Fall tour of northeast Iowa
I thought I had been to northeast Iowa before, but only after spending two days up there earlier this week do I truly appreciate the beauty of this part of the state. It’s really not at all like the rest of Iowa. In the fall, it’s sort of the New England of the Midwest.
I headed northeast last Sunday morning, full of advice from my friends Scott and Jim and accompanied by a fall color tour guide written by Mike Kilen of the Des Moines Register. From Ames, I took I-35 north to Hwy. 20 because I wanted to get there fast, but once I reached Hwy. 150 at Independence, things started to slow down. There truly is no easy way to get there, and that’s part of the fun.
So I took Hwy. 150 to Oelwein (a funny name for a town) and then Hwy. 3 to Strawberry Point. Scott told me the drive from Strawberry Point to Elkader was pretty, and it was. It’s amazing – when you turn north on Hwy. 13 it’s like the land just changes. Suddenly my car was groaning up the hills. IN IOWA. Just outside Elkader is the Barn on the Bluff B&B, where I stopped to take pictures. You apparently can reserve the entire 100-year-old barn for a family getaway. I did not go in (I was more or less trespassing as it was) but the outside looks beautiful and the pictures on the website are really cool. One thing I will say for sure: the view is fantastic.
From Elkader I stayed on Hwy. 13 up to, well, I’m not sure where, but I came to a sign that said “this way to Guttenberg” so I took that road (Hwy. 52). If you are following along on the map, you will see that I backtracked about 20 miles, but that’s OK. The drive was pretty, with a great payoff in Guttenberg: a view of the Mississippi River.
I’ve seen the Mississippi dozens and dozens of times, but I have to say that it looks very, very different in northeast Iowa/northwest Wisconsin. Lots of picturesque little “islands” and cool inlets and steep bluffs and unique bridges. It’s nothing like crossing the Mississippi in St. Louis, or the Quad Cities, or even Dubuque. So I took some pictures up on a bluff overlooking the river and then went into Guttenberg and walked around. It was a nice, warm day and lots of people were strolling the park that runs the length of the town along the river.
From Guttenberg, I took the Great River Road to McGregor, stopping in Pikes Peak State Park just long enough to realize I didn’t want to be there. By mid-afternoon, the temperature had reached the upper 80s and I swear every man, woman, child, and dog had driven their car to the park for what might be the last nice Sunday afternoon of the season. I literally could not find a place to park, and after being in a traffic jam for about half an hour, I headed OUT of the park and into McGregor.
My originally plan was to hike in Pikes Peak and then go to Effigy Mounds and THEN go to McGregor, where I had a hotel reservation. But I hadn’t counted on the crowds. And here’s the thing about me and crowds: I don’t like them. I love the idea that people are using and enjoying our state parks, but I just wish they wouldn’t do it when I’m there. I much prefer being alone. So I quickly changed my plans and decided to do those two things on Monday instead. Which left me with lots of time on my hands on Sunday afternoon.
Lucky for me, the town has several antiques stores. And there was a fall arts festival going on. Plus, I found the Old Man River Brewing Company, a wonderful bar and restaurant located in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I had no problem killing time at the bar, watching the people out on the street and downing a few Scottish ales.
I stayed at possibly the weirdest hotel EVER that night in McGregor. It’s called the Alexander Hotel…well, technically, it’s the Latinos Mexican Restaurant Bar Hotel – at least that’s what the sign says on the front. Now, I chose this hotel with my eyes wide open. Here is what it says on the hotel’s website: “Seldom, in a small Mississippi River town will you find a hotel with nicely furnished rooms, good food and drink, meeting rooms, high speed Internet connection and a festive, relaxed, friendly Mexican atmosphere.”
True, right? I actually chose the hotel based on the address, because it seemed to be within walking distance of pretty much everything in McGregor, which it was. So I am not complaining. In fact, I sort of liked the place, even though when I first saw it I laughed out loud and figured my room would definitely smell like salsa. But it worked fine for me – the ultimate anti-chain hotel.
So I slept at the weird hotel and got up early the next morning because at this point I was behind in my itinerary. I headed straight for Pikes Peak State Park where – hallelujah! – there were about three people (plus me) watching the sun come up and the fog roll off the river. A more spectacular sight there never was. I took a lot of pictures and congratulated myself for being so smart to come back on a Monday morning. Good decision!
