(Editor’s note: Check with the establishments on updated hours/closures when planning your trip.)
By Cindy Hadish
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway serves as a reminder of the diverse and breathtaking scenery that Iowa has to offer, along with local restaurants, unique shops and other attractions.
From the towering limestone bluffs in the northeast corner of the state, to riverfront parks, views of the mighty Mississippi River and winding roads to the south, the route meanders 328 miles, hugging Iowa’s eastern border; part of the national byway that runs more than 2,000 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana.
The Mississippi River – the second longest river in North America, which stretches miles-wide at some points – wields its influence on it all. Eagle watching in the winter from viewing points along the lock & dam areas, riverboat cruises and 16 interpretive centers on the route are among popular visitor attractions.
Tiny town sports popular bar & grill
“Sometimes we forget what a big deal the Mississippi is, because we see it every day,” said Krista Kay, co-owner of Go Fish Marina Bar & Grill in Princeton. “People want to see it and walk in it and touch it. It’s nice to see that outside view and not take it for granted.”
Kay often finds those viewpoints from tourists who stop by Go Fish. With indoor seating for 50, plus 80 outdoors, Go Fish has become a hot spot in the five years she and her husband have owned the bar & grill. Menu items such as its award-winning breaded tenderloins, yellowfin tuna, wraps and burgers, along with a full bar, keep customers returning, along with other draws.
“It’s just kind of a cool environment,” Kay said. “I’d describe it as casual, relaxed, fun and entertaining, and the view is just spectacular.” Those scenic views are among the reasons that wait times can extend up to an hour during the busy season. Sometimes that brings strangers together, though, as they mingle on the open-air deck.
Go Fish is one of the hidden gems visitors can encounter along the Scenic Byway, just a stone’s throw away from LeClaire, home site of Antique Archaeology of “American Pickers” fame, as well as the Buffalo Bill Museum – William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born in LeClaire – a brewery, winery and more.
Attractions abound in Iowa’s river towns
Historic river towns such as LeClaire intersperse along the route with larger river cities, including Dubuque, Davenport and Clinton, which offer their own draws, perfect for day trips or an entire vacation spent along the route. The coming weeks will be a particularly popular time to visit, as tourists flock to northeast Iowa to view the colorful fall foliage.
Edith Reiss Pfeffer, chairwoman of the Iowa Mississippi River Parkway Commission, noted that September is Drive the Great River Road Month. “These are wonderful places for a fall drive,” she said. While it’s difficult to name them all, Pfeffer offered a sampling of highlights tourists can experience:
Bellevue State Park and Butterfly Garden, Mont Rest Bed & Breakfast, Spruce Harbor Inn and the OffShore Bar & Grill, all in Bellevue, plus antique shops;
A Place In Time, offering locally crafted home décor, The Renaissance Resale Boutique, selling handbags, clothing, jewelry and more, The Painted Rooster boutique, the McKinley Street Taverne, the Candlelight Inn, George M. Curtis Mansion, open for tours and events, the Catholic Historical Center at St. Boniface, and the Sawmill Museum/Sawmill Heritage Experience – a national MRPC interpretive center – all in Clinton, as well as Bulger’s Hollow Recreation Area, a nearby campground;
Mississippi River Eco-Tourism Center, offering the big fish of Iowa display, 8,000 gallon aquarium, canoe and kayak rentals and more in Camanche;
The Drake Restaurant, featuring a 200-seat dining room and 100-seat patio with views up and down the Mississippi River in Burlington;
Mines of Spain Recreation Area and E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center; National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and National Rivers Hall of Fame, along with numerous restaurants and shops in historic riverfront buildings, all in Dubuque;
The new Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center, which just opened in Lansing, as well as Mount Hosmer City Park, situated on a bluff 450 feet above Lansing;
Guttenberg National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium Historic District, along with charming bed & breakfasts in Guttenberg;
Pikes Peak State Park near McGregor, a town that has reopened most of its antique shops and other businesses in historic buildings after being hard-hit by a July tornado;
Yellow River State Forest and Effigy Mounds National Monument, which preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by Native Americans in Harpers Ferry;
Breitbach’s Country Dining, which rebuilt from fires twice, along with stunning scenic overlooks, in Balltown.
Find this article in the September 2017 edition of City Revealed magazine, see more photos and discover some of Iowa’s other Scenic Byways, below: