When you hear someone refer to “The Bridges of Madison County” I bet your first thought is the movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. If you are an avid reader, it’s the best-selling novel that preceded the movie by a few years. Many people are not aware that those beautiful covered bridges Clint’s character went to photograph are located in a picturesque area of Iowa less than an hour drive from Des Moines.
The official name for this area is Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. It is one of Iowa’s newest scenic byways. At 82 miles long, this byway is packed with beautiful natural areas and unique destinations like John Wayne’s Birthplace. There’s enough to see and do in Madison County to easily fill a 2 or 3 day weekend.
If you are like me, you may need to make a second trip just to see and experience it all!
I would recommend first stopping at the The Madison County Chamber of Commerce’s Welcome Center to pick up a map and brochure of the bridges. The bridges are scattered throughout the county and you will be driving a lot of gravel roads on this weekend, so plan accordingly. The Welcome Center is located at 73 Jefferson Street on Winterset’s beautiful town square. You can also check out their website here.
At the time that I visited in 2017, Madison County had 5 covered bridges. Sadly, the 6th one, Cedar Covered Bridge, had just been just been destroyed by an arsonist fire a few months before. I'm happy to say they are planning to rebuild it soon and I'm hoping to get back to visit it one day!
Hogback Covered Bridge was my personal favorite and in my opinion the most photogenic of all the Madison County Bridges. It was built in 1884 and still sits in its original location. This bridge was named after the limestone ridge that forms the west end of the valley.
Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge built in 1870 currently resides in the Winterset City Park. Covered bridges are often named for the people that live nearby. Both the Cutler and the Donahoe families each claimed naming rights to this bridge, thus the reason for the hyphenated name. This bridge was moved to the park from 18 miles away just in time for Madison County's first Covered Bridge Festival. This is now an annual celebration that happens in October each year. (For info on the Festival check their Facebook page)
They have restored and furnished 14 buildings that are spread out over 18 acres of the property. There are several log buildings dating from the 1850s, including a country school and post office. The 1871 Winterset Railroad Depot is located here along with Field Mercantile, Martin Brother's Gas Station, and an 1881 Zion Church. A second schoolhouse dating from between 1871-1939 looks like the kids just packed up their books and left for the day!
The jewel of the complex is the 1856 Bevington-Kaser House. Not really a house, but a mansion, this home is fully furnished with Victorian period artifacts! This is where I spent most of my time and I must say the tour guide was very patient with me.
The John Wayne Birthplace & Museum is located at 205 S. John Wayne Drive, Winterset. What can I say about this, IT'S JOHN WAYNE! This is a must for any John Wayne fan. The museum is loaded with his movie memorabilia and the house he was born in is just darling. Be sure to pose with the full-size John Wayne bronze statue in front of the museum. Check out the museum website for more information.
Roseman Covered Bridge built in 1883 is also known as Oak Grover Bridge. It is the most popular of the bridges since it was used in both the movie and the book. Roseman was the bridge Robert Kincaid is seeking when he stops at Francesca Johnson’s home for directions. It is also where she leaves her note inviting him to dinner.
As a side note, there are claims that Roseman is haunted. Two sheriff’s posse’s trapped a county jail escapee here in 1892. It is said the man rose up straight through the roof of the bridge, uttered a wild cry and disappeared. He was never found, and it was decided that anyone capable of such a feat must be innocent.
Holliwell Bridge built in 1880 is the longest of all the Madison County covered bridges. At 122 feet long, it is also the longest remaining timber bridge in the county. In the movie, The Bridges of Madison County, they replaced Cedar Bridge with Holliwell Bridge. It's central role to the story-line, has made it a very popular bridge to visit.
Imes Covered Bridge built in 1870, is the oldest of all the Bridges of Madison County. It has been moved two different times and is now located in the town of St Charles.
A couple of other locations that I made notes on but didn't have time to visit...
Francesca’s House - 3271 130th Street, Cumming - this charming farmhouse was used as the home of Richard & Francesca Johnson in the movie The Bridges of Madison County. While much of it was destroyed by arson in 2003, you can still view the house from the road.
Covered Bridges Winery - 2207 170th Trail, Winterset Website
Winterset Cidery - 1638 Hwy 169, Winterset Website
Two Saints Winery - 15010 20th Ave. St. Charles Website
Visit my Iowa Collection to see more images of the covered bridges and my "Bridges of Madison County" weekend.
About the Author
Susan Tregoning is the 8th photographer in the past 4 generations of professional photographers in her family. After a long career as an art buyer and interior designer, she put her career on hold in 2006 to travel with her husband and his job. In the process she found her “roots” again, by developing a photography obsession far beyond casual snapshots that eventually evolved into a desire to capture each and every location and object as “art”. By meshing her two loves, photography and design, she has come full circle. Only now, she is creating art instead of just purchasing it.
To see more of Susan's work, visit the Susan Tregoning Fine Art Photography Collection. All images in the her collection are available as wall art, fine art prints, on home decor, gift items and apparel.
I am the 8th photographer in 4 generations of my family. Back in 2006, my husband accepted a job traveling and I jumped at the chance to go with him. We have spent the last 11+ years traveling the United States.