I needed to eat something after that, and the restaurant Mike Kilen recommended in McGregor wasn’t actually open despite the three huge signs declaring it was NOW OPEN. So I drove about 30 seconds to Marquette and ate eggs, hashbrowns, and toast at an authentic little riverfront diner. I know I was the only tourist there, because I was the only one carrying a camera.
My next stop was Effigy Mounds National Monument, which I am embarrassed to say I had never visited before, even though I’ve lived in Iowa for 13 years. Well, it’s just an absolute state treasure and I can’t believe it took me so long to realize this. I paid my entrance fee (just $3, or free with a National Parks pass) and hiked up to the Great Bear Mound Group and then on to Fire Point and Eagle Rock, both of which offered spectacular views of the Mississippi River. I literally could have spent a full day at Effigy Mounds, because is has everything: history, scenic beauty, great hiking through gorgeous woods. But I needed to move on. And besides, just about the time I got back to the visitors’ center after my hike, a busload of middle school kids unloaded…and you know how I feel about crowds. And groups of kids are the absolute worst (sorry!)
From Effigy Mounds, I took Hwy. 76 to Yellow River State Forest. I was hoping to do a little hiking there, but I ended up mostly just driving through the forest and enjoying the quiet and trying not to get lost. After that, I drove through Harper’s Ferry (disappointing) and then up to Lansing.
Lansing is a really, really cool little river town. For one thing, it’s got the scariest bridge I’ve ever driven across. And it’s got a park at the top of a tall bluff that to get there you have to literally make these steep, climbing, hairpin turns. Again, my car was groaning. But the top of that peak (Mount Hosmer) offered yet another extraordinary view of the Mississippi. I’m pretty sure it makes the cover of the state tour guide every year (and now it’s on my Facebook page).
I got gas and ate lunch in Lansing at a place called T.J. Hunter’s where the nice waitress let me order a grilled cheese sandwich off the kids’ menu. As I sat in the restaurant, I noticed a place across the street called Horsfall’s Lansing Variety, which Mike Kilen had specifically mentioned in his article was a not-to-be-missed attraction. So after I finished my meal, I walked across the street and went in Horsfall’s. It’s definitely an experience, that store. Have you seen the show “Hoarders: Buried Alive” on TLC? I am ashamed to admit that I watched that show once, and Horsfall’s kind of reminded me of the crazy people who can’t throw anything away. But it’s really a fun store and I bought a couple of books there for $1.49 each. You can’t beat that.
From Lansing, I probably would have taken Hwy. 9 to Waukon and then on to Decorah. But my friend Scott’s dad said to tell me to take Elon Drive (which is also called Alamakee County Road A52), so I did. After seeing so many breathtaking views of the Mississippi River and such pretty wooded areas, I was not expecting that FARMLAND would be the highlight of my northeast Iowa adventure, but indeed it was.
The whole area of far-northeast Iowa has pretty farmland. I kept stopping and taking pictures of it. Sometimes I’d round a curve and there would be a little white church with a steeple and a little country cemetery next to a cornfield or a rolling hillside with a barn and some cows and a grain silo and I’d think, MAN, this is really pretty. But the 13 miles of Elon Drive / A52 have got to be the absolutely most beautiful farmland in America. Hands down. It’s like a freaking Grant Wood painting from end to end. (Thanks, Scott’s dad, for the tip! I never would have gone this way.)
Once I got to Waukon, I hooked up with Hwy. 9 and headed to Decorah, a super nice town where I was hoping to eat ice cream and fill up my coffee cup for the drive home. Alas, to my great disappointment, the Sugar Bowl ice cream store was closed for the season. I had to make do with a strong cup of coffee and a power-walk along Decorah’s fine main shopping district.
I took Hwy. 9 back across to I-35 and tried to stay awake and not hit any farm equipment. The highlight of that section was driving through Osage, Iowa, only to realize that town had the most brilliant fall color of anywhere I’d visited in the last 48 hours. Truly, all of the trees looked like they were on fire. In Osage, Iowa. Who knew?
I’m back home now, with more than 2,000 miles on my car since Oct. 1.