15 Best Things to Do in Council Bluffs (Iowa)

Across the Missouri River from Omaha, the city of Council Bluffs is connected to its neighbor by a marvelous pedestrian bridge that opened in 2008.

There may not be a better place than Council Bluffs to ponder the United States’ epic westward expansion in the 19th century.

The city is named for a parley made by Lewis and Clark and Native American tribesmen, high on the Loess Hills that trace the eastern bank of the Missouri River.

Council Bluffs has long been a transport hub, as an anchor town of several 19th-century emigrant trails and the place where no fewer than eight railroads once connected.

In the 1860s the city became the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad, and there are two museums to tell the story, while the picturesque Loess Hills can be explored on a national scenic byway.

1. Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Union Pacific Railroad MuseumSource: EQRoy / shutterstock
Union Pacific Railroad Museum

In 1869, Council Bluffs was the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad, linking the existing eastern U.S. rail network with the Pacific Coast.

The project had been approved by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 as a means of preserving the Union during the Civil War.

In an exquisite Carnegie library building from 1905, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum sheds light on more than 160 years of American history, through interactive displays and a rich collection of artifacts.

You can pore over a rich library of photographs, 19th-century weapons, railroad lanterns, plush car interiors, surveying tools and all kinds of other memorabilia.

2. Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and Museum

Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and MuseumSource: Smallbones / Wikimedia | CC0
Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and Museum

Patented in Indiana in 1881, the rotary jail was a prison concept that never quite caught on. The cells were pie-shaped wedges on a rotating platform, making escape almost impossible.

Council Bluffs is home to one of just three surviving rotary jails, constructed on four levels as the Pottawattamie County Jail in 1885.

This was built at the same time as the courthouse, and was just as hazardous as every other rotary jail, with several prisoners known to have lost limbs.

The building closed as a jail in 1969 and has belonged to the Pottawattamie County Historical Society since 1977.

You’ll learn how this unusual system functioned, experience the cramped conditions in the cells, view interesting artifacts from the building’s past and tour the cozy Sheriff’s residence.

3. Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian BridgeSource: Kyle Henderson / shutterstock
Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

In 2008 a magnificent new crossing was forged between Omaha and Council Bluffs in the form of a 3,000-foot cable-stayed footbridge.

Linked to the 150-mile trail network in the Omaha area, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge is an S-curved structure helping you cross the state line in style.

There are several spots on both sides of the crossing where you can rent an electric or conventional bike, and there’s a satisfying view along the river and across to the Omaha skyline.

After sunset the bridge comes to life, illuminated with endless color and effect combinations.

4. Lake Manawa State Park

KayakingSource: G-Stock Studio / shutterstock
Kayaking

In the south of Council Bluffs, Lake Manawa is a remnant of the Great Flood of 1881, when a large body of water was created by the changed course of the river.

Covering 740 acres, the lake was later expanded for flood control and is a recreation hub for the Omaha metropolitan region.

The paved trail curling around the lakeshore is connected to the wider trail system via the Indian Creek Trail and Wabash Trace Trail.

On the water there’s a beach facility, open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and at this time of year you can rent a paddle board, canoe or kayak for a little self-navigated adventure.

Anglers meanwhile have a choice of boat ramps, a fishing jetty, an accessible pier and a fish cleaning station.

Not far from the main boat ramp is the Dream Playground, opened in 2018 and officially Iowa’s largest ADA accessible playground.

5. Lewis and Clark Monument and Scenic Overlook

Lewis and Clark Monument and Scenic OverlookSource: Joseph Sohm / shutterstock
Lewis and Clark Monument and Scenic Overlook

Posted on a bluff in the Loess Hills just north of the city is a monument commemorating the event that gave Council Bluffs its name.

The Lewis and Clark Monument and Scenic Overlook was dedicated in 1936 and recalls the moment on August 2, 1804, when Lewis and Clark met with Otoe and Missouri Tribesmen.

