The 3,000-mile-long Great River Road travels along the winding Mississippi River through 10 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the spectacular scenery ranges from lush grassy meadows and wetlands to vibrant metropolises and tiny riverfront towns.
One of the most scenic stretches of the Great River Road runs along Illinois’ western border, passing through an area known as the Driftless Area Region because it remained untouched by the glaciers that flattened most of the Midwest. Towering bluffs offer sweeping views of the riverscape and rolling hills reveal historic sites, including Native American mounds, a stone tower that once concealed bullets bound for the Civil War, and a crystal-filled underground cavern.
The small town of Galena harnessed the river’s transport power and became a bustling commercial hub in the 19th century. Across the river, Dubuque, Iowa, was founded in 1833, 13 years before the state of Iowa. It became an early American manufacturing town, shipping goods via steamboat down and up the mighty Mississippi.
Here are 13 stops along or near the Great River Road in this picturesque corner of northern Illinois and Iowa.
1. Council Hill
Imagine your car is a horse and wagon as you ride up to Council Hill Station: In the 1850s, you might have picked up provisions from this general store and railway station before making your way across the Mississippi toward the Wild West. Today, the historic building situated along the east fork of the Galena River is a live music venue beloved for its summer barn dances.
2. Thunder Bay Falls
Spring-fed Lake Galena is a 225-acre lake enjoyed by anglers because of the abundance of bass, walleye, bluegill, and perch. A spillway at the base of rolling hills near the lake’s southwest corner boasts a hidden gem: Follow the short, designated trail to reach the base of the beautiful Thunder Bay Falls.
3. Horseshoe Mound Preserve
Hike the 0.9-mile trail that leads through the 220-plus-acre Horseshoe Mound Preserve to the Council Ring, a central gathering area marked by giant stones that align with the setting sun on the summer and winter solstices. From this scenic perch high above the Galena River Valley, it’s easy to spot the Mississippi River on a clear day. More than a thousand years ago, the Meskwaki, Ho-Chunk, Sauk, and Menominee people mined galena, the most important ore of lead and a source of silver, in the mines that once dotted the valley below.
4. Ulysses S. Grant Home
Ulysses S. Grant moved to Galena with his family in 1860 to work at the leather goods store owned by his father. Barely a year later, in the spring of 1861, he left Galena to serve the Union in the Civil War. Four years later, he had risen in the ranks to become the general who accepted the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. On August 18, 1865, Galena celebrated the return of its Civil War hero with a triumphant procession and presented the General with this Italianate-style home on Bouthillier Street. Tours of the home, which looks much as it did when Grant and his family lived here, are offered Wednesday through Sunday.
5. Elihu B. Washburne Home
Elihu B. Washburne, a prominent Galena attorney, and close friend and associate of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, also served in Congress from 1853 to 1869. Washburne lived in this circa-1843 brick Greek Revival home with his wife, Adele, and seven children. Tours of the house, which include a peek into the library where Grant learned of his election to the U.S. presidency on the evening of November 3, 1868, are offered seasonally.
6. Dowling House
Built of native limestone in 1826, the Dowling House is the oldest home in Galena. The home’s first floor was initially used as a trading post while the Dowling family lived upstairs. Thirty-minute tours of the building, which is furnished with period supplies and furnishings, primitives, and a collection of Galena pottery, are offered from May to November.
7. Old Blacksmith Shop
Before the advent of industrialization, people relied on blacksmiths to provide them with tools (nails, shovels, and hoes) and items necessary for daily life, such as kettles and kitchen utensils. Though the circa-1897 Old Blacksmith Shop is now a museum, its forges are still operable and working blacksmiths demonstrate their once-vital art as they craft custom projects. A small gift shop showcases items forged on-site.
8. Julien Dubuque Bridge
The trussed arch Julien Dubuque Bridge spans 5,760 feet across the Mississippi River, connecting Illinois and Iowa. Drive across the circa-1943 bridge, which follows U.S. Route 20, or enjoy a stroll along the pedestrian walkway.
9. Dubuque Shot Tower
Designed for the production of shot balls, which were formed by the free fall of molten lead from a sieve at the top of a tower into a water basin at its base, the circa-1856, 120-foot-tall Dubuque Shot Tower is one of the country’s last remaining shot towers. The tower, built of Galena Dolomite stone, once produced between 6 and 8 tons of lead shot destined for battlefields daily. Its interior is closed to the public, but outdoor signs detail its use and importance, and you can drive your car right up this still-standing souvenir of U.S. Civil War history.
10. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium brings the mighty Mississippi to life through engaging exhibits. Meet the river’s inhabitants, including frogs, turtles, bald eagles, and otters; see an authentic dugout canoe crafted by Native Americans and paddled from Minnesota to Dubuque in the 1860s; and step aboard a sand and gravel barge, and explore how erosion affects the river’s ecosystem. Some of the biggest fish species of the Mississippi River, including sturgeon, catfish, and gar, live in the museum’s 30,000-gallon freshwater habitat.
11. Fenelon Place Elevator
Take a ride on the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway, the Fenelon Place Elevator. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, April 1 through November 30 (closed only on Thanksgiving), the 296-foot-long historic funicular transports visitors from Fourth Street up to Fenelon Place, where sweeping views of the downtown Dubuque business district and the Mississippi River await.
12. Mines of Spain State Recreation Area
Located on 1,437 acres of beautiful wooded and prairie land just south of downtown Dubuque, the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area was voted one of Iowa’s “Watchable Wildlife Areas.” Hike or cross-country ski on the park’s 15 miles of trails, and you might catch a glimpse of a red-shouldered hawk, flying squirrel, white-tailed deer, or wild turkey.
The area’s earliest known inhabitants were the Meskwaki people, and their mounds, village sites, and rock shelters dot the landscape here, as well as former lead mines, which highlight the area’s early industry. When Julien Dubuque, the first European to settle in what would become the state of Iowa, died, the Meskwaki buried him with tribal honors here, high above the Mississippi River beneath a log mausoleum at the same site where the current monument, built in 1897, now stands.
13. Crystal Lake Cave
It took more than 2 million years to form Crystal Lake Cave, the longest living cavern in Iowa. Follow the staircase from the gift shop to tunnels deep underground, where active stalactites and stalagmites are still growing in this ever-evolving cave. The tour’s highlight is Crystal Lake, a 30-foot-long lake that’s just 2 feet deep, yet seems to stretch to infinite depths. The cave is open to visitors between May and mid-October; call ahead to reserve a tour.
Insider tip: Where to stay
In Illinois, Eagle Ridge Resort features 80 guest rooms at its lakefront inn and more than 150 distinctive homes and villas immersed in 6,800 scenic acres of rolling hills and woods. The 55-room DeSoto House Hotel, on Main Street in Galena, is the oldest operating hotel in Illinois; opened in April 1855, Abraham Lincoln once spoke from the hotel’s balcony. Across the Mississippi River in Iowa, the Beaux Arts Hotel Julien Dubuque features 133 lavish guest rooms and a full-service spa.