Explore the ocean floor: Iowa's not often associated with the words "tropical" and "sea floor." But 375 million years ago, a shallow sea covered most of the state. Flooding at Coralville Lake in 1993 exposed the remains of an ancient coral reef in the limestone bedrock just south of the dam, and a flood in 2008 further widened the gorge, revealing brachiopods, crinoids and other fossils that are almost 200 million years older than dinosaurs.
Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coralville Lake and Devonian Fossil Gorge (2850 Prairie Du Chien Road NE.; 1-319-338-3543, ext. 6300; www. mvr.usace.army.mil/ncrodc) is about 8 miles north of Iowa City. Before exploring the gorge, stop at the visitors center east of the dam to pick up a map, view the interactive displays and watch a short movie. The center is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Note: Removing fossils is prohibited and subject to a $500 fine.) Other popular park activities include hiking, swimming, picnicking and fishing.
Meander in the museum: If you're still in fossil-hunting mode, seek out the Devonian coral reef diorama and fossil displays at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History (10 Macbride Hall; 1-319-335-0480; www.uiowa.edu/~nathist) in downtown Iowa City. Established in 1858, the museum is the country's second oldest museum west of the Mississippi River. Admission is free; it's closed on Mondays and national holidays.
Soak up downtown culture: Three blocks west of the museum you'll find the bustling pedestrian mall, a fun place to shop, eat and people-watch. Sample offerings from a food cart, dine at a cafe or assemble a picnic with items from Bread Garden Market (225 S. Linn St.; 1-319-354-4246; www.bread gardenmarket.com), a combination deli, coffee bar and grocery store.
Local and regional music groups play concerts on the mall on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer (www.downtown iowacity.com), and the mall hosts an annual jazz festival; this year it's June 29-July 2. Another great place to hear a concert is the 100-year-old restored Englert Theatre (221 E. Washington St., 1-319-688-2653, www.englert.org).
Literary-minded visitors can attend an author reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore (15 S. Dubuque St.; 1-319-337-2681; www.prairielights.com), or stroll along the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk (www.startribune.com/a1285), which celebrates works by 49 writers with ties to Iowa, including some who studied at the celebrated University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Coralville Lake has three campgrounds with just over 500 campsites; the Dam Complex is closest to the fossil gorge. Prices range from $12 for tent sites to $24 for full hookup sites (1-877-444-6777; www.startribune.com/a1286).
For proximity to the pedestrian mall, you can't beat the Sheraton Iowa City Hotel (210 S. Dubuque St.; 1-800-325-3535; www.sheratoniowacity.com), which completed an $11 million transformation in 2009. Another lodging option within walking distance of downtown is the Brown Street Inn, a B&B in a historic home stocked with books by Writers' Workshop authors (430 Brown St.; 1-319-338-0435; www.brown streetinn.com.
As might be expected of a university town, Iowa City has a wealth of establishments that cater to beer lovers, vegetarians and locavores, like Short's Burger and Shine (18 S. Clinton St.; 1-319-337-4678; www.shortsburgerandshine.com). Housed in a long, narrow space that was once a shoeshine business, the restaurant features 10 draft lines dedicated to Iowa breweries. Hamburgers are made from local Black Angus beef; if you're not into beef, try a homemade black bean burger or a chicken sandwich.
A few blocks north of the pedestrian mall, the Motley Cow Cafe features seasonal produce and local pork products (160 N. Linn St.; 1-319-688-9177; www.motleycowcafe.com); and Devotay Restaurant & Bar is known for handcrafted cocktails and its saffron paella with chicken, chorizo and shellfish (117 Linn St.; 1-319-354-1001; www.devotay.net).
Maps and a visitors' guide are available from the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (1-800-283-6592; www.iowacitycoral ville.org). Arts events are listed at www.summerofthearts.org.
Joy Riggs is a Northfield-based freelance writer.