The monument has a stylized carved relief depicting the meeting, with interpretive boards offering plenty of background. The view is awe-inspiring, taking in Council Bluffs, Omaha, the Missouri and a big chunk of Nebraska.

6. Historic General Dodge House

Historic General Dodge HouseSource: Jan Tik / Flickr | CC BY
Historic General Dodge House

In Council Bluffs you can visit the preserved house of Grenville M. Dodge (1831-1916), a multi-talented engineer and politician who played a crucial role in the development of the railroads in the West.

Dodge settled in Council Bluffs in 1851 and spent the next ten years surveying railroads, including the Union Pacific.

During the Civil War he rose to the rank of Major General in the Union Army, pioneering the use of military intelligence, before serving as a congressman and president or chief engineer of several railroad companies.

A National HIstoric Landmark, Dodge’s Second Empire-style house was built in 1869 atop a high terrace overlooking the valley.

You can tour this 14-room, 3-story residence to find out about his remarkable career and appreciate the parquet floors and ornate woodwork, carved from butternut, walnut and cherry.

7. Western Historic Trails Center

Western Historic Trails CenterSource: Western Historic Trails Center / Facebook
Western Historic Trails Center

The National Parks Service opened this riverside attraction in 1997, celebrating the intrepid spirit of the west-bound pioneers who followed in the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The Western Historic Trails details the United States’ westward expansion, with enthralling accounts from the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Mormon Trail.

These exhibits are enriched with maps, personal accounts, art and photography. The center is at the northern end of Riverside Park, made up of 400 acres of prairie by the Missouri River, for a hint of what greeted explorers and migrants in the 19th century.

8. Bayliss Park

Bayliss ParkSource: Joseph Creamer / shutterstock
Bayliss Park

On a whole city block, this park in front of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum is a green haven with much to hold your interest.

At its heart is a fountain, titled Well Spring and designed by Rhode Island-based sculptor Brower Hatcher.

This eye-catching monument provides a backdrop to The Performance Space, a venue for outdoor concerts and festivals, with a canopy also designed by Hatcher.

Surrounding the fountain is a plaza, with benches and tables, edged by neat flowerbeds. On the north side of the plaza is an interactive splash pad, beloved by kids in the summer, and on the east side are child-friendly interactive art installations designed by Hatcher.

9. RailsWest Railroad Museum

RailsWest Railroad MuseumSource: Smallbones / Wikimedia | CC0
RailsWest Railroad Museum

You can delve further into Council Bluffs’ railroad heritage at this museum housed in a former passenger depot.

Built for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, and also served by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific, the depot dates to 1899 and closed to passengers in 1971.

Inside you can find out about the eight railroads that served the city, learn about the Railway Mail Service and check out a large HO Scale model railroad.

Just outside are some handsome pieces of rolling stock, such as Union Pacific locomotive 814, and Chicago, Burlington and Quincy locomotive 915, as well as a lounge car, cabooses, a switchcar from 1953 and a Railway Post Office car.

10. Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

Loess Hills National Scenic BywaySource: Michael Sundberg / shutterstock
Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

The Loess Hills are an extraordinary natural feature, spanning more than 200 miles along the Missouri River.

Mostly on the river’s east bank is a continuous line of thin ridges, rolling hills and tall bluffs, covered with forest and prairie and rising as high as 200 feet above the plains to the east.

Formed at the end of the last Ice Age, these hills are composed of windblown soils, rising higher on the Iowa side of the river because of the prevailing winds.

You can follow the range via the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, a driving route that runs from Akron in the north to Hamburg in the south.

There’s a brochure for the National Scenic Byway, detailing all the things you can do along the route, and giving details of the 16 excursion loops branching off the main trail.

11. Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park

Tom Hanafan River’s Edge ParkSource: Wirestock Creators / shutterstock
Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park

Landscaped in 2013, Council Bluffs’ gateway to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge is a lovely parcel of waterfront looking across to downtown Omaha.

