Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa.

“Is this heaven?”

“It’s Iowa.”

“Iowa? I could have sworn this was heaven.”

Field of Dreams, 1989

Of all the places I have lived (and there have been many), few are as close to my heart as Iowa. If you consider Iowa a fly-over state whose claims to fame revolve around corn and political gatherings, I’m here to tell you that you are sorely mistaken. Before you dismiss Iowa as a landlocked stretch of farmland in middle America, pay it a visit and experience the charming warmth, friendly hospitality, and scenic landscapes of this gem of a state.

Des Moines

Iowa’s capital city is one of my favorite places on the entire planet. Period.

With just about everything you could possibly want or need in a big city but without the traffic and hurried attitudes, Des Moines is a perfect mix of cozy cosmopolitan. Several distinct neighborhoods give Des Moines a unique feel, and the city is teeming with great restaurants, independent coffee shops, and plenty of outdoor green space. With a growing job market and a cost of living that allows for both a house and a savings account, Des Moines has repeatedly found its way in recent years on lists of great places to live and work, for both young professionals and families alike.

Downtown Des Moines.

Downtown Des Moines.

Situated on a grid and dotted with a few tall buildings, Des Moines has a definite skyline. Downtown Des Moines is at its busiest during the day and tends to quiet down after the workday ends. That said, more and more downtown lofts, shops and restaurants are popping up in the city’s effort to revitalize downtown and make it a more vibrant city center.

View of the Des Moines skyline from the Iowa State Capitol.

On Saturday mornings in spring, summer, and early fall, Des Moines’ huge and wonderful Downtown Farmers’ Market is held on the streets in front of the Polk County Courthouse.

Polk County Courthouse.

Polk County Courthouse, downtown Des Moines.

Downtown Farmers’ Market.

A small sampling of what you can find at the Downtown Farmers’ Market, in addition to fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat and dairy.

Across the Des Moines River from downtown are the historic but trendy East Village and Iowa State Capitol. With a definite hipster vibe, the East Village is a great place for meandering, shopping, and having coffee or a drink on a Saturday afternoon. Its streets are lined with a variety of independently-owned shops, cafes, and restaurants.

The gold-domed Iowa State Capitol.

The gold-domed Iowa State Capitol provides the backdrop for the East Village.

Iowa State Capitol and grounds.

Autumn in Des Moines.

Autumn leaves on the capitol grounds.

Sunset over the Iowa State Capitol.

The (somewhat) sleepy Des Moines River runs through downtown. On the right: the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium.

Des Moines sunrise.

Des Moines sunrise.

Adding to its charm, Des Moines is a great running (and walking and cycling) town, with interconnected paths and trails throughout the city. Follow the trail on the west side of the river to Gray’s Lake and Water Works Park. At 1,500 acres, Water Works is one of the largest urban parks in the United States.

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Gray’s Lake Park is just a few minutes’ walk south of downtown.

Complete with a small beach, the manmade Gray’s Lake is a great spot for running, walking, and picnicking. One loop around the lake is about 2 miles.

The downtown skyline viewed from Gray’s Lake.

Gray’s Lake boasts a unique pedestrian bridge which becomes a rainbow of color when the sun goes down. Each time I crossed it while running in the early morning hours, I scolded myself for not having my camera, silently vowing to go back at night and take a photo. Many broken promises later, I still do not have my own photo, but because it is so beautiful, I have borrowed this one, from Gary Hoard Photography. I love this shot so much that I bought one of Gary’s photos of it from the Downtown Farmers’ Market a couple of years ago.

Gray’s Lake pedestrian bridge at night. Photo credit: Gary Hoard Photography.

If you are lucky enough to be in the Des Moines area in August (or unlucky, depending on how you feel about heat and humidity), don’t leave without visiting the Iowa State Fair, where you can find just about any food item fried and on a stick. Packed with activities and live entertainment, the Iowa State Fair is fun for the whole family.

The Iowa State Fair is a long-standing Iowa tradition, dating back to 1854.

The Iowa State Fair sees more than one million visitors every summer.

Here I am, standing next to the 2012 winner of the largest pumpkin contest at the Iowa State Fair.

State Fair

Get your deep fried Twinkies and Oreos!

With four definite seasons, Iowa can be enjoyed in different ways year-round. In autumn, visit a local apple orchard or pumpkin patch and harvest your own goodies to take home.

Center Grove Orchard is about an hour’s drive north of Des Moines.

Beautiful fall mums outside Center Grove Orchard.

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Center Grove Orchard.

Old timey tractors at Center Grove Orchard.

Visitors to Center Grove can also find pumpkins, choosing either to pick their own from the patch or to select from the pre-picked pumpkins at the pumpkin house.

My personal harvest from Center Grove Orchard on the day I visited.

Don’t let Iowa’s hot and humid summers fool you into thinking it doesn’t get cold! In 2012, Des Moines was hit by a blizzard that shut everything down for a couple of days.

Snow-covered trees and roads in my old neighborhood.

The golden dome of the Capitol peeks out above the snow-covered trees.

Snow

A blizzard is no match for this Iowa doggie!

Des Moines is so dear to me that M. and I got married there, on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol grounds, in 2013.

Our Iowa wedding.

Lake Okoboji

Although I traveled throughout the state for my job while I lived in Iowa, I didn’t often bring my camera along. Some of Iowa’s other must-see cities and towns include Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, and Dubuque, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Outdoorsy visitors should also make a trip to Iowa’s Great Lakes, the most well-known of which is Lake Okoboji.

In the northwest corner of the state, Lake Okobji and the other nearby lakes developed from glaciers. In the summer time, this region is a popular vacation destination. When I visited on a work trip in April 2013, the first signs of spring were beginning to appear.

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Okoboji is a tiny town with huge appeal in the warmer months.

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A mostly frozen Lake Okoboji at the beginning of spring.

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My shadow in the sand on the beach of Lake Okoboji.

With the lake starting to melt, the owner of this car might have a tough time getting the vehicle off the lake.

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Sunset over Lake Okoboji.

If M. and I hadn’t gotten together in this wild foreign service adventure, I probably could have stayed in Iowa for a really long time and been perfectly happy. I miss it a lot, and sometimes I daydream about returning to live there one day. In the meantime, I hold my memories of what I call the gem of the Midwest dear and visit when I can.

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Even Frieda was sad to leave Iowa, her birthplace.

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