Explore Iowa’s Scenic Drives with an RV
Iowa is home to several scenic highways & byways. When you travel these two-lane roads, you find peace, tranquility, and experiences that you don’t find when traveling the crazy, busy interstate highways. It is possible to explore Iowa’s scenic highways & byways when traveling with an RV.
We have several suggestions on how to make your experience a fun and successful adventure. Each of these byways offers incredible opportunities, as well as campsites that you will fall in love with. Iowa is more than a weekend camping state. We challenge you to plan an entire week exploring Iowa’s scenic highways & byways with your RV. We think you will be refreshed and be planning your next RV trip before you wrap up your trip. These are some of our favorite places, and we hope you will begin planning NOW!
Driftless Area Scenic Byway
The Driftless Area Scenic Byway is in Northeast Iowa and a beautiful part of Iowa. The term driftless came to be as this area was bypassed by the last continental glacier years and years ago. Bluffs, hills, rivers, valleys, and beautiful scenery encompass this byway. You may choose not to drive the 14 miles of gravel when driving your RV or towing a trailer. The byway is a little more than 100 miles, with 14 of them being gravel. Decorah, Harpers Ferry, Lansing, New Albin, Postville, and Waukon are towns along this byway. In Lansing, drive to the “t” in the road and view the Mississippi River and The Great River Road.
If you enjoy shopping, each of these towns offers something unique. Horsfall’s Variety Store is a classic in Lansing- it’s one of those rabbit holes that everyone needs to experience when they are in Lansing. In fact, on our last visit, we picked up a new Rand McNally atlas. The saying with the locals is, “If Horsfall’s doesn’t have it, nobody does.”
There is street parking in Lansing on side streets for RV’s. Effigy Mounds National Monument is a highlight for anyone traveling this byway. This collection of animal-shaped mounds built by prehistoric Native Americans is incredible. The hiking opportunities in the fall are stunning, as the fall foliage is indescribable. Parking at Effigy Mounds National Monument is easy to navigate with any size RV.
Yellow River State Forest
Prairie Rose State Park
Prairie Heritage Center
Stone State Park
The Jefferson Highway came to be known as the “Pines to Palms” route before Interstate Highways existed. The Iowa route runs through North Central Iowa to South Central Iowa. The route begins in Northwood, Iowa, and ends near Lamoni. This route is 220 miles, and it is all a paved route. This route does not have the curves and windy roads that some byways do. The Jefferson Highway is an excellent route for travelers with RVs. Mason City is a fantastic town to stop in as you drive this route. The downtown district is a walkable area with art everywhere. We would suggest parking in the parking lot of Southbridge Mall and strolling through the town. Enjoy lunch on the plaza with a view of the Park Inn Hotel, the last known hotel in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Continue strolling through Mason City with the River City Sculpture on Parade. The art in Mason City will entertain you for hours. Head on over to the Margaret MacNider Campground for a campsite for the night. Campsites are level with full hookup and water/electrical campsites available. Continue driving this historic route and spend some time in the Ankeny area and hop on the High Trestle Trail with your bicycle. Parking is available for RVs along the bike trail in several towns. You can easily spend one whole week or more exploring this historic route.
Covered Bridges Scenic Byway
Madison County is home to the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. This byway is located approximately 30 miles southwest of the Des Moines metro area. The iconic bridges draw in people worldwide to visit, as does the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum. There is parking for RVs near the museum on the side streets in Winterset. As you travel the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, you may or may not want to drive it all. This byway is paved and gravel. If you have the chance, we suggest dropping your RV and driving a car along the route if you want to travel all 82 miles of the byway.
Pammel Park, a Madison County Park, offers campsites with 30/50 amp electric, water, table, and a grill at each site. Self-registration is available, as is online registration, for a small fee. Pammel Park gives you an outdoor adventure a few miles from the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. Depending on how much time you want to spend at each bridge, you can easily spend a full three to four days exploring this byway. A tip that I would give you is to visit a bridge or two with nighttime skies.
Western Skies Scenic Byway
The Western Skies Scenic Byway runs parallel to I-80 in western Iowa. This paved route of 142 miles offers RV travelers an opportunity to hop off of one of America’s busiest highways. Elk Horn, Iowa, is along this byway and is home to an authentic Danish Windmill that was build in Denmark in 1848 and landed in Elk Horn in 1975. RV parking is available at the Danish Windmill, which is a museum and welcome center. The Welcome Center is a great place to ask your questions about the area and learn more about the Danish heritage in Iowa. The Museum of Danish America is a well-thought-out museum and tells the story of Danish history. Be sure to stroll the grounds outdoors, as the 35- acre prairie restoration park offers beautiful views at the peak of summer. A fun fact is that there is outdoor fitness equipment along the walking trail near the museum. Stretch your legs and get some exercise. The museum area makes a great place to explore, with ample parking for your RV.
Prairie Rose State Park is nearby and offers a beautiful camping experience. This 422-acre park is a short drive from Elk Horn, along the Western Skies Scenic Byway. Reserve campsites 29-32 for prime camping along the lake. Bring your hiking shoes, kayak, bicycle, or your chair to sit around the campfire. Birding is also popular here, so be sure your binoculars are with you. Continue along the Western Skies Scenic Byway to the Harrison County Historical Village and Welcome Center. Take a picture of one of Iowa’s 99 Freedom Rocks at this incredible place along several byways in Iowa, including the Western Skies Scenic Byway.
Loess Hills National Scenic Byway
You can join up with the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway after traveling the Western Skies Scenic Byway. We like to call this byway the Mother of all byways in Iowa, as it runs the entire length of Iowa. This route is 220 miles long and 15 miles wide; it covers a large area, more than 1,080 square miles. The Loess Hills are magical, and if you have never been, pack up your RV and plan your experience now. The prairie, bluffs, and narrow ridges make this a unique area in Iowa. The majority of the route is paved, with small sections of gravel. The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway can be traveled with an RV, but we know that not everyone wants to travel on gravel.
One of our favorite places along this route is Stone State Park in Sioux City. There are 30 camping sites available, with 1/2 being first-come, first-serve. A few sites have electricity and offer other sites with no hookups. The hiking in this state park is fabulous, as are the views. Enjoy a picnic lunch anywhere in this state park, including the picnic table at your campsite, and you have yourself a memorable meal. Soar above as you hike through the forest and explore all that Iowa state parks have to offer. This state park will not disappoint you. Look up, as it’s common to see a bald eagle or two. Make memories as you connect with nature along the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway.
Glacial Trail Scenic Byway
The Glacial Trail Scenic Byway is a 36-mile loop through O’Brien and Clay Counties in Northwest Iowa. A highlight of this byway is the Prairie Heritage Center. The bison roam freely and you can view them roaming nearby. The parking lot is huge, and there’s room for everyone to get out and run around. Kids of all ages will love this stop along the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway. There are several small towns along the route, and they each offer small diners and other small shops. Street parking is available for RVs in all of the towns. You will not find crowded parking lots as you drive this scenic byway.
Dog Creek Park is an ideal place to camp. There are 29 camping sites. Internet, showers, modern toilets are on the north side, electric, water, and a dump station are on the North Side. This county park is open May 1 through September 30. The rolling hills of this byway surprised us the most the first time we drove this route. Enjoy the drive, and don’t be afraid to stop where something looks interesting. The joy of driving Iowa’s Scenic Byways is the little finds that we find along the way.
Each of these byways offers something unique and new to learn. We have highlighted a few things to see and do along each byway. You can easily spend several days driving each of these byways and still not see everything. Iowans are known for their creativity and cooking, and each of these routes offers an opportunity to experience both of these things. The people that run the diners you come upon along the way will greet you with a home-cooked meal. Do not be afraid to indulge. Parking with your RV should be fairly easy in most of the towns that follow these byways. A good rule of thumb- the larger the town, the trickier parking will be with an RV.