On the Cedar River, the seat of Black Hawk County is part of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area, home to more than 170,000 people.
Waterloo is known for its industry, which developed in a sudden burst at the turn of the 20th century, and counts the agricultural multinational, John Deere among its biggest employers.
There’s a great museum detailing the evolutions of John Deere’s tractors and engines, and you can also visit three different factories in the city for guided tours.
The metropolitan area has a 100-mile trail network, which encompasses both banks of the Cedar River, leading from downtown areas to peaceful natural areas like George Wyth State Park.
1. John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum
The world-renowned agricultural machinery company, John Deere, has a history in Waterloo going back to 1918 when it purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, famed for its Waterloo Boy tractors.
The brand is still one of Waterloo’s main employers, producing tractors, engines and components at high-tech facilities that are open for guided tours.
In 2014 John Deere opened a new museum on the site of the old Waterloo Tractor Works, which became John Deere’s first tractor factory.
Inside is a beautifully presented timeline of the company, its technology and Iowa agriculture in general, loaded with machines from the company’s storied past.
The museum has volumes of compelling historical snippets, alongside interactive exhibits to pique the interest of younger family members.
2. Waterloo Riverloop Bike Trail
Something special about Waterloo & Cedar Falls is just how easy it is to get around by bike or on foot. There are dozens of miles of multi-use trails extending to all corners of the metro area, and the Cedar River banks are particularly accessible.
Waterloo’s riverfront industrial area is served by the Riverloop, more than 16 miles long and connecting downtown Waterloo with downtown Cedar Falls.
There are three convenient river crossings allowing you to make shortcuts whenever you need. In the southeast of the city you can join the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, a pioneering 52-mile rail trail as far as Hiawatha on the old corridor of the Illinois Central Railroad, which closed in the 1970s.
3. Waterloo Center for the Arts (WCA)
Waterloo’s impressive riverside art museum has a series of indoor exhibition spaces, combined with the outdoor Riverloop Sculpture plaza.
The wide-range collection is particularly strong for American Decorative, Midwestern, Folk and Caribbean art, with what is the largest inventory of Haitian art outside of Haiti itself.
On a typical visit you can check out traveling exhibitions, works by Grant Wood and other eminent Iowa artists, Guatemalan textiles and wonderful selections from that large reserve of Haitian art.
The WCA also hosts a wide range of classes and workshops for a variety of skills and ages, while the complex houses the Waterloo Community Playhouse and the Phelps Youth Pavilion, which we’ll talk about next.
4. Phelps Youth Pavilion
This multimillion-dollar expansion to the Waterloo Center for the Arts opened in 2007 and has a small world of hands-on experiences for younger children.
There are more than 40 interactive exhibits at the Phelps Youth Pavilion, with an emphasis on art, culture and fun.
Children can take part in simple drawing and painting projects or embark on high-tech adventures. For example, when we made this list the featured exhibit was Dinosaur Ruckus.
This had genuine dinosaur fossils on display, and allowed children to dress up as prehistoric monsters as they learned about natural history, art and math.
5. Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum
On November 13, 1942 five brothers from Waterloo were all killed in action during the sinking of the light cruiser, USS Juneau, at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
This event gave rise to the Sole Survivor Policy, implemented just after the war. Funded by a citizens’ grassroots campaign the museum in the brothers’ honor opened in Waterloo in 2008.
The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum is dedicated to the state’s veterans for all wars from the Civil War to present day.
You can immersive yourself in their stories through more than 35 interactive stations, artifact-rich exhibits and the stunning, electronic Wall of Honor.
6. Lost Island
Until 2022 Adventureland in Des Moines was the only full-scale theme park in Iowa. That all changed with the unveiling of Lost Island, set on a parcel of former farmland in the southeast of Waterloo.
The attraction’s roots go back to the adjacent Lost Island Waterpark, which opened in 2001 and has a wave pool, lazy river and a choice of slides including the high-speed Lost Soul Falls.
The theme park, built at a cost of more than $100 million, boasts three roller coasters, and an array of other attractions and shows across five different zones, all infused with a Pacific Island theme.
One of the top thrill rides is the hydraulic launch coaster, at the Yuta Earth Tribe zone, with two inversions and a top speed of 75mph.
7. George Wyth Memorial State Park
On the north bank of the Cedar River, near Waterloo Regional Airport is 1,200 acres of woodland enclosing a series of scenic lakes.
The park is a haven for white-tailed deer, as well as birdlife, with over 200 species recorded here.
Summer is a fine time to be here, when you can swim at the George Wyth Beach and rent a paddleboard, kayak or canoe from Maxx Rentals Paddlesports.
