During a road trip a few years ago, Laurence and I decided to make a detour to visit the covered bridges of Madison County Iowa. Madison County is located about 30 miles from Des Moines and is called the “Covered Bridge Capital of Iowa” for having the largest group of covered bridges in one area west of the Mississippi River.
The bridges are historically significant and were all added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s. However, their popularity as a tourist attraction came in the 1990’s after the publication of the bestselling book The Bridges of Madison County by Iowa-born author Robert James Waller. The novel tells the fictional story of an Italian-American housewife Francesca who has a brief but life altering affair in 1965 with a National Geographic travel photographer who comes to take photos of the local covered bridges.
The covered bridges reached even greater fame when a film version of The Bridges of Madison County was released in 1995 starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Most of the filming for the movie was shot on location in Madison County and the film features the local covered bridges as well as other local sites and attractions.
We’ll share all you need to know to find and visit the six covered bridges of Madison County. We’ll also provide information about visiting other Bridges of Madison County filming locations, including the diner and picnic spot. We’ll also share a list of other things to do in Winterset Iowa which include John Wayne’s birthplace, historical attractions, museums, parks, and wineries.
Table of Contents:
Planning Your Visit to the Bridges fo Madison County
Here is all the basic information you’ll need to plan your trip to visit the covered bridges in Madison County. We also share some information on the history of covered bridges for those who might not be very familiar with these types of bridges.
What are Covered Bridges?
A covered bridge is a bridge that has its roadway protected by a roof and enclosing sides. Most historical covered bridges in the United States were timber-truss bridges with a wooden roof and siding. Covered bridges served the same purpose as any other bridge, but were covered to preserve the expensive flooring timbers in a time before treated wood. The coverings protected the flooring from rain and inclement weather.
Covered bridges were built throughout the United States until the beginning of the 20th century, reaching the height of their popularity in the mid 19th century. At one time, there were over 10,000 covered bridges in the United States! These bridges helped to facilitate travel, settlement, commerce, and expansion to an expanding and increasingly mobile nation. They were also known as “kissing bridges” as they were places young couples could secretly meet and kiss.
Covered bridges, although often associated with the United States, are of course not unique to the United States and their origins may go back as far as ancient Babylon. Covered bridges can today still be found throughout the world, including in Europe, Canada, and Asia.
By the end of the 19th century, most bridges in the United States (including in Iowa) were being built from iron and later steel. The introduction of the automobile meant that bridges needed to be stronger, wider, and more durable. Many covered bridges were eventually bypassed by new metal and concrete bridges.
Over the course of the 20th and 21st bridges most of the wooden covered bridges were closed to traffic and the majority were lost due to replacement, flooding, fire, arson, etc. However, a desire to preserve them developed over time in many communities and the bridges were saved to promote local heritage and to serve as tourist attractions. There is a national preservation society and a federal preservation program for covered bridges in the United States.
A large number of covered bridges in the United States are today painted red. I couldn’t find any information for why this is the case as historically most covered bridges were left unpainted as the wooden coverings were made of cheap wood and would need to be replaced. If bridges were painted in the 19th century, they were often white or sometimes red.
But in the 1950’s according to this interesting report by the National Parks Services, covered bridges began being painted red in large numbers. Although why red was chosen is not exactly known (although the color is often associated with American barns as well). Now about 2/3 of covered bridges in the United States are believed to be painted red.
If you want to know more about covered bridges, this book by Terry Miller and Ronald Knapp is probably one of the best on America’s covered bridges.
Where are the Bridges of Madison County?
The bridges are located in Madison County Iowa, and the largest town in the county is Winterset, Iowa. The bridges are located all around this town, most on rural roads. Winterset is located about 30 miles southwest of Des Moines.
The nearest airport is the Des Moines International Airport and the nearest train station (Amtrak) is in Osceola, Iowa. Several national and regional bus lines serve Des Moines and its suburbs.
How to get to Madison County Iowa?
There is no regular public transit to Winterset, and the best way to reach Madison County and visit the bridges is by car.
You could also visit by taxi or private transfer from a nearby city like Des Moines, but you’ll need to hire the taxi or private transfer for the full trip as you’ll need it to reach the bridges as well.
If you are a keen cyclist, you can reach Winterset by bike (following a mixture of bike trails and highway roads) from Des Moines in 3 to 4 hours. Could make for a nice overnight trip with a stay in Winterset.
The bridges are located in and around the small towns of Winterset and St. Charles Iowa, so you can navigate to one of those towns. I’d recommend stopping at the St. Charles Welcome Center first to begin your visit.
