My husband and I just celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. As it was slowly approaching, we both thought we should probably do something to celebrate. Something a little more extravagant than just going out to dinner with both kids in tow, which is what we usually end up doing to celebrate such things. Since we have a family vacation planned for next spring, we didn’t want to do anything too wild and crazy (i.e., too expensive) so a major trip was out of the question. So the hunt ensued to find something closer to home that wouldn’t take us away from our kids for too long, but would give us a chance to spend some time together, just the two of us.
Of course, I went to the be-all-end-all source for such queries – Google. I wanted to find some good options for day trips from Iowa City, and at first I was disappointed with the search results. Des Moines and the Amana Colonies kept popping up. Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those two places, they just weren’t quite what I was looking for.
Then, I found it. The Great River Road.
It immediately called my name and had my interest piqued. Even before mentioning it to my husband, I knew I had landed on the perfect trip: an adults-only road trip along the Iowa/Illinois portion of the Great River Road. And with any luck, we’d be able to see some pretty views, not only of the Mississippi River, but also some pretty fall colors.
What is The Great River Road?
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway is a series of state and local roads that follow the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles, passing through 10 states from the headwaters in Itasca State Park, MN to Venice, LA where the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The “official” route is marked by white signs with a green pilot’s wheel and can take anywhere from four to ten days to travel the entire route. There are hundreds of towns along the route with a plethora of activities such as scenic overlooks, historic villages, walking/hiking trails, antiquing, and culinary explorations, to name a few.
The Iowa/Illinois Segment of The Great River Road
When starting in the north and following the road south, the Iowa side starts in New Albin and ends in Keokuk. The Illinois side starts in East Dubuque and ends in Cairo. There are several spots throughout the route to cut across the river in order to experience both sides of The Great River Road.
Our Specific Route and the Stops We Made
Since we only had two days to get to The Great River Road, travel down it, and get back home, we decided to start in Dubuque. We crossed between the Iowa and Illinois sides a few times and eventually ended our trip in Keokuk.
Mines of Spain State Recreation Area (Iowa)
It took us one hour and thirty minutes to get to the Dubuque area where we made our first stop: Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. We’ve passed by the area numerous times on our way to Madison to visit family, and had always wondered what the Mines of Spain was, so we thought this was a great opportunity to check it out!
The E.B. Lyons Interpreter Center houses the visitor information center, as well as exhibits, gardens, prairies, and hiking trails. There are several more hiking trails and paths snaking through the Recreation Area, leading to beautiful views of the Mississippi River and the city of Dubuque. We explored the Horseshoe Bluff Nature Trail, which lead us up a steep hill and up and down a few flights of steps before rewarding us with views of the cliffs and the Mississippi River beyond.
We also visited the Julien Dubuque Monument where we caught a good look at the city of Dubuque. The monument area has benches, picnic tables, and is handicap accessible. So it makes for a great spot to stop and rest or eat a light picnic lunch.
Due to the fact we got a slightly later start to our trip than we had planned, we decided not to explore Dubuque any further. Instead, we headed straight over to Galena, Illinois.
We ate lunch at one of the many varied restaurants before checking out the shops along Main Street. Then we strolled across the bridge over the Galena River to visit Grant Park. We ended up spending three hours in Galena, but could have spent a whole day, or longer, there!
On our way out of town we stopped at the Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve for another breathtaking view of the Mississippi River. There we saw the Aiken Mound Group, a group of effigy mounds dating between A.D. 700 and A.D. 1000. There are also a couple of mown-grass walking trails that pass among the effigy mounds.
From Galena, we traveled south to Savanna and crossed back over the river at Sabula, a small island in the middle of the river. We stayed the night in Clinton and enjoyed a kid-free evening with margaritas and dinner at the Candlelight Inn. We also took a very quick stop at the Wild Rose Casino that was within walking distance of our hotel.
We had hoped to also visit Fulton, Illinois while in the area, but we didn’t arrive in time before most attractions closed for the day. Hopefully we’ll get back that way sometime soon!
The big plan for day two of our trip was to head out from Clinton and head straight to Nauvoo, Illinois. We looked forward to exploring the town and taking horse-drawn wagon and carriage tours through Old Historic Nauvoo. But we did not plan well and were not able to get tickets for either! If you’re interested in visiting Nauvoo and touring Old Historic Nauvoo, stop at the visitor’s center right away and get your tickets so you don’t miss out like we did!
With our visit to Nauvoo cut short, we made our way south to our final destination on our trip along The Great River Road. The drive between Nauvoo and Keokuk was the most scenic part of the route, because it was one of the few times the road actually followed right next to the river, and we had one last chance to cross the Mississippi as we approached Keokuk.
While in Keokuk we made a quick stop to look down on Lock and Dam #19 and take in the last views of the Mississippi River before we booked it home in time for dinner with the kiddos!
Tips for Traveling The Great River Road
- Visit the River Road website and request copies of the map. You can also go to each state’s website and request state-specific information.
- Many times the tourism websites for individual towns provided more information than the River Road sites. So check out the sites for the towns you plan on visiting.
- There are so many more things to see and do, and so many more possible stops to make. Plan your route and determine ahead of time what you want to try to do, but also stay flexible in case you stay longer in one location than you originally planned.
- Keep in mind the time of year you’re traveling. We went in mid-October, and while most attractions run through October, several only operate during spring and summer months.
- Bring a camera. If you’re like me, you usually just grab your phone and think that will be good enough. But you’ll want to bring an actual camera, if you have one, to really do justice to the views.
- Download The Great River Road App to make navigating the road a little more easy. The app includes maps and tourist information for stops long the route.