ia: The best of Iowa arts and culture
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Produced in partnership with the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs
Settled in the early 1850s, picturesque Decorah is home to a rich Norwegian-American culture. Its downtown brims with independent shops and restaurants. Photo: Mary Willie.


The new issue of ia magazine is full of stories about Iowa food, dining, arts, culture, destinations and more. Inside, you'll discover a 36-hour travel guide to Decorah, some of Iowa's epic hikes, Prohibition-era-themed cocktail spots, the revitalization of an Okoboji house and a garden that's so much more than a garden.

Check out all of these pieces and more on the ia magazine website.
Backbone State Park features plenty of brick and timber boathouses, bridges and cabins next to its signature attraction, Backbone Lake. Photo: Gisele Carbone Kruger.


By Beth Eslinger

Tucked away amid the rolling farm fields of Delaware County, the state’s oldest park delivers countless surprises. With 70-foot limestone cliffs (rock-climbing is a thing here), 21 miles of paths for hikers, mountain biking trails, and even fly-fishing for trout, Backbone State Park delivers some of the signature features of the Driftless Area within just an hour from Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo.

Founded a century ago, the park is known for its scenic cliffs and forested vistas and Civilian Conservation Corps structures. The CCC created a number of stone and timber structures, including a boathouse, bridges and cabins (currently unavailable for rent due to road construction; check for availability). Just 3 miles away, Strawberry Point offers visitors options to explore local flavors. Yes, you’ll even find the world’s largest strawberry statue downtown on your visit.

Here are a few highlights:

Richmond Springs: With turquoise spring-fed waters and geological features such as a natural bridge and limestone cave, a short stroll through the northern section of the park will have you thinking, This is Iowa? There’s trout-fishing on the cool stream flowing out of the springs.

Devil's Backbone: One of the most popular hikes in the state, this trek is a must-visit in all seasons (though those with a fear of height might want to steer clear in winter). The trek is named for the narrow ridge carved by the Maquoketa River. It’s a top spot for photos of cliffs and steep overlooks.

Backbone Lake: While summer is still here, it’s a perfect time to get out on the lake, which was created by a CCC dam. Activities include swimming, boating and fishing.

Downtown Strawberry Point: After stopping to snap a photo of the giant strawberry for your social feed, take a quick trip through downtown. Plan on a bite and maybe an overnight at the historic Franklin Hotel, grab a sweet treat from the soda fountain at Clayton Drug, and stop by gift shop Jake & Company for stylish home decor. 
American Midwest Ballet’s February performance of Frank Chaves’ "Habaneras, the Music of Cuba," which was its last in-person show before the pandemic. Photo: American MIdwest Ballet.


By Michael Morain
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

It’s too bad history has forgotten what prompted someone, way back when, to coin the phrase “The show must go on.” Maybe a stray elephant at the circus? A swarm of bats at the opera?

We’ll never know. But we do know this: Many of Iowa’s performing arts groups have figured out how to keep the show going even now, during the pandemic, when live events can help us feel connected while we’re physically apart.

Several groups shared some creative work-arounds last week during a session at the virtual Iowa Arts Summit. (They’ll swap ideas again on Aug. 18, when the Iowa Arts Council co-hosts a public town-hall meeting with the National Endowment for the Arts.) Here are just a few examples:

Dance in Council Bluffs: This spring, the American Midwest Ballet had just moved into its new space at the Hoff Family Arts and Culture Center when the pandemic struck. So they offered virtual tours of the studio and theater. They created videos with their 29 professional dancers to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary and also  offered a virtual Day of Dance, when people could watch performances and try a few moves themselves (from the privacy of their living rooms).

“Of course, we’d love for it to be in-person the next time around,” says artistic director and CEO Erika Overturff. “But in a sense, we didn’t skip a beat.”

Up next: The ballet is ramping up several online programs, including a new series to premiere this fall. Find the details at

Rooftop concerts in Dubuque: The Smokestack, an arts and culture venue in an old brick factory by the Mississippi River, regularly hosts concerts, plays, art exhibitions, drag shows, raves—you name it. They’ve staged concerts on the roof, too, but this summer, they’ve switched up the format. While bands play on the roof, fans spread out on the parking lot below, where the best—and safest—seats are farther back.

The first concert, with 20 acts, was so successful that they teamed up with Dubuque Main Street for a second event with food trucks, drinks and extra safety precautions. Volunteers handed out masks.

