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Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 12:12 am

Get ready for a power play in central Iowa

A working windmill and farm buildings from the 1900s greet visitors to the Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines.


If you are into power trips, you won’t find a better place than central Iowa.

While presidential candidates lust for political power as they stomp across the state, smart travelers will choose the power of horses, steam and pedals abundant in the area around Des Moines, some 330 miles from Springfield. Just ignore all those campaign commercials and political billboards flooding our neighbors to the northwest.

State capital Des Moines has plenty of political power even in an off-election year, but nearby attractions such as the Living History Farms, the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad and the High Trestle Trail are sure to provide more family fun.

Iowa’s agricultural heritage comes to life at the 500-acre Living History Farms in Urbandale, a Des Moines suburb. The interactive outdoor museum features a primitive 1700s “Ioway” farm, an 1850s pioneer farm, a 1900s horse-powered farm and a reproduction of an 1875 town.

Passengers on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad in central Iowa travel over one of the tallest single track railroad bridges in America, a 156-foot-high span.


In the town, visitors board a tractor-pulled wagon that takes them under I-80/I-35 to the three farms, once the site of a state work prison. Jump off the wagon to see an interpreter milk a cow, horses graze in the pastures, chickens peck at feed and hogs wallow in mud. Inside the 1900s farmhouse chock full of old household gadgets, costumed workers explain rural life at the turn of the century. You can check out vegetable gardens, orchards and crop rows.

The town features some original buildings among the school, church, working blacksmith shop, general store, law office, doctor’s office, vet clinic and millinery. The Flynn mansion and barn are on the National Register of Historic Places and are decked out in period furnishings. Special events include barn dances, historic baseball with the Walnut Hill Bluestockings, Victorian meals and harvest days.

The Living History Farms are open daily May 1 to Aug. 27 and Wednesday through Sunday from Sept. 2 to Oct. 16. Be warned that ticket sales end at 3:30 with the full site closing at 4 p.m., even in the summer.

Forty-five miles north of Des Moines is the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, which offers daily trips on steam- or diesel-powered trains from Memorial Day to Halloween and special excursions earlier and later in the year.

The 25-mile High Trestle Trail north of Des Moines is part of an extensive rail-to-trail network for bikers and hikers in Iowa. The trail features a 13-story bridge over the Des Moines River near Madrid.


At the Boone depot, choose your original train car for a slow-moving trip through the woods along the Des Moines River. A highlight is crossing on the 156-foot-high Kate Shelley High Bridge, which the railway claims is the tallest single-track interurban railroad bridge in America. A volunteer conductor points out other sites along the way.

Cars include an outside platform with seating, an open-window basic coach car and a more plush first class coach with air conditioning. You can take your own snacks on the daily 1:30 p.m. trip or 4 p.m. Saturday trip, enjoy a dinner train on Friday and Saturday evenings, opt for the dessert train on Saturdays or choose a picnic train on Sundays from late May through October.

Children will love the chance have a day out with Thomas the Train Sept. 19-20 and 25-27, ride the Pumpkin Express in October or share their wish lists on the Santa Express in late November and December.

Tickets, which run from $20-$30 for adults and $7 to $15 for children on the regular runs, include admission to the small railroad museum next door to the depot. There you can learn about railroads’ role in war, view artifacts from passenger trains’ golden days and even research train history in the library. The museum is small and will be of interest even to non-railroad buffs.

Children and adults crowd into a 1900s barn at the Living History Farms in central Iowa to view a farmer interpreter milk one of the cows. Chickens, hogs, horses and other farm animals also make their home at the farms.


Iowa was once teeming with rail lines and has turned hundreds of miles of them into biking and hiking paths. Running from Woodward to Ankeny, just north of Des Moines, is the High Trestle Trail. The 25-mile trail passes through several small communities, but the real high point is the 13-story, half-mile-long bridge over the Des Moines River near Madrid.

The bridge has artwork at each end, six overlook points and night-time lighting on the beams arching over it. The concrete-asphalt trail is open year-round with parking lots near several entrances so families, hikers and casual cyclists can hop on and off.

Back in downtown Des Moines, you can bike along the river and stop at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden for a break inside a geodesic dome filled with greenery. The Iowa State Capitol, the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium and a 20-piece outdoor sculpture garden are across the river and make for other interesting stops.

Who knows? You might run into some of those power-seeking presidential candidates if you aren’t careful.

For more information, visit www.iowatourism.com, www.LivingHistoryFarms.org, www.bsvrr.com and www.madridiowa.com/high-trestle-trail. You also can contact the Central Iowa Tourism Region at 800-285-5842.

Mary Bohlen is a Springfield freelance writer and editor and former journalism professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She enjoys exploring new places and writing the monthly IT Midwestern travel column with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago. If you have a favorite Midwestern spot to recommend, please email editor@illinoistimes.com.


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