story and photography by Susan Benton
[Iowa Motorcycle Rides: Discovering America’s Heartland was first published as a Favorite Ride in the March 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
Although Iowa probably isn’t on your short list of places to ride, it has a prairie beauty all its own. If you really want to get away from it all, take a day ride through Iowa in the fall after the summer heat and oppressive humidity have subsided.
You’ll enjoy a glimpse of harvest time and a peek at fall colors. And you’ll get a taste of what America must have looked like before cities crossed the country and compressed humanity into a world of steel and glass. My favorite fall ride includes a Scenic Byway featuring a breathtaking expanse of America’s Heartland. It begins and ends in Iowa City after traveling the rolling farmland made famous by Grant Wood paintings.
Leave Iowa City by way of Highway 1 and head north to Stone City. Several of Wood’s rural landscapes are of this area, landscapes I never appreciated until I rode in them. Buildings for miles around Stone City are built exclusively of the limestone still quarried there. This stone is prized for the subtle natural beauty it adds to retaining walls, patios and walkways all over America.
Just east of Stone City is Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum established in 1989. Admission is a paltry $7 to walk through the history of the motorcycle, complete with a Lady Riders section. More than 180 motorcycles are on display, including a 1910 Harley-Davidson Single (more bicycle than motorcycle), a replica Captain America Bike from the movie Easy Rider, and a 1947 Indian formerly owned and ridden by Steve McQueen.
Continue north on Highway 151 to Monticello and pick up Highway 38. Along the way you come to Delhi, where a man-made recreational lake is crowded with homes. Here you will cross the Maquoketa River, its valley in full fall splendor. Continuing north through Elkport to Garber you join Scenic Byway C7X, the high point of the day in more ways than one. The Scenic Byway runs along an elevated ridge with a panoramic vista of miles and miles of uncluttered land and a “Big Sky Country” feeling, Iowa-style. Perched here one is awestruck at the vastness of the plains, as the first Europeans surely were as they moved westward across the country.
From the ridgeline you descend steeply to the Mississippi River on a narrow road flanked by limestone bluffs. You enter Guttenberg, a typical river town. Its shop-lined main street facing the Mississippi is reminiscent of an earlier era. On a perfect fall day with temperatures in the 60s, you will see many fellow motorcyclists enjoying the clean air and minimal traffic. Across the river, foliage covers the hillsides in a watercolor effect. You can eat at Café Mississippi overlooking the river, its wall of windows providing an unobstructed view. After a modestly priced meal, a short walk from the café takes you to Lock and Dam #10. You might get lucky and see the lock in action, stair-stepping a barge or yacht up or down the river.
For a more breathtaking look at the mighty Mississippi, you can travel north from Guttenberg on the Great River Road to Pike’s Peak State Park. There you can gaze across the river to Wisconsin, while bald eagles soar overhead. Or if you’ve had enough riding for one day you can leave Guttenberg and ride back to Iowa City; south on Highway 52 to Highway 136, reconnecting with U.S. Highway 151 to Highway 1.
Small towns dot this return route, often home to well-kept, ornate churches, their steeples reaching toward the sun. Along the way farmers harvest the summer crops of soy beans and corn. Much of the corn being picked is field corn grown for livestock feed, not sweet corn sold at local markets. Machine-rolled round hay bales weighing 1,000 pounds or more dry in the fields. Contrary to popular belief, only 5.9 percent of Iowans are farmers. Most of us have never lived on a farm.
Back in the Iowa City area, just south of Interstate 80, there are a multitude of cultural, dining and entertainment venues, and lots of accommodations. Most national motel chains are represented, but don’t expect to get a room on a University of Iowa football weekend. Motorcycle riding would not be recommended for hours before or after a home game, either, as 70,000 fans flock into the center of the city. It’s best to choose an away game weekend in late September or early to mid-October.
After the day’s relaxing ride there is still plenty to do. Hancher Auditorium brings international entertainment to town, including Broadway plays, dance troupes and music from jazz to classical. In addition, Iowa City is home to numerous acting companies. The Riverside Theater’s outdoor Shakespeare Festival on the Iowa River in City Park ends in July, but plays are produced year-round in their indoor theater.
If gambling is your thing, approximately 15 miles south of Iowa City on Highway 218 is the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, opened in the fall of 2006. Jay Leno, Kenny Loggins and Josh Gracin have headlined in its lounge.
Twenty miles to the southwest of the city on Highway 1 is Kalona. Both Amish and Mennonite communities are well established there. This small town offers antique shops and a top-notch restaurant, Tuscan Moon, serving dinners only on Wednesday-Saturday and by reservation only.
Another favorite destination, west on Highway 6, are the Amana Colonies, originally a German religious commune. Restaurants serve enormous family style dinners and the towns are known for the Amana Woolen Mill and the Amana Furniture Shop, where hand-crafted furniture is made.
The Iowa City/Coralville area is home to perhaps 100 restaurants and lots of shopping. Restaurants serve Mexican, Thai, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and more. In Coralville, Coral Ridge Mall houses more than 120 stores. In contrast, downtown Iowa City features cozy, locally owned restaurants, bars, boutiques and bookstores. Prairie Lights, a well-known independent bookstore, sponsors free weekly readings by notable writers.
If you have never thought of riding in Iowa, you should add this fall ride to your list. You can’t beat it for smog-free air, tranquil back roads, humbling views of the powerful Mississippi River, spectacular autumn colors, and unexpected cultural and entertainment choices.