Rediscovering Cedar Falls, Iowa and the Cedar Valley

The Cedar Valley in Northeast Iowa is home to a number of great communities and much progress. Anchored by Waterloo and Cedar Falls, the Valley is home to 394,000 residents, one of the state’s top public universities, visible corporate brands and a number of family-friendly activities. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a number of weekends in the area during my life. Visiting friends at the University of Northern Iowa was an annual tradition when I was in school at Iowa State, and two years ago, I spent three days in the region with my Leadership Iowa class. Each visit has been an enjoyable one, and I was excited to bring the family to the Valley for a weekend away from home.

With 2017 in front of us, Tillie and I have planned a number of Iowa getaway weekends for the year. One of my 2017 goals is to run 3 miles a day each day in 2017, and these weekends will provide great opportunities to explore my home state all while having great fun with the family.

The Cedar Valley is a short hour and forty five minute drive from Ames, and we decided to start the weekend in Waterloo with some kid-friendly fun. On the waterfront in Waterloo is the Phelps Youth Pavilion among a number of intriguing museums. The Pavilion did not disappoint as the kids were in heaven for a few hours.


Filled with opportunities to explore, play, tinker and learn, the Phelps Youth Pavilion is a great spot to let kids be kids. As a parent, I’m not sure there is anything better than seeing your kids’ eyes light up, one exhibit after another. We spent a few hours running from one exhibit to the next, trying to absorb it all. Tess was a huge fan of the light exhibit.


Cal got his kicks in on the the awesome digital interactive floor game and worked up a nice sweat in the process!


A fan favorite at the Pavilion is the performance theater complete with costumes, stage curtains, and creative kids putting on shows. Tess resorted to watching the many performances from the crowd.


We then headed to Cedar Falls where we would be spending the majority of our time and staying overnight. Before checking into our hotel, we fueled up with lunch at Pablo’s Mexican Grill on Main Street. Delicious! Pablo’s came as a recommendation and was a perfect spot for a quick lunch before relaxing. The tacos and quesadillas were as delicious as they look.


There is no better place to stay in Cedar Falls than the historic The Blackhawk Hotel on the city’s bustling Main Street. The Blackhawk Hotel occupies one of the oldest continuously-operating hotel sites in the country having been in operation in two buildings and under various names since the dawn of Cedar Falls’ history in the early 1850s. The Blackhawk is now listed in the National Historic Register of Historic Places and is the only independent hotel in Cedar Falls. The hotel was also named one of 9 Great Staycation Hotels in Iowa by the Des Moines Register in 2016. I was able to connect with owners Dan & Kathy Tindall prior to our trip and they provided wonderful hospitality to our family!


On the backside of the hotel were two things that caught my attention. This wonderful Hotel chimney welcomes guests as they enter from the back.


Also behind the historic hotel is the “MobileDigs” building,  a 70’s motor lodge with rooms that are very hip and sleek. Those staying in the MobileDigs have complete access to the main hotel’s entities.


You can feel the history in the lobby of the Black Hawk Hotel!


Our room was incredible and absolutely perfect for our young family. I always enjoy seeing the kids’ reactions to hotels. They love being away from home and get the biggest kick out of staying in new places. They spent the first 15 minutes of our time in the room exploring every nook and cranny in the place.


Besides the bedroom, our room came complete with a living room, dining room with kitchenette and a luxurious bathroom.


If you asked the kids about their highlight of the room, they would tell you “Ducky” who was waiting for them on the edge of the jacuzzi bathtub. The little things my friends!


I found great irony just outside one of our windows. The local running store served as a great name for our weekend digs – The Runner’s Flat.


After recharging our batteries, we set out to explore Main Street Cedar Falls. Main Street in this city is an absolute success story. There aren’t many Main Streets in Iowa like Cedar Falls, and its boom has only come recently. The street itself was intentionally built with many curves. Driving on the curvy road makes you realize how brilliant its design is. Naturally, you drive slower and are given many great angles of each side of the street and its accompanying businesses. Its design was apparently controversial at first, but its charm is unquestionable.

Our first stop was naturally for cupcakes. Not because we needed them, but because it was a great incentive/bribe for the kids to journey out of the hotel. They would have been perfectly happy staying in the hotel the entire time! Scratch Cupcakery is a popular spot on Main Street, because who doesn’t love a delicious cupcake? We grabbed a box filled with cupcakes and headed down the street to Singlespeed Brewery.


The microbrewing culture continues to amaze me. It seems like every great community these days has a great brewery. Singlespeed is a prime example and provided us with a great place to enjoy our cupcakes alongside some refreshing drinks for mom and dad.


The brewery was filled to the brim and we enjoyed the flavors. A picture says a thousand words.


With a growler in hand, we left the brewery and headed back to the hotel. As mentioned, the kids were quite excited about their weekend digs and were anxious to test out the bathtub. Tillie and I have learned over our parenting years that naps are a myth away from home. We had every plan to find a restaurant for dinner, but we ended up with take-out from Ginger Thai Cuisine, just around the corner from the hotel. A great decision!

