Growing up in Arizona, I had no clue what to expect of Iowa when we moved here. Where I’m from, we have desert and mountains and dry heat. We are home to the Grand Canyon and big cities. I grew up going on adventures in my home state. When we found out that we were going to be moving to Iowa, I had a view of the Midwest from other peoples’ minds, having never experienced it myself. I imagined a big flat place with no hills or mountains and corn fields and farms everywhere I looked. Needless to say when I got here, I was pleasantly surprised. Iowa has opened my eyes to the amazing beauty of the Midwest, and my family and I have been spending as much time as possible exploring this great state.
This last weekend we went on a day trip to Dubuque. The drive was really easy and only took us about an hour and a half from North Liberty. I have four kids (ages 9, 6, and 3 – times two), who are the perfect age to explore the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. When we first pulled up to the museum, my entire family was impressed by how big it was and how nice the area is where it is located. This is when the fun began!
National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
The minute we walked into the museum we were greeted with animals to look at. The smiles and the squeals coming from my kids didn’t disappear for the rest of the day. The museum is split into different sections. One building houses information on rivers (mainly the Mississippi) and the animals that live in and around them. One area is about boats, and another area there was a wetland where you can feed fish. Another building focused on the ocean and how the river feeds into the ocean.
We started in the building about the river, where we learned about what happens when the Mississippi River floods and what causes flooding. We learned about animals that live in the Mississippi River, all parts of the river, including alligators. There was an interactive touch tank where we could pet a sturgeon. (For the record, they are rough and their skin is kind of hard.) My kids really enjoyed making the display flood by pushing buttons and twisting a knob to explore pictures of the river from where it starts in Minnesota, to where it ends in the Gulf of Mexico.
As we continued through the building we learned about riverboats and Mark Twain (who was once a riverboat captain before becoming a famous writer). The kids loved all of the interactive displays and being able to touch and play. They practiced driving a riverboat and explored the caves from the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn stories. The riverboat exhibit moved outdoors.
While outdoors you are right off of a harbor on the Mississippi where private boats are docked (my boys loved watching people dock and pull away). There are two old riverboats you can tour–one in the water and one on the ground. There are also remote control boats you can drive, and a giant fish you can walk through and see its insides (in a non-gross way). They also have otters, bald eagles, and a hawk on display. We spent at least an hour outdoors, most of which my boys spent just watching the big boats move.
Then it was time to learn about how the river connects to the ocean. In this part of the museum there were several ocean tanks. One contained a very friendly octopus who was hanging out on the side of her tank so everyone could see her. In another huge tank there was a sea turtle and every other type of fish you could think of. You can watch a feeding every day at that tank, and we were lucky to catch that.
The ocean building also has a great exhibit upstairs for the kids called Waterworks. In this area the kids can play in water, learning how water power works and building boats to send downstream. They learn about precipitation and how the clouds make rain. There is a beaver dam to explore, and lift kids can lift flaps to find about the types of animals that live in different parts of the river. They can dig for pretend turtle eggs and crawl through a shell. This was one of those great energy-burning areas!
While we were visiting the museum there was a visiting exhibit about dinosaurs that we had to go checkout. It didn’t disappoint. We saw dinosaur bones and animatronic dinosaurs who moved and made noise. My boys were in awe…well, two of them were. One held onto me for dear life the entire time we were looking.
We ended up spending about four hours at the museum and saw just about everything. It is definitely a place you could easily spend the day exploring.
Fenelon Place Elevator
When we left the museum we headed to the Fenelon Place Elevator. It’s a funicular train that takes you up and down this super steep hill in Dubuque. It claims to be the shortest and steepest funicular in the world. My boys are train-obsessed, so this was absolutely worth the $9 it cost to take our family up and down the hill. (By the way they only take cash for the ride.) We rode down the hill, ate ice cream, and then rode back up. The view was amazing. From the top of the hill you can see Illinois and Wisconsin while standing in Iowa. Dubuque is an old town with all of its beautiful old buildings and charm, but the town is very cute and well taken care of.
We really enjoyed our day in Dubuque. The museum was fun and the train ride was quite the experience. While exploring, I saw a few more things I need to go back to Dubuque and explore, like the Crystal Lake Caves. If you are looking for a fun, easy day trip for your family, consider Dubuque. Or for more day trip ideas, check out this post from Elizabeth.