The guide to the Bridges of Madison County

 

Imes Covered Bridge, one of the Bridges of Madison County
At Imes Covered Bridge, St. Charles, Iowa, this sign welcomes visitors to the Gateway to the Bridges of Madison County. Winterset is Madison County’s seat.

Imagine the romance of The Bridges of Madison County

Imagine what it would be like to stand inside one of the bridges of Madison County. Both the book and the movie “The Bridges of Madison County” were wildly popular. Going to Winterset, Iowa, will take you to those bridges. Bring your significant other.

Revisiting “The Bridges of Madison County

The movie “The Bridges of Madison County” was shot on location in Winterset and Adel, Iowa, in 1995. The movie was based on the 1992 book “The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. Even 25 years after the movie premiered, people still flock to The Bridges of Madison County. Experience the romance of the real bridges.

Where to begin The Bridges of Madison County tour

Start in Winterset at the Madison County Chamber of Commerce and Welcome Center, 73 Jefferson St. It’s a great place to learn about Madison County and its covered bridges. Touring the Bridges of Madison County takes you in every direction from Winterset and will require most of a day.

What to do while in the visitors center

Make sure to pick up a map. Sometimes cell service can be spotty, so download (PDF) their map. The website also lists good directions. However, interacting with the Welcome Center staff will teach you more about the area than clicking on links would.

Pick up some souvenirs while you’re there. Please sign the guestbook. Based on the pins on the center’s world map, the Bridges of Madison County are popular worldwide. If you’re lucky enough to be the first from your community, ask the staff for your own pin to place.

Why bridges were covered

In the 1800s, steel was difficult or impossible to obtain. Communities had to use wood. Uncovered bridges only lasted about 20 years before decay and rot ruined them. Unlike uncovered bridges’ short lifespan, covered bridges could last as long as a century. Because of the covering, the bridges also were less likely to be icy.

When engineers understood how to build steel bridges, covered bridges were on their way out. They seemed old-fashioned. Many were torn down. Demolition fever even struck Madison County. The county originally had 19 covered bridges. Fortunately, the remaining six Bridges of Madison County escaped the wrecker’s ball.

Gimme shelter beneath Cutler-Donahoe!

The Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge stands in Winterset City Park. This bridge is the first bridge on the road east of Winterset. Originally, the 79-foot long bridge spanned the North River near Bevington. The county moved it to Winterset City Park entrance in 1970, the centennial of its installation.

Covered bridges had several side benefits, of which shelter was one. We were grateful for the shelter. Why? Because August in Iowa is hot and humid. Exiting the car’s air conditioning was like walking into a steam bath. The blinding sun beat down and the heat blazed. Walking onto the covered bridge provided blessed relief from the sun’s blistering rays.

While hiding from the sun’s attention, check out the truss pattern on the bridges’ sides. All the bridges are built with a town truss pattern. The pattern was named for Connecticut architect Ithiel Town. He patented the latticework truss design in 1820.

selfie at Clark's Tower in Winterset on the Bridges of Madison County

Catching the breeze on top of Clark’s Tower

Bonus: Climb Clark Tower

As a bonus, hike or drive to City Park’s Clark Tower. The easy hike is 2 miles round trip from the entrance and is well marked.

Clark Tower steps in Winterset
The staircase on Clark Tower in Winterset City Park

I love anything to do with castle towers and this one definitely falls into the castle tower category. The tower stands 25 feet tall and is 12 feet in diameter. It has three floors. The upper two must be reached by the stairwell outside the tower keep.

The limestone stairs are uneven and some are cracked and missing pieces. The stairs are definitely not for people who have mobility issues.

If you are able to walk the stairs, the second floor features benches where you may rest. The windows are open to the air and look very medieval.

As you would expect, the tower is far from a medieval creation. The Clark family were pioneer settlers in Madison County. Their descendants built the bridge in their honor in 1926.

Panoramic view of the Middle River Valley

The tower’s third-floor stairs aren’t for the faint of heart. The stairs are made from a metal grid and walkers can look down to the second floor below. If that doesn’t bother you, the view from the top is worth the short climb. The top floor presents visitors with a panoramic view of the lovely Middle River Valley. The panoramic setting on your camera phone is a good choice here.

In the blazing Iowa summer, the breezes on the third floor felt great. The gentle wind chill factor cut the temperature at least 5 degrees. The cooling was very welcome.

The hungry Holliwell bridge

From City Park, head southeast on Holliwell Bridge Road. The road is gravel. Holliwell Covered Bridge is the next bridge east of Winterset. At the pictured angle, the bridge seemed about ready to bite, chew, and swallow the approaching road.

Oh, my, Bridge, what big teeth you have!

Holliwell Covered Bridge graffiti
Even though this is graffiti, the sentiment was so touching and appropriate for a bridge on a gravel road.

This bridge was my favorite. I loved the trusses that stick out from the bridge sides. Red is my favorite color, so the bridge’s color appealed to me. Holliwell is the longest of the Bridges of Madison County at 122 feet. It remains in its original 1880 location over the Middle River.

