Labor Day Weekend 2021 | Road Tripping around NW Iowa | Finishing Iowa’s 99 Counties | September 2021
After a relaxing and rejuvenating 2 weeks at home following our trip to Wyoming, we were excited to go on a little road trip and finally complete our goal of visiting all 99 counties in Iowa! Over our 8 years of marriage, we’ve managed to slowly chip away at the rows of counties by taking different routes in and out of the state. By this point, we had only 8 counties (6 for me) that we had not visited in Northwest Iowa. They were just a little too far out of the way to reasonably drive through when going between Omaha and Eastern Iowa to visit family, and since my family wasn’t available over Labor Day weekend, we decided it was time to just knock them all out!
We knew this wouldn’t necessarily be the most exciting trip since we were just zigzagging around and stopping to see courthouses and random attractions along the way. However, we were still excited to go because we’ve come to love driving quiet highways, seeing cute small towns, and appreciating the simplicity of the Midwest. While it’s a monumental trip for us, I acknowledge it isn’t going to be an interesting trip to read about, so I’ll keep it brief and focus on the highlights.
The counties that we needed were (in order of how we visited them): Buena Vista, Cherokee, O’Brien, Clay, Palo Alto, Pocahontas, Humboldt, and Hancock. We managed to visit all of the courthouses associated with these counties, along with 6 others. On Day 1, we drove I-80 into Iowa until we reached US-71. We took that North and stopped to see Albert the Bull and the courthouse in Audubon, IA. We continued North on US-71, stopping for courthouses in Carroll and Sac City. In Sac City, we stopped to see the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. It was…a little gross considering it’s been there since 2016. We finally deviated off 71 to drive West into Storm Lake, then on to Cherokee county and courthouse. We then took US-59 to Primghar for O’Brien County, then US-18 East to Spencer for Clay County.
At this point, it was mid-afternoon, and since this was sort of the halfway point in our mission we were ready to take a break from driving and find a campsite. We quickly realized this was a little harder said than done, because around here most campgrounds are just focused on RVs and seeing how many they can squeeze in one small area. Throughout our whole drive, we had seen some campgrounds that were just packed with RVs…we knew it was a holiday weekend, but we also suspect many are there long term. Our only choice was to search ‘camping’ on Google Maps and hope we would eventually find something close to our route that was better than a tight spot between RVs.
Thankfully it only took two tries to find something. We ended up staying in Emmetsburg right on Five Island Lake, in Kearny Park Campground. There were some RVs there, of course, but there was also a tent only area on an island accessible by a bridge and a short walk. There was even a boat launch nearby, so after setting up our tent we took our kayak out for a paddle around the lake. The lake is actually very long so we only saw a small portion of it, but we enjoyed seeing the islands and shore from a different perspective. The sky was overcast, but it only drizzled a little through the night, and overall was a great night for camping.
The next morning started off bright and early by visiting the Palo Alto Courthouse in Emmetsburg, then continuing our long drive. Our first stop was at the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. This creation was the brainchild and lifework of a Catholic Priest from 1912 to 1954. This turned out to be much more elaborate than we were expecting, and we spent considerable time wandering through and marveling at how much petrified wood/coral/shells/minerals/pretty rocks went into constructing this place.
Our next roadside stop was to see the ‘World’s Largest Pocahontas’ outside of Pocahontas, IA. It was…a little less elaborate and detailed than the grotto, let’s just say. Visiting Pocahontas was a little out of our way after seeing the grotto, but we figured as long as we were here, we might as well get the courthouse. After a quick drive by, we continued our drive East.
We took IA-3 through Humboldt and Clarion (Wright County), stopping for both courthouses, then took US-69 North for our final county. There happened to be a side road near the Hancock county line, so we pulled over and celebrated the moment with a few pictures commemorating our accomplishment. Iowa is our 6th state where we’ve completed all the counties (following Arizona, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) but with 99 counties definitely took the most effort and we were very excited to be done! We’re certainly not done with visiting Iowa, but now we can focus our trips home on seeing other attractions (or courthouses…we still have lots of those to see).
We continued on to Garner to see the county courthouse for Hancock County, then since we were there we decided to drive a little further North to Forest City to see the Winnebago county courthouse. We took IA-9 East to Pilot Knob State Park where we went for a short walk to the tower and the highest point in the county. Following this, we took some back roads in order to reach another Iowa roadside attraction, the Buddy Holly Crash Site North of Clear Lake, Iowa. We opted to not walk to the actual site of the crash, but we were surprised to see how many other visitors there were at this site today.
To celebrate our accomplishments, we grabbed Culvers for lunch in Clear Lake, then drove to Des Moines where we spent the rest of the afternoon through the next morning visiting with my Grandmother. We had a lovely time catching up with her, talking about gardening, travels, memories, and more. She has a very well behaved German Shorthaired Pointer named Rocky, and we were all delighted that he and Charlotte got along very well.
After saying our goodbyes on Sunday, we drove back home via US-34 and stopped only to see the Union county courthouse on the way.