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The Great River Road

Iowa is often thought of as flat, or at least a state with gently rolling hills and that’s about it. But have you seen the “Driftless Area” of Iowa, with the Mississippi River twisting along the state’s eastern border? The glaciers that ironed out much of the Midwestern landscape missed a large chunk of land in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota where the Mississippi River flows today, and what is now known as the Driftless Area offers terrain unlike any you’ll see for hundreds of miles around.

Many Great River Road drives along the Upper Mississippi River are considered among the most beautiful drives in the country, and the Iowa side of the Great River Road certainly doesn’t disappoint. We’ll go from Lansing in northern Iowa to the Quad Cities on this tour, a nice drive that can be enjoyed with plenty of stops in a day or two, with Dubuque as the halfway point.

Start up in Lansing in eastern Iowa, about 10 miles south of the Minnesota border via Iowa Highway 26. Downtown Lansing is lined with classic brick buildings along Main Street, which is also Iowa Highway 9. The Black Hawk Bridge, an unusually-designed riveted through truss bridge, comes in from Wisconsin and is the northernmost bridge in Iowa to cross the Mississippi River. Lansing has about 1,000 people and touts its place in history as the “Birthplace of Granny Basketball.”

For more of a birds’ eye view, scramble up Mount Hosmer and check out the town, the bridge, and the river from the 450-foot high bluff. The Mississippi Explorer (563-586-4444) is a cruiser offering guided boat tours of the river, sloughs, and backwater areas that truly offer an escape and allow you to get an authentic feel for what early explorers to this area saw, heard, and experienced. To experience a treat, try a cone at the Skinny Dip just north of Main Street by the bridge or enjoy one of the restaurants or watering holes along the main drag. A new Mississippi River Visitors Center is under construction in Lansing and should be open soon.

From Lansing, head south on County Road X52. You’ll roll with terrain, up, down, and around plenty of the bluffs, streams, ridges, and moraines that make this area one of the prettiest in the Midwest even as you go a mile or two away from the river. As you get close to Mississippi River Lock & Dam No. 9, the road heads south to Harper’s Ferry, where Maiden Voyage Tours (563-586-2123) offers river cruises on their 49-passenger boat where you can check out eagle’s nests, blue herons, beavers, otters, and other wildlife that hang out on, in, or near the river.

From Harper’s Ferry, X52 to Iowa Highway 76 southbound leads you to Effigy Mounds National Monument, a beautiful bluff-filled park overlooking the Mississippi that is home to over 200 thousands-of-years-old preserved Native American mounds of varying shapes and sizes that are considered sacred, especially among the National Monument’s 12 affiliated tribes. Over 14 miles of hiking trails are available for checking out the mounds, forest, tallgrass prairie, and wetlands, but the view of the Mississippi from Fire Point alone is enough to go. The Visitors Center along Highway 76 includes museum exhibits on the early cultures, archeological specimens, and even an auditorium. Rangers can give guided tours.

From Effigy Mounds, it’s a short three-mile ride threading the needle between the river and the rocky bluffs to Marquette, a little burg nestled into the hills and along the river where U.S. Highway 18 comes in from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin via the blue-arched Marquette-Joliet Bridge. Marquette once hosted the busiest rail yard in Iowa, being the key location where Minnesota and Iowa wheat crossed the river for the train ride to Lake Michigan ports. The old hotel which housed traveling railroad workers is now the Marquette Café & Restaurant; down Edgar Street, you’ll find the little Depot Museum Information Center and one block north along North Street don’t miss the Eagles Landing Winery, which has won international awards and offers free tastings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

About 1.5 miles west along U.S. 18 is the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, which offers exhibits and information on the wetlands of the region and includes a viewing platform where plenty of wetlands-related wildlife activity can be observed. Back to the river, the Ladyluck Riverboat Pavilion & Casino is easily found along the riverbank – look for the pink elephant with the top hat, too; it’s right along Highway 76/U.S. 18 Business and right up against the bluff.

South from Marquette, one more mile threading the river-and-bluff needle on Highway 76/Business U.S. 18 brings you to its larger sister city, McGregor, which holds about 875 residents. Back in the 1870s, McGregor was the one of the busiest shipping ports in the nation west of Chicago and the main street is lined with handsome, original brick buildings from that era.

