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A Colorful Road Trip Through Eastern Iowa

Experience the splendor of fall foliage along the Mississippi River while exploring centuries-old towns and villages with German roots

road map of eastern iowa with a driving route highlighted, along with a fall view over the Mississippi

Getty Images/AARP

Iowa evokes images of rolling prairies and cornfields waving in the wind, and this four-day road trip treats you to such pastoral vistas. But much of the route focuses on another camera-pleaser — the state’s stretch of the Great River Road, a collection of highways and state routes tracing the twists and turns of the mighty Mississippi River, from northern Minnesota down to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Here, where the river forms Iowa’s eastern border with Illinois and Wisconsin, blazing ash, elm, hickory and maple trees shade the riverbanks with brilliant fall color, made more dramatic by the contrast with ochre and chalk-white limestone bluffs. Lakes, waterfalls and wetlands add to the variety, providing additional dramatic backdrops for the bursts of color. Plus, there’s plenty of history, including the outposts of rugged early homesteaders. 


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View towards the State Capitol (Statehouse)

Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

Day 1: Iowa City

Begin exploring in Iowa City, the former state capital, with your attention focused on downtown. Your first stop: the golden-domed Old Capitol, which dates from 1842. When Iowa moved its capital to Des Moines in 1857, the neoclassical building was converted into a university, and it’s now a museum, with both guided and self-guided tours. The interior has been restored to look as it did when the building still functioned as the capitol; a highlight is its eye-catching reverse-spiral staircase — unusual because it ascends to the left (most ascend to the right).

​After touring the Old Capitol, head to the nearby Prairie Lights bookstore, beloved for its three stories of books, its full calendar of readings and a coffee house that has hosted such noted authors as Robert Frost and Langston Hughes. Then head south on South Clinton Street to downtown’s pedestrian mall. Break for lunch with a bowl of Singapore noodles or skewers of ginger-spiced beef at JiangHu Asian Street Food before spending the afternoon browsing your way through several blocks of quirky shops and boutiques. Don’t miss the Record Collector, overflowing with vintage vinyl and music posters.

​As you stroll, you’ll notice vividly painted public benches and at least a dozen striking murals. They’re part of Iowa City’s extensive public art project, which also includes sculptures and mosaics. The city publishes an interactive guide to them online.

​Come evening, don’t miss Sprites, an interactive light installation that spans a pedestrian alley with beams of colored light that pulse in response to movement, sound and even temperature.

Where to stay: Settle into a 1913 mansion at the Brown Street Inn, a budget-friendly property just north of downtown in a leafy historic district. Its four rooms have been elegantly restored, but they’re all on the second floor, and there’s no elevator. For the mobility impaired, a better downtown option at a similar price is the 56-room Hotel Vetro, with wheelchair-accessible rooms that have tactile signs and Braille signage.

water rushes over the Lake MacBride Waterfall.

AriasPhotos / Getty Images

Day 2: Iowa City to Dubuque (149 miles)

Head north for 16.5 miles on State Route 1 to Lake Macbride State Park. In fall, the lake’s placid waters provide a perfect mirror for the maples, oaks and willows ringing its shore in hues of bronze, crimson and purple. Multitiered Macbride Falls becomes even more photogenic as the cottonwoods and hickories outline the cascades in gold (the rush of the water provides a soothing soundtrack for the visually impaired). Reach the falls via a short, paved walk across the spillway from the park’s campground, or hike the moderately challenging, 2.1-mile loop from the Macbride Nature and Recreation Area.

​Continue 81 miles east to Clinton via the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, which parallels and sometimes follows U.S. Highway 30 through fields of corn and soybeans, forests of hickory and maple, and farm towns founded in the 1830s and ’40s. In DeWitt, in a barn built in 1727, the German Hausbarn Museum documents the daily life of the area’s Schleswig-Holstein German immigrants.

​In Clinton’s Riverview Park, bordering the Mississippi, barges, riverboats and towboats navigate the locks facilitating ship traffic. The ripple of the water and the hum and clank of the boats set an entertaining scene, even for those with low vision. At nearby Eagle Point Park, see the mighty river at the widest point in its entire journey. For the best view, climb the two flights of steps at the park’s Stone Lookout Tower.

​Turning north along the Mississippi, take U.S. Routes 67 and 52 to Bellevue for more river views along an accessible walkway or to Bellevue State Park, which offers overlooks atop steep limestone bluffs. 

