walking bridges designed to let students cross the river safely, and everything was much greener and quieter. This is probably the route that the campus tours use for prospective visitors - much nicer.
I had been disappointed with the Iowa campus up to this point but that was about to change. The university has a unique feature not seen elsewhere at other colleges: it contains the Iowa Old Capitol Building, the original seat of government for the state. Iowa City was the original capital city, but when the state capital was changed to Des Moines in 1857 to have a more central location, the University of Iowa took over the old capitol building and used it as the administrative headquarters for the university. As a result, this beautiful small building became a symbol for the university and it's been serving as a historical tourist attraction ever since.
The Iowa Old Capitol Building was modeled after the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois where I had just been the day before. Both of them were designed in the Greek Revival style with a facade of classical pillars at the entrances and a central dome at the top. The Iowa Old Capitol Building seemed to have aged much better over time than its counterpart, and it appeared in pristine condition when I visited. The interior of the building had the same design as well, with a central staircase immediately greeting visitors and leading up to the second floor. The ground floor contained the original home of the Iowa Supreme Court, the humble-looking room with the white fence running across the center. This was also where the Iowa state government was once housed, with the first three governors in Iowa's history working out of the blue-colored room pictured above. The governor's office was then later used as the administrative office of the university president for several decades before being restored and transformed into a museum.
The second floor of the building contained the two legislative chambers, just as it did at the Old State Capitol building back in Springfield. The first one that I visited was the Iowa House of Representatives, the red-colored room pictured above. This legislature looked like it had seats for about 30 people, packed together into a room that was notably smaller than the Illinois House of Representatives. There was a small viewing gallery raised above the floor of the chamber with a series of hard wooden benches that could have sat perhaps 50 people. This very much felt like the home of a frontier government, elegant in its simplicity but also aware that there wasn't much in the way of available luxuries. The light blue room was the home to the Illinois Senate, which was set up for a podium speech at the time of my visit and therefore didn't have the historic desks assembled. This room did not have a viewing gallery at all, and as the upper house it would have been even smaller in terms of its composition than the Iowa House of Representatives.
The Iowa Old Capitol Building was situated high enough that I could look out towards the other half of the campus across the river and see many of the buildings there, including the huge University of Iowa hospital. The university is known for its medical program and the hospital situated on campus is one of its best-known landmarks. The area immediately surrounding the Iowa Old Capitol Building was the first place that had the traditional campus accoutrements, with the manicured green lawns and the stately classroom buildings that everyone expects to see. This was the very last place that I saw on campus and I'd been surprised by the lack of these attractions before finally finding them. The whole area around the Iowa Old Capitol Building looked lovely on this summer day and I was glad that I had taken the time to walk over to it. The presence of the former state capital made the University of Iowa distinctive and stood out from the other universities that I'd been visiting on this trip.
I left Iowa City at around 11:00 AM and made haste to my next destination, the current capital city of Iowa in the form of Des Moines. Abbreviated as "DSM" on the flags that I spotted on the lampposts, Des Moines is the largest city in Iowa with a 2018 population of a little over 200,000 people. By way of comparison, it's about the 100th largest city in the United States - not exactly a major metropolis. It took about two hours to drive to Des Moines from Iowa City and I arrived in the capital in the early afternoon. These were some of the pictures of the downtown that I snapped while walking around. A river runs through Des Moines as well, appropriately named the Des Moines River, and it bisects the city into eastern and western halves in much the same fashion that I had just seen in Iowa City. I had parked on the eastern side of the river and then walked the short distance across to the western side, taking advantage of the beautiful weather outside. And I also had to include this picture of the amazing-looking "Zombie Burger" restaurant that I came across while walking. Why isn't this a national chain yet?!
The first place that I stopped in Des Moines was the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates building. The World Food Prize is an international award created in 1987 that recognizes the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. This organization very appropriately chose the state of Iowa for their headquarters, as Iowa is specifically known for its agricultural production of corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle. The World Food Prize uses the former Des Moines Public Library central building as their headquarters, and this was a striking location situated next to the river in the downtown. One of the staff members generously took me on a 15 minute individual tour of the building, walking me through the reception hall on the ground floor and up to the art galleries and food exhibits on the second floor. They could not have been more kind to me during my visit and the building itself was a marvel. Anyone who wants to see the World Food Prize building will need to time their visit carefully, however: this place is only open on Tuesdays and Saturdays and only for limited hours on each day. It was pure dumb luck that my one stop in Des Moines happened to take place on a Tuesday and I was able to see this attraction.
