There are few things more American than a road trip. Road trips are a tradition for many people, and driving is still the most popular way that people travel in the U.S. If you happen to be driving through Iowa, I urge you to skip the interstate and take a little extra time. One alternative to Interstate 80 is Highway 34, which crosses the southern half of Iowa from Burlington on the Mississippi to the Missouri River. Whether Iowa is your final destination or a stop along the way, there are many great roadside stops to make, and Highway 34 has several great things to see. Towns along Highway 34 include Burlington, Fairfield, Ottumwa, Osceola, Creston, Corning, and Red Oak.
From east to west, here are my favorite stops:
Snake Alley, Burlington: Named by Ripley’s Believe it or Not as the “Crookedest Street in the World,” Snake Alley has 275 feet of curves. The street was designed to connect Heritage Hill to the downtown business district and was completed in 1894. Snake Alley has five half-curves and two quarter-curves. The street is paved with cobblestones, slanted so that horses could get a better grip on the steep descent (it has a 21% grade). While Lombard Street in San Francisco has more curves, Snake Alley’s are sharper, earning it the title of crookedest.
Did you know? Burlington was the first capital of the Iowa Territory from 1838–1841.
Cedar Valley Winery, Batavia: Cedar Valley Winery is home to a number of great wines produced from seven varieties of grapes grown on the property. Named the Iowa Winery of the Year at the New York International Wine Competition in 2013 and 2014, wines are available for purchase, on-site consumption, and tastings. Family-owned and operated, this winery is a perfect place to take a break from the road and enjoy some delicious Iowa wines.
American Gothic House, Eldon This house is instantly recognizable from the background of Grant Wood’s most famous painting, American Gothic. While the house isn’t open to the public often, there is a small museum and visitor’s center next door with information on the house and the life of Grant Wood. Here, you can borrow all the props needed to create your own American Gothic picture, including pitchforks!
Did you know? The models for American Gothic were Wood’s sister and his dentist.
Swedish American Immigrant Memorial, Munterville This memorial depicting a Swedish immigrant family was constructed in 2008 to honor the Swedish pioneers that settled in the area. Located near the Munterville Lutheran Church, it celebrates the contributions and heritage of the thousands of Swedish immigrants that came to Iowa. Munterville was one of the earliest Swedish settlements in Iowa.
Chief Wapello Memorial Park, Agency: This small park represents several historically significant events in the history of Iowa, including the signing of the treaty for the purchase of Iowa from the Sac and Fox Nations which took place here in 1842. Chief Wapello was a powerful leader for the Fox Nation, and was the second-in-command over the combined Sac and Fox Indians during the Black Hawk War. Agency was also the site of the Indian Agency (thus the name). The memorial park is home to the grave sites of General Joseph Street and members of his family, and Chief Wapello.
John L. Lewis Mining and Labor Museum, Lucas: John Lewis was born near Lucas in 1880, and began his career in the Big Hill Coal Mine here. He joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and eventually he rose to the position of president of the UMWA. He served as president of the UMWA for forty years from 1920-1960, and also helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Lewis played a major role in the history of both coal mining and organized labor. The museum play homage to Lewis, and includes videos, speeches, letters, and other memorabilia.
Mount Pigsah Historic Site, Thayer: Highway 34 overlaps with the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail from Murray to Creston. The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, operated by the National Park Service, crosses five states from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, a distance of about 1,300 miles. It follows the route that 70,000 Mormons traveled from 1846 to 1869 to escape religious persecution. Mount Pigsah served as a waystation on the route from 1846 to 1852, and was a semi-permanent town with houses, fields, and a cemetery. It is now a park with picnic shelters, grills, a reconstructed log cabin, and interpretive information about the trail and the Mormons.
Did you know? The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail includes 317 miles across Iowa.
Johnny Carson Birthplace Museum, Corning: Johnny Carson was born in Corning in 1925 when his father was the manager of the local power company. Carson is best known as the host of The Tonight Show from 1962-1992. The house where Johnny was born is now a museum, featuring furnishing from the 1920s, information on Johnny’s life and his years on The Tonight Show. Be sure to call ahead for a tour.
Did you know? Johnny Carson’s final appearance as host of The Tonight Show in 1992 attracted an estimated 50 million viewers.
Safe travels and enjoy your trip!