Justin’s mother, a longarm quilter from New Zealand, was staying in Des Moines for a quilt show, so we tagged along for some Gran time. During some free time, we set off to explore the bridges of Madison County, made famous by the book and movie of the same name.
A short drive from Des Moines, Madison County is in south-central Iowa.
Our first stop was at the Visitor’s Center in Winterset, Iowa, where a sweet local woman stocked us with directions, historical information, and a map. The office sits across from a huge, beautiful county courthouse, the kind that dots the landscape throughout this lush state.
Once we had placed the obligatory pins in the center’s visitor map, we checked out a small collection of gifts and goodies, including some photos of the bridges taken by a local photographer dating backing to the 70s. The 1995 movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep which put the area on the map played on a screen near the bathrooms, and the shelves contained a dutiful number of copies of the Robert James Waller book.
If you want to plan your route ahead of time, or happen to visit while the Visitor’s Center is closed, a map of the bridges is available on the Madison County website here.
There were originally around 100 covered wooden bridges in Iowa – 19 in Madison County – but only six remain. The sun was low on the horizon, so we chose to visit four of them.
While the romance of the Trip + Leisure version of these beautiful landmarks was lost on our five-year-old, it was still a beautiful place to visit and a great history lesson (with a bit of nature thrown in).
We started with the Cutler-Donahue Bridge, which has been relocated to the Winterset city park. The setting is a pretty little park with lots of green spaces to spread out in, and a few neat little features, like a maze and stone tower. Cutler-Donahue is 79 feet long, and was built in 1871 by Eli Cox, making it the oldest of the bridges we visited. (Imes Bridge, which is east of St. Charles, was built in 1870.)
A short trek to the west (about 4 miles – just over half of it on gravel road), we visited the Holliwell Covered Bridge. At 122 feet, Holliwell is the longest of the Madison County bridges. Bria loved this one because it is not sealed as tightly as some of the others, so she could see the river through the small gaps between the planks. She spent a good chunk of time “helping” the trees to grow by dropping their seeds into the river!
Next we visited Cedar Bridge. The original Cedar Bridge was built in 1883, but was destroyed by arson in 2002. The bridge has since been rebuilt, and we visited the replica three miles north of Winterset. The bridge is 75 feet long, and was built to the same plans as the original bridge, using authentic materials and techniques. We actually didn’t realize it was a replica until we got to the next bridge and read the information on the Bridges of Madison County map!
Finally we stopped at Hogback Bridge on our way back to Cedar Rapids. It is located about 5 miles north of Winterset, on a quiet side road.
One thing that was interesting about Hogback Bridge was its proximity to the newer bridge that traffic now follows. We sat and watched the river swallows swoop from their tiny mud nests on the sides and bottom of the new bridge to the river below from this excellent spot for bird watching.
The rich history of the Bridges of Madison County includes marks left behind by the many visitors over the years – we loved the way layer upon layer of traveler could be seen in the weathered boards of the bridge walls. The deeper you look, the more you see.
Our visit on a May afternoon meant we had the places basically to ourselves, but if you are interested in being a part of a bigger event, the community of Winterset celebrates the bridges with a festival the second full weekend of October. In 2018, it will be October 13 and 14.
Note: This is an updated version of a post we originally shared in 2015.