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Exploring the Heartland: A Father-Son Adventure to Iowa and the Mighty Mississippi River

Anticipating the arrival of late June, we marked the date on our calendar. We felt a mix of excitement for our son's upcoming experience at an overnight camp at Loras College in Iowa, yet also a tinge of sadness at the thought of him being physically away from us for a week. Upon further inspection of the camp's location, I recognized the potential to turn the journey into much more than just a drive to drop off my son. The route to get there passes through some of the most picturesque areas of Illinois and Iowa. While I had previously explored Galena and the Iowa border along the Mississippi River, I had never ventured beyond that. With my wife preoccupied, the weekend offered the perfect opportunity for some valuable father-son bonding time in a Midwestern state that I've seen far to little of - Iowa.


Deciding to depart a day in advance of the Sunday drop off date, I carefully planned our trip to ensure we made the best use of our time and seized the chance to explore something new together.


Departing on a Saturday afternoon, we embarked on a 3-hour journey straight to Dubuque, Iowa, heading directly to the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. The route leading there is a visual delight, with the rolling hills of Galena continuing past the Iowa border and towards the Tri-State area near Dubuque and the Mississippi River. This is where the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa meet and this convergence of states offers some spectacular scenery alongside one of the most important rivers in the world.


Originating from the Chicagoland region, this drive stands out as one of the best in the Midwest. It's not just the rolling hills, but also the vibrant array of green crops, each subtly different from the next. The neatly stacked bales of hay scattered across the fields exude a sense of casual perfection. Horses and cattle alternate between roaming and relaxing under the blue skies, grazing and making their way to ponds to quench their thirst. It's a drive that doesn't get old and is a true gift from above.

Hiking on the bluffs of the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area offers diverse landscapes, dense forests, and stunning views overlooking the Mississippi River. Hugo and I really enjoyed the Tree hike which offered expansive views of the surrounding areas in addition to signs that included details about the different tree species. After completing the Tree hike, we dipped down into the forest for a short 1 mile hike that originated from the E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center and ended at a chapel dedicated to the namesake of Dubuque, Julien Dubuque. We only scratched the surface of all this area has to offer, but we made the most of our time on a pleasant Saturday afternoon.


After a pleasant stroll through the downtown area where there are numerous restaurants, a couple breweries, and an impressive Town Clock that stoically marks the center of Main Street, we enjoyed a satisfying dinner at Oolong Asian Cuisine. Later, we returned to the hotel to rest and gear up for the adventures planned for the following day.


Sunday morning breakfast at another cute Dubuque offering, Birdies Bistro, was followed by a beautiful 30 minute drive through more pure Iowa beauty en route to Maquoketa Caves State Park. Iowa is home to nearly 500 known caves, with Maquoketa Caves State Park boasting the largest number of caves in the state. They have more than that though, as the trail system in the park links caves with forested trails making for a terrific hiking experience. Situated in the Driftless region of Iowa, this area was left untouched by the most recent ice age, making it a true treasure.

It's quite surprising to navigate the picturesque rolling hills of this stunning region, with green crop fields all around, and then enter a visitor center where two left turns lead you to a completely unexpected setting. It's like a different world as we descend below for 2 full hours of hiking where we alternate between trampling through heavy emerald green forests and dipping beneath the earth into caves where we walked, ducking along the way, and even crawled (only my son) to fully explore each cave. Using the flashlight on my phone proved handy as we navigated through the dark, damp caves dripping with condensation. We walked along for hundreds of feet in the Dance hall cave, taking in it's twists and turns before we eventually emerged to sunlight and thick green forest. The forest hike, combined with exploring the caves, especially the Ice cave which is notably cooler than its surroundings, led to a delightful adventure at a terrific state park.


Following our captivating hike, it was almost time to leave Hugo at Loras College for his week-long sports camp, but we still had time for one final stroll along the Mississippi River. Downtown Dubuque features a brief half-mile walk atop the flood walls at the Port of Dubuque, offering stunning views of the river and the various bridges that span one of the nation's most significant waterways. The Dubuque Star Brewery, located conveniently below the Riverwalk, stands out, boasting an impressive building and a sprawling and inviting patio. While Hugo and I savored the river view from a bench on the path, I pulled out my phone and we dedicated some time to learning more about the waterway in front of us. Examining a map depicting the entire course of the river, it was interesting to trace the twists and turns of the Mississippi River as it meanders through our beautiful country, bringing vitality, commerce, and beauty along its path. This river holds immense significance for numerous communities spanning ten states, including major urban centers like Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. Ranking as the fourth longest river globally, following the Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze rivers, this 2,340-mile watercourse flows from Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting through the heart of the nation.


Saying goodbye to Hugo was as hard as I expected it to be, but I felt good knowing that we made the most of our time driving, walking and hiking through this beautiful part of the Midwest.



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