An Afternoon on Iowa’s Covered Bridges Scenic Byway

Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway sign and road photo by Sheila Scarborough

Distinctive Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway signage.

There’s nothing like a road trip on a beautiful day to clear your head. Whether you’re watching bucolic scenery go by, or hopping in and out of the car to explore (and eat great local food!) it is alternately energizing and relaxing. Did you know that the U.S. has national- and state-designated scenic byways all over the country, including 49 new ones?

One easy place to experience a lot of road trip in a short time is the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway in Iowa, not far from Des Moines. It is only one of many fun road trip opportunities in the state; go here to see all Iowa scenic byways and download the Iowa Scenic Byway Passport app for maps and detailed information.

Yes, these are the covered bridges featured in the romantic novel, movie, and musical, the Bridges of Madison County. I read the book years ago, but the impetus for my short afternoon in Madison County was just to be out and about seeing new sights after a LONG year of no travel. My husband and I had a few late afternoon hours to explore one section of the byway, around the town of Winterset, but there was plenty to see.

There are lots of covered bridges in this part of Iowa because the North, South, and Middle Rivers plus smaller streams run through the area, complicating transportation. Starting in the 1850s and 1860s, the county built bridges so that people could get themselves plus their horses and wagons across the waters. Covered bridges were more expensive, but lasted longer because they kept snow, ice, and sun off of the main bridge structure.

We started at the 1880 Holliwell Covered Bridge, taking our time to marvel at the intricate wooden construction. There’s a quick look inside it in the video clip at the bottom of this post.

The Holliwell Bridge Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway photo by Sheila Scarborough

The 1880 Holliwell Covered Bridge near Winterset IA, on the Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. It’s a “covered timber town lattice truss overland with a pair of timber arches.” It cost US$1,180 to build in 1880.

We were the only people there on a weekday afternoon, our feet thumping on the bridge’s wooden floor while birds chirped and the small river burbled below us.

Sheila at Holliwell covered bridge Madison County Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway

Hello in there! The author at the Holliwell Covered Bridge in Madison County, Iowa, on its original site over the Middle River.

If you like to canoe or kayak, this bridge is the end point for the Middle River Water Trail.

There are several towns on the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, including St. Charles and Bevington, but since our time was limited we went into Winterset to see as much as we could before dark.

I couldn’t believe it that day when I saw that Field of Dreams, another Iowa movie icon, was playing at downtown Winterset’s Iowa Theater. If you go there for a performance, check in on the Iowa Scenic Byway Passport app and get a free small buttered popcorn.

Now Playing at the Iowa Theater in Winterset IA Field of Dreams Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway photo by Sheila Scarborough

Now Playing at the Iowa Theater in Winterset IA – “Field of Dreams”

Winterset has a nice courthouse square, with a spectacular clock tower on the courthouse. Most shops were closed when we got there, but restaurants were open and there was plenty of parking. The Madison County Chamber and Welcome Center is on the square.

Downtown mural Winterset IA on the Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway photo by Sheila Scarborough

Downtown mural in Winterset IA.

Because we arrived so late in the day, several attractions were already closed, like the Iowa Quilt Museum and the John Wayne Birthplace Museum (yes, he was from Winterset.)

We’ll have to make another trip to go back and see them.

John Wayne birthplace house Winterset IA on Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway

John Wayne’s modest birthplace house in Winterset, Iowa.

One spot that was a little hard to find was a small park to honor scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, who lived in Winterset in the late 1880s. I was particularly interested in seeing this because I’d learned so much about him during a visit to Carver’s birthplace and childhood home near Joplin, Missouri. He walked all over the Midwest in search of opportunities for more education.

The park is on the site of the former Shults Hotel, where Carver used to work. The “Dream Big Dreams” ceramic mural on the brick wall is the work of local students; it honors his love for learning, art, and nature.

Pocket park in downtown Winterset IA to honor George Washington Carver on the Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway photo by Sheila Scarborough

A little park next to the fire station in downtown Winterset IA honors onetime town resident George Washington Carver.

We made one more stop in Winterset before driving out to see another bridge; a book-shaped sculpture that is a tribute to one of the “Monuments Men” of World War Two. They were American historians and museum experts who were serving in the military, and their mission was to track down and recover cultural pieces and art works stolen by the Nazis.

Conservationist George L. Stout, a Winterset native, was one of them.

George L Stout Monument Men tribute sculpture Winterset IA on Iowa Covered Bridges Scenic Byway photo by Sheila Scarborough

George L. Stout, one of the famous World War Two “Monuments Men” who rescued art works stolen by the Nazis, was from Winterset, Iowa. This tribute sculpture is in front of his former high school on the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway.

This quote from Stout is on the book sculpture, and it rings true today:

“At moments, whole nations seem to fall back, their people fret for deliverance from selfish fears. They pay homage to persons who have snatched power for themselves, all manner of tyrants, and people beg them for comfort and for peace. But when I look beyond the weak spots, I notice those men who pursue knowledge for the common benefit, or labor for sound structures rather than for gain, or fight and die, not for praise or possessions, but for the freedom of others.”

I didn’t expect to find so many interesting places in one small part of one state’s scenic byway. As we drove back to Des Moines that night, I was profoundly grateful to be out on the road again, smiling at pretty views and periodically exclaiming, “Wow, I had no idea about that…”


(All photos by the author)

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One Response

  1. Michael Goodall June 17, 2021

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