story and photography by Susan Benton
[Great Motorcycle Roads: Iowa Byways originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Rider magazine]
A perfect day trip or weekend destination for riders from Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison and Des Moines is Dubuque, Iowa. The city is located on the Mississippi River, on the Iowaborder with Illinois and Wisconsin, and not far from Minnesota.
The Great River Road on either side of the “Muddy Mississippi” will take you there through lush green woods, past limestone bluffs, up steep ridges and down into the expansive valleys of the river. There are many things to do in and around Dubuque, but our favorite every summer is to visit the arboretum in full bloom and enjoy the ride getting there.
My husband Mike and I started this favorite ride on a newer bike. We sold our 1983 Gold Wing Interstate to an appreciative buyer and now ride a 2003 Honda ST1300. We left Iowa City to the north by way of Iowa 1 to U.S. 151, then headed east on Iowa 64. In Maquoketa we stopped for brunch at Flapjacks Family Restaurant, a place we have frequented many times on trips to Banowetz Antiques, which is just across the street.
We continued east on Highway 64 to U.S. 52, turning north just short of Sabula onto the Great River Road. The ride to Dubuque is hilly, winding and densely wooded, sunlight flashing on and off through the treetops. We have ridden miles of the Great River Road in several states and the truth is that some of the time you are not by the river at all, but it is always scenic nonetheless.
Our destination was on the far northwest corner of the city. When you arrive at Dubuque on U.S. 52, at the first major intersection go west on U.S. 20, away from downtown. At John F. Kennedy Road, go north to the NW Arterial (also Iowa 32). Signs will then lead you into Marshall Park and the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.
When you see how enormous the arboretum is, you will be surprised to learn that it is the only one in the United States staffed and maintained entirely by volunteers, and it is free. About 30 acres are meticulously groomed and include a rose garden, hosta garden, formal English garden, annual gardens and perennial gardens. Most specimens are identified with small markers.
If you’re not afraid of bees you can walk through a prairie area, the tall grasses high over your head. There is also a Japanese garden at the bottom of the hill with a large koi pond fed by several rocky waterfalls cascading down the hillside. On this day we enjoyed a breeze keeping bugs at bay, and spent a leisurely hour or so following the gently sloping paths from garden to garden.
Retrace your route to Highway 20 and continue east to the riverfront where you must visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, a Smithsonian Institute affiliate. It begins with a well-done video tracing the history of the river in both natural and human terms, after which you are free to wander. Across the street from the museum is the new Diamond Jo Casino if you have some money you are itching to wager. More gambling can be done at the Dubuque Greyhound Park and Casino (recently renamed Mystique Greyhound Park and Casino), with live racing from May through October.
Just up the hill, Downtown Dubuque’s restored historic district showcases ornate turn-of-the-century buildings. There are plenty of small shops and numerous places to dine including at the Brickstone Brewery.
At the end of Fourth Street, for a mere $2 each, you can ride the Fenelon Place Elevator. It is really two cable cars originally built in 1882 designed to get a local businessman up the 292 feet to his house on the bluff. Without the cable cars, a buggy ride took a half-hour each way, not allowing for the midday nap that was customary.
Several elegant bed and breakfasts are downtown but if you take a very short ride north on Iowa 3, east on Peru Road, a lovely place to have reservations is Four Mounds. Rooms are available in Grey House, an arts-and-crafts-style mansion, or in Marvin’s Garden, a nearby private cabin. We have stayed in the cabin overlooking the Mississippi where you can lounge on the secluded river-view deck in silence, breathing in the smells of the surrounding mixed forest. In the morning, a hearty breakfast is served to all in Grey House.
If you love twisty roads rising and falling, take a side trip north of Dubuque on the Great River Road about 10 miles to Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown. Breitbach’s has been a family operated restaurant since 1852, but burned to the ground on Christmas Eve in 2007. The family rebuilt quickly, with help from the entire tiny community (population 73), and reopened on June 14, 2008. Unbelievably, it burned down again a few months later and as of June 2009 was being rebuilt one more time!
Immediately north of Breitbach’s is a scenic overlook on a high ridge with a commanding view of broad valleys on both sides. Dozens of shades of green blanket the river valley which was carved out by glaciers eons ago, and in the distance to the east is the river.
The breeze we enjoyed so much in the arboretum was now gusty as we headed for home, and it grabbed the chin of my helmet, threatening to twist my neck beyond its natural limits. I began to understand why wind farms are sprouting up in parts of Iowa.
As always, we enjoyed lightly traveled roads through farmland shimmering with the year’s new corn and soybeans. We’ll go back to Dubuque again and again—if you live in the four-state area and haven’t been there, you need to go. Just be sure you make time for the arboretum. You won’t regret it.