Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The art of an interstate rest stop in Iowa June 7, 2017


PRIME VACATION SEASON is almost upon us and that means many of you will soon hit the roads. And when you travel, especially long-distance, rest stops hold necessary importance.

A year ago, my husband and I drove 2,800 miles from Minnesota to Boston and back to attend our son’s graduation from Tufts University. Some days we spent up to 10 hours in the van. The need to stretch our legs, to pee and to take a break from roadway fatigue led us to many an interstate rest stop.

Hands down, Iowa has the best rest areas. Indiana, not so much.


The rest stop along Interstate 380 near Cedar Rapids honors artist Grant Wood and features his rural themed work on ceramic tile. The floor design mimics crop rows.


So what makes Iowa’s interstate rest areas so appealing? Themed rest stops, of which there are 16. These are centers of art and history as much as places to take a bathroom break, to picnic, to gather travel info and to stretch. And bonus, the sole facility we visited was clean.


My first view of the rest stop focusing on Iowa artist Grant Wood, who was born 40 miles to the northeast and then moved to Cedar Rapids with his family in 1901.




On our return trip from Boston, we stopped at the Grant Wood Rest Area northbound along I-380 south of Cedar Rapids in Linn County. At the time, I knew nothing of these unique stops for travelers. So imagine my surprise when we pulled off the interstate and into a place that looked like a cultural art center in the middle of, well, Iowa fields.


The many windows incorporated into the rest stop mimic the farmhouse windows in Wood’s “American Gothic” painting.


Wood’s work featured the rural Iowa landscape. Here his art is showcased in ceramic tile inside the rest area building.


Behind the rest stop building, visitors can consider the view through these window props.


Completed four years ago, “The View From Our Window: Grant Wood in Iowa” rest area honors Wood, painter of “American Gothic.” In my limited knowledge of Iowa art, this painting of a farm couple standing in front of a farmhouse is symbolic of Iowa as I view it. Rural, through and through. David Dahlquist of RDG Dahlquist Design Studio in Des Moines created the art at this interstate stop.


The green “waves” represent Iowa cropland.


Emerging soybean art inside the rest stop structure.


Real life farming in Iowa.


For this weary traveler, the Grant Wood rest area proved a welcome respite from the interstate and from the countless other rest stops that were nothing more than functional spaces to meet travelers’ basic needs. Expanding that purpose beyond—to include art and history—made an impression upon me.


Travelers can get a view of the U.S. on a map situated next to a duplicate of the farm woman Wood painted in “American Gothic.”


In other sections of Iowa, you can, for example, learn about Lewis and Clark at the southbound I-29 rest area at Sergeant Bluff.


Picnic areas are sheltered by machinery like structures.


These themed Iowa rest areas are most prolific along I-80. The Mississippi River is the focal point of the westbound stop in the Davenport area. Eastbound, the rest area at Grinnell highlights pioneers while one in Cedar County focuses on the Underground Railroad.


This sign inside the rest stop building honors Wood’s artist’s loft, 5 Turner Alley, in Cedar Rapids.


If you’re so inclined and looking for an inexpensive way to view public art and learn history in Iowa, you could plan a trip around visiting Iowa’s themed rest areas. If anything, it would be quite the unique vacation story.



TELL ME: Have you come across other such unique public interstate rest areas in your travels across the country? Or, offer your opinion of these Iowa rest areas.

FYI: Click here to visit the Iowa Department of Transportation website showcasing Iowa’s themed rest areas.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


18 Responses to “The art of an interstate rest stop in Iowa”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    It is so funny because I just ran across pictures yesterday I had taken of this same rest area when I stopped one time when I was bringing Calrton back from Ohio to stay with us 4 years ago. I have pics of him standing next to the American Gothic couple so I know exactly what this one is like. Great post.

  2. Robynne Black Says:

    Fascinating Audrey! And thanks for the map, with an inability to travel, am really enjoying the detailed virtual tour.

  3. Fabulous post! As I was reading I thought I feel like driving thru Iowa to see all the rest stops. Which is what you suggested at the end of your post. I’ll let you know if I get out there!

  4. Sweet Posy Dreams Says:

    I enjoy driving through southeast Iowa in the summer. I feel like I’m in a Grant Wood painting!

  5. Thank you very much for the road trip. We will not be going anywhere this summer, so it was nice of you to take us along with you through Iowa. I have traveled the length of I- 80 across Iowa from East to West and back many different times when I drove a semi. Iowa rest areas are very well maintained an A+ for the state of Iowa. Thank you for sharing. I frequented a Minnesota rest stop on Hwy 7 East of the 7-71 junction many times in the 1980’s, going to the Mpls. VAMC. It had two outhouses and a hand pump drinking fountain, sufficient for me.

  6. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    Wow this one is really nice. I’ve seen a few that don’t fall into that category

  7. I am a dork and a nerd when it comes to checking out rest stops – there is some interesting information/items to look at 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  8. […] IOWA ARTS – Just a few hours west of Chicago, one arrives in Iowa. If one is interested in a scenic road trip, one can drive by the famous “American Gothic” house in Eldon, Iowa, take some corny selfies, visit the Visitor center – and drive though some scenic by-ways to also experience some additional “cultural literacy” by crossing some of the many covered bridges of Madison County on the way!   “Bridges of Madison County” is both a best-selling book and award-winning movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep (1995). Also, Iowa interstate rest stops have some really fun art displays to incorporate into your travels: https://mnprairieroots.com/2017/06/07/the-art-of-an-interstate-rest-stop-in-iowa/ […]

    • Thank you for the shout out on your blog. Two of my photos of the Grant Wood rest stop were published in the book, Midwest Architecture Journeys edited by Zach Mortice. The photos are featured in the chapter, “Iowa Rest Areas as Cultural Landscape: A Journey in Haiku” by Randy Brown.

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