Scenic Drive in Iowa: Great River Road

©Sam and Dave Merrill

Join travelers from around the world to discover dramatic vistas of Old Man River during all seasons. View soaring eagles and 100,000 migrating geese and ducks. Experience Midwest hospitality on the main streets of river towns and cities, or visit sacred sites and landscape effigies of Native Americans. You can also experience the Mississippi River on steamboats, commercial barges, and recreational crafts.

The byway's story begins with the landscape: abrupt and dramatic limestone bluffs cut by glacial meltwater in the north contrast with broad sandy floodplains in the south. For thousands of years, Native Americans knew the importance of the continent's largest river.

Later, its meandering course marked the political boundaries of territories, towns, cities, states, and counties of the advancing society. Today, the Upper Mississippi River and the Great River Road are national repositories of geological wonders, unparalleled scenic beauty, wildlife, native vegetation, and the miracles of hydrology. The river and road are also milestones to the expansion and development of the United States and the Midwest.

The Great River Road stretches into Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Keep reading to find out about the sights you'll see on the Iowa leg of this scenic byway.

Archaeological: A primary site on the Great River Road is the Effigy Mounds National Monument, the site of 195 mounds. Of these 195 mounds, 31 are effigy outlines of mammals, birds, or reptiles. Eastern Woodland Indian culture built these sites between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1300. They are preserved and interpreted for the public. Additional property was being added to the monument site to expand its protection of these unique resources. Other important sites are found at the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area and the Toolesboro Indian Mounds National Historic Landmark.

Historical: Although most of Iowa was settled in the mid-1800s, the Mississippi River made it an accessible territory long before the United States became a nation. Native Americans and explorers alike saw the raw, unharnessed power of this beautiful passageway. One of the first outposts was Fort Madison, where history is recreated today. Like much of the United States, the Great River Road was under Spanish and French rule until the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Soon after, settlers and industry came to Iowa. Bustling river towns created cultural landmarks such as Snake Alley -- the curviest road in the United States. Little towns along the road grew and became the cities they are today. During the booming days of river trade, writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) captured the atmosphere and the time period in his novels. When the Civil War came to Iowa, most of the people living there fought for the Union. Civil War memorials are now found in several of the towns on the byway.

Natural: Geology, the hydrologic cycle, and erosion are among the big stories that the Mississippi River and the Great River Road tell in Iowa. The forces of nature can be seen in how the river has cut a deep channel in ancient limestone layers in the northern reaches. The ever-changing channel of the river, the deposition of sediments, and the broad floodplain of the Mississippi River in the southern part of the state speak of a different natural dynamic. The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is the state's oldest and most popular wildlife refuge. Many other state, county, and city parks provide opportunities for spotting and watching wildlife.

Recreational: Recreational opportunities abound along the Iowa Great River Road. Water activities include boating, sailing, fishing, waterfowl hunting, and swimming. For decades, the Iowa Great River Road and its side roads have been popular pleasure routes for sightseeing. Numerous multipurpose trails and support facilities are available along the road.

Effigy Mounds National Monument contains 195 prehistoric mounds. Eastern Woodland Indians built the mounds, with 31 being in the shape of effigies. Effigy Mounds National Monument contains 195 prehistoric mounds. Eastern Woodland Indians built the mounds, with 31 being in the shape of effigies.
Effigy Mounds National Monument contains 195 prehistoric mounds. Eastern Woodland Indians built the mounds, with 31 being in the shape of effigies.

Scenic: The magnificent scenery of the Great River Road is centered around the Mississippi River. The river is almost continuously visible from the Great River Road (or is within a few miles of the byway). Dams along the river create large pools of open water upstream. Along the northern part of the river, steep limestone bluffs descend directly to the banks. Downstream, the floodplain opens to afford long, uninterrupted views of the valley. Roadside spots, shady parks, and locks and dams of the Mississippi River offer places for you to stop and take in the scenic beauty of the Great River Road and the Mississippi River.

The four seasons provide dynamic backgrounds and changes in the vegetation and activity on the water. The rural landscape provides a multitude of settings for small farms, protected wetlands, streams and rivers, and woodlots and forests. The residential and main street architecture of small towns and river cities offers much interest and contrast to the rural images. Many efforts exist to protect the countryside landscape character.

The next section will detail some of the highlights you'll see as you pass along the Iowa stretch of the Great River Road.