A Quiet Stay Near Iowa City

Iowa City, IA

When we arrived at Sugar Bottom Recreation Area, a Corp of Engineers park just north of Iowa City, we had a reservation for four days.  About 60% of the sites here are reservable with the rest available on a first come first served basis.  The site we reserved turned out to be a bit unlevel, and we were fortunate that one full hook-up walk-up site was empty upon our arrival.  With a very nice site and nothing on our schedule for the near future, we ended up extending our stay here to the full 14 days allowed.  While central Iowa is not exactly in the list of the top ten places to visit, we did find a few things to keep us busy.

Old Capitol Museum

Nearby Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa, and the school dominates the city.  The campus is integrated into the center of the city so it doesn’t seem to have that same campus appeal we have found in other schools.  Some people obviously enjoy the urban setting of schools like this, but we prefer a campus away from the city.  One afternoon on a visit to a nice farmers market in downtown Iowa City, we walked a few blocks to the west to visit the Old Capitol Museum.  It was once the main government building for the state of Iowa, and it now stands as the most prominent landmark at the center of the university campus.

The cornerstone of the Old Capitol Building was laid in 1840.  Iowa City served as the third and last territorial capital of Iowa, and the last four territorial legislatures met at the Old Capitol Building until 1846, when Iowa was admitted to the union as the 29th state. Iowa City was declared the state capital of Iowa, and the government convened in the Old Capitol Building.

Restored main legislative chamber

After ten years of housing the government in Iowa City, the state decided to move the capital to Des Moines, a city located more toward the center of the state. When the state government moved in 1857, the Old Capitol Building became the first permanent building owned by the University of Iowa.

Beautiful staircase leading to balconies for the legislative rooms


Cedar Rapids

The city of Cedar Rapids is located about 20 miles north of our park.  One afternoon we drove up for a visit.  While it is the hometown of PGA golfer Zach Johnson and NFL MVP Kurt Warner, Cedar Rapids’ best known figure may be artist Grant Wood.  You may not recognize the name but you’re probably familiar with one of his most famous works.

American Gothic

This year is Wood’s 125th birthday and, in recognition, 25 fiberglass statues of the couple in the famous painting have been decorated by local artists and placed at various locations throughout the city.

“Advance to Go-Go” (Monopoly theme)

“American Artist” (he’s wearing Grant Wood glasses)

Wood’s studio on 2nd Ave. (closed the day of our visit)

“Mike and Rosie” (Iron Mike and Rosie the Riveter)

The “Mike and Rosie” statue sits at the entrance to Veterans Memorial Building, located on May’s Island in the middle of the Cedar River.

Veterans Memorial Building

The Cedar River on one side of the island

The building sustained considerable damage, as did other buildings along the river, in flooding that occurred in 2008.

May’s Island in the Flood of 2008

Our main reason for visiting the Veteran’s Memorial Building was to see the large stained glass window designed by Grant Wood.  The window measures 24 by 20 feet.  It depicts a 16 foot Lady of Peace and Victory in the clouds.  She wears a Grecian robe and a blue mourning veil and holds a palm branch for peace in one hand and a wreath for victory in the other.  The artist’s sister, Nan, was the model for the Lady of Peace and Victory.  Across the bottom are six 6 feet tall soldiers representing the American Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican–American War, American Civil War, Spanish–American War, and World War I.

Grant Wood (seated) supervising the construction of the glass in Germany


A Little Hiking

The humidity levels have been brutal during our time in this area so outdoor activities have been limited.  One slightly cooler afternoon we did complete a short hike on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, located within the Sugar Bottom Recreation Area.

Although only about three and a half miles out and back, the trail has some decent “up and down” sections that provide a good workout.

The trail passes by an cave, a home to some Native Americans from as long ago as 10,000 years.  The entrance is blocked off as it is used by the University of Iowa Archaeological Field School.

The next day we drove to the other side of the reservoir to hike the Square Point/Woodpecker Trails.

By connecting the two trails we were able to complete a hike of just under four miles.


Devonian Fossil Gorge

Just a mile or so from the Square Point/Woodpecker trails is the Coralville Dam, an earthen dam built to control flooding on the Iowa River. Sitting on the west side of the dam is the Devonian Fossil Gorge.

