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Visit Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum

You’ll learn all you need to know about the Mississippi River at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. I allowed three hours, but I could have spent days exploring the Dubuque, Iowa, attraction. Every member of the family will find much to enjoy in the three-building, 10-acre campus, and I highly recommend this great place in the Port of Dubuque. Spending an entire day here would be easy, and here are seven things you must see at the museum.

Travel Dubuque sponsored my visit, but all opinions are mine.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: I walked across the Mississippi River bridge from Downtown Dubuque on a hot August day. The views are lovely, but don’t walk in hot or inclement weather. The museum’s riverfront campus provides plenty of parking.

Reddish giant paddle wheel obscures the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium's entrance
The steamboat paddle wheel welcomes guests to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.

A gigantic paddle wheel from the age of steam-powered riverboats guards the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium entrance. The treasures within are about to reveal themselves. However, the museum has another entrance, and I entered there. The main entrance delivers you into the river’s wonders. The back (west) entrance displays the boats that explore the river. 

Roxie’s reliable report: The museum provides directions to avoid a problematic railroad crossing. The crossing’s delays last up to an hour.

American alligator skims the surface at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
An American alligator eyes potential prey in the Main Channel exhibit.

1. Diamond Jo National River Center at the National Mississippi River Museum

North American river otters greet guests in the Mississippi River Center’s Flooded Forest. The playful creatures set the tone for the rest of the museum. An array of new aquariums display the river’s flora and fauna from its headwaters at Lake Itasca all the way to the Gulf of Mexico — and beyond. 

The Rivers to the Sea showcases 100 new species and 12 new aquariums. Look for species from the Gulf of Mexico and the Marshall Islands, like lionfish, seahorses, and octopus. The Gulf’s sea exhibit is nearly 30 feet long and 15 feet deep, containing over 40,000 gallons. The Main Channel is the largest freshwater aquarium, holding more than 30,000 gallons. Some of the river’s biggest fish species, like gar, sturgeon, and catfish swim here.

If you like to feel the love, head to Down in the Delta, a 2,250-gallon pool. Feel cow nose stingrays’ slippery skin in the stingray touch tank. I loved this.

A brown-haired voyageur loads a canoe at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
The fur trade, represented by this voyageur and his canoe, provided the nation’s first big business.

2. Riverways Gallery at the National Mississippi River Museum

The history of America is river history. America’s river systems were nature’s highways. Walk through United States history in the Riverways Gallery. The museum exhibits take guests through time from the 20,000 inhabitants of Cahokia and the fur trade to present-day river mappers. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are in the second inductee class. Sacagawea and John James Audubon followed three years later, in 1990. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for some inductees’ stories in the cave near the waterfall.

Related: Inductees James Buchanan Eads (1986) and Philip Suiter (2005) were from LeClaire, Iowa. Experience Lewis and Clark’s journey in Mandan, North Dakota, and Pompeys Pillar, Montana.

Children surrounding a MakerSpace station at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
The MakerSpace exhibit changes activities periodically.

3. Rivers of Innovation

Displays invite guests to play with boat design in the River of Innovation. A young boy and I played the Energetic Wind game. We laughed as the adjustable fan blades spun in various (in)effective designs. Then we tried the Simple Machine Gear Wall. Who knew that arranging gears could be so challenging? Families gathered in the well-appointed maker space.

Before refrigeration killed the ice harvesting business, the cold commodity was a hot item. Back then, Dubuque’s three ice packers employed up to 600 men. Local breweries and the railroad also harvested ice. A woodworker’s shop interprets various boat-building skills with historical artifacts like boats and their tools. 

A giant blue catfish at the white Logsdon towboat at the National Mississippi Museum & Aquarium
Explore a catfish’s insides plus numerous boats in the plaza and boatyard.

4. The Pfohl Boatyard at the National Mississippi River Museum

The Pfohl Boatyard is in a courtyard behind the river center at river mile marker 579.5. The Iowa Iron Works and the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works built boats in Dubuque for a century. Signs on the boardwalk explain the boat builders’ achievements. The Sprague, the world’s largest steam towboat, launched in 1901. At the launch, Its wake rippled the harbor ice so high that it lifted a beached lumberboat back into the water. Dubuque companies built the final two boats, the steamer Julia Belle Swain and the City of New Madrid, in 1971.

Explore the William M. Black dredge, a National Landmark Vessel, and Logsdon Sand and Gravel’s towboat. If you dare, walk into a giant catfish to examine its interior. Outdoor exhibits also include river otters, a marsh, a blacksmith shop, and the Raptor Roost’s American kestrel and barn owl.

Sun touching the top of the brown log cabin
The Frentress Cabin

5. Woodward Wetlands Trail

Walk around a wetland on the boardwalk. Depending on the season, you may see turtles sunning on logs while herons perch nearby. Explore the 1827 Frentress Cabin, built when the front door opened on the river, and the back door opened to a forest. Learn more about freshwater mussel conservation efforts.

Bronze Mark Twain sculpture holding a book with the River Raptors building in the background.
Listen to Mark Twain tell tales.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Take a selfie with Samuel Clemens, a/k/a Mark Twain. Twain chronicled life on the Mississippi River in many novels including the classic Huckleberry Finn. He was in the National Rivers Hall of Fame’s first inductee class. Enjoy a picnic on the plaza between The Boatyard and our next stop, the Diamond Jo National River Center. Look for the bald eagle and our red-tailed hawk. Food is available at the refurbished train depot.

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6. RiverWorks Splash Zone at the National Mississippi River Museum

Splash to your heart’s content in the RiverWorks Splash Zone upstairs. The museum website discusses kids steering boats downriver and exploring a beaver lodge. Who says it’s just for kids? I had a grand time.

Roxie and Roadie run away from a scary metal alien.
I’m glad this terrifying alien isn’t a permanent museum fixture.

7. Special exhibits and store

The museum uses part of the upstairs for special exhibits, like the movie magic exhibit on display when I visited.

It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2023. The property of the Dubuque County Historical Society, it’s an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and a member of the American Alliance of Museums.

Green and white cable car rides up the bluffs from Downtown Dubuque below
The Fenelon Place Elevator whisks passengers from Downtown Dubuque to the bluffs above it.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: For another fun Dubuque experience, ride the Fenelon Place Elevator from Downtown Dubuque up to the bluffs above. It’s the world’s shortest and steepest railroad.

Related: See Grant Wood paintings and other artworks at the Dubuque Art Museum downtown. Head north on the Great River Road to Allamakee County.

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