Up next: Another drive-in concert is set for Aug. 22. Find the details on Smokestack’s Facebook page

Music in Sioux City: As soon as the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra canceled its traditional concerts, the musicians started cranking out content onlinesome live and some pre-recorded. They offered a Cinco de Mayo concert and a program called “Bach TuBa Future.” They taught kids how to make their own musical instruments. Orchestra musicians also offered free lessons, for all ages.

As the content caught on—with more than 100,000 views and 800 new Facebook followers—guest soloists who had performed with the symphony in the past wanted to chime in, too. The pianist Mackenzie Melemed played showtunes from his apartment in New York.

Up next: Tune in for new content on
the symphony’s Facebook page.
Perry eateries are implementing socially distant seating in parking spots around downtown, providing al fresco dining in a safe way. Photo: Proletariat.


By Karla Walsh

Prior to the pandemic when Mike Fastenau, the community and economic development director for the city of Perry, visited cities on the coasts and in more tourist areas, he noticed a trend he wanted to try closer to home: street eats. That is, transforming some of the parking spaces in downtown areas to expand outdoor dining.

“The idea has been kicking around for the last year or so, as we’ve been wanting to continue the renaissance in our downtown area. Then COVID-19 hit and shut things down," Fastenau says. The city then started considering the concept as a way for restaurants to be able to expand outside dining so their patrons would feel safer and more comfortable.

Enter Perry’s pilot program to test out “streateries,” which now includes one street with on-street al fresco dining seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with likely three more to join this fall or next spring. It’s modeled after similar programs in Muscatine and Indianola.

The city plans to work with restaurants to keep the larger outdoor dining areas up and running daily through November, then relaunch them in late April or early May of 2021. "We haven’t really had any pushback from the public about losing parking, and it’s really nice to see the city safely open back up," Fastenau says.

“We are at the trailhead of the High Trestle Bridge Trail, and we’re hoping to inspire people to explore Perry while they’re in the area," he adds. "It really distinguishes Perry from other dining options ..., although we’d love it if more Iowa cities adopted streateries too."
Pollinators, like this butterfly, are scattered throughout a 9-acre prairie near Orient. Photo: Wallace Centers of Iowa.


The Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center near Orient is offering a socially distant way to enjoy art. Its annual "Prairie Art Exhibit," which is on display through Aug. 29, displays work from creators from around Iowa in a prairie setting.

More than 75 paintings are set up on 9 acres of land, mounted on fence posts along a 1-mile trail. The theme this year is pollinators, inspiring amateur artists of all ages and skill levels to create paintings of bees, moths, wasps, hummingbirds and more. Artists from Des Moines, Urbandale, Greenfield, Creston, Fontanelle, Casey, Winterset and Orient all contributed to the project, now in its second year.

“We’ve seen paintings created by many more youths this year,” said Deb Houghtaling, president and CEO of Wallace Centers of Iowa. “We were seeking artists to paint boards about the same time as people were isolating themselves. Several parents were looking for things for their kids to do, and this project was the right thing at that time.”

The exhibit is open dawn to dusk every day. More information can be found here.
The trails around Okoboji provide scenic views of the surrounding lakes and city. Photo: Travel Okoboji.


By Mike Kilen

Summer is winding down, and the time to go out and enjoy Iowa's bike trails is getting shorter. The Iowa Great Lakes Trails in and around Okoboji are some of the best the state has to offer. Many Iowans have enjoyed pristine West Okoboji Lake, immense Big Spirit Lake, and the rest of the region’s Iowa Great Lakes. But the bicycle trail circling around and winding among the lakes for 40 miles is a must-do activity.

The heart of the trails is a 14-mile stretch through the hustle and bustle of Arnolds Park to Spirit Lake, with connecting loops around the lakes.

This is why I love this trail: You can take a leisurely ride through Arnolds Park along U.S. Highway 71, where people in bathing suits are strolling, boats are pulling up to marinas, and hordes are lined up for doughnuts at Wyman’s Spudnutz or for other delights at the many bars and restaurants along the waterway connecting East and West lakes. Or you can follow the trail past expensive lakeside homes, craning your neck to see how the other half lives.

On a recent spring day, I chose another pleasure, taking a 16-mile trip from the north end of the town of Spirit Lake to the trail that circles Big Spirit.

This is a route to open it up a bit and test your legs without dodging around tourists or stopping at road crossings. It’s a completely different, quieter experience. Along the east side of Big Spirit, traveling on a wide and smooth bike lane, I could see smaller cottages along the lake and white pelicans in the wetlands to the east. Around the northern rim of the lake, you ride on a country road that borders Minnesota, passing a state park and a fishing pier, where in early spring many anglers were testing the waters.

Read about more Iowa bike trails in this ia magazine story.

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