The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.


At the southern end of a very enjoyable ride, cruising up and down sculpted hills and winding past miles of Iowa prairie and river towns, the GRR rolls into Dubuque (pop. 58,115), named for the 18th-century French voyageur Julien Dubuque, who unsuccessfully mined lead on land acquired from the Spanish. Finding lead wasn’t the problem—Indians had dug lead by hand as early as 1680 for trade with the English—but getting it to market was. After the steamboat’s invention and forced removal of native tribes in the late 1820s, mineral wealth became a major catalyst to settlement of the tri-state area around Dubuque, as town names like Potosi, Mineral Point, New Diggings, and Lead Mine attest. During the Civil War, just five counties around here supplied all the lead for the entire Union war effort.

On the inland side of the compact downtown, a grand view of the city and the Mississippi valley can be had from the top of the Fenelon Place Elevator (daily Apr.-Nov., $3 round-trip), a historic funicular cable car that proudly holds the title of “World’s Steepest, Shortest Scenic Railway.” Still hauled up and down the hill by a 15-hp motor in the head house, the elevator is a mini version of those in Pittsburgh and the Swiss Alps. Hop on at the east end of 4th Street and ride up to the plush residential district on the hilltop.

On the other side of downtown, the Dubuque waterfront has been recharged by the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (350 E. 3rd St., 563/557-9545 or 800/226-3369, daily, $15), one of the two biggest and best museums dedicated to the history and culture of Old Muddy (the other one is on River Island in Memphis). A large collection of historic riverboats is highlighted by the steamboat William M. Black, an official National Landmark, while other galleries include a National Rivers Hall of Fame that tells the stories of explorers and adventurers like Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell. The introductory film, River of Dreams, is narrated by Mr. Lake Wobegon himself, Garrison Keillor.

The museum complex is at the heart of the America’s River complex, which also has the inevitable casino plus docks for scenic sightseeing and gambling boats, a nice riverside promenade, and the Grand Harbor Resort (563/690-4000, $109 and up), a deluxe hotel and 25,000-square-foot water park.

Dubuque is a very meat-and-potatoes place when it comes to food, and as in most of the Midwest, you should plan to dine early to catch restaurants before they close. Near the Fenelon Place Elevator, the Shot Tower Inn (380 Locust St., 563/556-1061) is a very popular pizza place with an upstairs deck and beer by the pitcher. The one standout in Dubuque is the Pepper Sprout (378 Main St., 563/556-2167), where the range of dishes (and the big-city prices) proves that “Midwest fine dining” is not an oxymoron.

East and west of Dubuque, US-20 offers a pair of excellent detours off the Great River Road. The ball field created for the movie Field of Dreams has become a minor tourist mecca for rural Dyersville, 30 miles due west of Dubuque via US-20 or the surprisingly scenic, gravel-paved Heritage Trail, which runs along an old railroad route.

South of Dubuque, the GRR follows US-52 back up the bluffs past Julien Dubuque’s original lead workings and across 45 miles of upland farms and wooded bottoms until the next Mississippi crossing at Sabula.



Fenelon Place Elevator (512 Fenelon Pl)

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (350 E. 3rd St.)

Grand Harbor Resort (350 Bell St.)

Shot Tower Inn (380 Locust St.)

Pepper Sprout (378 Main St.)