I crossed back to the eastern side of the river and then headed north, walking for about 15 minutes until I reached the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. This has been an attraction in Des Moines since the 1930s, although the current location with the big dome dates back to 1979. The geodesic dome was reminiscent of the design used at Disney's Epcot park, albeit on a much smaller scale, and it's needed to keep the tropical plants inside sheltered from the harsh winter conditions that prevail in central Iowa. The temperature inside was a toasty 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius) when I visited, and the plant life resembled the greenery that I'm used to seeing in Florida. There was also a separate and cooler indoor area for more temperate plant life, the place with the wooden beams running overhead. I don't know very much about plant life and I'm terrible about growing anything, but this was still fun to see. Not at all what I would have imagined coming across in central Iowa.
There was also an outside area where the botanical gardens continued. This outdoor section featured a sunken garden dedicated to water-based plants, complete with views looking west across the river at downtown Des Moines. I could see Wells Fargo Arena off in the distance, used for sporting events and major concerts when they visit Des Moines. Elsewhere there was a small Italian garden with more flowering plants, and an open grassy area where some kids were playing next to a small artificial waterfall. Perhaps the most interesting outdoor exhibit was the one featuring about a dozen bonsai trees, with a couple of the miniature plants dating to over a century in age. The one pictured here had been growing since 1930 and was maybe two feet in height at most.
The main attraction that I wanted to see in Des Moines was the state capital, however. The Iowa State Capitol was the fourth such building that I had visited, as I added the state of Iowa to the list that already included Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. This structure continued the trend that I had been seeing throughout my trip, with Greek columns adorning the main western entrance pictured here and a central dome, this one colored gold, capping the building. However, unlike what I had seen elsewhere, the Iowa State Capitol also added four smaller domes at the corners of the building in a copper-tinted shade of green. The Iowa State Capitol building was the second one to be used in Des Moines, designed to be the permanent capitol while a temporary smaller building was used for several decades while this one was under construction. It took 15 years to be completed and was finished in 1886. The central dome isn't quite as tall as the one at the Illinois State Capitol, reaching a height of 275 feet / 75 meters.
The Iowa State Capitol is situated on sizable grounds decked out with different monuments and memorials. One thing that I liked was a small plaza with a map of the state of Iowa set into the paving stones, with every county in the state separately marked and identified. Most of the counties in the state are perfect squares, an indication of how the land was apportioned out in bulk lots as it was settled. There was a small Holocaust Memorial on the capitol grounds that looked to be a recent addition, along with older monuments on the south lawn dedicated to veterans of the Civil War and Vietnam War. The tall pillar pictured above was a monument to the American Revolution, somewhat anachronistically located here over a thousand miles away from any of the original 13 colonies. Also nearby in the separate building with the green dome was the Iowa Supreme Court, which was vastly expanded from the single small room where it had originally been housed in the Iowa Old Capitol Building back in Iowa City. The whole area surrounding the capitol building was perfectly maintained and looked warm and inviting on this beautiful day.
This was one of the state capital buildings that I was actually able to enter, and I signed up to take a tour. The most distinctive element of the building was the central dome, and the view looking up from underneath was truly impressive. There was a walkway high up there that we would be able to visit later on the tour, and then ultimately a painting on the bottom of the dome with a sky motif, an eagle with an American flag, the state seal of Iowa, and the dates of the Civil War. I loved the way that the windows on the dome allowed light to flow in from outside and illuminate the upper portions of the architecture. While on this central rotunda on the second floor, our tour guide also took us to see a model replica of the USS Iowa, a World War II era battleship, and the original Iowa state constitution carefully preserved in a glass case. I took a moment to look out one of the windows and was treated to an outstanding view looking to the west at downtown Des Moines. By the way, the man in the red shirt that I captured above was one of the individuals on our tour group, and he mentioned that he was one of the elected officials currently serving in Utah's state House of Representatives. If you're wondering what type of person signs up to take a tour of a state legislative building, it's someone with an interest in history like me or an actual legislator from another state like this man.
After stopping at the main rotunda on the second floor, our guide took us to see the old Iowa Supreme Court room. Prior to moving to the separate building across the lawn pictured earlier, the Iowa Supreme Court operated out of this stately room. Iowa's Supreme Court has seven total members that each serve eight year terms; given that, I'm not sure why there were clearly nine chairs set up behind the bench. The wooden bench itself was a work of art that apparently took about a decade for one individual craftsman to make by hand. Then we were able to see the Governor of Iowa's office, where unfortunately the first picture of the governor's desk came out a bit blurry. The governor at the time of my visit was Kim Reynolds, who assumed the governorship in 2017 when the former Iowa governor was appointed to be the US ambassador to China. She would go on to win a close election later in 2018 and hold onto the position in her own right. That was not the case in some of the other states that I visited, such as in Illinois where Governor Bruce Rauner was so toxically unpopular in 2018 that he barely managed to win the primary in his own re-election bid and then was crushed by 15 percentage points in the general election.
