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  • Writer's pictureGreg Phillips

Our road trip continues with more fun attractions including a cave tour, historical sites and camping along the lower section of Iowa’s Mississippi River

This byway is one of our choices for Iowa’s Top Scenic Byways, as listed in our Iowa section.

water lilies blooming at Nahant Marsh, Davenport, Iowa

Water lilies at Nahant Marsh near Davenport

Our earlier story on Iowa’s Great River Road followed the Mississippi River from the Minnesota state line south to Dubuque. Now, we continue the journey, following the riverbank south from Dubuque to Missouri.

Map showing drive along Mississippi River from Dubuque to Keokuk, Iowa

Dubuque south to Keokuk and Missouri state line

222 miles / 357 km

Back in Dubuque, the Great River Road continues south four miles to Mines of Spain, a large recreation area of woods and prairies that also houses the E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center. Although there’s no camping, other activities include canoeing, kayaking, picnicking, hunting, hiking and spectacular photography of the Mississippi River, downtown Dubuque and Illinois from bluff overlooks.

From high above, this All-American Road ventures a couple of miles to an underground adventure, Crystal Lake Cave. Discovered in 1868, the cavern opened to the public in 1932. Today, guides lead small groups through the cave’s well-lit passages on a ¾-mile long tour.

From Crystal Lake Cave, the Great River Road follows US 52 south. In eight miles, look for the photogenic Saint Donatus Church on the left as you pass through the town of the same name. The church looks even more impressive from a distance, framed by farmland and forest as you climb the hills to the south. From Saint Donatus, it’s 10 miles to Bellevue, another attractive, historic riverside town. Just south is Bellevue State Park with more impressive river views, hiking trails, camping and a nature center and butterfly sanctuary.

From Bellevue, stay on US 52 until it reaches US 67 and continue south to Clinton, a large town with all the necessities. Bellevue to Clinton is 37 miles and then drive another 23 miles to LeClaire where the Buffalo Bill Museum is worth a peek. The iconic frontiersman, US Army scout and showman was born in LeClaire in 1846. William F. Cody was an expert marksman, earning his nickname while hunting buffalo, aka American bison. In the late 1800s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show began touring the United States and Europe and is largely credited with creating many of the early stereotypes of the American West.

Leaving LeClaire, the Great River Road intersects busy I-80 before continuing south into Bettendorf and then Davenport, two of the four Quad Cities. The others, Moline and Rockford, are located across the river in Illinois. After passing through downtown Davenport, the Great River Road follows IA 22 south to the next highlight. The Nahant Marsh is a 382-acre preserve next to the Mississippi River. There’s an education center and trails through the wetlands. Birding is popular as well as photographing the hundreds of blooming summertime water lilies.

From Nahant Marsh, it’s 15 miles to Wildcat Den State Park, another beautiful place to hike and camp. Many visitors come to see the Pine Creek Grist Mill, the oldest working grist mill between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains. While Wildcat Den showcases forest and sandstone bluffs, drive five miles farther to Fairport State Recreation Area which offers camping and recreational activities next to the Mississippi River.

From Fairport, follow the river seven more miles to Muscatine. In the late 1800s, the Mississippi was the ideal habitat for huge clam beds, creating the world’s largest pearl button industry. Overfishing and the development of plastic buttons eventually ended Iowa’s pearl button business. Today, Muscatine is a pretty riverside town with restaurants, shops and a variety of lodging. To learn more about the clams and button industry, visit the informative, elegant National Pearl Button Museum.

Next, the Great River Road travels 24 miles to the Toolesboro Indian Mounds National Historic Landmark. Iowa’s Hopewell culture flourished for five hundred years, from about 200 BCE to 300 CE. This site preserves several large burial mounds and includes a small museum and prairie demonstration plot.

From the mounds, it’s 27 miles to Burlington, a large town with a peculiar attraction. While San Francisco has Lombard Street, many in Burlington consider Snake Alley to be the world’s crookedest street. Guinness World Records gives Lombard Street the nod but you should still check out Snake Alley. Built in 1894, it’s probably safer to walk up and down than drive an RV or motorcycle! But cars and trucks are fine. Nearby, the Heritage Center Museum is housed in a restored library built in 1898. Highlights include Native American relics, immigrant stories and artifacts plus a first-rate fossil collection of ancient marine animals called crinoids.

From Burlington, historical interpretation continues 19 miles down the Great River Road at Old Fort Madison. This living history museum is a captivating replica of the original, erected in 1808 as the first American military fort in the upper Mississippi region. Old Fort Madison was a major trading post. Guides in period uniform and costume demonstrate trade, clothing, equipment and weaponry. The town of Fort Madison has well-preserved historic storefronts from the late 1800s. It also lays claim to the world’s largest and Mississippi River’s only remaining double swing-span bridge with an upper level for cars and a lower part for trains.

Another 25 miles and the Great River Road reaches its final Iowa town, Keokuk. Look for the George M. Verity Riverboat Museum on the riverfront. In 1927, the US government built the paddle boat upstream in Dubuque to revive river transportation and move barges from St. Louis, Missouri to St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1961, the George M. Verity was retired from service and donated to Keokuk. From here, the Great River Road crosses into Missouri, where we’ll continue the journey soon.

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