The St. Charles Welcome Center is located within a former church building at 202 East Main Street, St. Charles, Iowa 50240.
How to Find the Bridges of Madison County?
You can stop to get a local map at the St. Charles Welcome Center. The bridges are well-marked with signs and you can also use our online covered bridges map later on in the post to help navigate.
Note that none of the bridges are currently open to vehicular traffic but you can walk across them.
If you want to know a bit more about the covered bridges and local area, you can also do a 2-hour guided tour from Winterset to the bridges and other local attractions with a local guide. A nice way to get some context and learn more about the community.
How to Get to the Bridges of Madison County?
As noted, the easiest way to get to each of the Bridges of Madison County is by car. But you also have the option to bike, take a taxi, join a guided tour with a local, or walk.
If you want to visit the 6 bridges by car, the route between the 6 takes about 1 hour to drive without stops. So I’d allow at least 2.5 hours to see all the bridges with 15 minute stops at each.
Note that you will need to drive on gravel or dirt roads to reach three of the covered bridges: Roseman, Hogback, and Holliwell.
You can check out the suggested driving or cycle route here.
If you would rather cycle, you can also get to the bridges by bike. To visit all 6 bridges, it is about 37 miles of cycling if you connect them in the most logical order. That would likely take about 3 hours without stops so I’d allow 5 hours with breaks and stops at each of the bridges.
If you are looking for a shorter route you can connect the 4 bridges closest together (Hogback, Cedar, Cutler-Donahue & Holiwell Bridge) by bike. This route would be about 12.5 miles and would take approximately 1.5 hours (depending on your speed) to cycle without stops. So I’d say you could easily do it in 3 hours with time for breaks and visiting the bridges.
Note that the roads don’t have bike lanes in most places. Roads to the bridges are a combination of paved, dirt, and gravel. You can read more about the latest biking lanes and conditions in Winterset here on the county’s website here.
NOTE: Comments from our readers have noted that in addition to being a keen cyclist, you would probably want to have a mountain bike, fat tire bike, or off-road bike to reach most of the bridges since many of the surfaces are uneven and would be difficult with a regular bike. Also, despite being a rural area, some of the roads in the area can be busy.
You can hire a taxi, but this will be the most expensive option. I’d arrange this in advance as most services are based in Des Moines.
If you don’t have a car and want to see the bridges, we recommend considering taking a local guided tour. This 2 hour tour includes the bridges and other local attractions around Winterset. Tour is private so you can customize it to suit your needs.
If you have time and energy, you can walk to all the bridges. It is about 34 miles of walking to connect all the bridges on a logical walking path and this will likely take you 10 to 12 hours to walk without stops. I’d allow at least 15 hours in total. Of course, then you need to get back or arrange someone to pick you up!
If you want to walk to all the six bridges in Madison County, you’ll probably want to split this into 2 days. We’d recommend an overnight stay at the Cobblestone Inn or Covered Bridge Inn near the midway point.
However, if you are in Winterset and wanting to know which bridges are easy to walk to from the town center, the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge is located within the town and is about a 14 minute walk from the town center. Both Cedar Bridge and Holiwell Bridge are just over a 1 hour walk from Winterset (in different directions).
Imes Bridge is only about a 5 minute walk from the St. Charles Visitor Center in the town of St. Charles.
Cost to Visit the Bridges?
It is FREE to visit the covered bridges in Madison County. Small free parking areas are located within a short walking distance of all the bridges.
Can I Drive Through the Covered Bridges of Madison County?
The only bridge able to support and open to vehicular traffic is Cedar Bridge. Cedar Bridge was newly built and reopened in 2019, and visitors can walk or drive across Cedar Bridge.
Which of the covered bridges were mentioned in the novel Bridges of Madison County?
The Roseman Bridge, Cedar Bridge, and Hogback Bridge are all specifically mentioned within the 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. See the descriptions of the specific bridges below for how each bridge was connected to the novel.
Which of the covered bridges were featured in the film Bridges of Madison County?
The Roseman Bridge and the Holliwell Bridge are the two covered bridges featured in the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. See the descriptions of the specific bridges later in the article for the film scenes in which the bridges were shown.
Tips for Photographing the Bridges of Madison County
Although you are probably not taking photos that will grace the cover of National Geographic like Robert Kincaid, you might still be wanting to snap a few decent photos to have as mementos of your visit. So here are some tips from our very own long-haired travel photographer Laurence!
Covered bridges can be challenging to photograph, because trying to represent their three-dimensional shape in the medium of a two-dimensional photograph is a bit difficult.