The Holliwell is a landmark for kayakers, canoers, and rowers on the east end of the Middle River Water Trail. The Middle River is navigable beyond the bridge, but access is limited.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Taking a winery break

Twisted Vine Brewery growler
Madison County Winery also sells locally-made beer, including Twisted Vine Brewery’s products.

After leaving Holliwell, turn southeast until the junction of paved County Road G50. Head east toward St. Charles. Madison County Winery is a good place to break up your trip.

We stopped at Madison County Winery west of St. Charles for a tasty break. Their tasting offers 6 wines for $5. They also offer cheese and chocolate platters. We chose the locally-made artisanal cheese, which was delicious.

After the tasting, I took home Hunter’s Moon and Cranberry wines.

Hunter’s Moon, a semi-dry white, has melon and honeysuckle notes. I’m not usually a melon lover, but this wine was an exception to all my melon objections.

I love everything cranberry, so it’s no surprise that I liked their cranberry wine, a semi-sweet wine. We’re saving it for Thanksgiving, but any time of the year would be appropriate.

The winery says they have a wine for everyone’s favorite flavor profile. It’s true.

They also partner with local breweries, serving their beers. I brought home this growler of Twisted Vine Brewery‘s Diablo Red, a midnight wheat beer. Diablo seemed an appropriate name to fill a skeleton’s growler with.

The beer was yummy. As a bonus, my growler will become a Halloween decoration. Hopefully, I can find some spooky flower picks to go with the spooky skeleton.

Happy haunting!

Imes Covered Bridge is a hopping place

The sign next to the Imes Covered Bridge east of St. Charles says “Gateway to the Bridges”. For those traveling Interstate 35, this is the quickest way to see the most covered bridges.

Graffiti on The Bridges of Madison County
Oh, the irony! Graffiti proclaiming “Graffiti is wrong”.

Built in 1870, Imes is the oldest of the Bridges of Madison County. It spans 81 feet and has hopped from place to place twice. It first spanned Clinton Creek southwest of Hanley. Hanley is a small community west of St. Charles. In 1977, it hopped to span a natural ravine at the eastern entrance to St. Charles. There, it greets those who take Exit 52 west from I-35.

The shelter and isolation covered bridges provide makes them attractive places for lovers. Evidence of the bridges’ romantic attractions is displayed on the graffiti-filled walls. Many of the drawings are messages to, from, and/or about love and lovers. Hearts with initials, heartfelt messages about love: All plaster the bridges’ interior walls.

 

The charming St. Charles welcome center

While in St. Charles, visit the charming welcome center at 202 E. Main. For their welcome center, the community restored a donated century-old brick church. The restorers retained its stained glass windows. Please support the center and local artists by buying their works.

To reach the next three bridges, head north on I-35 to Exit 56. Turn west to Bevington on Iowa Highway 92.

Drive through Cedar Covered Bridge, the repaired arsonists’ target

In 2019, Madison County reopened Cedar Covered Bridge for the third time. Arsonists targeted it twice. The 1883 bridge was the last to be drivable. After restoration, the 76-foot long bridge became drivable again.

To reach Cedar Covered Bridge, turn north on Cedar Bridge Road on the east edge of Winterset. Its first location, in 1883, was north of Winterset. In 1921, it moved to its current site.

The bridge is the most famous of Madison County’s covered bridges. It was featured on “The Bridges of Madison County” book cover. In the movie, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) met Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) at the bridge.

The first arson, in 2002, was never solved. The second arsonist was a jilted lover and two friends in 2017. On both occasions, the community raised funds to raise the bridge again.

A bridge and a movie set or two more bridges of Madison County? The choice is up to you.

After leaving Cedar Covered Bridge, turn north on Cedar Bridge Road. At the bridge road’s intersection with Madison County Road G4R, you have a decision to make. Would you like to see the last two covered bridges or would you like to see a piece of “The Bridges of Madison County“, the movie?

A right turn eventually will take you to the McBride Covered Bridge remains and to Francesca’s House, the house from the movie set. Regretfully, both places have been arson targets.

An arsonist destroyed the McBride Covered Bridge in 1983. He, too, was a jilted lover. He attacked the bridge because he and his girlfriend had carved their initials on the bridge. The bridge had stood since 1871.

The owners opened Francesca’s House for tours until another arsonist burned it in 2003. In consequence, the house is no longer open to the public.

Francesca’s House is very close to I-35. If you choose to see Francesca’s House, but still want to see the bridges, you may either turn north on I-35 to Exit 69 and turn west on County Road F90, then south on US Highway 169 to Winterset. Otherwise, turn south to Exit 56 and Bevington, then west to Winterset.

Another decision point: Winery, cidery, or straight to the final bridges of Madison County

Covered Bridges Winery
Glass from Covered Bridges Winery

To reach Hogback Covered Bridge from the decision fork on Road G4R, turn west. Turn north on US Highway 169. At North River School St., a gravel road, you have another decision to make. 1) Stay on the highway until you reach Covered Bridges Winery and Winterset Cidery a bit north of the intersection. 2) Turn west on River School, then south on Hogback Bridge Road.

