The Bridges of Madison County Road Trip was not my Plan A.
Plan A for Summer Vacation 2020 was to go to Europe. Specifically Paris, where we had all the typical touristy things planned, but also a private cooking class with a French chef. Then, on to Bordeaux via a train through the French countryside for several vineyard tours and wine tastings. Week two had us jaunting through the tunnel to head over to London for several more days.
Unfortunately, the pandemic made that trip impossible.
Once we settled into the realization that no plans that involved flying were in any way the responsible thing to do during a world-wide pandemic, we started discussing Plan B.
Perhaps a secluded lakeside cabin someplace, where we could still prepare our own food and remain socially distanced? Apparently lots of people had that idea, because finding something suitable and within driving distance just became an extra stressor in a time when we don’t need more stress. So scratch Plan B.
Plan C it is then. My hubby ended up cancelling most of the vacation days he had previously requested, with our new goal being to save them for next summer and GO BIG, instead of burning them this summer for something less than ideal. He kept just 3 days, plus the weekend, and we used them to do some exploring locally.
As it turned out, it was exactly what we needed– a few low-key days to slow down, go at an easy pace, and explore some things close to home, which is what led us to take this road trip to see all 6 of The Bridges of Madison County.
The Book & The Movie
Long before this road trip, I read The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller, when it first came out in 1992. It was interesting to read a novel that was set so close to my hometown, and of course, everyone was talking about it! I remember liking the book, but at the time I was only a few years out of high school, and I’m not sure I had the same appreciation for it in that season of my life as I do now.
A few years later, I remember all the hoopla that was created by the Hollywood movie being filmed not far from here. Especially a movie with two big-time stars like Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep!
Like everyone else in Iowa, I watched the movie and I really enjoyed it. But by then, I was a new mom and busy with young children. Again, I don’t think I probably appreciated it fully.
For years, and I mean years, I’ve thought to myself, “I’d really like to go see those covered bridges in person.” But you know how life is… you’re busy and things like this often just get pushed to the back burner. But now, since we were staying close to home this summer, we finally had the time!
I’m a bit embarrassed to say that the road trip I’m sharing with you today is only minutes from my home. Literally minutes. As in, Francesca’s farmhouse, where they filmed the movie, is a 12 minute shot down the same rural road that I now live on. When I researched its location for this adventure, even I was shocked that it was that close. 😳. I can’t believe I waited this long.
Plan C: The Bridges of Madison County with a couple of detours tossed in…
Our main goal was to see all of the covered bridges of Madison County, but there were a couple of other things in the same general area that I’ve also been longing to see, so we decided to add them to our route.We were lucky that it turned out to be a beautiful Iowa day, perfect for outdoor exploring.
St. Patrick’s Church
Our first stop was this little rural Catholic church where Pope John Paul II gave a sermon when he visited Iowa in 1979. I was only 10 years old at the time, but it’s another Iowa event that I remember clearly, because it was such a big deal!
As a child, I lived not far from the airport, and I recall the thousands of people who lined the streets along there, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope in his car.
His first stop was this little church, that I knew was not far from the rural area where we built our new home two years ago. So we set out to find it.
Fun Find: A couple of days after our visit to St. Patrick’s Church, we were browsing a local antique shop, and my husband discovered this book from The Pope’s Iowa visit!
The pictures of the church in this vintage book from 1979 look remarkably similar to the ones I took a couple of days ago. The church seems to be frozen in time.
Badger Creek Sunflower Fields
The next stop after St. Patrick’s Church was Badger Creek State Park and its “talk of the town” sunflower field. I’d been seeing this in posts on social media and in our local paper, so we decided to take a peek for ourselves.
It has four entire acres filled with thousands and thousands of sunflowers! Luckily it was a beautiful day, so we waded deep into the field for some great photos.
Cruising the Iowa Backroads…
After our two stops at the church and the sunflower field, we set off to find the bridges.
