*We had the pleasure to partner up with Travel Iowa and promote this wonderful scenic byway. Our travels took us through a terrific three county region of Iowa and we were thrilled to be back on the road. All the views expressed in this blog post are my own. Let’s get back to gallivanting!
Iowa Valley Scenic Byway: Benton County, Iowa County and Tama County
The Iowa Gallivant-HQ is located in Iowa City and we were less than an hour from the nearest check-in point on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway. Hold on one hot Hawkeye State second! What do I mean about a “check-in”. Well, friend, that’s one of the best things about the Iowa Scenic Byways Passport! Not only do you get on the road, but you get to hunt for landmarks, museums, natural wonders, restaurants, and more places on all 13 byways and….. you can get rewards too! You were already gearing up for an amazing road trip, so you might as well get rewarded for it, too. This is how we spent our weekend on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway- checking in, dining, sightseeing, and experiencing Iowa in a whole new way. It took us through three counties in three of Travel Iowa’s tourism regions, Benton County-Northeast Iowa region, Iowa County-East Central region, and Tama County in the Central Iowa region. We have this passport to thank for this adventure!
Countless Iowans, tourists, and travelers have memories of the Amana Colonies, especially up and down the streets of “Main Amana” as so many have come to call it. All the villages have their own charm, and we started our exploring with the main business district. Time to pass the potatoes, start buying those stocking stuffer ideas, and absorb some of the most fabled history in Iowa, using the Iowa Scenic Byways Passport on my smart phone, of course!
Generations of Amana lovers have flocked to the Ox Yoke Inn, especially for special meals with their friends and loved ones. The family style service option is still a huge hit with the newbies and regulars that file in, but I did something I’ve never done in my 40+ years of Amana visits. I….I…I ordered a….A cheeseburger. I ordered a CHEESEBURGER! And I loved it and I’ll do it again!
For years, no matter where I was eating in the Amana Colonies, I’d hit up the traditional German inspired entrees they are famous for. Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, and bratwurst were my go-tos for almost my whole life, with occasional dips into the Midwest traditional delights like catfish, fried chicken, or thick cut ham steak. Then I saw something in the menu that let me have it both ways and still get some of those yummy sides the Ox Yoke Inn is famous for too. The Jäger Burger! No, silly. Not like the shot you order at the bar. This is an all Angus beef burger patty topped with melted Swiss cheese and the Ox Yoke’s signature mushroom sauce… but that’s not all! Next, they place breaded and fried portobello mushrooms over the top and slide that daddy onto a fresh bun. And yes. I loved it. And yes. I had a bite of my son’s chicken schnitzel. I may have “sampled” a fried chicken thigh from my daughter’s plate. That’s family style supper snatching right there! Let’s get back to that Iowa Valley Scenic Byway, shall we.
Victor is a small town that has quite an interesting heritage. Ever hear about a Belgian community here in Iowa? We didn’t either! We get this passport and all of a sudden we’re getting history lessons and have a blast with knowledge we’re dropping from it. Victor is also known for the passport check-in at the town’s Rolle Bolle course which is also nicknamed, Belgian bowling. The best way I can explain it is imagine a horseshoe-ish course and you take your Bocce Ball skills but roll something that look more like a Curling doohickey. Ok…I suggest you just join the locals and get a lesson when you’re there this summer. Let’s do that idea. Geez, JayJay! Let’s get to those Bohemie Alps!
OK, we got you into this blog post with the Bohemie Alps headline and it’s time to start talking about them. Once again, this is an off the beaten path region I’ve never been to nor heard of. That’s right, folks. I’m born and raised in Iowa and been combing thousands of miles in this state on The Iowa Gallivant for seven years and not once did I ever come across Vining’s heartfelt roadside attraction. The Iowa Scenic Byways led us here and there is so much more than just a humorous sign. It’s their version of the Alps so that means it is Iowa’s version of beauty in it’s own way. If you love hilly and winding roads, then this stretch of Iowa’s rural blacktops was made for you!
The Czech/Bohemian heritage can be found in a few places throughout Eastern Iowa, with Cedar Rapids and Iowa City having the largest populations of these European decedents. However, the immigrants from the Czech Republic or Slovakia didn’t all settle in the large cities. And Vining wasn’t the only rural community these folks platted.
The little Czech town of Clutier, Iowa, is on that hilly drive through the countryside of Tama County and it’s a welcoming town. Even when you need to check-in at the town jail. It’s quite alright. You’re not the first person to land at this historic slammer and, thanks to your new passport, you’re not going to be the last. Let’s just say that the days of getting three hots and cot from this local clink are long gone. But, it will get you closer to filling up all those landmarks you’re looking for on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway! Let’s seek out another very important part of Iowa culture and heritage as we go deeper into Tama County.
The education continues for us and everyone seeking to get all the places accounted for on their passport. Many people come to the Meskwaki Settlement to hit it big at the nearby casino, and sign me up for that! However there’s more to this community and you can seek the history of it here at the Meskwaki Cultural Center & Museum. You’ll learn about the rich history of Iowa’s Meskwaki nation and cultural impact they’ve had in this area and beyond. This is where they share their traditions while promoting equality and encouraging cultural awareness. This is a must-see for anyone that loves Native American history and the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway is very luck to have this facility just a few minutes town the hill from HWY 30. Hey! How about a little trail hike before we head into town!