The city’s colorful history is reflected in its status as a magnet for antique shoppers; one store, River Junction Trading Company (312 Main Street, 563-873-2387) not only sells true nineteenth-century western gear and memorabilia, it often supplies such costumery for Hollywood-produced westerns, Broadway shows, and more. Many other locally-owned shops line Main Street, and Old Man River Restaurant & Brewing Company (123 A Street, 563-873-1999) brews up some beer on-site while serving upscale entrees in a lovely old 1880s building.

On our Tour, we head away from the river down Main Street through McGregor to a “T” intersection where we turn south and follow County Highway X-56 for a ride past Pikes Peak State Park, a 1,000-acre park holding the peak named after General Zebulon Pike, who explored this area and its 500-foot high bluff – the highest on the Mississippi – in 1805 and then moved on to Colorado, where you may have heard of another peak out there named after him. The Park offers a beautiful overlook of the Wisconsin River-Mississippi River confluence and many hiking and mountain biking trails; most areas remain in their original, pristine state.

It’s a hilly drive continuing on County X-56 past access points to Clayton and river landings; along some of the high points, the views can get pretty expansive just from the roadway. After some time inland and a junction with U.S. 52 southbound, you reach Guttenberg. The town sports a two-mile long Riverwalk and was named one of “America’s 20 Prettiest Towns” by Forbes magazine in 2010. A portion of the Riverwalk features an ADA-complaint fishing pier, and all who stroll can check out the action on Lock & Dam No. 10 on the Mississippi.

If you want to see fish without getting on or in the river, the Guttenberg Aquarium & Fish Management Station (563-252-1156) maintains live Mississippi River catfish, trout, Northern Pike, and many others. If birds are your thing, the Bottomland Forest Trail just south of the DNR’s boat launch below the dam offers a trail loop through natural wetlands offering views of warblers, killdeer, great blue herons, and more. In Guttenberg’s downtown, the Shepherd Gallery showcases and offers works of local artists while also hosting an art studio visitors can use.

From Guttenberg, U.S. 52 can be a quicker route to Dubuque, but for the Tour we recommend hanging a left (east) on County Road C9Y towards Turkey River, which is the Iowa side of a ferry connection – one of the few remaining on the Mississippi – that goes to Cassville, Wisconsin. Turkey River lies down closer to river level, while County C9Y rides the ridges for several miles. One of the settlements you’ll go through here is called North Buena Vista, which makes sense given the views from the vistas. Locals often call the town “Buenie.” The Blessed Mother Shrine Grotto nearby is a hillside monument to the Virgin Mary, including a 700-pound statue of her that was made in Germany and installed here in 1938.

The beautiful vista views continue through Balltown and Sherrill before you meet up again with U.S. 52 at Sageville. Shortly past the junction is the Little Maquoketa River Mounds State Preserve (563-556-6745), an Iowa archeological site which features 32 ancient conical burial mounds, some of which rises four feet and are 40 feet in diameter.

We’ve been in rural areas and small towns for a while now… time for a larger city as we continue down U.S. 52.


Dubuque is a picturesque city of 57,000 nestled among the bluffs along the Mississippi where, across the river, Wisconsin ends and Illinois begins. Center of the “tri-state area” and the tenth largest city in Iowa, Dubuque is one of the earliest settlements in the U.S. west of the Mississippi. Julien Dubuque, a Quebecois explorer, settled here in 1785; the city was chartered in 1833, thirteen years before Iowa became a state.

If you like to track each lock and dam on the Mississippi, from U.S. 52 head up Rhomberg Avenue to Eagle Point and check out Lock & Dam No. 11, which offers complimentary tours on Sundays at 2 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Eagle Point Park offers a great view of the lock and dam, as well as many of the birds – including eagles – who use the area as a stopover. Some remnants of the original Eagle Point Bridge, which was the primary road connection between Dubuque and Wisconsin from 1901 to 1982 and began at this spot, can be seen as well. The city holds a number of events at the park, so don’t be surprised if you stumble into a concert or festival in the warm months.

