Named for a short-lived fort constructed by the Des Moines River in 1850, the seat of Webster County quickly became a center of commerce, mining and agriculture for North Central Iowa.
Now, there’s a great outdoor museum documenting Fort Dodge’s origins, and downtown Fort Dodge has tons of grand turn-of-the-century buildings across some 33 blocks.
The Blanden Memorial Art Museum is the oldest public art museum in the state, with strong collections for European and American art, and one of the best museum shops you could hope to find.
Fort Dodge is full of flourishing locally-owned businesses, from wineries to craft breweries to farms that open up to the public in the summer and fall.
1. Blanden Memorial Art Museum
When it opened in 1932, the Blanden Memorial Art Museum became the first public art museum in Iowa. This institution is housed in an august Neoclassical building, built on private land and financed by one Charles Granger Blanden.
The museum is a cultural reference point for North Central Iowa and holds several important collections, for Iowan art, European and American painting, sculpture and prints, American photography, contemporary American art and Japanese screens and prints.
You can see wonderful selections from these collections, along with high-profile traveling exhibits and solo exhibits by established and emerging artists from the region.
Be sure to check out the One of a Kind gift shop, brimming with original pieces by local and surrounding artists.
2. The Fort Museum and Frontier Village
This enthralling outdoor museum takes you on a journey through time. You’ll start in the frontier days of the mid-19th century, when E Company of the 6th Infantry chose the junction of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek as a spot to build a fort.
The Fort Museum and Frontier Village has built a replica of Fort Dodge, along with several authentic 19th-century buildings like a log cabin and one-room schoolhouse, all furnished with authentic period artifacts.
You can also find out about the Sioux, Winnebago, and Sac and Fox Native Americans who had long called this land home before the Louisiana Purchase (1803).
3. Downtown Fort Dodge
If you’re a fan of architecture from the turn of the 20th century, Downtown Fort Dodge is a treasure trove.
At that time, architectural firms like Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen and Proudfoot, Bird & Rawson purposely modeled this city on Chicago, giving it the nickname “Little Chicago”.
The brick-built central commercial district is sizable, covering more than 30 blocks and preserved by an historic district that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
This has 100 contributing buildings, including the Beaux-Arts Webster County Courthouse (1902), the 90-foot-tall First National Bank Building (1908) and the Wahkonsa Hotel (1910). Gradually, Downtown Fort Dodge has been reborn as a place to shop, dine and hang out.
There are intriguing specialty stores for comic books, musical instruments, collectibles, jewelry, home decor and fashion, as well as thriving community events all year.
4. Oleson Park
Fort Dodge’s favorite public park is in the south of the city, loaded with facilities but best-known for a structure built in 1938.
A Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, the Oleson Park Music Pavilion is a striking monument, blending Modernist and Art Deco architecture.
The military bandmaster, Karl King (1891-1971) was an important figure behind its construction, and his name was given to Fort Dodge’s municipal band, which performs here on summer evenings.
Oleson Park is also home to a fantastic splash pad, new playground equipment, four shelters, numerous picnic tables, a wooded mountain biking trail and a zoo, in renovation at the time of writing.
5. Kennedy Park
Just north of Fort Dodge Regional Airport is the closest park to the city where you can go camping.
In the care of Webster County, Kennedy Park surrounds the 53-acre Badger Lake, which is a magnet for recreation including fishing, boating (no gas motors) and paddlesports. The park trail takes you all around the lakeshore and has little side trails to explore.
On the south shore you’ve also got the 18-hole Lakeside Municipal Golf Course, and close by is the best camping facility for miles, with 75 sites, complemented by modern restrooms and showers that are cleaned every day.
6. Soldier Creek Winery
North of Fort Dodge, in a sea of corn and soybean fields, there’s a ten-acre vineyard and winery.
The farm has been in the Secor family for more than half a century, and the winery was born after a destructive barn fire in 2002, that gave the family a chance to reflect on the farm’s future direction.
Soldier Creek Winery produces its wines from ten French-American hybrid varieties like Frontenac, La Crescent and Marquette, able to withstand the Iowa winter.
The winery is open Friday through Sunday, with regular live music all year, and an ever popular harvest festival every September.
7. Fort Dodge Grain Silo Mural
In 2018 a 100-foot abandoned grain silo in Fort Dodge was transformed with the help of the state’s largest mural.
This was painted by Australian artist Guido van Helten, and based on photographs he took of Fort Dodge residents.
