The 9 Best Roadside Attractions You Must See on Your Road Trip Through Iowa

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The 9 Best Roadside Attractions You Must See on Your Road Trip Through Iowa

If you spend any time in the car these days, you may need a reason to get out, stretch your legs, and blow the stink off (as my dad would’ve said).  In this post, we will talk about some of the fantastic and unique Roadside Attractions I saw in Iowa on a recent trip from Holland, Michigan, to Clear Lake and Mason City, Iowa, to meet with my fellow travel bloggers. 

I will also tell you about one of my favorite apps. I use it when facing a long drive in the U.S.  You will surely appreciate how this will make your driving life more enjoyable.

And bonus – you’ll find a whole slew of new reasons to get out of your car and stretch your legs, rather than just stop at the next gas station for a bathroom break!  Finally, who doesn’t love a free attraction?

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Roadside America

America is known for, among other things, the quirky oddities you will find spread across the country’s roadsides.  These unique and fun sites are sprinkled over the land like confetti.

But how would one person know just exactly where to find an unusual statue, a museum, an enchanted highway, the world’s largest truck stop, or like Clark Griswold, the world’s second largest ball of twine?  I have the answer for you!

I love to plan these little side stops when planning my travel itinerary, but I was having a hard time knowing what to search for when planning a trip.  Then I discovered the Roadside America app for my iPhone, and my traveling life has never been the same!

Download Roadside America for iPhone HERE.

Don’t worry if you’re an Android user.  You can open the Roadside America website on your phone’s browser and get results on the run without having the app.

But How Much Does it Cost?

The app has a small fee, but don’t worry!  I promise it’s worth it.  You can access all of the features for $2.99 per region.  There are seven regions available.  If you’d like to add the remaining six after your first purchase, it’s $6.99 more for lifetime use or $1.99 for each additional region.  I went ahead and invested in the whole shebang.  It was cheaper, and now I’m ready for every roadside stop I can find!

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What Does the Roadside America App Do?

The handy app allows you to search in any given area for interesting and quirky things to see. You can plan a route from one end of the country to the other.  Use the On the Route feature to map out your course.

Set a maximum distance from the road you’ll be taking, and watch the small red pins pop up with every kind of attraction you can imagine.  You can also filter what you’d like to see or search specifically for something if you’d like to arrange a trip to visit every giant smiley-face water tower you can find.

In the app, you can see the stop’s location and address.  The app has written out directions, or you can click to open the map feature on your phone to see the route already mapped out for you.

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You can also take a peek at pictures of other peoples’ experiences at each location, or you can add your photo and notes privately or publicly.  Additionally, you can select specific stops, label them as favorites, and mark your visits as “been there” to keep a tally of everything you’ve seen as you travel.

When my husband Dan and I hit the road, I program the GPS, and he does the driving.  While he is driving, I open up my app, look at what may be coming up along the route, pick something of interest, and reroute the GPS to that fun stop.

When the GPS declares “REROUTING,” Dan usually chuckles and mutters, “Uh Oh.”  He knows we’re about to see something unique, strange, or interesting.  Sometimes our adventures include sights that are just plain weird.

On my recent trip from my hometown of Holland, Michigan, to small town Clear Lake and Mason City, Iowa, and on to Saint Cloud, Minnesota, I knew I would be driving at least 10 hours each direction and would need to get out and stretch my legs.  Rather than rely on rest stops and gas stations for this little job, I plugged my route into the roadside attraction app and found some interesting places to stop and take photos.

Iowa’s Most Interesting Roadside Attractions Here I Come!

While planning this long road trip solo, I chose several interesting spots to stop and take a quick photo.  Here are some of my adventures in Iowa along the way.

Antique Archaeology – LeClaire, Iowa

Antique Archaeology gift shop - a roadside attraction in Iowa
Antique Archaeology gift shop - a roadside attraction in Iowa

The Antique Archaeology gift shop is in LeClaire, Iowa, just off of I-80 exit 306.  This little stop is the home of the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” with local legends Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz, and a perfect stop for a bathroom break and an opportunity to see some of the cool finds these guys collect while out exploring America.

World’s Largest Wooden Nickel – Iowa City, Iowa

A giant wooden nickel monted on two short telephone poles - a roadside attraction in Iowa
The Hip Grandma points at a giant wooden nickel, a roadside attraction in Iowa

The world’s largest wooden nickel sits mounted between two wooden poles at the edge of a corn field adjacent to the road.  This behemoth is 16 feet across!

Flying Wienie Plane – Cedar Rapids, Iowa

a yellow plane sits atop a red building that serves wienies - A roadside America attraction
the Hip Grandma points at a yellow plane sits atop a red building that serves wienies - A roadside America attraction

Who doesn’t love an airplane sitting atop a small restaurant?  This little hot dog stand is appropriately dubbed “The Flying Wienie.”  Be sure and grab a bite to eat while you’re there!

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Big Red Mug – Waverly Iowa

The Nestle Bunny with a giant red mug in the background
the Hip Grandma stands with arms outstretched in front of a giant red mug

In Waverly, Iowa, you will find the home of the Nestle Company and a giant red cocoa mug sits right out front next to the Nestle Kwik Rabbit!

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The Music Man Square – Mason City, Iowa

A statue of Meredith Willson in Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa
The hip grandma poses in front of a statue of Meredith Willson in Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa

Mason City, Iowa, is home to Meredith Willson, the brain behind the Music Man.  Music Man Square sits next to Mr. Willson’s childhood home, and the town has commemorated Mr. Willson in statue form in the center of the square. 

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Surf Ballroom:  Buddy Holly’s Last Gig – Mason City, Iowa

The outside of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa

No one can resist a quick stop at the Surf Ballroom.  This music hall is steeped in history and plays a significant role in “The day the music died,” commemorated by Don McClean in the old American favorite, “American Pie.”

