Weekend Getaway Along Iowa's Great River Road
The forest in Pikes Peak State Park, just outside McGregor, takes on a fairy-tale quality a few steps from the parking lot. Step onto the trail to Bridal Veil Falls, and you enter a world populated with slender, fingerlike trees sprouting up from leaf-strewn hillsides and rocky ravine floors. From the forest floor, the trees feel sparse and tidy compared to the pine-packed forests to the north or the wild-with-understory forests to the east, but Pikes Peak canopies bloom large, interlocking to block the sky and turn light into shadow. Trickling water murmurs through the hills, even though the waterfall and stream are a half-mile down the trail—beyond its transition from pavement to well-trod damp earth.
Pikes Peak kicks off (or finishes) a trip along the Iowa Great River Road, a 328-mile scenic byway hugging the state's eastern border. The drive winds past stretches of farmland and through tunnels of trees that open to views of sheer bluffs where eagles soar above the glittering Mississippi River. Personality-packed towns along the way, like Dubuque and Le Claire, encourage long stops for treasure hunting in vintage shops, dining in farm-to-table eateries and exploring the great outdoors.
Pikes Peak State Park, near McGregor, makes a perfect starting point for your Great River Road journey (although the Iowa portion of the road technically begins at New Albin, 42 miles to the north). The ½-mile-long Bridal Veil Falls trail crosses a boardwalk over a ravine to reach views of the (small) falls and a crow's nest overlooking the river; it's part of the 11½-mile network.
From there, take the twisting byway 53 miles south to Dubuque, where the Fenelon Place Elevator ferries people up the world's steepest scenic railway to take in three states (Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois) and the Mississippi River.
Attractions that round out a day: the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium explains the ecology of the river; the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens maintains an award-winning rose garden, 750 varieties of hosta and a Japanese garden. Eagle Point Park offers a great place to picnic as well as take in views across the Mississippi and Lock & Dam 11.
Retire to a guest room in a former Al Capone hideout, the elegant Hotel Julien Dubuque.
Related: Top Things to Do in Dubuque
A 99-mile drive south passes through one-stoplight towns and rolling farmland en route to Le Claire, north of the Quad Cities. This small town is best known for Antique Archeology, the vintage-goods shop at the heart of The History Channel show American Pickers. Shop for bicycles, beer signs, kids' toys and license plates.
Related: Top Things to Do in the Quad Cities