We had two restaurants on our recommendation list that went without a visit, but I wanted to note them in this post. Montage is one of the area’s top restaurants and can be found on Main Street. I had the opportunity to eat here during my last visit to Cedar Falls. It was amazing and very well done.


Also highly recommended by many was Whiskey Road Tavern & Grill, also on Main Street. Whiskey Road is a sports bar of sorts that features an American Fusion menu and over 150 different whiskeys. We will be back!


The highlight of the evening for the kids was their bath. God love em. Jacuzzi jets in a bathtub is a major luxury to them, and we had two very wrinkled young kids by the time the bath was over.


On Sunday morning, I was up early to begin my run through Cedar Falls. It was a cold and misty morning, but as always, I was excited to combine my morning workout with some sightseeing. I began the run on the north end of Main Street. On the Northwest corner sits the Oster Regent Theatre, a stately building that hosts a number of performances throughout the year.


I found a friendly and photogenic fella waiting to be photographed outside the theatre. A great scarf if you ask me!


As I snaked down Main Street, I spotted an Iowa icon on one of the side streets. Maid-Rite sandwiches (loose ground beef) are known as “Iowa’s sandwich” to natives and transplants alike. You can find Maid-Rite shops throughout the state, and I truly believe that Cedar Falls has the top Maid-Rite structure in the state. When I worked in Oxford, Ohio, I was so thrilled when a Maid-Rite shop opened in town. It didn’t last very long, but there was nothing like a taste of Iowa just down the road from where I worked.


Following my stroll down Main Street, I ran west through a few old Cedar Falls neighborhoods. I always like to venture into these types of neighborhoods in search of great old homes. I found a number of them!


Just before you arrive on campus of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), a popular and vibrant hill appears – College Hill. College Hill is the main entertainment district for the students of UNI and includes restaurants, bars, clubs, apartment complexes and many other businesses. Many great memories were created on “The Hill” when I visited Cedar Falls in college. One of the mainstays on The Hill is The Other Place or “The OP,” a restaurant and bar that can now be found in a number of places in Iowa. We have one in Ames now, and I get to it a few times a year with friends before Iowa State games.


Also on The Hill is a wonderful coffee shop – Sidecar Coffee. I enjoyed a hot cup of Joe following my run as I waited for the family to pick me up.


The University of Northern Iowa is a wonderful institution for higher education in Iowa. I would be perfectly thrilled if either of my kids decided to attend college here. As mentioned, a number of my friends growing up attended UNI and loved their experience. UNI offers more than 90 majors and has ranked second in the category “public regional universities (Midwest)” by U.S. News & World Report for twelve consecutive years. UNI’s accounting program has consistently ranked in the top 10 universities in the nation for the pass rate of first-time candidates on the CPA Exam. I know a number of UNI bean counters, and they are all great people!


The University of Northern Iowa was founded as a result of two influential forces of the nineteenth century. First, Iowa wanted to care for orphans of its Civil War veterans, and secondly, Iowa needed a public teacher training institution. Today, UNI continues to be a top school for teachers in the Midwest. At one point, it was known as the Iowa State Teachers College.


The tail end of my run through Cedar Falls was spent exploring UNI. Its former name – Iowa State Teachers College – can still be found on its buildings.


A scenic view of one of the residence halls on campus.


I got a kick out of the design of this building. So unique!


If you ask people who are familiar with UNI’s campus what the top landmark is, I imagine that the majority of those asked would reference the UNI-Dome. The Dome is home to UNI Panther football, the Iowa State High School Football Tournament, and a number of other events throughout the year. A boat and RV show was occurring this weekend. Its presence can be seen in the distance throughout campus, and the dome experience is a fun one.


As mentioned, I made my way back to Sidecar Coffee to warm up and wait for the family. Running through college campuses is one of my favorite things to do, and it was great to rekindle with UNI and see it during the school year. College campuses always make me feel youthful again.

When we arrived back at the Blackhawk Hotel, we were greeted with a nice European-style continental breakfast just off the hotel’s lobby area. The kids were excited that Fruit Loops were on the menu. We packed up our bags and prepared for our journey home. It was a struggle to get the little ones to leave.

Before leaving Cedar Falls, I had to get one last fix of caffeine and did so on the corner of Main Street, just outside our hotel. Cup of Joe is a vibrantly-colored coffee shop and hangout with great brews. I wish I could have stayed a bit longer to take in its vibrancy, but it was time to head home.


On the way home, we attempted to stop at Hansen’s Dairy Farm just south of Cedar Falls in Hudson, Iowa. Unfortunately it was closed, but the kids were excited about the giant dairy cow on wheels on the highway.


In Grundy County, I spotted an amazing old barn and was able to capture a great shot. This one may go on the wall. True Iowa.


All in all, the family enjoyed our time in the Cedar Valley. It was great to see its progress, an I look forward to visiting again sometime in the summer to take advantage of more of its sights and running/cycling trails.


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