During a flood in 1993 water roared over a large spillway on the west side of the dam.  For 28 days as much as 17,000 cubic feet of water-per-second flowed down the spillway, obliterating the road and a campground.  Fifteen feet of river-bottom silt and sand were rapidly eroded and washed away, exposing the limestone below. Up to five feet of limestone was then eroded near the end of the spillway and stone slabs weighing as much as two or three tons were carried hundreds of feet downstream.  When the flood abated, the eroded gorge surface exposed a rich collection of Devonian-age fossils from when Iowa was covered by warm, shallow seas 375 million years ago.  Naming the area the Devonian Fossil Gorge, the Corp of Engineers built a small visitor center next to the site with a concrete walk leading down to the fossil bed.

In 2008 another flood caused the river to go over the spillway again, significantly widening the gorge and exposing more of the fossils.  Below is a photo taken during that flood showing water cascading through the fossil gorge.

A young archaeologist in the center of the visitor area

Sidewalk into the gorge (the spillway is visible in the background)

Looking down the gorge (the spillway is behind us)

As you go down the gorge you have to look carefully to spot the fossils embedded in the rock.  Once you spot one, the others around it become more apparent.

Hexagonaria Colonial Coral

Stem of a Crinoid (Sea Lily)


Cephalopod (top) and Brachiopod (bottom)

That ends what was planned as a brief (four day) stop that became a wonderful, long (14 day) stay near Iowa City.  Next up is a week along the Mississippi just south of Davenport, IA.  More on that later . . .

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45 Responses to A Quiet Stay Near Iowa City

  1. Laurel says:

    Well, I must admit I’d never plan to stay 14 days in Iowa—but you certainly found a lot of wonderful things to do! Isn’t it interesting how a 3-4 mile hike in humidity is exhausting, when a 12-mile hike in the high desert is invigorating? Love the Grant Wood exhibition—I hope those fiberglass sculptures are permanent installations. I’d enjoy seeing them.

    • placestheygo says:

      We have so much fun discovery all the interesting things each state has to offer. Iowa has turned out to be a great stop with wonderful parks. Hiking in the humidity is not fun! But it was nice to have a few fairly comfortable days to get out for awhile:) Hopefully the city will leave the sculptures. They are really interesting. One never knows what a new city will have to share:)

  2. Patricia Neuzil says:

    Iowa City is where I grew up and spent most of my life before we started full-timing. You’ve been to places here that I never thought of. I’ve also wanted to thank you for months for posting such great information about Southern Utah. We were about 6 weeks behind your route and your blog gave us great ideas. Thank you so much.

    • placestheygo says:

      As you saw, we had a great time in your neck of the woods:) I’m glad we could help you out with southern Utah. This was our third visit. Southern Utah is my favorite area and we will return again next year:)

  3. Sue says:

    Fourteen days in Iowa wouldn’t be something I’d look forward to but you remind us that everywhere is interesting, everywhere has something to see and learn about. And, there’s always our books!

    I loved the beautiful staircase and those Grant Wood statues!

  4. Nancy says:

    You made your stay fun! Loved all the American Gothics. The staircase was magnificent! But you know me… Loved the fossils!

  5. rommel says:

    Amazing how a painting be so remarkable that it gets embedded to a city’s history. I love it when artists bind together to decorate a city.

  6. Debbie L says:

    Interesting and great photos. What camera(s) do you use?

    • placestheygo says:

      Debbie, all of the photos in this blog were taken on our Samsung Galaxy cell phone. We’ve only been using our point and shoot camera for zoom lately. It is easier to upload photos from the phone and the photos are just as nice as the camera:)

  7. Peter says:

    It’s great that when you give a place a chance to intrigue you, they often do. Lovely post.

  8. Gay says:

    Isn’t this retirement thing and full time rving just the best ever? Joe and I work hard at keeping our schedule flexible so we can do,exactly what you and John have done. What a great stop ! Your site was beautiful, you found great places to,explore, and even had some outdoor adventures as well…just doesn’t get any better. Love the Grant Wood art…the stained glass window is magnificent! And the staircase photo is awesome!

  9. heyduke50 says:

    Folks that don’t spend some time in out of the way places like “IOWA” are missing some of the beauty in our world…

  10. Sandra Silva says:

    We always enjoy your postings so much and were wondering where you were since we has not heard from you in a bit.

