Chicago city dwellers may find themselves tired of looking at cement and wishing for a little contact with nature. Fortunately, Des Moines, Iowa is just a short day trip from Chicago and the stretch between the two has some beautiful recreation areas. In under 8 hours, travelers can follow the scenic byway that runs from Chicago to just north of Des Moines, Iowa. This is even a fun trip to make with a dog since there are so many wide-open spaces where travelers can stop and explore with their four-footed friends. Here, Chicago-Des Moines day-trippers will find all the info they'll need to make the most of their adventure.


Drive This Iowa-Illinois Scenic Byway

In 1913, officials held a dedication ceremony for the US's first coast-to-coast highway, the Lincoln Highway. This route connected New York to San Francisco and changed the way that people traveled across the country. Before, dirt roads were bumpy when dry and impossible to drive when muddy. Often enough, one road didn't connect to another, making travel slow and zig-zaggy. The Lincoln Highway inspired the US to develop and refine a federal highway system, culminating in the modern interstate.

Modern travelers are more likely to take I-80 cross country than the old Lincoln Highway since it's faster. That being said, people on a day trip from Chicago to Des Moines can enjoy getting to know a small piece of the scenic, historic road.

To drive this stretch of the Lincoln Highway, travelers will need to head west out of Chicago on I-88 and take exit 119B to Geneva. This is where they'll start following the Lincoln Highway. Then they'll need to follow IL-31 to US 30. The Lincoln Highway continues along US 30 (except for a small detour in Fulton, Illinois) through Iowa and takes cars through these cities:

  • Geneva, Illinois - Frank Loyd Wright's Fabyan Villa
  • Fulton, Illinois - Dutch-style windmill and the Mark Morris Memorial Bridge (aka the North Bridge) across the Mississippi River
  • Mount Vernon, Iowa - Palisades-Kepler State Park
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa - Sac and Fox Trail
  • Tama, Iowa - Lincoln Highway Bridge

After driving through Marshalltown, Iowa, visitors should head southwest on US 330 and leave Iowa's Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway. After a few more minutes on the road, they'll reach Des Moines.

related: San Francisco To Seattle: The Ultimate Road Trip Itinerary

Nature Stops On The Road From Chicago to Des Moines

What most stands out about this road trip are the beautiful natural areas along the way. There are many miles of hiking trails for travelers to explore along the way. Here's a list of recreational areas between Des Moines and Chicago, along the Lincoln Highway for travelers to check out:

  • Linn Creek Recreational Trail, Marshalltown, Iowa
  • Union Grove State Park, Gladbrook, Iowa
  • Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area, Palo, Iowa
  • Palisades-Kepler State Park, Mount Vernon, Iowa
  • Mississippi River Ecotourism Center, Camanche, Iowa
  • Fabyan Japanese Garden, 1511 South Batavia Avenue, Geneva, Illinois

The Mississippi River Ecotourism Center in Camanche Iowa is a fascinating place to explore. Inside, visitors can see native fish in an 8000-gallon aquarium, observe turtles in the Turtle Island display, and experience the touch tank. On Thursday evenings and weekend mornings, the center offers Blue Heron Eco Cruises. At other times, river enthusiasts can rent kayaks, canoes, or paddles boats to explore the waterway. For people who decide to make the trip two days, there are cabins and campsites. Finally, the center's cafe offers delicious food.

Mississippi River Ecotourism Center

  • Winter hours: 11 AM - 3 PM on weekends November 1st- Early April
  • More information: website or 563-259-1876
  • Pets: Dogs allowed on leashes

Erin Creger wrote about his experience at Palisades-Kepler State Park on Google Review: "Palisades has some fantastic trails! Cedar Cliff was a great short slightly technical trail. My dog really enjoyed the easy river access from the parking area. Plenty of climbing areas also! I’m hoping to come back and camp here this summer." The part offers fishing, hiking, camping, and beaches for swimming. Dogs are welcome.

Palisades-Kepler State Park

  • More information: website or 319-895-6039
  • Pets: Dogs are welcome

related: There's Been A Surge In Hiking Trips Lately, And This Is Probably Why Everyone Is Taking One

Architectural And Historic Sites Between Des Moines And Chicago

The area between these two cities hosts some fascinating sites. Dutch immigrants built windmills here in the style of their home country. People who want to see one should stop in Fulton, Illinois before crossing the Mississippi River. Nearby there's also a Lincoln Highway information center.

Famed architect Frank Loyd Wright designed homes in the area like the Fabyan Villa in Geneva. Now it's a museum. On the same land, visitors can enjoy walking through the peaceful Fabyan Japanese Garden.

The region has also played an important role in presidential history with several presidential libraries and homes to visit. Workers are building Barak Obama's presidential center and library in Chicago. Ronald Regan's boyhood home is now a museum in Dixon, Illinois, right on the Lincoln Highway. Travelers who want to see the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library will have to leave the Lincoln Highway after Clarence and head south on Iowa 38 to I-80 to West Branch.

Finally, the Mesquakie Settlement in Tama County is home to Iowa's only federally recognized Native American tribe. There aren't many official tourist attractions here, besides the casino, but the area's history is engaging especially since the Mesquakie bought the land themselves in 1857.

next: The History Of The Cahokia Mounds And Why You Should Visit This Great Native American City