U.S. 52 heads into downtown Dubuque, and there’s plenty to see and do. The Port of Dubuque area lies on the southeast edge of downtown along the river and is home several area landmarks such as the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which gives you a chance to check out everything about the river in one place. Plenty of exhibits for adults and kids alike, many interactive, offer insights on the river’s cultures, natural history, and unique features. Across is the Diamond Jo Casino if you want to try your luck. Closer to the water you’ll find the classic Dubuque Star Brewery, once the home of Dubuque’s popular beer brand and now home to offices and the Stone Cliff Winery, which produces their wines in a vineyard in nearby Durango, Iowa.

Towering above them all is the iconic Shot Tower, built in 1856 for the purpose of making lead shot. Standing 120 feet tall, this striking brick structure is one of the few remaining shot towers in the nation, and the only one west of the Mississippi – which is a stone’s throw away. Protecting the area from formerly frequent flooding is a 30-foot high levee; for about ½ mile atop the levee you can go for a nice stroll on the Mississippi Riverwalk. It offers excellent views of the river, the bluffs on the Illinois side, and downtown Dubuque. To get on the river, the Spirit of Dubuque [link to Dubuque River Rides] offers sightseeing and dinner cruises throughout the summer; on some days, you can even travel on it through Lock & Dam No. 11 and experience the raising and lowering of the water. On the north end of the Port area, you’ll find another casino, Mystique Casino, which also features greyhound racing at Mystique’s Dubuque Greyhound Racing Park.

Downtown Dubuque is on higher ground across some railroad tracks and an expressway. The historic Millwork District is one of the oldest commercial sections of the city and is filled with beautiful old brick and stone structures that are being revitalized into offices, shops, condos and apartments, all along streets that in some cases still have their original brick pavers, along with a streetcar. A few blocks up, the beautiful 1891 Beaux-Arts style Dubuque County Courthouse shines with its gold-leaf central tower 190 feet above street level. Next door is the Old Jail Museum, housed in – appropriately enough – the former county jail. Also in the downtown area, you can enjoy the Dubuque Museum of Art, the majesty of the Grand Opera House, the historic Mathias Ham House, and a multitude of shops and boutiques around a district known as Cable Car Square.

For the best way to traverse the steep bluffs lining the western edge of downtown, be sure to check out the Fenelon Place/Fourth Street Elevator. Touted as the “World’s steepest, shortest scenic railway”, the Fenelon Place Elevator is technically a funicular railway, meaning it’s a cable railway where tram-like vehicles move and up down steep slopes, working by counterbalancing each other. It’s been shuttling people up and down the 189 feet of elevation difference since 1882. It’s open April 1-November 30 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for rides; from the observation deck on top, you can see across the landscape across Dubuque and into Wisconsin and Illinois. Below are plenty of antique and boutique shops, Cable Car Square and all of downtown Dubuque.

Up the hill, and on Dubuque’s west side via U.S. 20, you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Dubuque Hotel & Conference Center. Nearby is the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, with 52 acres including formal rose garden, herb garden, a Japanese garden, children’s variety gardens, a formal English garden, and much more. And since this is one of the hilliest places in Iowa, Sundown Mountain offers some pretty darn good skiing in winter; the area is also very popular for mountain biking and other activities were hills are preferred over flat land.

So there’s plenty to do and see in Dubuque. Once you’ve experienced everything, head south of the Dubuque on U.S. 52… for more beautiful views await. The Mines of Spain Recreation Area is a National Historic Landmark with almost 1,400 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and prairie perched above the Mississippi River. Ideal for hiking, picnicking, cross-country skiing, or bird watching, the Mines of Spain Recreation Area is designated one of Iowa’s “Watchable Wildlife Areas.”

City founder Julien Dubuque, who married the daughter of a Mesquakie Indian Chief, passed away in 1810 and was buried with full tribal honors. His gravesite, known as the Julien Dubuque Monument, is an attraction in itself. Nearby Crystal Lake Cave was discovered by lead miners in 1868. Tours last about 45 minutes and offer a variety of stalagmites, flowstone, anthodities, and even a formation called “St. Peter’s Dome.” This entire area has one of the most breathtaking views overlooking the Mississippi River, the bluffs, ridges, valleys, and more – they extend for 20-30 miles on clear days.

