Iowa River Tour: Beside the Big Muddy

Iowa River Tour: Beside the Big Muddy
The Ojibwe people called it "Missi Sippi," Great River, and perhaps no other geographical feature has been traveled on, along, and written about more than this one. Samuel Clemens, using the pen name Mark Twain, turned the Mississippi River into a living entity, untamed, unforgiving, and yet harmoniously bound to the people and towns on its banks. Winding through many of these towns, you will find the Great River Road and other explorers drawn to the Big Muddy.

Now and then you get a chance to return to familiar countryside, and so it is for this tour  -  to visit the Mississippi River and ride a loop on the Great River Road through Iowa and Illinois with turning points in Dubuque and Keokuk, Iowa. This is memorable territory. I taught at Loras College in Dubuque for four years, and that employment gave me the opportunity to explore many a river road and taste some very good food while at it.

Although this tour focuses on a relatively small section of the river dividing Illinois and Iowa, the entire length of the Great River Road passes through ten states, on either side of the river for nearly 3,000 miles. This National Scenic Byway is the work of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, with its roots going back to 1938.

Plan for a 500-mile loop on this tour. However, no ride really ever begins from the official "starting point." From my home, near South Bend, Indiana, the ride is four days, nearly 1,100 miles. It also includes an unexpected encounter with a "Pavement Ends" sign where the road abruptly turns from great pavement to gravel. I was doing about 60 mph. More about that later.

Riverboats and lighthouses in Clinton, Iowa.

On the Great River Road

Choosing US 20 as my route to the river, I enter the Great River Road at the intersection with Illinois 84, just west of Elizabeth in northwestern Illinois. The geography and landscape is spectacular for the Midwest. If you didn't know any better, you'd think you were in New England. The road winds along hilltops providing spectacular views of woodlands and terraced farms. Highway pull-offs are plentiful and include the park-like surroundings by the observation tower just west of Elizabeth.

Galena, Illinois, is a tourist's delight with the preservation of so many buildings. Visitors can tour the home of President Ulysses S. Grant, or just head downtown to the visitor center, shops and restaurants. Galena's ambiance and landscape make it a major destination, and the historic town has plenty of bed & breakfast inns. Just past Galena, US 20 turns into a divided highway that descends towards the river, East Dubuque and then Dubuque.

Riverfront Fountain and US 34 bridge in Burlington, Iowa.

Finally, after about 300 miles in the saddle, I reach my overnight stay, The Redstone Inn in downtown Dubuque. Around the corner there's the Shot Tower Inn, famous for pizzas, other fine cuisine and cold beverages. The Redstone is a fabulous turn-of-the-20th-century building. Hosts Jerry and Kelly Lazore provide not only great accommodations but good information about the area and motorcycling destinations. Several locals recommend the ride north to Balltown and eating at Breitbach's. County Road 9Y to Balltown is a brand new ribbon of concrete with incredible vistas. Although the recommendations for food at Breitbach's sound appealing, I can't stop here without revisiting the site of so many memories, the Shot Tower Inn.