    We just arrived in South Lake Tahoe for a long 5 week stay. The campground is centrally located near enough to the lake to bike ride there. It is also close enough to the friends and family in Carson City and Reno to allow for frequent visits.

    We have just completed a two month tour of the northern coast of CA and then a week in Yosemite. I am always amazed at the diversity and beauty of nature wherever we go.

    I am happy to report my knees are almost back to normal and are working great with no pain. In the last two month I have taken several hikes of over two miles with no problems. It is so wonderful to be able to get out in nature again.

    Bob is well and says hi. He keeps himself busy maintaining the coach and visiting with other RV’ers when we are not out and about.

    Keep up having fun and staying fit.

    Sandy and Bob Silva

    Sent from my iPhone

  11. Jodee Gravel says:

    Putting her in sixties garb with the Monopoly Man is an interesting choice. What a fun idea for city art! The staircase is wonderful – like a beautiful piece of art itself. Amazing that the window was built and then shipped all the way from Germany! It is stunning. I applaud you getting out on the trail in this humidity. Definitely not my comfort zone!! Bill would love all those fossils, have to remember this stop!

    • placestheygo says:

      Who knew Iowa would have so much to offer! So glad we are taking our time to find all the little treasures. I wish it hadn’t been so hot and humid because I could have spent hours crawling around the fossil beds.

  12. LuAnn says:

    I too must admit that I trip to Iowa doesn’t normally float to the top of my travel list but you two managed to find interesting things to do. I love that stained glass window and the Grant Wood exhibition. I would have enjoyed the Devonian Fossil Gorge as well. There is a strenuous hike in Yoho NP, I believe led by a guide, to an area where there is a large grouping of fossils. We learned about it from our campground neighbors the day we did the Iceline Trail. Sounds like something we would have enjoyed.

    • placestheygo says:

      Yes, Iowa was never high on our list but it has turned out to be a great area. Look what the four of us found in North Dakota:) You never know what you will find:) I’ll have to remember the hike in Yoho NP when we return to the area. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Jeff says:

    Fun fossils! at the end of a nice trail. Perhaps we’ll have the chance to stop there too. Thanks for posting.

  14. Jim and Barb says:

    I have spent weeks in both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids for work but did nothing more than work! Amazing what some of these towns have to offer…..

  15. Don’t know what is more beautiful, the stained glass or the fossils! I can relate to the brutal heat and humidity curbing hiking, we can’t wait to get to Colorado, only 10 more days until we head west.

  16. pmbweaver says:

    Awesome header photo!
    I love visiting old capital buildings. This one is gorgeous. I love the staircase.
    Oh wow….it would be so cool to see those fiberglass statues!

    Oh dear…I can’t believe that building is still usable after that terrible flood. So glad those stained glass window survived. Beautiful.

    That hike is so different than what you two are used to. Very tame…hehe

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, Marsha! The stained glass window was damaged during the flood. Thank goodness it could be repaired. It was beautiful. Yes, the hiking was very different for us. I was just thrilled we had options available:)

  17. What a great stop this turned out to be! Excellent architecture photos. And the fossil beds are very interesting. I sure hope you get some relief from the humidity!

  18. There are always interesting to see and do in Iowa, and your short stop that morphed into two weeks can attest to that. I enjoyed this post.
    I would have love to see those Grant Wood art displays. Now I know who is the artist behind those famous couple.
    I see that there is more heat and humidity in the region that you are heading to.

  19. debbiemc14 says:

    Whoa that flood was terrible. The stained glass was so beautiful. I loved all the statues. Nice to be able to get a couple hikes in too.

  20. geogypsy2u says:

    Hard to believe you could stay busy for 14 days anywhere in Iowa yet you came up with a nice combination of inside discoveries and outside.

  21. Sherry says:

    What a great post from a place I too would never think if to stay 2 weeks. Although it us nice to relax in a COE park. Fun idea to put the Grant Woods statues all around town. I had no idea he died so young. Fabulous pictures of the fossils. We’ve been having the humidity problem too. Glad you could get out.

  22. reocochran says:

    When my parents retired, they bought a Transvan but had trips north to Maine, west to California, south to Florida then Phoenix. . . I know I should have followed you awhile back but I loved a few recent posts. Happy trails to you! Robin C.

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