I completely enjoyed cruising along all those Iowa country roads. We drove for miles and miles without seeing another car, with beautiful Iowa cornfields lining the road. We saw dozens of hundred-year-old farmhouses, brick silos, and vintage barns. I’m always surprised to hear people say Iowa is “boring” or that there’s “nothing to see” here.
I think Iowa is incredibly beautiful. The older I get, the more I appreciate it, and feel a connection to the generations of Iowa farmers that I come from.
The Bridges of Madison County Road Trip Plan
Now, in complete transparency, this is not the order we visited the bridges. Had we planned a bit better, we’d have discovered that the Madison County Chamber and Welcome Center has a handy-dandy map that will guide you easily to each bridge in the most logical order.
We didn’t really make a solid plan, and ended up going kind of foot-loose and fancy-free! That’s okay, we were in “adventuring mode”, and didn’t have any time constraints, so we just free-wheeled it. You may wish to use this map though. I mean, if you’re into being logical or whatever.
Finally, we made it to our first bridge!
1. The Imes Bridge
This bridge is in St. Charles, fairly close to I-35, so depending on where you’re coming from, it might be a good one to start or end with.
Built in 1870, it’s the oldest of the Madison County Bridges.
This bridge has been moved 2 times in the past 100+ years since its construction, and now sits at the beginning of this pretty little park. After looking at the bridge, who wouldn’t want to take a stroll on this cute path?
2. The Holliwell Bridge
The Holliwell Bridge is the longest of all the Madison County Bridges, and the longest remaining in the state of Iowa. It still sits in its original location, 140 years after its construction in 1880.
A unique feature of the Holliwell Bridge is this arched truss built into it.
“The other covered bridges remaining in Madison County have a ‘queenpost’ truss that has a horizontal beam at the top of the truss, with two supports running at an angle from the piers holding up this horizontal beam. On the Holliwell Bridge, this queenpost truss is a series of 14 inch wide planks joined end to end to form a long sweeping arch.” -Iowa DOT
It was a stunningly beautiful Iowa summer day, which made our bridges adventure even more enjoyable!
3. The Cutler-Donahue Bridge
The Cutler-Donahue Bridge has also been relocated from its original spot N.E. of Winterset, and now sits in the heart of the Winterset City Park.
From my research on the bridges, I learned that the roof is extended beyond the end of the bridge span on many of these covered bridges, which serves to protect the interior of the bridge from wind-driven rain or snow.
Detour: Winterset City Park
The Winterset City Park was an unexpected, but delightful detour on our bridges tour. After we got done looking at the Cutler-Donahue covered bridge, we noticed this beautiful stone bridge leading into the woods.
Of course, I wanted to photograph it, and then curiosity got the better of us and we decided to see where it led.
We were not disappointed!
The Clark Tower/Dupont Castle
A one and half mile hike up this trail (or a drive on a narrow and winding road!) takes you straight to this beauty! We were so surprised when we got to the top and this appeared before our eyes! I had no idea this unusual treasure was hidden in the woods above this beautiful Winterset park.
Apparently, this “castle” was erected in memory of two early pioneer settlers in the Madison County area. I tried to do a little quick research on my phone, but information was limited. This site gives a little bit of interesting background.
A steep and narrow flight of limestone steps takes you to the first level inside the tower, but to get all the way to the top, where the really lovely views of the Middle River Valley are, you have to ascend an iron ladder through a little hole in roof.
It’s worth it, though. Especially on such a beautiful, clear day.
On our way back down from the tower, we came across another little gem–The Bennett Pioneer Cabin, dating back to the late 1800s.
We spent probably an hour in Winterset Park. They had campgrounds, a bike path, and several lovely picnic areas, too.
4. The Roseman Bridge
The Roseman Bridge is probably the most famous of all the covered bridges, because of its prominence in The Bridges of Madison County book and movie.