From these attractions, continue south on U.S. 52 through some hilly and twisty terrain. We stay several miles away from the river through forest and farmland through the tiny settlement of St. Donatus and finally back to the river. Along this stretch of river, you enter Bellevue, a town of about 2,200 people overlooking Lock & Dam No. 12. The dam is a popular feeding stop for bald eagles in winter, due to open waters the dam helps preserve in cold winter weather. Bellevue, settled in 1833, is one of Iowa’s oldest towns and holds a number of historic buildings, including homes made of limestone and barns in hexagonal and other unusual shapes. A climb up the bluffs to Bellevue State Park offers yet another terrific view of the Mississippi River, along with the town, Lock & Dam No. 12, and even the former Savannah Army Depot on the Illinois side of the river, which is being redeveloped.

Further south, U.S. 52 meets up with the beginning point of U.S. 67; here, U.S. 52 heads into Sabula, Illinois, so we’ll continue southbound on U.S. 67. Lots hilly, picturesque, rural farmland dominates the drive south through the rest of Jackson County and into Clinton County, where Lock & Dam No. 13 on the river is located – not by accident, it’s also the location of the next major town on our tour.

Clinton, Iowa is the largest city on our tour outside of Dubuque and the Quad Cities, with about 26,000 residents. Clinton sits at the intersection of both the Great River Road, which we’re following, and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30), which we follow on a separate tour. Lumber coming from up north was floating to Clinton in droves during the latter half of the 19th century and the city buzzed with the sound of sawmills; between 1850 and 1900, Clinton was often referred to as the “Lumber Capital of the World.” That legacy lives on with the MiLB Clinton Lumberkings, a Class ‘A’ baseball team affiliated with the Seattle Mariners in the Midwest League.

The Lumberkings’ stadium is located adjacent to the riverfront and levee, which has an expansive promenade, great views of the two highway bridges connecting Clinton with Illinois, and access to the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (303 Riverview Drive, 563-242-6760), a summer stock professional theatre literally located on a drydocked showboat on the levee. The rest of downtown Clinton features a series of historic structures, and on the north side of town the Wide River Winery (1776 E. Deer Creek Road, 563-519-9463) sits atop one of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. The winery is open for tours and tastings seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an extra hour (until 7 p.m.) on Fridays and Saturdays. (Fun fact: their top-selling wine, a Gold medal-winning Catawba, is called “Ms. Chievious.”)

Heading south from downtown Clinton, U.S. 30 and the Lincoln Highway join our U.S. 67/Great River Road Tour for a few miles. You’ll see Lincoln Highway markings as these two national byways stick together until you’re just southwest of the city, at which point U.S. 30/Lincoln Highway heads west toward Cedar Rapids. We dive south past Camanche and begin to hug the riverbank as we head into Le Clare.

Le Claire is a charming – and growing – town of 3,800 that is increasingly a bedroom community suburb for the Quad Cities. Le Claire is the home base for Mike, Frank, and Danielle of TV’s American Pickers and you’ll find their original store, Antique Archeology, at 115 ½ Davenport Street (563-265-3939), about a block and a half off U.S. 67 just south of downtown. Their website notes that they welcome “lookie loos”, so go lookie.

More famously and historically, Le Claire is the birthplace of William Frederick Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill.” His Wild West shows were legendary, and memorabilia from those shows are on display at the Buffalo Bill Museum on the city’s riverfront, one of the Great River Road Interpretive Centers. Also, check out the huge, original wooden paddlewheel out front, taken from the Spirit of Peoria and installed here in 2009.

The town is in good “spirits”; the Mississippi River Distilling Company (303 N. Cody Road, 563-484-4342) is just north of the Buffalo Bill Museum. They offer tours showing the entire distilling process from grain preparation to final bottling; the Tasting Room Art Gallery offers tastings, beautiful views of the river, and art exhibitions featuring local artists that change every other month.

One block above the museum and distillery is where U.S. 67 cuts through Le Claire, and the main drag is lined with popular shops, antique stores, bars, and restaurants for both locals and travelers passing through.

Shortly after Le Claire, we pass under I-80 as it crosses the Mississippi and then past Lock & Dam No. 14 as we officially enter the Quad Cities, anchored by Davenport.

