5. Mississippi Palisades State Park
There’s no toe-dipping to be had in the water along this stretch of the Mississippi, where the banks rise steeply from the river to form a magnificent row of tree-lined bluffs looking out to the west. Experienced climbers can sometimes be seen scaling the sheer cliffs from below, and hikers can travel some 13 miles of trails at the top, many of which trace old Indian paths through the dense growth. In spring visitors can pluck fresh watercress from spring-fed streams or hunt morel mushrooms amid the riot of wildflowers topping the palisades. Though the Great River Road (which runs on either side of the river along most of this drive) hums with traffic nearby, the park is home to such wild creatures as muskrats, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and pileated woodpeckers.
From the Savanna–Sabula Bridge at Savanna, an impressive vista sweeps out over the wide Mississippi, punctuated here and there by a waterbird skimming the surface or an eagle circling overhead. Constructed of 1930s metalwork resembling that of an old toy Erector Set, the bridge joins the town of Savanna and the midriver island community of Sabula, Iowa. Farther downstream a diked-off portion of the river known as Spring Lake offers fishing and bird-watching. Continuing on Rte. 84, the drive heads south through flattening plains. Just outside of Thomson you can buy a slice of fresh watermelon grown in moist, sandy soil near the Mississippi.
7. Thomson Causeway Recreation Area
Situated adjacent to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, this little island (managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) is a peaceful spot for picnicking, camping, and wildlife viewing. Bring your binoculars and be on the lookout; you might see great blue and lesser herons, egrets, beavers, painted turtles, and other water-loving creatures that reside on this appealing sandbar.
8. Lock and Dam No. 13
One spectacle that rivals the river itself is the sight of a great Mississippi barge “locking through” at one of the 29 locks built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between Minneapolis and Granite City, Illinois. At No. 13 you can view the process from a visitors’ observation platform.
At the north end of Fulton, a riverside town named for the inventor of the steamboat, lies the model pioneer village of Heritage Canyon, complete with smithy and one-room schoolhouse. Before ending at Rapids City, the route stops off at Port Byron, an 1828 steamer town where the Mississippi River Tug Fest is held every August, with teams at either end of a rope stretched across the river—a unique annual celebration of the mighty Mississippi.