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Relax in Iowa’s river towns

The Celebration Belle, courtesy Quad Cities CVB

Wooden rafts, paddle wheelers, horse-drawn wagons, barges and motorcoaches: On Iowa’s Great River Road, your group follows in the footsteps of generations of American travelers.

The Mississippi River bisects America, flowing from Minnesota in the North all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. And although the river has been important for many of the states it touches, its impact is extraordinary in Iowa, where the entire eastern border of the state is formed and fed by the mighty Mississippi.

The river has historically been the lifeblood of commerce in Iowa and has played an enormous role in the founding and development of many Iowa cities and towns. The Great River Road, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, has become a beloved part of the state, leading travelers through both scenic farmlands and picturesque river towns.

Take your group on a journey along Iowa’s Great River Road, and you’ll come to appreciate the diversity of these communities and the wonders of the river that flows through them all.

Start in the South
Groups can make a short or long tour out of Iowa’s Great River Road, breezing quickly along the way or taking their time to linger in the towns and cities that give the road its distinctive charm. For an in-depth experience, start in Keokuk, a town at the southeastern tip of Iowa.

“They have Lock and Dam 19 there,” said Carrie Koelker, executive director of the Eastern Iowa Tourism Association. “It’s the largest lock on the Mississippi River and the site of an electric plant built in 1913. You can actually view the electric power plant still working.”

The National Cemetery in Keokuk is one of 12 original national cemeteries in the United States. Guides take groups on tours of the cemetery to see where Union and Confederate soldiers were buried during the Civil War.

Traveling north from Keokuk, you’ll go through smaller towns such as Fort Madison, Burlington and Muscatine.

“Those are all historic river towns that have their own little gems,” Koelker said. “Burlington has the historic Snake Alley, the crookedest street in the world. Muscatine is known for the Pearl Button Museum, where the history of the button industry comes to life.”

A Fun Foursome

Next stop upriver is the Quad Cities. Comprising Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, along with Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, this destination offers a variety of urban amenities and Mississippi River experiences for groups.

“One popular place that highlights what the river has brought to our area is the River Music Experience,” said Jessica Waytenick, public relations manager at the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The river brought jazz from New Orleans, folk music from the North and blues from the St. Louis area. They have a great program for groups that traces the migration of the music with live performances.”

Elsewhere in the Quad Cities, visitors can take a tour of another lock and dam at the Mississippi River Visitors Center and learn about the work of the Army Corps of Engineers. Another popular option is an excursion aboard one of several sightseeing boats, such as the Celebration Belle.

“The Celebration Belle docks in Moline, but travels up and down the river for lunch, dinner or sightseeing cruises,” Waytenick said. “In the fall, you see the colors of the trees on a fall foliage cruise.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.