Even if you’re not planning to cross the Missouri River, this is a gorgeous place to go for a walk or bike ride, blessed with dreamy sunsets and sprinkled with public art.

The park also has an ecological purpose, and incorporates almost 20 acres of reforestation, skirting the enormous great lawn.

With all this open space, River’s Edge Park is made for outdoor events, staging concerts and festivals in the summer.

12. Horseshoe Council Bluffs

CasinoSource: Virrage Images / shutterstock
Casino

One of a trio of giant casino complexes on the riverbank, Horseshoe Council Bluffs is operated by Caesars Entertainment.

Opened in 1986 as a (now closed) greyhound track, the complex came through an $85 million expansion in 2006. There’s now a 153-room hotel, almost 1,400 slot machines and a dedicated poker room with 18 tables, to go with more than 50 other table games.

The Caesars Sportsbook is located right here on the casino floor, and there’s also a wealth of live music and comedy on the schedule.

In August the World Series of Poker stops by at the poker room, also hosting the Horseshoe Poker Championships (HPC) in February.

13. Ditmars Orchard

ApplesSource: Natural_p / shutterstock
Apples

This versatile rural attraction is on the northeastern outskirts of the city, a short hop from downtown.

In the same family since 1994, Ditmars Orchard grows a variety of fruit and vegetables that you can pick for yourself or purchase from the farm store, along with homemade jams, jellies, salsas and much more.

A few of the U-Pick options include strawberries and sunflowers in the summer, and then apples and pumpkins in fall.

Late August through October there’s all kinds of family-friendly fun on the farm, including a corn maze, a petting zoo with kid goats, bumper balls, a bounce house and much more.

Adults can enjoy live music and wine from the vineyard, while there’s a range of delicious bites, from spicy corn fritters to apple cider donuts.

14. Ameristar Casino Hotel

Ameristar Casino HotelSource: booking
Ameristar Casino Hotel

South of Horseshoe Council Bluffs on Casino Row is the riverboat Ameristar Casino, which opened in 1996.

This is the only one of the city’s three casinos still based on a riverboat, and has an accompanying hotel tower (160 rooms).

The boat has 38,500 square feet of gaming space, with 1,500 up-to-date slot machines, along with table games like baccarat, roulette, craps, blackjack, some allowing bets of up to $5,000.

The Sportsbook is a state-of-the-art gaming facility, with ten betting kiosks, six wagering terminals and 50 HD TVs keeping you in touch with the action.

15. Kanesville Tabernacle

Kanesville TabernacleSource: Beneathtimp / Wikimedia | CC0
Kanesville Tabernacle

Council Bluffs is the site of an important chapter in the history of the Mormon Church. After founder Joseph Smith (1805-1844) suffered a violent death at the hands of a mob in Nauvoo, Illinois, the church headed west, settling temporarily in Iowa on their way to Utah.

Smith’s death brought a succession crisis that needed solving. A cottonwood log cabin, measuring 40 feet by 60 feet, was erected, and it was here on 27 December 1847 that Brigham Young (1801-1877) reorganized a new First Presidency and was sustained as the second President of the Church.

The original log structure was built, hastily on top of a natural spring, and so was torn down a couple of years later having served its purpose.

The replica was built in the mid-1990s, less than a block from the original site, also from cottonwood and with the same dimensions.

 

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Council Bluffs, Iowa (IA)
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15 Best Things to Do in Council Bluffs (Iowa):

  • Union Pacific Railroad Museum
  • Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and Museum
  • Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
  • Lake Manawa State Park
  • Lewis and Clark Monument and Scenic Overlook
  • Historic General Dodge House
  • Western Historic Trails Center
  • Bayliss Park
  • RailsWest Railroad Museum
  • Loess Hills National Scenic Byway
  • Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park
  • Horseshoe Council Bluffs
  • Ditmars Orchard
  • Ameristar Casino Hotel
  • Kanesville Tabernacle