On a cool, misty October day, photographer Rebecca Miller and I set out to explore the Great River Road. Or at least one small part of it.
Unlike most of the other scenic byways in the state, this route covers more than a bucolic stretch of Iowa; it traverses the length of the Mississippi River, from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The entire Great River Road is 3,000 miles and passes through 10 states, with routes on both sides of the river.
Since we only had one day and wanted plenty of time for stops, we started in the Jackson County river town of Bellevue and meandered up to Sherrill, just north of Dubuque. It was only about 40 miles, but we easily spent an entire day taking in the river bluff views, absorbing local history and enjoying some very good eats.
At Bellevue State Park, we paired the panoramic views with a stroll to the butterfly garden. Even in October, a last burst of summer color lingered into fall. Vibrant patches of orange mums, cosmos and multicolored zinnias attracted bees, and birds flew up from the tall prairie grasses along the trail.
In the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center, Maury Anderson manned the desk and explained what being from a small Mississippi River town means to him.
“I’ve lived here for 40-some years,” he said. “I just like the river. We’re friendly here. People leave their cars unlocked, their houses unlocked.”
Indeed, we saw bright orange pumpkins for sale via the honor system as we strolled along the town’s main drag, past River Ridge Brewing, antique and gift shops and a diner advertising the day’s lunch special of country fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. We stopped to take in a war memorial, complete with a Freedom Rock painted with Civil War soldiers in front of a riverboat. Behind it, a modern riverboat, this one for tourists instead of departing Union soldiers, pulled out from its dock with a resonant horn blast.
Driving north from Bellevue, we found more quiet river towns. Crossing Tete des Morts creek, idyllic church steeples appeared among the rolling hills, and we turned off the road to visit St. Donatus Church. Inside, ornate altars and stained glass offered a contemplative pause on our road trip. The building, dedicated in 1860 in the hamlet of St. Donatus, which boasts the nickname “Luxembourg in America,” is the home of an outdoor Way of the Cross. Fourteen brick alcoves depicting moments leading to Jesus’ crucifixion are built into the hill behind the church and its cemetery, where moss-covered gravestones from the 1800s note birthplaces in Luxembourg. Both the church and the Way of the Cross are open to visitors, who should watch out for droppings from the sheep grazing freely along the winding path that ends at the Pieta Chapel at the top of the hill.
After leaving the church, we stopped for lunch at Kalmes Restaurant at 100 Main St. in St. Donatus, still owned by the same family that established the business in the early 1850s. Diners can try classic Luxembourgian dishes like wienerschnitzel veal, Luxembourg ground steak or a pork sausage sandwich. History is everywhere in St. Donatus, with signs marking things like “Oldest Iowa Barn” — an advantage of being next to the state border, perhaps.
We continued our drive north, to the Mines of Spain Recreation Area & the E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, where more history and views awaited.
Located on 1,380 acres of woodland and prairie south of Dubuque, the Mines of Spain could be a daylong trip for outdoor enthusiasts in its own right, with 21 miles of maintained hiking trails divided into five nature walks, plus old logging roads and paths to limestone bluffs and scenic river overlooks. Winter visitors can try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, and deer and turkey hunters can visit the non-trail areas of the park.
We started at the E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, where interactive displays and taxidermied bald eagles and mountain lions would make a perfect place for families to dive into the natural world. A bird blind room offered a place to observe the winged visitors to the center’s bird and butterfly garden.
Before Europeans arrived, the Mines of Spain area was inhabited by the Meskwaki, who were the first to work the lead mines there. In 1788, the first European immigrant, Julien Dubuque, settled in the area, and in 1796, he received a grant from the Governor of Spain to work the land that would be named “Mines of Spain.” He died in 1810, and a 125-foot limestone tower sits at his burial site on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. A rock on the nearby trail memorializes Meskwaki Chief Peosta, whose daughter Potosa married Dubuque.
The spot provides yet another gorgeous overlook, with fall colors, the river and the city of Dubuque spread out below.
We drove on into Dubuque, where we wandered around the trendy Millworks district before heading to Cable Car Square for coffee at Monks, which also offered beer on draft, patio seating and a warm neighborhood vibe. It’s just a couple of blocks from the Fenelon Place Elevator, billed the “world’s shortest, steepest elevator ride.” Originally built in 1882, it burned down and was rebuilt several times over the decades, all the while ferrying residents and visitors 189 feet up from the shops, restaurants and offices to the residential neighborhood at the top of the bluffs. We enjoyed the novelty of the ride, and the views from the top. A round trip for adults is $3, and the elevator runs daily April 1 to Nov. 30.
Dubuque is another town that is worth an entire day’s visit, but we were running out of daylight, so we drove on north for dinner at Breitbach’s, which bills itself as Iowa’s oldest food and drinking establishment.
A fitting end to a day filled with Iowa history.