Davenport & the Quad Cities

Technically five cities nowadays (Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa and East Moline, Moline, and Rock Island, Illinois), the Quad Cities Metro Area has about 380,000 residents and has long been an industrial and manufacturing center, anchored by Deere & Company, which was founded by John Deere in 1848 and remains the area’s largest private employer. The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was constructed in Quad Cities, connecting Rock Island and Davenport as early as 1856. Today, five road bridges over the Mississippi help knit the area together as the cities have diversified; high-tech jobs now account for most the area’s growth and arts, cultural, and recreation offerings continue to grow.

While not a major-league sports metro, Davenport has a full slate of professional teams. The most well-known is the Quad Cities River Bandits, a Class A MiLB baseball team affiliated with the Houston Astros; they play their home games at the highly-acclaimed Modern Woodmen Park (209 S. Gaines Street, Davenport, 563-324-3000), which opened in 1931 but was nicely updated after a 2004 renovation. The park is located along the banks of the Mississippi, and it’s not uncommon for long home run balls to land in the river. Other pro sports include the Quad City Mallards, who play pro hockey in the Central Hockey League and are affiliated with the Iowa Wild of the AHL and Minnesota Wild of the NHL; the Quad City Raiders are a semi-pro football team in the Midwest Football Alliance; and the PGA stops in the Quad Cities each year for the John Deere Classic.

Arts, culture, and recreation abound in Davenport, too. The Figge Art Museum (225 W. 2nd Street (U.S. 67), 563-326-7804) opened in 2005, although its roots trace back to the 1870s as the Davenport Art Association; counting these roots, it’s actually considered one of the first municipal art galleries in the United States. The museum features over 4,000 works of art and includes exhibits on Frank Lloyd Wright, Grant Wood, Ansel Adams, Andrew Wyeth, and much more. You’ll also find the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art collection here.

The Putnam Museum (1717 W. 12th Street, 563-324-1933) dates back to 1867 and focuses on history and science, including a popular “Hall of Mammals.” A new, updated Science Center just opened in April, 2014. Vander Veer Botanical Park (215 W. Central Park Avenue, 563-326-7818) is 33 acres of horticultural beauty; established in 1885, it was one of the first botanical parks west of the Mississippi River.

Other attractions in and around Davenport include the John Deere Pavilion across the river in Moline, Illinois, which serves as a popular visitor’s center for those touring John Deere’s company facilities. The Rock Island Arsenal Museum (1 Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, IL, 309-782-5021) is the U.S. Army’s second oldest museum (1905) and showcases the work and history of the Rock Island Arsenal, the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the U.S. It’s been operating on Arsenal Island – formerly called Rock Island – since the 1880’s. The Museum also contains an impressive small arms collection, with over 1,200 domestic, foreign, civilian, and military small arms on display.

If you’re up for some gambling, the Rhythm City Casino (101 W. River Drive, 563-328-8000) offers over 1,000 slots, table games, blackjack, and more; Isle of Capri Casino (1777 Isle Parkway, Bettendorf, 563-359-7280) offers over 1,000 slots and table games as well, plus performance venues and an on-site marina; Trackside Quad City Downs (5005 Morton Drive, East Moline, IL, 309-792-0202) telecasts thoroughbred and harness racing from across the United States and offers off-track betting.

We enter the Davenport on U.S. 67 as River Drive, which follows along the river past many of these attractions. While driving into downtown Davenport near the I-74 bridge, check out the Davenport Skybridge, designed to let bicyclists and pedestrians cross 50 feet above River Drive between city attractions without worrying about traffic below. This cable-stayed bridge is over 575 feet long and offers great views of the Mississippi River and area bridges; the LED-based kaleidoscope lighting makes it a nice sight whether you’re crossing on the bridge or well under it. If you’re hungry, check out Quad City-style pizza at area restaurants; this style involves a thinner crust with a nutty flavor, spicy tomato sauce, toppings generally placed under the cheese, and the pizza is cut into long strips. After all, this traveling has probably worked up an appetite.

We’ll conclude our Iowa Great River Road Tour here in Davenport. After all, there’s plenty to do here! The Best Western PLUS Steeplegate Inn is on the north end of the city, where U.S. 61 meets I-80 just west of I-74.