Buddy Holly Crash Site – Clear Lake, Iowa

a Giant pair of black-rimmed glasses marks the trailhead leading to the crash site where Buddy Holly died
The site where Buddy Holly's plane crashed with trinkets of affection including a wreath and coins, and many pairs of his iconic glasses

On a fateful winter day in February 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson and their pilot died instantly in a plane crash that made music history.  The trailhead to the site begins with a giant pair of Buddy Holly’s trademark black-framed glasses.  Walk the trail ½ mile through the cornfield to see the actual site where the plane crashed.

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Pyramid House – Clear Lake, Iowa

a yellow-colored house shaped like a pyramid

Everyone loves a house shaped like a pyramid, don’t they?  This notable attraction is an eye-popper for sure!

Last Standing Hotel Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Historic Park Inn – Mason City, Iowa

The last hotel standing designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright - straight lines, earth tones, and a sunny sky behind

This historic building is a restored work of art and a treasure worth a stop. Initially built in the early 1900s, the Historic Park Inn fell into deep disrepair.  In 2000, the town rallied and began restoring her to her former glory, and it re-opened in 2011.  Be sure to tour the hotel while you’re there, or even better – stay the night. 

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So Many Iowa Roadside Attractions, So Little Time!

These are only a few of the hundreds of fun stops in Iowa.  Don’t miss many other small-town favorites such as the Field of Dreams movie site, a Danish Windmill, Wall Drug, the Matchstick Marvels Museum, the world’s largest bullhead, the world’s largest ball, a 45-ton bull, Iowa’s largest frying pan, and the world’s only corn palace, to name just a few hidden gems along the road.

What else have you seen?

Over the past few years, I have seen so many interesting things!  One of my creepy favorites was a shoe tree on an old gravel road.  We looked online to see how this became something of interest.  I had never heard of such a thing, but now I know this interesting superstition is woven into the fabric of America’s culture.  Click HERE to read about the shoe tree and see photos!

My favorite strange sight was the giant pink gorilla!  I mean – of course, I loved him – he was pink!  You can read more about the pink gorilla and see his photo HERE. Because I love pink, I saw a listing on the app for a pink cupcake shop with a giant pink gorilla out front and decided that we should stop to see it as we passed through town.  Unfortunately, the shop was closed (most likely due to Covid at the time of our trip), but the app did not show that it would be closed then.

I’ve also seen the Spam Museum, a free museum and (at least in my mind) a National historic landmark. Other interesting sites include a giant praying mantis statue in Columbus, Ohio, a giant dragon statue (in a sketchy area), and an enormous cross standing large next to an adult triple X rated gift store (care for irony?).

a Roadside dragon with a garbage can in the foreground
Some roadside stops are less than picturesque
A woman with a boy pose in front of a giant preying mantis
Kokomantis!

Are American Roadside Attractions Educational?

Sometimes when we stop at a fun roadside tourist attraction, we get an opportunity to learn some interesting facts.  For example, earlier on this trip, I stopped to see a statue of Flick with his tongue stuck to the pole in Hammond, Indiana.  Because this statue is near the Indiana visitor center (where I also used the restroom), I was able to talk to a very friendly volunteer who explained to me that this was the hometown of Jean Shepard, the author of a Christmas story.

I also learned that Mr. Shepherd’s home was just down the road from the visitor center and that there is a bar in that town named Flick’s.  He also told me about the fantastic Christmas celebration the town puts on each year, fully themed with A Christmas Story lights, animatronics, a parade, and Santa Claus with a giant slide as depicted in the movie.

Sometimes the roadside attractions are obscure and even tricky to find.  Take, for example, the giant T-Rex.  This worn-down relic was stationed in an area where the only way we could gain access was by way of a parking lot for a closed and boarded-up grocery store. We could only see it by standing behind a giant garbage bin.  The broken down T-Rex was not one of our favorite stops, and I only snapped one quick shot before beating our feet to get out of there!

A Word About Safety

Helpful volunteers do not occupy many stops along the road highlighted in the roadside attraction app.  Because some of these stops can be in isolated areas or the terrain may be tricky, take a look at the comments to see what you might encounter while there.  Of course, using standard safety practices is critical, such as carrying pepper spray and keeping a first aid kit in your car.  I will also be adding a selfie stick to my car so I can capture myself in the photo.

Also, note that some stops have open and closed hours.  Do your due diligence if you’re going far out of your way to see an attraction. You don’t want to waste time heading for something unavailable, as in the case of the pink gorilla above.  At least we still got a great photo of the pink gorilla, and it was only a few minutes off our route.  I’m still sad about that missed cupcake, though.

Wrapping It Up

No doubt about it, you never quite know what treasure you will encounter along the highways and byways of the American Roadside!  If you keep your sense of humor, you can see any number of interesting sites, and they are almost always great additions to your trip.

And don’t forget that Iowa borders several other nearby states, so while exploring, check out Minnesota to the north, Wisconsin, and Illinois to the east, Missouri to the south, and Nebraska and South Dakota to the west!  Ah – America’s heartland, the Midwest!  What more could a freelance writer ask for to explore!?

Have you used this app?  I want to hear about it!  Please share in the comments where you have stopped as you traveled and what has been your most exciting find.  One thing’s for sure – there’s no excuse for getting bored or not stretching your legs enough when using the Roadside America app.

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2 thoughts on “The 9 Best Roadside Attractions You Must See on Your Road Trip Through Iowa”

  1. I got the app and love it. Aso, wanted to say a big thank you for your fireworks post. SO helpful. Got some good ones this year!

    Reply

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