The tour then took the group up to the third floor where the legislative chambers were located. I don't have a lot to say about these particular pictures other than the fact that this was a beautiful staircase. Wikipedia states that this marble grand staircase between the second and third floors is the focal point of the building's architecture, and it was easy to see why.
We visited the Senate Chamber first and had the chance to see the room from both the main level and also the viewing gallery raised up above the floor. The Iowa Senate has 50 seats in total, with senators elected to four year terms. Once again the standard design for an American legislative chamber was in evidence, with a central rostrum occupying the back of the room and then semicircular rows of desks radiating out from that starting point. The Senate Chamber had a bit of a feel of a grand ballroom, between the chandeliers on the ceiling and the long red drapes along the windows. I did like the design at the top of the windows, with a letter "I" for Iowa located in the middle of a classically-inspired laurel wreath.
The same design was on display in the Iowa House of Representatives chamber, which looked almost identical to the Iowa Senate. In fact, the two rooms looked so much alike that it was hard for me to tell them apart when I was sorting through these images. The Iowa House of Representatives had some more scaffolding due to construction work taking place, and for that reason we weren't able to go up into the viewing gallery. Otherwise the two legislative branches could have been virtually identical. The Iowa House of Representatives is exactly double the size of the Iowa Senate at 100 seats, with each representative serving two year terms. There was a terrible fire in this chamber in 1904 that destroyed most of the original furnishings, which have been diligently recreated in the decades since.
However, the most beautiful space in the Iowa State Capitol wasn't either of the legislative chambers. It was instead the Law Library located in between the two of them, this magnificent Victorian-inspired creation with four stories of shelving and twisting spiral staircases. I've been to a number of famous libraries before and this virtually known legal library in Des Moines, Iowa was right up there with any of them in terms of beauty. Seriously, I could have stayed in here all day. We were ushered onwards fairly quickly as part of the tour, and I've been kicking myself for not remembering to go back afterwards and take some more pictures. Why didn't I go up to the top floor and get some more wide angle shots looking down, and find a spot where the outside light wasn't intruding as much? The law library is open to the public and anyone can go inside to take a look for themselves. Argh.
Finally, the last stop on the tour of the Iowa State Capitol was the great dome in the center of the building. We climbed up the steps of a cramped, rickety staircase to the narrow walkway that ran around the interior of the dome. From here it was possible to look down at the third and second floors below, getting a fresh perspective on the mosaic designs built into the floor tiles of the main levels. Up above was the design painted on the underside of the dome, which was more easily visible here than anywhere else in the capitol building. I was able to walk around the platform until I could get the design centered in my picture, successfully capturing the proper view for the first time. We could also see outside the windows to the blue sky and the flags on the flagpole, although the contrast in lighting meant that everything inside the building was then plunged into shadow from that angle. The Iowa state flag looks extremely similar to the French tricolour, except with an eagle in the middle clutching a ribbon that reads "our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain", along with the word "IOWA" underneath in capital letters. I tend to like distinctive flags and the Iowan one definitely stands out.
By this point in time, it was late afternoon and most of the sightseeing destinations in Des Moines were beginning to shut down for the day. I decided that I would use the remaining time that I had available to travel north to the town of Ames, Iowa to see the other flagship university in the state. Ames is the home of Iowa State University, the rival of the University of Iowa that I had visited earlier in the day, and I thought that it would be fun to see both sides of the collegiate pairing in the same way that I had visited Michigan and Michigan State a few days earlier. Unlike the two Michigan schools, Iowa and Iowa State are not in the same athletics conference and therefore their teams don't play against one another on an annual basis. It was about an hour's drive from Des Moines north to Ames (35 miles / 60 kilometers), with city traffic on each end causing the trip to take a bit longer than my jaunts across the more rural parts of the state.
