For history buffs and nature lovers, the River Bluffs Scenic Byway in northeast Iowa is a travel bucket list must.
This 109-mile route loops through Clayton and Fayette counties and passes through some of Iowa’s most beautiful and unique geography, including towering bluffs, rolling prairie hills, valleys, winding rivers and woods. Most towns along the route are remarkably small and could easily be missed in a blink, but among them are hidden gems of history, natural beauty and more.
“It’s the second most scenic state byway in Iowa,” said Jared Nielsen of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development, noting the nearby Driftless Area Scenic Byway as the first. “This byway is more known for history and archaeology.”
The area is exceptionally beautiful in the fall, as the changing leaves saturate the bluffs in magnificent color, but even in the middle of winter, a road trip along the route can help cure cravings to break free from hibernation.
My husband and I embarked on our River Bluffs Scenic Byway day trip just after a snowstorm, when the landscape was especially eye-catching, blanketed in fresh, powdery white snow.
Since it is a looping route, you could theoretically start anywhere along the byway and drive the entire road to see it all. We only had time for a quick day trip but would recommend at least a weekend (or week) to enjoy the entire byway, with stops along the way. There’s a lot to see and do, especially when you take detours to see things off the beaten path.
We started in Fayette, home to just under 1,500 people and a small private college, Upper Iowa University. The Volga River and nearby parks draw many to the area for fishing, canoeing and hiking in the summer and fall.
We didn’t stay long but did make time to stop and see the university’s historic campus, which looked all the more majestic surrounded by several feet of snow.
Another eye-catcher was Fayette’s opera house, restored to look nearly new with a fresh coat of brilliant blue paint. If you’re a fan of opera houses and other historic architecture, you’ll be thrilled by this route. There were several opera houses along the way, but none stood out quite like this one.
From Fayette, we headed north through West Union toward Clermont. If you veer off the route slightly toward Eldorado, be sure to stop at the scenic overlook that sits atop the bluff at Goekin Park for the picturesque view of the tiny town, sitting at the bottom of a valley with an ornate church tower at its center.
In Clermont, we learned a lot of popular tourist destinations were closed for the winter, such as the Riegel Blacksmith Shop, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s one of the last remaining blacksmith shops that’s been left untouched, with all the equipment as is,” Nielsen said.
We hoped to visit the Montauk Historic Site — a mansion built in 1874 that was once home to Iowa’s 12th Governor — but a steep pile of snow blocked the entrance. The historic site is surrounded by more than 100,000 pine trees on the estate’s 46 acres. If you’re here between Memorial Day and October 31, be sure to jump on a group tour.
If it’s nature you’re looking for, drive 10 minutes off the byway to Gilbertson’s Nature Center on County Road B84. It has more than 345 acres and five miles of trails open year-round, where you can hike, bike or horseback ride. In the winter, bring your cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Next stop: Gunder, an unincorporated community widely known for one thing: the Gunderburger. This famous one-pound, hand-pattied burger is served at The Irish Shanty (previously the The Irish Shanti, now under new ownership), a restaurant so low-profile you could easily miss it if you’re not paying attention. Inside, you’ll find a charming, classically Midwestern small-town bar, where there’s plenty more to the menu besides the Gunderburger. But when presented the opportunity to eat something the restaurant is famous for, it’s hard to resist. The burger lived up to its name: it was massive, delicious and perfect to fuel the rest of our road trip (at least until dinner)
On your way out of town, stop by the Effigy Mounds National Monument, home to an extensive 14-mile trail system and hundreds of preserved prehistoric mounds built by Native Americans. Take a hike by yourself, or hop on a ranger-led tour for an educational and enjoyable outdoor experience.
“They’re great storytellers,” Austin said of the rangers. “You’ll get more of the history and experience more than you can imagine. It’s a little bit more theatrical and really amazing.”
After a satisfying lunch, we headed toward McGregor and Marquette. The neighboring towns along the Mississippi are an especially popular tourist destination in the fall, when the bluffs light up in magnificent color. Even in winter — and despite being hit by a tornado last year that leveled a few historic buildings — there’s still plenty to do.
McGregor was quick to clean up after the storm and jumped back on its feet and reopened several restaurants, antique shops and bookstores within days.
“We’re a very resilient community,” said Kristie Austin, executive director of the McGregor- Marquette Chamber of Commerce.
With little time left in our day, we made sure to stop by some local favorites.
First, Rivertown Fine Books and nearby Paper Moon Books and Beyond, a gift shop complete with two shop cats, great taste in music and a million fun things to browse through. We didn’t make it there before it closed, but Austin told me By the Spoonful, a gourmet food market, deli and coffee shop, is another must-see.
The owner, a former chef for a supermarket chain, encourages customers to experiment in their kitchen with fresh, local ingredients and stocks her small market with Iowa- and Midwestern-made products. If you’re hungry, check out the deli case for a signature sandwich to go.
In neighboring Marquette, we made a quick stop at Eagles Landing Winery for a complimentary tasting of their award-winning wines. If you have time, especially during the fall, I recommend getting a bottle to enjoy on their patio.
Next, we headed south to Elkader, where a popular stop for photos and tours is the Motor Mill. Another town with a population just over 1000, Elkader has a few surprises of its own.Just a few miles downstream from Elkader, this six-story limestone mill built in the 1860s is on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you enjoy antique shopping, be sure to stop by the Turkey River Mall. I didn’t get nearly enough time there on my expedited road trip, but with 14,000 square feet and four floors full of unique inventory, there’s plenty to explore.
For dinner, we stopped by Schera’s Algerian American restaurant, which serves Algerian, North African and Mediterranean cuisine alongside Midwestern favorites.
As the sun set, most of the attractions on my to-see list had closed. A day trip on this byway is certainly fun, but if you want to take in the whole route and all it has to offer, I’d advise a weekend or even a week.
“There are a lot of little gems all around,” Austin said. “I encourage people to get out of their cars and just walk around. They’ll find the gems.”