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Following the Great River Road in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois

Looking east from the Balltown Ridge is like looking at a Norman Rockwell painting.

Looking east from the Balltown Ridge is like looking at a Norman Rockwell painting.

Photo Credit: Ken Betts

Larry Betts
October 15, 2003
Filed under Favorite Rides: Motorcycle Rides from Rider Readers, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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Thousands of years ago the glaciers swept across the upper Midwest like a giant bulldozer, flattening everything in their path.

Fortunately they missed a small geographic area in northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. This area, known as the Paleozoic Plateau or Driftless Area, was untouched by the last Ice Age glaciation. Narrow valleys with steep sides characterize northeastern Iowa and high bluffs rise along the Mississippi River.

From my home in Bettendorf, Iowa, it is a short 70 miles north on Highway 61 to Dubuque, Iowa, where one of the great rides begins. On a recent trip, my son Ken and I decided to make a short stop in historic downtown Dubuque to visit a unique attraction, the Fenelon Place Elevator, described as the “world’s steepest, shortest, scenic railway.” It is 296 feet in length and elevates passengers 189 feet from 4th Street to Fenelon Place. For those brave souls willing to pay $1.50 for a roundtrip ticket, the reward is a magnificent view of downtown Dubuque, the Mississippi River and the three states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. The Elevator operates from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. April 1 through November 30.

Breitbach’s in Balltown, Iowa, is the state’s oldest bar. It has antique décor, and they serve great food at reasonable prices.

Breitbach’s in Balltown, Iowa, is the state’s oldest bar. It has antique décor, and they serve great food at reasonable prices.

Leaving Dubuque, we headed north following Highway 52. On the north edge of Dubuque, the Great River Road (County C9Y) veers north from Highway 52. County C9Y twists and turns its way for 11 miles to our next stop in Balltown, Iowa, where Breitbach’s—Iowa’s oldest bar—is a great place to have lunch, as they serve good food at reasonable prices. On weekends, expect a short wait during peak times. The other attraction in Balltown is the view from the Balltown Ridge. An easy walk from Breitbach’s, the vista from the ridge is like looking at a Norman Rockwell painting. Those with sharp eyes can see the Mississippi River in the distance.

North of Balltown, C9Y is a motorcyclist’s dream. The surface is good, turns are abundant and the scenery is breathtaking. Every time I ride this section of road, I have to decide between challenging the corners or gawking at the scenery. With ample torque and razor-sharp handling, my Yamaha FZ-1 is ideally suited for this type of road.

Motorcyclists disembark from the Cassville Ferry on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.

Motorcyclists disembark from the Cassville Ferry on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.

Thirteen miles north of Balltown on C9Y, a small sign alerts travelers to the existence of the Cassville Ferry. The ferry provides service between Cassville, Wisconsin, and Millville, Iowa, and operates on weekends only from May 1 to Memorial Day. From Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends daily service is provided. Weekend-only service is provided after Labor Day until October. The ferry runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and costs $5 for a oneway ride. On this particular trip, we chose to bypass the ferry and continue north on C9Y along the Turkey River, where C9Y ends at the intersection with Highway 52.

It is a short ride north to picturesque Guttenberg, Iowa, where you must follow the signs to the Great River Road, now County Road X56. This is another great ride that hugs the terrain on the way north to Pike’s Peak State Park. The same Zebulon Pike who named the mountain in Colorado discovered this site in 1805. The park is a must stop for the magnificent view available from the 500-foot bluff. You can see the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers to the south and Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, and the Highway 18 Bridge at Marquette to the north.

Looking north from Fenelon Place you get a bird’s eye view of the downtown area of historic Dubuque, Iowa.

Looking north from Fenelon Place you get a bird’s eye view of the downtown area of historic Dubuque, Iowa.

From Pike’s Peak State Park, we followed the Great River Road to Highway 18 and crossed the river into Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin. After a short stop at Cabela’s Outlet Store, we started making our way south along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. The Great River Road plays alphabet soup with the Wisconsin county roads changing from C to X to A and eventually to Highway 133. Highway 133 led us to Cassville, Wisconsin where we watched some motorcyclists disembark from the ferry.

Highway 133 South from Cassville is a delightful ride with good roads and sweeping bends that follow the meandering river. At Potosi, Wisconsin, the road intersects Highway 61, which took us to our last stop of the day in Dickeyville, Wisconsin. Father Mathias Wernerus shaped and built the “Holy Ghost Grotto” between 1925 and 1931 in Dickeyville. The Grotto is part religious and part patriotic. It’s open yearround and donations are accepted but not required.

Our ride ended that day by following Highway 61 back to the Quad City area. We covered a total of 280 miles that included some of the best roads in the Midwest. I make this ride with slight variations at least a half dozen times a year and it is, by far, my favorite ride. Fall is the best time to make the trip, when the weather is cool and Mother Nature is painting the trees with her magic.

The Fenelon Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa, lifts passengers 189 feet from 4th Street to Fenelon Place.

The Fenelon Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa, lifts passengers 189 feet from 4th Street to Fenelon Place.

A map of the route taken.

A map of the route taken.

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