With several bodies of water to choose from, the park is arguably the area’s best fishing spot, with an abundance of bluegill, black crappie, largemouth bass, yellow bass, channel catfish, northern pike and white crappie.
There are over 5.5 miles of wooded trails, and these are connected to the 100-mile trail network spreading across Waterloo and Cedar Falls.
8. Young Arena
If you want to see some of the hottest hockey prospects in action you have to catch a Waterloo Black Hawks game at the 3,000-seat Young Arena.
The Black Hawks compete in the United States Hockey League (16-21), the nation’s highest junior hockey level, and their tally of nine titles is the most since the league was founded in 1947. At the time of writing there were 18 former Black Hawks in the NHL.
Owned by the city, Young Arena opened in 1995 and has come through a number of upgrades since then, including a team store for all kinds of Black Hawks merch and the Coors Light Cold Zone. During the week the rink is open for public skate sessions, open hockey and skating lessons.
9. Riverloop Amphitheater
At the core of Waterloo’s rapidly transforming waterfront is this fantastic outdoor performing arts venue. Right on the slope of the levee, the Riverloop Amphitheater’s seating area has a sensational view across the Cedar River, with the stage set below along the Riverloop.
The amphitheater can hold audiences of up to 600 people, and is complemented by the neighboring Expo Plaza.
In summer this is the venue for the Cinema on the Cedar Movie Nights, showing family-friendly movies, and the Outdoor Concert Series. Both series are free to the public, with food and drinks available for purchase.
10. Bluedorn Science Imaginarium
Like the Sullivan Brothers Museum, the Bluedorn Science Imaginarium is part of the Grout Museum District and opened in 1993.
Aimed mainly at younger minds, this three-floor science center has exciting interactive exhibits dealing with principles like light, sound, liquids, gasses, electricity and momentum.
Described as a “playground for the imagination” the museum lets children be guided by their curiosity, hopping from station to station.
There’s also a schedule of action-packed science demonstrations bringing scientific concepts to life.
11. John Deere Tours
The agricultural giant offers guided tours of three of its cutting-edge facilities in Waterloo. Taking place Monday to Friday, these tours are 90 minutes long and completely free to attend.
At the Tractor Cab Assembly Operations, you can see 6R, 7R, 8R/8RT, and 9R/9RT/9RX Series tractors being manufactured (torus at 8am, 10am and 1pm), while there’s also a John Deere shop at this facility.
The John Deere Engine Works produces crankshafts, heads and engine blocks, building diesel engines, as well as power centers for other manufacturers (tours at 9:30am and 1pm).
Finally, Drivetrain Operations makes components like transmissions, gears, axles and shafts, scheduling one tour a day at 1pm.
12. Hartman Reserve Nature Center
The largest untouched wooded area in Black Hawk County sits on the boundary between Waterloo and Cedar Falls.
Along with century-old stands of white oak, bur oak and red oak, the Hartman Reserve Nature Center has important restored prairie, wetland and riparian habitats in its lower portions.
The preserve can be accessed on foot or by bike via the South Riverside Trail. You can encounter these 300+ acres on color-coded trails, and call in at the Interpretive Center, housing interactive nature exhibits, live animals and hosting events like the Maple Syrup Festival in March.
13. Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens
Laid out on former farmland in the south of the city, the Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens was planted in the early 1990s and opens April through October.
This attraction is inspired by Iowa’s agricultural heritage, and there’s an organic theme tying together the gardens, buildings and the artwork sprinkled throughout.
Among the many individual spaces awaiting you there’s a labyrinth, a rose garden, mosaiculture garden, activity-packed children’s gardens, a butterfly conservation meadow, shade garden and display gardens, bright with annuals, perennials and colorful flowering bulbs in spring.
14. Palmer’s Family Fun
Near the airport in the north of Waterloo is a classic family entertainment center, open March through October.
So if you’re scratching your head for safe activities for kids during the school summer break you head to Palmer’s Family Fun for mini golf (36 holes), go-karts, batting cages, laser tag & archery tag and a 300-yard driving range with 30 hitting stations.
Younger children will also love the enormous inflatable jumping pillow, surrounded by a safe sandy area.
15. Dan Gable Wrestling Museum
Sports fans may be interested to know that one of the greatest wrestlers of all time hails from Waterloo. Dan Gable (b. 1948) took gold at the 1971 World Wrestling Championships and gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics without surrendering a single point in all his bouts in either competition.
There’s a museum in Gable’s honor, a branch of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, which is based in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The museum is hands-on, with electronic kiosks and lots of interactive exhibits, as well as screens showing NCAA Championship matches over the past century.
This attraction also incorporates three halls of fame: The George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, The Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame of Iowa and the Alan and Gloria Rice Greco-Roman Hall of Champions.