This is the bridge Robert is trying to find when he stops by Francesca’s farmhouse to ask for directions. It’s also the bridge where she leaves him the note inviting him to dinner at her house.
The Roseman Bridge is still in its original location and carried traffic over the Middle River for nearly 100 years, before it was bypassed by a more modern bridge nearby.
Because this bridge was so prominent in the book and movie, it’s a bit more commercialized. There’s a rustic little gift shop across this wooden foot bridge that sells all kinds of memorabilia from the book/movie.
A local winery has crafted various wines named after each of the bridges, and one after Francesca herself. We didn’t make it to the winery on this road trip, because it was already closed when we passed it. But it’s not far from the Imes Bridge, so it would be a fun addition to this adventure.
Happily, this gift shop carried the Covered Bridges Wines, so we picked up a a couple of bottles here.
5. The Cedar Bridge
The Cedar Bridge is the only bridge you can still drive over. Maybe it’s because it’s no longer the original bridge. It’s been burnt down by arsonists twice, and rebuilt both times. Seriously, I don’t even understand what is wrong with people?
Because of the fires, the bridge is now equipped with this sprinkler system to protect it. It’s sad that it has to be there, because it really does detract from the charm of the bridge, but clearly it’s necessary. ☹️
Right next to the Cedar Bridge is this beautiful little park area, with a couple of cute gazebos for picnicking.
This worked out perfectly for us, because by this point we were ready for a break, and had brought our own fully stocked picnic basket with us!
If you know us, you know picnicking with charcuterie and a bottle of wine is one of our favorite things to do. To enjoy it with this lovely covered bridge view made it even better.
6. The Hogback Bridge
The Hogback Bridge is the last all-timber truss bridge built in Madison County. It still sits in its original location over the North River and is named after a nearby limestone bluff.
Winterset’s Town Square
Somewhere in the middle of all these bridges, we made a brief stop in Winterset’s adorable town square. The beautiful courthouse sits in the middle, and each side of the square was lined with ginormous, perfect pink hanging baskets.
It could not have been any more charming. Plus, building after vintage building were marked with plaques denoting them as historic landmarks.
They also had these black and white pictures up all around the square, showing what it looked like more than 100 years ago. The history lover in me was enthralled.
We didn’t stay long, because we still had bridges to discover, but we did manage to pop into a couple of antique stores. I’d love to go back again when we have more time.
Our last stop on this local adventure was Francesca’s Farmhouse. Again, some crazy person tried to burn it down several years ago 😡, so now it is no longer open for tours.
The land around it is still actively farmed however, and on this day, the corn was so high we missed the house the first time we drove by! This was the best shot I could get, using the telescopic lens on my camera.
It’s such a shame, because not only was the house fully restored for the movie, but it was built in 1870, so the history of the house itself is amazing. It’s sad to see it sitting so forlornly now. I wanted to go inside so badly.
Here’s a link to Abandoned Explorers with more info about the house.
Wrapping Up a Great Day
After a full-day of exploring, we ended our day with curbside pickup of an old-fashioned Iowa farm-style dinner from The Machine Shed, in keeping with our adventure of the day.
We enjoyed our dinner at home, with our own view of this Iowa countryside that I love so much.
Then, I talked my hubby into watching The Bridges of Madison County movie with me. He hadn’t ever seen it, and I hadn’t seen it in years, so it was a good way to put a wrap on our day! Other than I cried my way through the last 30 minutes. 😭
My husband is such a good sport, and always willing to happily participate in my ideas. This Bridges of Madison County Road Trip was simple, and about as far from our planned European vacation as it possibly could have been. It didn’t matter though, because just being together and “adventuring” made it a perfect day. It was a great reminder in the midst of all the mess in the world right now, that spending time with the people we love is all that really matters.
And now, I’ll leave you with my favorite line from The Bridges of Madison County. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate its meaning one bit in my younger years, when the book and movie came out. But now, in this season of my life, it couldn’t resonate more.
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In case you want to read the book:
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