Tama County’s Otter Creek Lake & Park is going to see a long list of new and regular visitors this year. It’s just down the road from the town of Toledo and perfect for a family picnic, BBQ, or day at the lake. Get to know as many of these county parks as you can because you’ll be amazed at all they offer for fun and relaxation. Otter Creek will be a great way to take a break and stretch your legs on your Iowa Valley excursion.
You gotta love a byway that runs into another byway! The Belle Plaine Area Museum is a check-in location on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway and Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway and that means you get two for one here. Not to mention that the museum has some great exhibits and displays the area’s history folks have come to love in these very important buildings. Iowa is blessed to be peppered with many, many local museums ranging in all sizes and it’s crucial for as many of us to support them when we can. You know what else is important? Lunch!
The Lincoln Café is in the main business district of Belle Plaine. Your classic American roadside eatery that’s serving up the stick to your ribs meals that we can’t wait to sink our road tripping teeth into. How about a gyro, spaghetti, and a hamburger with extra BBQ sauce! That’s a lot of comfort right there. Let’s not leave Belle Plaine without one more check-in!
Larry Schlue was inspired by trains and Belle Plaine certainly has plenty of them coming through town on a daily basis. He was fascinated by the sounds and vibrations the trains would make, as a child, and it inspired his musical talent. This sound park brings music, science, and much needed time outdoors in the middle of Belle Plaine. Make your own historic sound on the scenic byway. I’m ready to call it a night and lucky for us, we can still keep checking into our passport while do that. Yup, you heard that right!
Have I mentioned that we’ve been going to the Amana Colonies my whole life? You bet I did! And I genuinely could not believe what I was walking into when we arrived to check-in and then check-in again. The old Woolen Mill has never looked so good and that’s thanks to the vision of the folks at Hotel Millwright. Let’s get to the pictures.
We are seeing Amana in a completely new way while keeping the historic integrity of one of the most iconic buildings in the area. It’s been a running business, of some sort, since the 1800s, and even dealt with an explosion with subsequent fire when it was milling flour back in the day. Was that the end of this building? If you said, yes then you don’t know the folks from the Amanas very well. And I kind-of gave it way with the whole Millwright Hotel talk from above.
Hotel Millwright is a reminder of how great it can be to see an area evolve into a modernized destination and all the while holding onto what makes the Amana Colonies so special. The folks we met that work here like, Shelby, Matthew, May, Joe, and more, welcomed us into the hotel that was uniquely Amana. It felt like an old world bevy of hellos inside a state of the art lodging experience inside an old world facility. That’s the type of vision I can very much be attracted to in any area. Especially in an Iowa County town that I’ve embraced since I was coming here and smearing cottage cheese on my face with my bear hands. I think I was 23 when I did that. And don’t even think this is the only write-up we have about Hotel Millwright coming your way. Stay tuned to The Iowa Gallivant because there is A LOT more of this brand new hotel to show you! Let’s have breakfast cuz I’m hungry again.
Another classic Amana staple is the Ronneburg Restaurant and it serves up some of the best breakfast in town. The Amana Smokehouse is known for their top of the line hams and it makes its way into many grocery stores, and lucky for us, at the Amana area restaurants. Find a way to eat this ham when you’re in town and we highly recommend you make it happen at the Ronneburg for breakfast!
Omelets aren’t the only selection for breakfast at the Ronneburg. Eggs your way, fried potatoes, juicy sausage links, beautiful bacon, and butter toast with their signature jam. That’s quite a meal before we make a final checking in on our passport!
Be sure to watch the interpretive video and go from there upon entering the Amana Heritage Museum. The video gives you the narrative you’ll love before walking up and down the stairs, through the hallways, and into the rooms of this museum. You can almost hear the accents of the Amana locals within the film as you observe the displays and antiques that tell the story of Iowa’s old communal society. The deep German notes in their dialect prepare everyone for the culture and heritage in this museum.
It’s amazing how much of Iowa we discovered while exploring the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway. And all the checkpoints were never more than 1.5 hours from our home in Iowa City. During that drive, we experienced Native American, German, Belgian, and Czech heritages in just one single 70+ mile loop. All that with a big Bohemian flare from our own Central Iowa Alps. I won’t wait for winter to hit those slopes again because there’s so much more to see on this loop. There’s plenty more to discover and rediscover in our home state and folks from across the country are gearing up to make more stops in Iowa as they use the Iowa Scenic Byways Passport during their own road trips. So c’mon, Cedar Rapids! The Lincoln Highway is right around the corner. Hey, Des Moines I’m talking to you! White Pole Road isn’t far at all. Waterloo/Cedar Falls folks…River Bluffs is calling your names! Delaware Crossing would love more Dubuquers hopping on. And those Western Skies are always waiting for more travelers in the Sioux City and Council Bluffs areas. Take a day trip to an Iowa Scenic Byway near you and don’t stop there…. keep going to another and see what you can find! Iowa’s scenic byways are ready for everyone and the communities on them can’t wait for the nation’s travelers. Let’s all spread the word and give these passports a workout!
Just click here to get your own Iowa Scenic Byways Passport and start your own adventures on these beautiful, historic, and treasured roads.
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Thanks for gallivanting!