A Madison County sampler

If you think that covered bridges are the only reason to visit Madison County, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the variety of activities in Winterset, Iowa, and the surrounding area.

I spent today roughly following the advice of Des Moines Register writer Paula Reece, who wrote a travel piece in the “Fiftysomething” insert a couple of weeks ago about fall drives to take in the Midwest.

Before heading west this morning, I stopped at the downtown Des Moines farmers market, because this is the best time to go to the market in my opinion. I was not disappointed today. The air was crisp and there was still abundant produce and prepared foods to be had — including fall produce such as pumpkins, squash, apples, cider, bittersweet, and Indian corn.

After spending way too much time and money at the market, I headed to Madison County, known for its covered bridges made famous by Robert James Waller’s book The Bridges of Madison County and the subsequent movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. (I have to admit I’ve never read the book, which probably makes me un-American — or at least un-Iowan.)

I have visited the bridges and the town of Winterset, the Madison County seat — but never on such a glorious fall day. I started my journey by taking Exit 104 off I-80 about 20 miles west of Des Moines. That led to a long and gravel-y drive to the first bridge: Hogback. (If I do this again, I will take Hwy. 169 off I-80, which provides a more direct route to the bridge. This is what I get for following the tourist map.)

Hogback Bridge is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, like most of the bridges. You drive along on a gravel road and then bam! there’s the bridge. Hogback, built in 1884, gets its name from the limestone ridge that forms the west end of the valley. It’s really just a few miles northwest of Winterset, and it’s a very nice-looking bridge.

My next stop was Pammel State Park, a disappointment. I was hoping to hike some of the “five miles of trails” promised in the newspaper article, but I’ll be switched if I could find a single one. I drove back and forth several times on the same roads and could only find water trails on the Middle River, which runs through the park. I did drive through the park’s tunnel — reportedly the only highway tunnel in the state of Iowa (can that be right?)

After that, I toyed with the idea of driving out to Roseman Bridge — the most famous one from the book — but I’ve been there before and found the presence of a gift shop annoying. Plus, I want to go back later with Dave because he wants to see the bridges and visit John Wayne’s birthplace. So consider Roseman on my to-do list for next summer.

Instead, I went to downtown Winterset to do some shopping. Reece suggests Applehurst, an eclectic shop in the former Madison County Jail. I went there, and it’s very cute. Lots of stuff outside to see, tables on the porch for drinking local wine and beer, and a shop filled with gardening and birdwatching supplies mixed with antiques, gifts, and more.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of shops downtown. I think it’s grown exponentially since the last time I was here — or perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention. But there are good-quality gift shops, art galleries, antiques, and even an old-fashioned Ben Franklin. I visited B.Shannon Designs, featuring custom jewelry and art, as well as a couple of antiques and gift shops.

Winterset City Park is one of the nicest city parks I’ve seen. For one thing, it has its very own covered bridge — the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge. This bridge was built in 1870 and was originally located over the North River near Bevington. It was moved to its present site in 1970. The park also features a well-tended English hedge maze — tell me the last time you saw one of these? — and plenty of other features.

I headed east out of Winterset to visit the Holliwell Bridge (also on a gravel road, but not far from town). Built in 1880, it is the longest covered bridge, measuring 122 feet. It remains in its original site over the Middle River southeast of Winterset.

I had to go back through Winterset to get on Hwy 169 to head back to I-80, and my stomach was growling, so I stopped at a little Italian deli right off the square. This small shop features a menu of sandwiches and salads, a deli counter with meats and cheeses by the pound, Italian imports, and a rather random gift shop. The women running the place were good natured and made me a dandy veggie sandwich on a warm Italian roll. It was so huge I couldn’t eat the whole thing — and with chips, Italian herbed crackers, coleslaw, a pickle, and a bottle of water,  it only cost me $5.00. (A number of other locally owned restaurants and bakeries can be found on the town square.)

Besides the Roseman Bridge, the other bridges I did not visit were the Cedar Bridge (north of Winterset) and the Imes Bridge (in Charles City, right off of I-35). I’ll leave those for my next trip.

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3 comments so far

  1. Jeannelle on

    I enjoyed your tour of the Winterset area.

  2. Susan Appleget Hurst on

    I just came across your mention of Applehurst, and I want to thank you for the nice comment! I agree that our patio on the former exercise yard of the jail is a pretty nice place to have a sit-down. We’re happy to sell you a bottle of wine or a Peace Tree root beer and a snack, but you’re also welcome to bring your to-go lunch from one of the restaurants in Winterset and enjoy it on our patio. The Italian Deli that you liked – they deliver (even to my patio) during the lunch hour. So plan your trip to Winterset around that detail!

  3. Julie on

    What a lovely day in Madison County! The Italian Deli that you visited has since moved to a bigger location and expanded their menu. It is a very unique place that Winterset is lucky to have!


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