Following in the Footsteps of Legends: Discovering Iowa’s Lewis & Clark Trail

A view of Omaha, Nebraska and the Missouri River from Lewis and Clark Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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Iowa may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of epic adventures and rugged terrain, but don’t let that fool you. The Hawkeye State is home to some of the country’s most fascinating natural and historical landmarks, and none more so than the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. Tracing the path of the legendary explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they ventured westward over 200 years ago, this trail winds through some of the most breathtaking scenery in Iowa.

Although the trail spans over 4,900 miles through 60 tribal nation homelands, Iowa offers a glimpse of it in Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

Follow this two-day itinerary to explore the region’s natural beauty, meet friendly locals, and savor the local cuisine.

Getting There

The closest airport to Council Bluffs, Iowa, is Eppley Airfield (OMA) in Omaha, Nebraska, just across the Missouri River and is serviced by several major airlines, including American, Delta, United, and Southwest. From the airport, you can rent a car, take a taxi, ride-sharing service, or use public transportation to get to the city.

Day 1: Experience Outdoor Beauty and History in Council Bluffs

Morning

Start your day with a hearty breakfast at Legend’s Cafe in downtown Council Bluffs. Enjoy a generous helping of chicken fried steak and eggs or a kitchen sink omelet. Be sure to get a delicious, gooey large cinnamon roll on the side.

The Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa.

Now that you’re fueled up, it’s time to head to the Hitchcock Nature Center, just a quick 20-minute drive away. You’ll be blown away by the stunning views of the Loess Hills and Missouri River Valley, created by glaciers and wind erosion over time. The park boasts 1,300 acres of savanna, woodlands, and prairies, with a 10-mile trail system, observation tower, and interactive visitor center with exhibits highlighting the area’s flora and geology.

Hikers can choose from easy ridgeline walks to challenging climbs on the networked trails, making it easy to customize your hiking experience to your desired length. In addition, birdwatchers should flock to the center from September to December when thousands of eagles and hawks migrate south along the “hawk highway.”

Afternoon

After exploring the nature center, grab a pizza while you gas up for the road at Casey’s in nearby Onawa. This quaint general store also has a bakery and soft serve for an afternoon treat.

Lewis & Clark Monument and Scenic Overlook in Iowa.

Lunch done; it’s time for fun. Enjoy an hour-long scenic drive to Lewis & Clark State Park, home to a 7-mile trail system that winds through hills and prairies, multiple fishing opportunities and a replica of the keelboat used by Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1804. Cast a line and fish for bluegill and bass on the 58-acre lake. Rent a paddleboat or canoe to explore the waterways or enjoy a relaxing horseback ride on the north spur of the famed Oregon Trail.

Visiting in the winter? The park is the perfect place to enjoy picturesque cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

Evening

Enjoy a delicious dinner at family-owned Barley’s Bar & Grill in Council Bluffs. This popular spot serves up burgers, sandwiches, and other pub fare, as well as a wide selection of craft beers and cocktails.

After dinner, hit up the Historic 100 Block for shopping or late-night drinks. This charming and historic district is in the heart of downtown and is home to a diverse array of shops and buildings that date back to the late 1800s.

Wrap up your night by checking into one of Council Bluff’s hotels. You can get a good night’s rest at the Hilton Garden Inn Omaha East/Council Bluffs or the Country Inn and Suites.

Day 2: Adventures in Sioux City

Morning

Your morning kicks off with an early drive to Sioux City. Grab breakfast at Johnnie Mars Family Restaurant and try their sweet, fluffy chocolate chip pancakes or buttery homemade biscuits slathered in gravy.

Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Iowa. Photo Courtesy of Raymond Bucko, SJ.

After breakfast, it’s time to dive into the epic tale of Lewis and Clark at the 20,000-square-foot Interpretive Center. The best part? Admission is free. Get up close and personal with animatronic figures and interactive displays that bring the famous expedition to life. You can even test your skills with a hands-on video game.

But that’s not all – the center also features murals, reproductions of military artifacts, a theater screening a film about the Cors of Discovery’s keelboat, and a scenic overlook with stunning views of the mighty Missouri River. Fun fact: it’s the longest river in the country and played a vital role in exploration, trade, food, and transportation throughout history.

Afternoon

Once you’ve had your fill of history, dine at La Juanita in Sioux City, a popular spot for authentic Mexican cuisine. Bite into a steak burrito, nibble on pickled carrots and indulge on fried fish tacos.  

Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, Iowa. Photo Courtesy of Ali Eminov.

Next, visit the Sergeant Floyd Monument just outside of Sioux City. This monument honors the only Lewis & Clark expedition member to die in August 1804, Sergeant Charles Floyd, Jr., who died of a ruptured appendix.

Learn more about Sergeant Floyd at the Sergeant Floyd River Museum & Welcome Center. Housed in a real dry-docked riverboat, this museum explores Missouri River history through exhibits highlighting Sgt. Charles Floyd and Lewis and Clark. You’ll also have a chance to see rare photos, Native American artifacts and the fully-restored third deck of the riverboat itself.

Sergeant Floyd River Museum & Welcome Center. Photo Courtesy of Ammodramus, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Evening

Head back to Sioux City Riverfront in time to see the sunset over the gorgeous winding Missouri River surrounded by a dense tree line along the river bank. There is a paved trail along the riverfront with views of the Siouxland Veterans Memorial Bridge.

To wrap up your evening, grab dinner at Famous Dave’s for a mouthwatering barbecue plate with their award-winning hand-rubbed ribs made with a blend of spices and pit-smoked for 3-4 hours. Top it off with Dave’s bread pudding, made from scratch with pecan praline sauce and served warm with vanilla ice cream.

End the day by checking in at the glitzy Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and take in a little live entertainment before bed, or test your luck at the slots or a blackjack game. If you’d rather have more intimate accommodations, check in at the New Victorian Inn. This hotel offers a range of comfortable and clean rooms, has free Wi-Fi and a breakfast bar, and is pet-friendly.

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