Iowa’s Mississippi River

This low-profile section of Old Man River offers some of the best scenery, dining, and art.
Matthew Link

Although other stretches of Old Man River are more famous, the upper bend that makes up Iowa’s right-profile border “nose” is one of the more scenic bits. The river here teems with islands, untouched woodlands, high cliffs, and a plethora of water birds like cormorants, great blue herons, and snowy egrets, not to mention bald eagles. Take a two-day, 166-mile voyage between LeClaire and Dubuque on Twilight. An elegant replica of a lavish Victorian steamboat, the kind Mark Twain dubbed the “Floating Palaces.” The 126-foot, 140-passenger Twilight is a triple-decker riverboat with air-conditioned dining salons and sundecks with comfy chairs to take in the sweeping panoramas. Twilight departs from Le Claire, a small riverbank town of 3,000, famous as the hometown of Buffalo Bill (there’s a museum here in his honor). You overnight in larger Dubuque (pop. 60,000), the oldest city in Iowa, settled in 1788.

Twilight passengers stay at the Grand Harbor Resort on the banks of the Mississippi and attached to a 25,000-square-foot water park. You can stroll from here to the renovated restaurants and nightlife of the city’s Old Main District, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, or even to casinos and wine-tasting rooms. On the float back to Le Claire, live musicians play regional folk music while you drink in the expansive scenery. Voyages happen three times a week from Memorial Day weekend through October.

Eat Smart: The renaissance of downtown Dubuque’s Old Main District has given rise to small, sophisticated eateries like Pepper Sprout. Dine in rich wood booths under exposed brick walls on dishes like grilled bison tenderloin with a red onion, caper, and horseradish or the mac and cheese with applewood bacon, spinach, tomato, and red onion in a smoked gouda cheese sauce.

Be Fit: Twenty-six miles of once bustling railroad tracks is now the excellent Heritage Trail, on the outskirts of Dubuque. Hike or bike past deep woodlands, river overlooks, interpretive sites, railroad artifacts, and limestone bluffs. Just south of town is the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, a National Historic Landmark made up of 1,380 acres of wooded and prairie land. Here, you can hike or canoe through the Mississippi River Bluffland with its abundant wildlife of red-shouldered hawks, flying squirrels, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys.

Live Well: Iowa is rightfully proud of its native son Grant Wood, whose stoic American Gothic is one of the most famous paintings in the world. The Dubuque Museum of Art houses many of his works, which depict rural scenes of everyday life in celebration of Americana. The museum is also full of other regional artists who pay honor to bucolic Iowan landscapes and Mississippi River scenes. Peruse the art galleries of the West End District, home to the largest and oldest art gallery in Dubuque, the family-owned Creative Touch Gallery, housed in a large wood and brick building. You’ll find many contemporary Iowa artists here with works of historical buildings and neighborhoods of Dubuque.