Winterset, Iowa is a quintessential Iowa town you won’t regret exploring. Whether you’re a native Iowan ready to explore the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, or looking to check Iowa off your 50 state tour, you need to head to Winterset. Many people visit for the beautiful Madison County bridges, but Winterset offers much more!
Many thanks to the Madison County CVB for sponsoring this post.
Visiting the Madison County Bridges & More Fun in Winterset Iowa!
I’m always surprised when people tell me they’ve never been to Iowa. I suppose it’s not a state high on most people’s travel bucket list, but it does have quite a few redeeming qualities and some of the nicest people you will meet, if I do say so myself.
Since I live in Iowa, I just take for granted that North Dakota is the last state people visit, but I suppose Iowa might be one of the last as well.
But the truth is, there are so many wonderful places to visit in Iowa – Winterset and the Madison County Bridges are just the tip of the iceberg! Full of history, a charming downtown square, delicious restaurants, and plenty of luxurious accommodations: these are just a few of the reasons your entire family will be excited to explore Madison County, Iowa!
History of the Movie – The Bridges of Madison County
Many people are familiar with the movie that helped put Winterset on the map. Based on the best selling novel by Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County was partly filmed in Winterset in 1995. The story is set in 1965 when professional photographer Robert Kincaid, played by Clint Eastwood, travels to Winterset to photographic the iconic covered bridges for a National Geographic story.
Kincaid meets Italian war bride Francesca Johnson, played by Meryl Streep, who is married to an Iowa farmer and lives in rural Madison County. While her husband and children are away, Kincaid and Johnson have a brief four-day love affair. The movie is a testament to true love and the need to also consider the implications of this love on other family members.
While the movie theme (let’s get real here, it’s adultery), might not be appropriate for younger kids, my kids still enjoyed visiting the bridges as part of our trip to Winterset. My two younger kids (ages 11 and 9) know there’s a movie about the bridges that was filmed in the town, but they didn’t ask for specifics and we didn’t offer. 🙂
How to get to the City of Winterset, Iowa
If you’d like to plan a trip to Winterset, it’s pretty easy to find. Just southwest of Des Moines, Winterset is easily accessible from both Interstate 80 and Interstate 35. From I-80, take US Highway 6 / 169 south for about 13 miles. From I-35, take County Highway G50 toward St. Charles and drive for about 13 miles to Winterset.
At 40 minutes from Des Moines, 2 ½ hours from Kansas City, just under 2 hours from Omaha, and about 2 ½ hours from my house in Eastern Iowa, Madison County is the perfect location for a quick weekend getaway!
About The City of Winterset
Winterset is the seat of Madison County in rural Central Iowa. With a population of just over 5,000 people, it’s a quintessential Iowa farm town. Don’t let its small size fool you though! Winterset absolutely offers visitors plenty of fun: lovely farms, rolling hills, historic museums, delicious restaurants including several wineries and a cidery too, plus independently owned and operated stores and gift shops.
In fact, Winterset won the “Outstanding Retail Experience” award at the 2019 Iowa Tourism Conference! Kids and adults alike will have plenty of fun in Winterset.
Finding all of the Madison County Bridges
One of the biggest draws to Winterset is of course the covered bridges. And if you’re heading to Madison County, you will definitely want to see them all. While they do have similarities, they are different enough to warrant at least a quick stop at each one.
Remember when families used to have time to go on weekend drives? How did life get so busy that we can’t do this anymore? Or maybe it’s just my current lot in life as a busy mom of four insanely busy kids. If you live in Iowa and haven’t explored the scenic byways, you really should make time to bring those weekend drives back! Iowa’s scenic byways are simply fantastic.
Here’s a map with locations of the Madison County Covered Bridges
B. Holliwell Bridge – 123 Holliwell Bridge Rd, Winterset
C. Cutler-Donahoe Bridge – 300 S 9th St, Winterset
D. Cedar Bridge – 1874 Nature Ct, Winterset
E. Hogback Bridge – 1879 Hogback Bridge Rd, Winterset
F. Roseman Covered Bridge – 2451 Elder Berry Ave, Winterset
G. Town of Winterset
Facts about the Covered Bridges of Madison County
Many people wonder why the bridges were covered in the first place and the answer is pretty simple. It was to protect the large flooring timbers from the weather. They were the most expensive parts of the bridges so county officials covered them out of practicality and frugality.
Originally, there were 19 covered bridges in Madison County but only six are left today. All six remaining bridges are within an 11-mile radius of Winterset and they are all part of the beautiful Covered Bridges Scenic Byway.
Some of the bridges are in their original location, and others have been moved. You can still drive across one bridge, the Cedar Bridge, and I recommend that you do!
The Cedar Bridge was originally built in 1883, but has twice been the victim of arson. It was recently rebuilt for the second time and now contains a state-of-the-art fire suppression system which you can see in my video. Itt;s all of those the yellow canisters hanging from the ceiling of the bridge.
Winterset Iowa Hotels & Beautiful Places to Stay
Winterset has many types of places to stay including The Cobblestone Inn & Suites, the Covered Bridge Inn, and several Bed and Breakfasts and Airbnbs as well. We stayed at two different places and loved them both.
This lovely home is a completely remodeled 70s ranch that sleeps eight with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s situated on ten beautiful acres just north of town. Stroll through the gardens, check out the chickens, and enjoy the beautiful views of rolling hills. We loved our night at Harriet’s House!
An Airbnb can be a great accommodation for families or larger groups who want kitchens and lots of room. New Airbnb guests get $40 off a $75 stay or $15 off a $50 stay credit when booking with my link!
If you prefer to stay in the town of Winterset, check out the Judge Lewis House. With wonderful hosts, luxurious beds, delicious breakfast and an evening snack, you’ll be glad you did. We really enjoyed meeting hosts Kayla and Mark who accommodate kids as much as they do adults. My farm kids fell in love with the dog, the fainting goats who wouldn’t faint, and horses living in town at the Judge Lewis House.
Location: 1145 W Summit Street Winterset | 515-462-5141
Restaurants in Winterset Iowa and Madison County
Bring your appetite and stretchy pants to Madison County because you’ll need it! We prefer to try out independently owned and operated restaurants when we’re on the road and here are a few places you’ll want to stop!
There’s good reason the Northside Cafe was named one of Iowa’s 99 Restaurants to Try. Located on the downtown square and also featured in the Bridges of Madison County movie, this cafe features locally sourced from-scratch cooking by owner / chef Walter Jahncke and is known for its “creative twists on Iowa comfort food.”
We were treated to a wonderful meal at the cafe and loved everything we tried! Some of our favorites were the from-scratch onion rings, the homemade Chicken Pot Pie and Chicken Fried Steak, and the sinful Salted Caramel Chocolate Torte. Enjoy a meal at the long counter, or sit in the John Wayne booth. But whatever you do, don’t miss having a meal here!
Location: 61 East Jefferson Street Winterset | 515.462.1523
Located in a restored historic building in the Bricker-Price Block, The Hare & The Hound serves quick-fired artisan pizzas, sandwiches, salads, homemade soups and more. They offer vegetarian and vegan options as well.
It’s a family-friendly restaurant that my family really enjoyed. My kids say don’t miss the dessert cookies and I liked the shrimp scampi! The Dessert Monster Cookie topped with ice cream was probably the hit of the meal!
Location: 105 S. Chestnut Ave Earlham | 515-758-3980
Located next to the theater on the old-fashioned square, you won’t want to miss stopping here! This cute, old-fashioned bakery features home baked donuts and delicious apple fritters made with apples hand picked from their own local apple trees! Make sure to stop in if you need a quick breakfast or snack.
Location: 119 John Wayne Dr, Winterset | 515-462-2261
Need a cup of coffee? Head to The Cellar. When I asked where to get coffee after buying donuts at The Bakery Unlimited, several people recommended The Cellar. We were not disappointed. Located just around the square, it was a quick walk and The Dark Side of the Farm Roast from Pammell Park Coffee Company was delicious!
Location: 111 South 1st Ave Winterset | 515-462-4776
A couple places that we didn’t get a chance to try, but would will – Covered Bridges Winery and the Winterset Cidery. If you like wine and hard apple cider, stop and see what you think! Then let me know. 🙂
What to do in Winterset Iowa and Madison County
Winterset City Park – Clark Tower and the Hedge Maze
The Winterset City Park is where you’ll find the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge, Clark Tower, and the Hedge Maze. You can hike out to the Clark Tower or drive there if the weather is bad or there are mobility issues.