Once again I had tremendous difficulty finding a place to park, ending up having to park way up on North Campus on the other side of the railroad tracks. There was a good reason for my parking woes, however, as Iowa State was hosting something called the Iowa Games when I visited, a statewide Olympics-style competition that now attracts more than 20,000 people annually. There was a bicycle race taking place with hundreds and hundreds of people involved and it was tying up traffic something fierce as they used the roads for their racing. The whole southern part of the campus seemed to have been taken over by the Iowa Games and the festival-like atmosphere made it hard for me to get around. Anyway, once I finally parked and walked into the center of campus, I found a quiet environment with few people around. Iowa State didn't have the same historic former state capitol building as the University of Iowa, and it didn't have a huge river running through the campus either. This allowed the Iowa State campus to sprawl out to a much greater extent, and there was a large central green mall here that had been lacking back in Iowa City. Instead of a river, Iowa State had the picturesque Lake LaVerne located just off the main quad instead, known locally for the swans that make their home here. Iowa State is the larger of the two universities, the largest in the state of Iowa, and the first designated land-grant institution to be created until the Morrill Act back in 1862.
The most famous symbol of Iowa State is probably this tower, known as the Campanile. It was constructed in 1897 as a memorial to Margaret MacDonald Stanton, Iowa State's first dean of women's studies, and stands 110 feet / 35 meters in height. As one would expect, this is a bell tower and the playing of the bells at the carillon inside has a long history at the university. Campus folklore states that an ISU student is not a "true Iowa Stater" until they have been kissed underneath the Campanile at the stroke of midnight, which is arguably an outdated and sexist tradition but still a bit charming at the same time. The Campanile rises up above the rest of the buildings in the center of the Iowa State campus and it's an easily recognizable landmark from almost any part of the university grounds.
The Iowa State Memorial Union is located only a short distance away from the Campanile, in some choice campus real estate next to Lake LaVerne. The union building was first constructed in 1928 as a memorial to students from Iowa State who had been killed in World War I, and then grew over the years to house several academic departments, student organizations, the University Book Store, a bowling alley, and even weddings on occasion. The memorial nature of the building was apparent as soon as I entered the original core of the building, where there were a series of colorful stained glass windows above the names of the university alumni who had been killed in foreign wars. What started out as a memorial to the World War I dead has been expanded over the years to cover many other American conflicts, with more names unfortunately always being added to the tally. Elsewhere the building housed the usual campus book store with lots of Iowa State gear for sale, and a cafeteria in the basement with the Cyclones mascot painted all over the place. It's always been weird to me that Iowa (the Hawkeyes) and Iowa State (the Cyclones) have completely different names for their teams, yet both of them use birds as their mascots that look fairly similar. I mean, this picture looks pretty similar to the Iowa Hawkeye mascot in graduation attire from earlier in the day, right?
I finished up my trip through the Iowa State campus by visiting the athletics buildings on the south side of the university grounds. The football team plays in Jack Trice Stadium, which was built in 1975 and can hold about 60,000 fans at a time. Jack Trice was the first African American athlete to compete at Iowa State, who tragically died as a result of injuries sustained in a football game played in 1923. Between Nile Kinnick and Jack Trice, the Iowa universities have had some bad luck when it came to their star football athletes. Iowa State has not been particularly successful in football, with zero national championships and only two conference championships in their history. Given that they've spent most of their history in the same conference as powerhouses like Oklahoma and Nebraska, that's understandable, but Iowa State has lost about 100 games more than they've won in their all time history and that's not good for a team in a major conference. The basketball team has enjoyed a lot more success in recent years, never winning a national title but routinely making the NCAA Tournament (nine appearances in the 21st century) and reaching the Sweet Sixteen five different times in program history. The basketball team plays their games in Hilton Coliseum, a rather dull-looking concrete slab of a building that predictably dates to 1971 when stadium construction design was at its nadir of inspiration. Hilton Coliseum was undergoing construction at the time of my visit and I couldn't get particularly close to the entrance. As for Jack Trice Stadium, the whole parking lot area had been taken over by the Iowa Games and I was content to get a few pictures from a distance.
At this point I was getting pretty exhausted, and I returned to my car to begin the drive back to Des Moines where I was staying for the night. It had been a long, long day with close to 14 hours of sightseeing before I was able to stop and get some dinner. I was very pleased with what I'd been able to see though, as I tried to cram as much of the state of Iowa into a single day as I could pull off. I thoroughly enjoyed having the chance to see the two major universities in the state along with its capital of Des Moines. The Iowa State Capitol building was breathtaking to experience between the central dome and that incredible law library, while even smaller stopping points like the World Food Prize and the Des Moines Botanical Gardens were fun pit stops. The next day I would be continuing onwards to another state that rarely sees much in the way of visitors in the form of Nebraska, with the cities of Omaha and Lincoln next on my list. My trip continued carrying me westward with no signs of stopping.