The covered bridges of Madison County have been a feature of the central Iowa landscape, as natural as fields of corn and grazing cattle, long before Robert James Waller wrote a book about them, long before Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood starred in a movie, and long before the musical opened on Broadway.
They are not the only covered bridges in the U.S., but they are certainly the most famous.
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Covered bridges are certainly cute and charming today, but that’s not why people covered them. Back in the late 1800s when these in Madison County were built, concrete was not readily available, so bridges were made of wood.
Of course, the problem back then, as well as today, is that when wood is exposed to rain, snow and other treats from Mother Nature, it’s not going to last as long as if it was covered. The big heavy beams and flooring of the bridge were difficult to repair and replace. They would last longer if you covered it with cheaper, easier-to-replace wooden structures. Thus, covered bridges. And isn’t it nice they painted them red? (That’s a whole ‘nother story).
Two of the covered bridges of Madison County Iowa cross the Middle River. In terms of notable waterways, the Middle River does not make the list. In the heat of summer, it slows to a trickle in some places. In the winter, snow piles higher up its banks than water usually comes. But the banks of the Middle River are deep and jagged in places, showing that when it has a mind to, the Middle River can get wild and violent. Thus sturdy bridges are a necessity.
Admittedly the roadways that connect to the bridges are not major arteries. This is a rural area and most travelers are landowners or residents of nearby Winterset. You can’t drive across these wood structures today, but if you did, it would be a one lane path. Plus, they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so it’s just not a good idea to have heavy, modern vehicles on them.
Exploring the Bridges of Madison County
But you can walk across the bridges of Madison County. Better yet stroll, hand in hand with someone special, if the opportunity presents itself. Take a look at the construction and give some thought to the people that built the thing and all of those who have crossed this bridge before you.
The Winterset Chamber of Commerce offers guided tours for a price, depending on your group size. Or just stop in their office for a map or print one off from their website. Although there are some signs along these rural roads, you’ll probably get lost and confused trying to find it on your own. Sorry, Siri gets a little confused in these parts, too. Get the printed map.
A few years ago, the Madison County Department of Conservation decided a more interesting way to explore these famous bridges and appreciate the natural beauty of rural Madison County would be via the rivers that the bridges cover. So they developed a water trail and an outfitter opened to make canoeing and kayaking under these bridges just a little easier.
Pammel State Park is one of Winterset and Madison County’s treasures. We spent a couple of nights in a yurt there during our canoe trip, and loved it. Check out what my friend Jody has to say about everything Pammel State Park has to offer.
Autumn is a particularly beautiful time in this part of the Midwest, so the Chamber of Commerce takes this opportunity to show off a little by hosting a covered bridge festival each October. Not only do the thousands of visitors to the community enjoy the bridges, but they also come for the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Yep, the Duke was born in a little house here in 1907.
Those are among the many treasures of a few days spent in Iowa. Here are a few more.