Covered Bridges Winery features The Bridges of Madison County

We decided on the winery. Since I love cider, I was sad about missing the cidery.

As one might expect, Covered Bridges Winery has a covered bridge theme for its wine names. Four of the Bridges of Madison County have namesake wines: Roseman, Hogback, Holliwell, and Cedar. Francesca Johnson also is memorialized with Francesca’s Folly.

hand-blown glass wine stoppers
Beautiful hand-blown glass wine stoppers at Covered Bridges Winery

Francesca’s Folly was my favorite of their wines. It features cherry, strawberry, and vanilla notes and reminded me of those ice cream flavors. It is a little high on the sweetness scale, sweeter than I would usually prefer. Nonetheless, I took some home. My husband didn’t let it stay in the wine rack very long.

Their other blush wine, Roseman Bridge, was much drier than Francesca’s Folly. It has pear and cranberry flavors. Did I say I like cranberries? A bottle of it came home, too.

Hand-blown glass wine stoppers were among the winery’s retail items. They were gorgeous. Glass artist Robin Paul creates them in her Winterset studio Madhaus Gallery.

Hogback Covered Bridge near Hogback Ridge

Hogback Dreamers Journal
Seek out the journal in this slot on Hogback’s interior.

The fifth bridge on the tour, Hogback Covered Bridge, spans 97 feet. It was built in 1884. The bridge was named for Hogback Ridge on the North River Valley’s western end. Neither Hogback has ever moved.

Find the Hogback Dreamers Journal in the bridge’s interior and tell your story. A fourth-generation Madison County resident lives near the bridge and is its caretaker. He and his wife want people to leave notes in the journal. They have collected at least 47 volumes of the journal since 2011. Each volume contains approximately 300 messages apiece.

When covered bridges were originally constructed, many of them had doors on both ends. The romantically-minded would park their horses and buggies inside the bridge during rainstorms for a romantic interlude. Imagine that!

I climbed down the somewhat steep embankment to listen to and watch the North River. What a soothing experience. A sweet breeze wafted off the river. I much enjoyed its cooling effect.

To reach the final bridge, turn south on Hogback Bridge Road, then east on 195th St, then south on Highway 169. 169 will take you into Winterset. South of Courthouse Square, turn west on Highway 92, then southwest onto unpaved Roseman Bridge Road.

Haunted Roseman Covered Bridge

In the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County“, Robert Kincaid is searching for Roseman Bridge when he asks Francesca Johnson for directions. She also leaves a note there asking him to dinner.

One hundred years before Robert James Waller wrote the book, the bridge achieved local fame for an even more dramatic event. In 1892, a pair of posses trapped a prisoner who had escaped the county jail. According to legend, the trapped man elevated and rose through the bridge. He screamed and disappeared.

He never reappeared. Community consensus determined that anyone who could do that was likely innocent.

The escapee allegedly continues to haunt the bridge.

Coins, locks, and wildflowers

Coins and love locks on Roseman Bridge, one of the Bridges of Madison County
The sides of Roseman Bridge are decked with coins and love locks.

I didn’t notice coins scattered on the exterior bridge deck at any other bridge. They certainly were scattered on Roseman. I wondered whether anyone collects these coins as a fundraiser for bridge upkeep.

Some people had fastened love locks to the bridge. Opinions vary about love locks. Some people like them and some want them removed. What do you think?

Roseman was surrounded by truly beautiful tall grasses and wildflowers. I enjoyed walking through the grasses and admiring the wildflowers.

Be warned: Chiggers love tall vegetation. To keep them and other nasties away, use heavy-duty bug repellant.

More to explore

Madison County Courthouse in Winterset
Madison County Courthouse is across the street from the visitors center in Winterset.

Madison County isn’t only covered bridges and wineries. In Winterset, visit John Wayne’s Birthplace, 205 S. John Wayne Dr. The Hall of Fame attraction looks like it did when the Academy Award-winning actor and Hollywood icon lived there. The museum opens daily at 10 a.m. They close at 5 p.m. from March through November and at 4 p.m. from December through February.

Also visit the Iowa Quilt Museum, 68 E. Court. Their hours change seasonally.

Where to eat and stay

Eat at Winterset’s Northside Cafe, 61 E. Jefferson St. If you’re lucky, you can sit where Waller wrote “The Bridges of Madison County“. If you’re really lucky, you can sit where Clint Eastwood sat in the film “The Bridges of Madison County“. Try the tenderloin sandwich. If you are very, very hungry, order the Monument Burger.

Since you’ll need two days to visit Madison County, you’ll need a place to stay. We enjoy bed and breakfast inns. Winterset has three: Judge Lewis House, 1145 W. Summit; Bed and Breakfast by JASS, 715 N. John Wayne Dr.; and Heavenly Habitat, 218 S. Second.

How to reach Madison County

Winterset is 40 minutes southeast of Des Moines via Interstate 80 Exit 110 and US Highway 169.

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