Location: 330 South 9th Street, Winterset | 515-462-3258
Is skydiving your jam? If so, head check out Des Moines Skydivers. Located at the Winterset-Madison County Airport right outside town, Des Moines Skydivers offer tandems, jump courses, and skydiving for experienced skydivers too.
Location: 3405 N 8th Ave. Winterset | 515- 243-1711
Located near Roseman Bridge, Pammell State Park is part of Travel Iowa’s 99 Parks campaign! Remember all the fun we had promoting that campaign this year? Dedicated in 1928, Pammell State Park is one of the oldest state parks in Iowa.
Head out to Pammell State Park for lovely hiking, geocaching, canoeing, fishing, kayaking, yurts, camping sites, some of the oldest oak trees in all of Iowa, and the only highway tunnel in Iowa, dug out of the limestone backbone!
Location: 1818 Pammel Park Rd, Winterset | 515 462-3536
Courthouse Historic District Award Winning Shops
We did not get to explore the stores that much, (to my chagrin) but I am excited to go back to Winterset to explore them soon! Piece Works Quilt Shop in the Winterset Historic District was named one of the top ten quilt stores in the entire US in 2018 by the Quilt Sampler magazine.
And I have heard a lot about the 1st Avenue Collective, an artisan market in Winteret’s old jail house! From flowers, to fibers, cloth, clothes, gifts, and more, you’re sure to find something in an independently owned shop in Winterset.
Learn more about the shops here.
Did you know John Wayne was born in Winterset and that Winterset is the home of the only museum solely dedicated to him? Located next to the home where John Wayne was born, this 6100 square foot museum is filled with artifacts all about John Wayne, and over 1 million people have visited since it opened in 1982.
Location: 205 S. John Wayne Dr. Winterset | 515-462-1044
If you’re a quilter, you’ll have to stop at the Iowa Quilt Museum. Located on the Square in the old JC Penney store, the Iowa Quilt Museum showcases the craft of quilt making. If you are lucky enough to have a quilt hand sewn by your grandmother or great-grandmother, you will know what a special gift it is.
Location: 68 E. Court Avenue Winterset | 515-462-5988
If you enjoy Living History Farms in Des Moines, you will also enjoy The Madison County Historical Complex. The museum reminded us a little of House on the Rock in Wisconsin (but a much, much smaller scale). It just kept going and going and included lovely collections of fossils, Native American artifacts, early farm equipment and household items, clothing, vehicles and more.
Don’t let the word “museum” scare you from visiting with your kids, though. It’s so much more! We really enjoyed walking around a few of the 18 acres this complex encompasses. It includes 14 historic buildings that have been moved there and restored. Other fun exhibits included the 1856 Bevington-Kaser House, the brick two seater toilet house, and the barn complete with broody chickens and chicks!
Location: 815 S 2nd Ave Winterset | 515-462-2134
Every second full weekend in October, Winterset hosts the annual two-day Covered Bridge Festival with live music, a parade, old-time demonstrations, arts and crafts, a food festival, car show, bridge tours and more. 2019 marked the 50th Anniversary of this festival! Bookmark this page or call the Madison County Chamber of Commerce to learn more about next year’s festival.
Madison County Chamber of Commerce: 73 Jefferson St Winterset | 515-462-1185
If you visit Winterset in the fall, you’ll have to go to The Pumpkin Ranch, open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in September and October. Your admission fee includes a hayrack ride to the fields to choose your pumpkin or gourd (there is an additional charge), 10-acre Mega Corn Maze offering checkpoints and a mystery game, jump pillow for big kids and a little kids area for the tykes.
Zip lines and two tunnel slides await your arrival, as well as my kids’ favorite: Warrior Ninja Course! The loved this course so much that our family was inspired to build our own! The pumpkin patch also offers horseback rides and a petting zoo on special dates, so you’ll want to check The Pumpkin Patch’s Facebook page.
Location: 2425 Hiatt Apple Trail Winterset | 515-490-9281
There you have it! Where to eat, where to stay, what to see, and how to find the bridges on your next trip to Madison County, Iowa! I hope you’re inspired to make the trip!
Have you been to Winterset? Are you planning to go? What are you most excited to see and do there? And if you made it through the whole post, THANK YOU! Please leave me a comment and share this post with a friend who may be interested too!