Scenic Byway: Exploring US Highway 52 Along the Iowa/Illinois Boarder

Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

It's always the same. I open Instagram, flip through a magazine, or read a travel blog and the wanderlust sets in. If I added up the hours that I spend dreaming of traveling and discovering far away places I'd be nervous to know just how much time it amounts to. But that full-time job, that 9-5 with a paycheck, requires that we abide by the rules of vacation time and renders us powerless to get up and go on a whim.

But that need to travel? It never goes away. And it was that pull that whispered "you neeeeeeed to go somewhere" that inspired me to stop thinking of far away places that require my vacation time and money, and to start getting creative. To stop looking at the horizon and look right here. In my own backyard. It was so simple.

For a part-time traveler I do travel more than the average bear. I take advantage of long weekends and holidays, and I track my PTO more than I do my money. I make it work because it's important to me. In fact, next month I'm going to Oklahoma and Arkansas in my quest to visit all 50 states before I turn 40, then I'm spending Christmas in Portland. But right now? I had nothing planned and I needed to take the edge off, so I set out to explore the area along the Mississippi River in Iowa. 

US Highway 52 is a 166-mile major highway that runs from just over the boarder in Minnesota down to about 2/3 down the state of Iowa along the Mississippi River. It's been designated an official state scenic byway and offers great views not just along the river, but up into bluffs and overlooks that open up to rolling patchwork farmland. 

Because ours was a day trip we opted to start in Balltown, Iowa, a small town just north of Dubuque and wind our way down to the end of route 52 in Sabula, Iowa - Iowa's only island city. 

Balltown, Iowa

Our 90 minute drive from Cedar Rapids to Balltown took us on windy back roads that opened up to incredible views of Iowa farmland just before we arrived in Balltown. From a overlook carved out of the highway you can see miles upon miles of farmland. Rolling hills, cornfields, pastures with farm houses and barns littered along the way make for incredible photograph opportunities. 

While we didn't stop in Balltown because we brought our black lab along for this day trip I've heard wonderful things about the restaurant Breitbach's that is located right along Highway 52 in town. Opened in 1852, Breitbach's is Iowa's oldest restaurant and still being run by the sixth generation of Breitbach's. 

Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

Dubuque, Iowa

From Balltown you're only a few miles drive from Dubuque. One of Iowa's bigger cities along the Mississippi, Dubuque boasts some stunning views of the Mississippi and runs along the Heritage trail. 

If you find yourself in Dubuque I do recommend you cross the bridge into Illinois and head over to Galena. It's the cutest, most picturesque town and you won't regret it. 

Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

Bellevue, Iowa

We we pulled into Bellevue, Iowa I was surprised at what a cute town it was! The first true town along the Mississippi River, Main Street through Bellevue features a town built on a bluff and the mighty Mississippi on the other side of the road. It's picturesque and boasts views from the bluffs that overlook the Mississippi in Bellevue State Park that will take your breath away. 

Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!
Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

Green Island, Iowa

I'm just gonna go ahead and say it. Green Island was the worst. This small unincorporated town drew me because I saw a picture of this fantastic silo with a cello painted on the side of it. I was hoping the town would be quirky and cute, but it was anything but. I felt like I was in the opening scene of a horror movie, where the couple is driving through a rundown small town while the locals are staring at them ominously. I thought that if the car broke down we were done for. 

Dramatics aside, we turned around and got back on Highway 52 and immediately spotted this beautiful empty silo. The good news is that if you find yourself heading down this scenic drive you don't have to get off 52. Skip Green Island and you'll still find this picture perfect abandoned silo.

Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

Sabula, Iowa

Sabula is the end of the road for US Highway 52. It's Iowa's only island city and while it's pretty cool to drive over the bridge and onto the island, the town is pretty run down. Sabula boasts some stunning views of the Mississippi and is worth the drive through, but not worth stopping in the town. 

Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

From Sabula we headed back home to Cedar Rapids, which was about about a 2 hour drive. Total time from start to finish was 8 hours, though with bringing the pup we had to make more random stops for bathroom and water breaks. 

This day trip has inspired me to pay more attention to the places around me; to appreciate what is right out my back door. 

Do you have a favorite day trip? Tell me about it!

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Looking for a great scenic drive in the USA? US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River in Iowa is beautiful!

Cheers!
Heather