We recommend shooting the same bridge from multiple angles to get a variety of interesting shots as the same bridge can look quite different from different viewpoints. Go off to the sides, stand right in front of the opening, cross to the other side, go further away, and get inside the bridge. Experiment!
Our favorite angle for most covered bridges is to shoot the bridge from slightly below it (if possible) and at around a 45 degree angle. This way you get the impression of the length of the bridge, as well as the opening of the bridge. You can see how we’ve set up with our travel tripod for this sort of shot in the photo below.
Another good angle is inside the bridge. Inside shots are quite a unique look in terms of a bridge, as people are not used to seeing them covered in photographs, and the internal woodwork structure is normally very photogenic. These shots also work even if its raining or the light is very harsh outside. In low light situations such as inside a covered bridge, we’d recommend doing a long exposure shot using a travel tripod or finding another way to keep your camera steady to let more light into the shot.
Finally, shooting at a time of day where the light is not so harsh will help you get better photos. So avoid midday if you can, and try to take photos around sunrise or sunset for the best light as Robert Kincaid does in the novel and film. We did not have this opportunity but we would have loved to catch a lovely sunrise or sunset here.
Best Time to Visit the Covered Bridges in Madison County?
You can visit the covered bridges as well as most of the other local attractions year-round so there is no wrong time to come. It best time really depends on what you want to do. The summer is going to be hotter but potentially wetter, and the winter drier but colder.
Fall is often considered one of the best time to visit Iowa. Those visiting in October, might want to try to visit during the Covered Bridge Festival (see below).
When is the Covered Bridge Festival?
Each year, there is a Covered Bridge Festival in Madison County that celebrates the history and heritage of the local area. It is usually held during the second full week in October over the weekend. You can check upcoming festival info here.
In 2021, the Covered Bridge Festival will take place from October 9th to 10th. Events will be held from 9:00am to 5:00pm on both days.
The festival changes a little each year, but typically includes things like historical re-enactments and demonstrations, guided tours of the historic bridges, music, a parade, quilt shows, classic car shows, and a variety of food, antique, and craft vendors. There are also free tractor shuttles.
There is a small entrance fee ($2 per person in 2021) to enter the main festival area. Children age 11 and under can enter for free. Pets are not permitted.
Where to Stay in Winterset Iowa?
Winterset is a lovely town to spend the night or if you are looking for a larger city, consider Des Moines.
There is limited lodging in and around Winterset, but here are a couple of good options:
- Cobblestone Inn – A newly built and comfortable well-reviewed 3-star hotel that offers a free breakfast. Located in Winterset, just at the edge of the town.
- Covered Bridge Inn – This well-rated small hotel is locally run and operated and includes a free breakfast. Located in Winterset on the road to the Cedar Bridge Park.
If you are wanting to stay in Des Moines, or are looking for more options, we recommend checking out these lodging options in West Des Moines:
- SpringHill Suites – This 3-star good value hotel offers an indoor pool, hot tub, and free hot breakfast.
- Element West Des Moines – A stylish and modern hotel with a pool, hot tub, and fitness center.
- TownePlace Suites by Marriott – Modern hotel with an indoor pool, fitness center, business center, and outdoor BBQ facilities. Each room has a kitchen and separate living room area with a sofa bed, and a daily hot breakfast is included.
- Motel 6 – This budget chain motel offers an outdoor pool and free parking in West Des Moines. If you are on a tight budget, this is a good option to consider.
CAMPERS: If you are planning to camp in the area, there is seasonal camping for RVs, campervans, and tents available at Winterset’s City Park Campground.
The Covered Bridges of Madison County Iowa
At one time there were 19 (or perhaps 20) covered bridges built in Madison County. All these bridges were built in the 19th century and covered to help preserve the expensive flooring timbers in a time before treated lumber.
Only six bridges remain today; however, only 5 are the original structures as the original Cedar Bridge was destroyed by arson in 2002 (and again in 2017) and replicas were built.
The map below shows the locations of each of the 6 covered bridges of Madison County. Click here or double click on the map below for a closer look and to see exact locations in Google maps:
Here are the six bridges of Madison County (listed in alphabetical order):
1. Cedar Bridge
The original Cedar Bridge was built in 1883 by Benson Jones and is the shortest of the covered bridges of Madison county, being 76 feet long. The bridge was originally built over the North River (known originally as Casper Bridge) but it was later to moved to Cedar Creek.
It was one of the last covered bridges built in the county and was also the last of the covered bridges in the county still open to traffic. It sits within a small county park, called Cedar Bridge Park, which has a picnic area.