The work wraps around the entire structure and was completed as part of a revitalization plan for the city’s Northwest River District.
Van Helten has painted grain elevators in South Dakota, Tennessee and Arkansas, and painted this particular piece in freezing winter temperatures, requiring heaters to keep his paint warm.
8. Fort 8 Theater
Fort Dodge has the advantage of a modern, first-run movie theater right downtown. Coming through several updates and expansions over the last 40+ years, the Fort 8 Theater opened in the early 1980s.
The most recent makeover has added big, soft recliners to the auditoriums so you can watch the latest blockbusters in luxury.
The theater is also praised for its cleanliness and the quality of its popcorn, which along with the other concessions, has a decent price point to boot. Keep an eye out for specials, like $5 Tuesdays for all movies, all day.
9. The Community Orchard
In a bucolic spot just before the Des Moines River enters Fort Dodge, you can visit a 50-acre orchard that opens to the public from August to just before Christmas. There are some 5,000 trees at the Community Orchard, growing 15 apple varieties.
These can be purchased pre-picked at the farm’s market, along with delicious baked goods and all manner of cute home decor and gifts.
There are also fun activities for kids and adults at the Back 40 Playground, while the Apple Orchard Café has a menu of sandwiches, soups and salads, as well as delectable desserts made with homegrown produce.
10. Fort Frenzy
Fort Dodge’s largest family entertainment center is in the east of the city, a short way past the old Crossroads Mall.
Open all year, Fort Frenzy is an indoor and outdoor attraction. Inside you’ve got an arcade with more than 45 video and redemption games, along with a 2,500-square-foot laser tag arena, bumper cars and the interactive trampoline game, Valojump.
Outside there’s 18 holes of mini golf, go karts on an 850-foot banked race track and the Sweeper, where you have to dodge a giant rotating beam.
11. ShinyTop Brewing
Downtown Fort Dodge has a craft brewery, found next to City Square Park on Central Avenue. A few of the regulars on tap include Rippen’ Red Irish Ale, Oatmeal Stout, Unbewheatable (Wheat Beer) and Hop Peach of Ash IPA.
These are combined with a long cocktail list, including more than ten different Moscow Mules, along with a big selection of whiskeys.
Unlike many craft breweries, ShinyTop also comes with a kitchen, making beer-friendly comfort food like pizza, sandwiches, pasta dishes and shareable bites from quesadillas to pepperoni pinwheels.
12. Fort Dodge Farmers’ Market
For fruits and vegetables direct from the Iowa countryside, this open-air market takes place in a lot on the east side of the former Crossroads Mall.
Setting up June through October, Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, the Fort Dodge Farmers’ Market has a selection that changes as the season progresses.
As well as farm-fresh produce, you can normally find vendors for eggs, honey, nuts, flowers, tempting baked goods, kettle corn, prepared food like BBQ, and all kinds of handmade crafts.
13. Snell-Crawford Park
A popular spot for outdoor recreation on weekends, Snell-Crawford Park is on the banks of Soldier Creek.
This watercourse is traced by the Soldier Creek Nature Trail, leading through Fort Dodge as far as the creek’s mouth on the Des Moines River.
As well as the trail, the park has a disc golf course, a backstop, three sand volleyball courts and newly installed Miracle-brand playground equipment for kids aged 5-12.
This is also a good place just to relax with friends and family, and for that you’ve got picnic tables, grills and a large cabin that can be rented.
14. Dolliver Memorial State Park
A little way down the Des Moines River from Fort Dodge is a state park encompassing a scenic stretch of riverbank, with deep ravines and tall bluffs.
Here, two tributaries, Prairie Creek and Boneyard Hollow, have eroded canyons up to 100 feet deep, exposing impressive sandstone and conglomerate formations.
In addition to its geology, Dolliver Memorial State Park has archeological importance, with several Native American mounds scattered across these 590 acres.
Five miles of rugged trails carry you through oak forest, prairie and down into canyons, and you can stay overnight at the campground, with 33 sites and two camper cabins.
15. Rosedale Rapids Aquatic Center
Run by the city, this modern aquatic center opened in the east of Fort Dodge in 2010. There’s a slew of attractions, sure to keep kids entertained during the school summer break.
The two main pools are an eight-lane, 25-yard lap pool with a diving well on one side, and a separate recreation pool featuring a large play structure with a 1,000-gallon dumping bucket.
There’s also a lazy river and a choice of slides, including a plunge slide, swirl bowl slide and open and enclosed tube slides.