A Hipster’s Guide to North Central Iowa



A few beers in at Single Speed Brewery (Waterloo, IA)


For the twentieth time Corey and I left Chicago in order to spend a Summer away from home. Henna of course is also with us but this is only her fifteenth time tagging along (16 if you count the time she was in Corey’s womb). And what did I learn from the experience? Well today I learned that Waterloo, Iowa has been taken over by a band of benevolent (we hope) hipsters.



Expect a lot of camping this summer, but tonight we chose AC and a comfortable bed


Maybe a dozen years ago we would have been camping tonight but with this humidity… forget about it. After a brief flirtation with Dubuque we stumbled upon a former John Deere warehouse in Waterloo that has been repurposed quite nicely by Marriott into an affordable Courtyard. Our hotel room ceiling have to be at least 12 feet tall and are supported by the original columns which are almost as wide as they are tall. We could have spent the night wandering the John Deere museum (well, if it was open we might have; this is still Iowa so everything pretty much closes around 5). Instead we checked out Single Speed Brewery which, of course, is also located in a former factory. Over Brussel sprouts roasted in hoisin sauce and flat bread sourced with local goodies we toasted our amazing luck stumbling upon this Pilsen of north central Iowa. Then we stumbled back to our room ready to begin again tomorrow.



Even the Waterloo bathroom stalls are hip!


Backbone State Park, Iowa


Corey and Henna gazing out from the CCC built boat house at Backbone State Park

A couple of days before a possible teachers strike and immediately following one of the most nauseating presidential stories of all time (thanks a million Trump, you smug creep you), we headed to the foothills of Iowa’s “Little Switzerland.” Founded in 1919, Backbone State Park is named for a massive rocky ridge that extends over the very pretty Maquoketa River. A scant 400 million years ago this rock lay below a tropical sea which explains the marine fossils that litter the area. The park spills over a large area and although relatively well marked, it is definitely missing a visitor’s center. So we mostly stumbled around before finding a small cave which only Henna was brave enough to explore.


Water, sun, and changing leaves; who could ask for more in October

We camped at South Lake where late at night we heard two owls calling to each other. Our loop (in the 30s) backed into a nice stand of trees with a trail that ran parallel to the water. What we enjoyed most though was stepping back into our camping roles. Back home life moves fast but out in the country, with no real plan and nothing we had to do, it felt right to sit back and watch the trees color themselves silly. Best time of our mini-road trip was playing Frisbee right before packing up the tent with a slow breeze blowing the leaves down like rain. The morning fire was still smoking and in that moment I honestly did not care if we went on strike, who the next president might be, or if the Cubs made the World Series. OK, I lied about not caring if the Cubs made the World Series. But it still felt mighty good to be back on the road.


Backbone State Park is about 4 ½ hours from Chicago. Driving from the east, we recommend taking the very scenic Route 3 from Dubuque. Besides South Lake there are a few other campgrounds both in the State Park as well as the surrounding area.

Northeast Iowa

When I am not road tripping I am planning future road trips.  And when I am not doing that, I like to reminisce a little about past road trips.  Over the next month or two I plan on focusing on places a day or two away from my hometown of Chicago.  First up, Iowa.

Methinks Iowa gets a bad rap.  People think of Iowa as flat, boring, and full of corn.  Yes on the last one but no on the first two.  And the north-east corner of Iowa is absolutely stunning.  There is Pikes Peak State Park (discovered by the same Pike who named Pikes Peak in Colorado), the Effigy Mounds, and a beautiful, rolling river drive that takes you past stunning views of the river, deep valleys where hawks and bald eagles soar, and some pretty lousy, but picturesque wineries.  The one winery we went to was actually in the kitchen/ dining area of a small ranch house and was run by its two elder owners.  The old man was shirtless when we rang the bell, but put a shirt on for the tastings.  You have to expect a certain touch of class at these things.  Pikes Peak State Park has a few short trails and several dramatic overlooks.  Effigy Mounds covers a very large area where one can hike past dozens of mounds in the shape of bears, eagles, and other animals.  A lot of mystery here in that no one knows exactly what the mounds were used for, but they did often house the dead.  To get there drive to Madison, WI and then take 18 east.  It took us about 6 hours.  We also got the last available campsite, so you might want to plan ahead.  Closest town is McGreggor which I think was the birth place of John Wayne. 

After taking in the mounds and the views, it is an easy drive south to Dubuque which is across the river from Galena.  Galena is a much more happening town, but Dubuque has a cool aquarium focusing on the river, a casino (did not enter but I am sure it is nice), and a very clean, built up downtown that was curiously empty when we were there.  Galena is a short drive away and offers a very historic, shop and resteraunt filled town.  I believe that most of the city is a historic landmark and one can really get lost in the beautifully restored blocks that sometimes seem to climb straight up into the hills.  The drive west on 20 is also very pretty and offers a scenic alternative close to Galena that is worth the drive.