The bridge is well-known for being on the book cover of many copies of The Bridges of Madison County. It is the bridge that Francesca goes with Robert to watch him photograph it before they go back to her place for dinner and he spends the night. In the film version, Holliwell Bridge is used for this scene instead of Cedar Bridge.
Oprah Winfrey was a big fan of the novel The Bridges of Madison County and named it as one of her favorite books of the year in 1993. She actually came to Madison County with the author Robert Waller and broadcast a special edition of her TV show live from the Cedar Bridge. A small wooden staircase was built next to the bridge for the show.
Sadly the bridge has had a terrible time in the 21st century. It was destroyed by arson in 2002 and then rebuilt and reopened (including to traffic) in 2004. However, it was again destroyed by arson in April 2017.
After being closed for over 2 years and being almost completely rebuilt, we are happy to say that the Cedar Bridge reopened to pedestrian traffic and vehicular traffic in September 2019. It is now also equipped with a fire suppression system and surveillance cameras.
2. Cutler-Donahoe Bridge
The Cutler-Donahoe covered bridge was contracted by Eli Cox (builder unknown) and built in 1870. It is 79 feet long and originally spanned the North River near the town of Bevington, IA. It was moved to Winterset’s City Park in 1970. The bridge still sits near the entrance to the park today.
The bridge was at different times know as the Cutler Bridge and the Donahoe Bridge as two families claimed “naming rights” to the bridge. Today the official bridge name is hyphenated to include both families.
This bridge was not featured in The Bridges of Madison County. However, Winterset City Park (where it is located) was featured in the film as the location for Robert and Francesca’s picnic scene.
3. Hogback Bridge
The Hogback Bridge was built in 1884 by Harvey P. Jones and George K. Foster. It is 97 feet long and is the northernmost of the remaining bridges of Madison County. It was open to vehicular traffic until 1993 and still stands in its original location.
Most covered bridges are named after the landowner or closest resident, but this bridge gets its somewhat unusual named from a geological formation in the ridge line in the valley where it is located.
In the novel, Robert Kincaid visits and photographs it one morning and is happy because he has good light here. He visits it the morning after he had met Francesca and shared the first evening meal with her.
4. Holliwell Bridge
Holliwell Bridge was built over the Middle River in 1880 by Harvey P. Jones and George K. Foster. It is the longest of the Madison County bridges at 122 feet long. It was renovated in 1995, and still sits in its original location.
The internal structure of the Holliwell Bridge differs from all the other surviving covered bridges in Madison County. It inner construction is wood bow truss type which features a curved beam. Holliwell covered bridge is also the only bridge where the planks along the deck of the bridge run on a diagonal across the width of the bridge.
In the film, Holliwell Bridge is the bridge that Francesca meets with Robert to watch him photograph in the evening before they go back to her place for dinner and he spends the night. In the book version, however, Cedar Bridge is the bridge where Francesca drives to meet Robert.
5. Imes Bridge
Imes Bridge was built in 1870 over the Middle River and is the oldest of the covered bridges in Madison County. The bridge has been moved twice, first to Clinton Creek. Then in 1997, it was renovated and moved to a ravine near St. Charles where it still sits today.
An unusual feature of the Imes Bridge is that it has a pitched room whereas most covered bridges in the area were built with a flat roof.
The Imes covered bridge was not mentioned or depicted in the novel or film.
6. Roseman Bridge
Roseman Bridge (also known as the Oak Grove Bridge) was built in 1883 over the Middle River by Harvey P. Jones and George K. Foster. The main part of the bridge is 104 feet long (225 feet long if you include the 88 ft. south approach and 33 ft. north approach).
The Roseman Bridge was one of the last covered bridges built in Madison County, and it carried traffic for almost 100 years before being bypassed in 1981. It was significantly renovated in 1992.
The covered bridge was featured in both the book and the film version of The Bridges of Madison County. In the novel and film, Roseman Bridge is one of the bridges Robert Kincaid seeks to photograph but gets lost and is having trouble finding it. He stops at Francesca Johnson’s home for directions and this is how they first meet. She goes with him to show him how to get to the bridge and he does some practice shots before the two come back to have dinner. Then in the dark, Francesca goes here to leave Richard a note to invite him to dinner again. He finds the note when he comes back to photograph it at sunrise.
In the film version, it is also where Francesca asks for her ashes to be scattered in her will. Her surprised adult children, Michael and Carolyn, eventually comply with her wishes after discovering a diary and letters detailing the affair.
The bridge had been recently renovated prior to the filming so during filming it was artificially aged by the film company to make it look duller and peeling paint was added to make it look more as it may have in 1965 (the year the film was set).
There is the Roseman Covered Bridge Gift Shop located near the Roseman Bridge (2451 Elderberry Avenue, Winterset). It sells local goods, wines, souvenirs, and other items. You can check hours on its Facebook page here.
Other Things to do in Madison County Iowa
There are, of course, other things to see in Madison County other than the covered bridges. Almost all of The Bridges of Maidson County was filmed in the area so there are several other movie locations you can visit. There are also a number of other non-Bridges related things to do in the area.
Other Bridges of Madison County Filming Locations
Here are the main places, other than the covered bridges, that were used as filming locations:
- The Northside Cafe (61 West Jefferson Street, Winterset) – A historic cafe that was where Robert Kincaid meets Lucy Redfield in the film. Author Robert Waller also wrote part of the novel while sitting in this cafe. Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Pheasant Run Bar & Grill (103 S John Wayne Drive, Winterset) – This tavern was the setting used to film the interior shots for the fictional Blue Note Lounge in the film. Open for drinks until late. Known for their Bloody Marys.
- Texaco Station filming Location (John Wayne Drive & Green Street, Winterset) – A former Conoco gas station became the 1965 Texaco station for the film. It was then turned into a gift shop called Memory Station. By the time of our visit, it was an Internet provider building. Not too much to see here now.
- Stone Bridge (Winterset City Park) – The small arched stone bridge seen in the film scene when Robert and Francesca have a picnic is in Winterset City Park.
- Middle River Ford (Pammel State Park) – This shallow river location is one of the locations where Francesca’s children discuss her diaries in the film. Located within Pammel State Park, just southwest of Winterset.
- Francesca’s Farmhouse (3255 130th Street, Cumming, IA) – The house and farm used in the film as Francesca and Richard Johnson’s family farm is located about 16 miles from Winterset. The house was an abandoned 19th century farmhouse that was fully restored for the film. The house was open for guided tours during the summer, but after sadly being damaged by arson in 2003 it has been closed to the public. It is on a private working farm with security, but you can spot it from the road.
More Things to Do in Winterset Iowa
The covered bridges attracted more people after the publication of the bestselling novel, but Winterset has long been a popular stop for tourists as it is also the birthplace of actor John Wayne. The area also has several other places of interest that you may want to make time to visit.
You can get more ideas from a stop at the St. Charles Welcome Center, but here are some of our suggestions:
- John Wayne Birthplace Museum – Marion Robert Morrison, better known to the world as John Wayne, was born in Winterset. At the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, you can visit his childhood home as well as the large adjacent museum area that covers the life and work of “The Duke” and also includes a movie theater. It is the only museum in the world dedicated to John Wayne.
- Winterset City Park – This 76 acre city park is a great green space and contains a number of interesting features including a hedge maze, stone bridge, Clark Tower (built in 1926 as a memorial to the county’s first pioneer family), and the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge.
- Madison County Historical Complex (815 South 2nd Street, Winterset) – The large complex includes a number of historical buildings and structures across 18 acres including the elegant Bevington-Kaser House, a 1871 train depot, and a 19th century stone barn. We recommend starting your visit at the Madison County Historical Museum which contains thousands of historical objects on display.
- Madison County Courthouse – The courthouse was built in 1876 of local limestone and is one of the most impressive buildings in town. The town square of the town is a lovely place to wander around.
- Iowa Quilt Museum – Iowa is well known for quilting. The Iowa Quilt Museum tells the history of quilting and displays both permanent and temporary exhibitions of quilts. The longtime Ben Franklin store (72 E. Court Avenue) is a popular stop in Winterset for quilting supplies.
- Local wineries, cideries, and breweries – There are a number of places producing local alcohol beverages in the area, including Madison County Winery, Covered Bridges Winery, Winterset Cidery, Big Rack Brew Haus, and Twisted Vine Brewery. Many of these allow public visits and tastings, and the local beverages can be purchased or tried in the bars and shops in Madison County.
- Montross Pharmacy Soda Fountain – The Montross Pharmacy opened in 1921 and has been family-owned and run since. In addition to a pharamacy, it also sells gifts, everyday items, and has an old-fashioned soda fountain. We enjoyed stopping here for a cherry Coke and a sandwich.
So that’s our guide to visiting the covered bridges of Madison County, The Bridges of Madison County filming locations, and other local attractions! We hope you found it helpful.
Are you interested in visiting the covered bridges of Madison County? If you have visited the bridges, which was your favorite? If you are planning a trip to Madison County Iowa and have any questions, just ask us in the Comments section below.