​Continuing on Route 52, you’ll pass through so many more towns founded by German-speaking immigrants that the area is sometimes called Little Switzerland. For example, Luxembourg stonemasons settled in St. Donatus (10 miles north of Bellevue) in the 1840s, and their descendants still make up most of the 100-plus residents. For a late lunch, pop into Kalmes Restaurant, where fourth-generation family members serve Luxembourg ground steak and rich chocolate bundt cake just like founder Grandpa Peter Kalmes did in the 1850s.

​In Dubuque, 14 miles on, learn about the wildlife found in the Mississippi and other U.S. river systems at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. You’ll also see alligators, pythons and other exotic animals. 

Where to stay: A 1913 Beaux Arts building on Main Street is home to the elegant, 133-room Hotel Julien Dubuque, with rates exceeding $200. The hotel’s commitment to accessibility includes wheelchairs available upon request, closed-caption TVs and Braille signage.

 Sidewalk leading to the viewing platform overlooking the Mississippi River at Pikes Peak State Park

Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Pikes Peak State Park

Day 3: Dubuque to Harpers Ferry (71 miles)

Go for an invigorating morning walk in Mines of Spain State Park and Recreation Area, 1,437 acres of dense woodland and wide-open prairie. Pick up a trail map at the park’s E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, lingering for a few minutes in the bird and butterfly garden. Especially popular is the paved, level, wheelchair-accessible path to the Julien Dubuque Monument, with an expansive view over the river. 

​Along the next stretch of the Great River Road, the Mississippi spreads out into a floodplain with numerous creeks flowing in from either side, creating a spiderweb of islands and channels. The German immigrants who settled Guttenberg used local limestone to construct many of the town’s buildings, which include a row of massive riverfront warehouses that earned the town its nickname of “Limestone City.” Order a takeout meal of German potato salad and the Guttenberg Pork-Slaw sandwich at the Picket Fence Café, housed in one of the warehouses, and have a picnic lunch at a shaded table along the town’s river walk. Watch Lock & Dam No. 10 in action and visit the accessible Lockmaster’s House Heritage Museum for insight into the lock system’s complex functioning. 

​Seventeen miles north, at Pikes Peak State Park, platforms extending out from 500-foot-tall cliffs overlook the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, edged in wine-red maples and golden oaks. Make the half-mile descent to small but pretty Bridal Veil Falls, where the water drops in sheer sheets over a wide limestone ledge. The trail starts out paved and accessible, continues along a boardwalk, then goes down several flights of gentle stairs with handrails. 

​Another three miles, in McGregor, see and feel the city’s history as a bustling steamboat port in the rows of brick buildings that glow red in the afternoon sun along Main Street. Browse shops — many with their original plank floors and pressed-tin ceilings — selling antiques, home and kitchen items, and more. Check the schedule at the McGregor-Marquette Center for the Arts for its workshops, classes and gallery showings. 

​Five miles farther, toward Harpers Ferry, Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves more than 200 prehistoric ceremonial burial mounds (many shaped like bears, birds and other animals), most of which date from between 800 and 1,600 years ago. Fourteen miles of trails snake through the park’s dense hardwood forests. 

​Hungry? For dinner, backtrack two miles to Marquette for a cod fish sandwich at the cozy Marquette Bar and Café on 1st Street.

Where to stay: For affordable lodging in Harpers Ferry, book one of the five pet-friendly, hewn-log cabins at Andy’s Mountain Cabins through Airbnb. Each sleeps up to seven — two on the ground floor and five in a loft accessed by stairs.

Oktoberfest celebration along the main street of Amana, Iowa

Bruce Leighty / Alamy Stock Photo

Day 4: Harpers Ferry to Iowa City (161 miles)

Backtrack to McGregor, then angle west on U.S. Route 13 through rolling farm country. During fall harvest, stop at Sherman’s Pumpkin Farm and Corn Maze outside of Manchester to buy freshly picked gourds, squash and a Halloween pumpkin or two. You’ll have fun navigating its elaborate corn maze.

​The Amana Colonies are today’s focus. These seven villages, one to two miles apart in the Iowa River Valley, once formed one of America’s longest-lasting communal societies, when German immigrants fled here in the 1840s seeking freedom to live according to their strict Pietist beliefs. Several hundred of their descendants still live in the villages, which look much as they did in the 1800s. Many of the more than 475 historic buildings and sites house galleries and workshops showcasing quilting, tin-smithing, pottery and other crafts. You’ll also find antiques shops and numerous restaurants and breweries serving German beer and cuisine, including bratwurst and soft pretzels at the Millstream Brau Haus.

​Return to Iowa City by taking U.S. Highway 151 south to U.S. Route 6, which rolls through more farm country until connecting with Interstate 80.

​Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, freelance writer Melanie Haiken has contributed to numerous outlets, including Afar, the BBC and Sierra.

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