One thing that surprised me when I moved to Iowa, was discovering that the Mississippi River is actually full of little islands, beaches and sandbars. These make for great little day trips or even ‘wild camping’ overnight stays for those with a sense of adventure! In this post, I share some of the facts that I’ve learnt about the Mississippi River and some of the ways you can experience it in Iowa!
Facts about the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is 2320 miles long, starting in Minnesota and finishing up in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. It takes a drop of water 90 days to travel the length of the river! The river borders 10 States: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana (I’ve seen the Mississippi River from 4 States).
(View of the Mississippi River from Chestnut Mountain Resort Illinois)
The ‘top’ part of the river between Minnesota and St Louis Missouri is dammed by a series of 29 locks that are maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The primary use for these, is to assist with the transportation of barges and the elevation change of the river. The locks are fascinating to watch. At Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque you can take a free tour on a Sunday during the summer season and they have an observation deck overlooking the dam.
The locks empty and fill up at roughly 1ft of water per minute. The Dubuque Lock and Dam 11 has a water level change of roughly 8ft (therefore 8 minutes to empty/fill the chamber) but the biggest is 26ft and would take a lot longer to lock through!
The barges that travel this part of the Mississippi River are massive. Corn and beans are often travelling southbound down the river, with coal and fuel from the Southern state being transported northbound. The average size is 3 barges wide and 5 long (total of 15) plus the tug boat. If this size of a load was transported by truck, it would be the equivalent of 11 MILES of bumper to bumper trucks! Below St Louis where there are no dams, the tugs can push up to 50 (!!!) barges!
The 15 container barges take anything from 1 hour plus to lock through the dams. They can’t fit in the lock all in one go, so they have to split it in half and do it in 2 loads. If travelling north, the tug will push the first lot in, detach them and then a winch pulls them out ready for the 2nd lot to be locked through. If travelling south, they pretty much open the gates and let the current push them out until they can be reunited with their tug!
Mississippi River Camping, Beaches & Sandbars
So why do I mention all this before talking about Mississippi River camping? Because you want to consider if you’ll be dropping in below or above the dams and what direction you want to travel! If you are travelling by boat, travelling through the lock is an option, but if you happen to arrive at the same time as a barge, you could well be waiting 2 hours until it’s free!
There are roughly 30 miles of river between dams. Some good options to consider on the Iowa side would be either:
- Dropping in at Guttenberg landing ABOVE the dam and travelling northbound up towards McGregor.
- Below the dam at Guttenberg and travelling south towards Dubuque or alternatively, drop in at Dubuque above the dam and travel north towards Guttenberg
- Launch below the dam in Dubuque and head southbound towards Bellevue.
All these options have sandbars and islands without the need of having to travel through one of the locks.
I absolutely love going on boat trips to the sandbar beaches. It’s almost like having your own private little island! If someone else comes along, simply jump back in the boat and travel to the next one! My first experience was at the end of summer season. Yes it was cold, but the river was calm and almost completely deserted. We passed one old fashioned Mississippi River boat and two barges that were hauling cargo further north up the river.
But at the end of season, we had a little sandbar all to ourselves, complete with a fire pit that previous explorers had left behind. We collected drift wood and sticks that we found in the mini forest on the island, placed a grill we’d brought along on top of a couple of rocks and barbecued sausages. It was peaceful and quiet, the only noise came from a pair of bald eagles flying overhead. It almost felt like we were Bear Grylls, shipwrecked on a little island! We nearly had a fish too, but the only ones we caught were too small so we had to throw them back…so we didn’t quite ‘live off the land’!
My 2nd and 3rd sandbar trips were during the summer, when it was warm enough to just lay on the beach and read or swim in the river. The current is really strong, life jackets are required out on the river anyway (you don’t have to wear them in the boats but there has to be a jacket available for each person on board), especially if tubing/water skiing/wake boarding, but it’s worth putting one on for swimming too. It’s fun to float along down stream with the current to the end of the sandbar, then walk back along the beach and do it all again!
If you decide to kayak to the sandbars, it may be easier to travel down the river, rather than having to paddle up river against the current.
If out on the river at the beginning of the season (early May), be careful with debris and logs etc that maybe hidden under the surface. When the winter ice melts, there tends to be a surge of debris that floats down the river. During popular weekends, such as 4th of July and Labor Day the river will be packed and sandbars may be very busy.
Mississippi River Camping Rules
There are some rules to keep in mind if you decide to camp on the sandbars in the Mississippi River. These are displayed on information boards on some of the larger sandbars.
- You can camp on a sandbar for up to 14 days for free, before having to move on.
- You are expected to move on to another sandbar that’s a certain distance away from the previous one (I believe it’s a mile).
- This one is obvious, take ALL litter/belongings with you when you leave.
- ‘Camp sites’ mustn’t be unoccupied for more than 24 hours at a time. Basically if you set up camp, you’re expected to actually sleep there that night and not just leave it there until another day.
- If you make a campfire, only use wood/sticks found on the ground or from fallen trees. You can’t cut down a ‘live’ tree to make a fire.
Travelling by boat would give you the most space to carry camping gear/food etc, but most of the sandbars don’t have docks or jetties. You literally just have to nose up to the bank and jump off and find something to tie onto or anchor in the sand or riverbed. If you are feeling strong and don’t need much gear, kayaks can obviously be pulled right up onto the banks (and they are cheaper than a boat…)
I still haven’t got round to wild camping on the Mississippi, but I want to spend the daytime swimming and wake boarding and then find our own private sandbar to build a fire, make s’mores and spend the night camping. Only noisy people and mosquitos could ruin it for me! I don’t think I’d need to worry about the 14 day camping limit, I’d be happy just to go for 1 night!
Other ways to experience the Mississippi River in Iowa
If you don’t have access to a boat, there are Mississippi River boat tours that you can go on! I’ve been on the American Lady ‘Happy Hour’ cruise which departs from Dubuque. The cruise lasts around 90 minutes with free beer and soft drinks and various snacks depending on the day of the cruise (it was chicken wings when I went). There are a couple of other tours on offer but the Happy Hour goes up as far as Lock and Dam 11 and south as far as the Mines of Spain (so the full length of Dubuque) with a commentary on what you are passing.
The Riverboat Twilight boat is BEAUTIFUL. It’s more expensive than the American Lady and cruises last longer. A 2 day cruise can be taken from Le Claire (Iowa) which includes 1 night in Dubuque before heading back to Le Claire, or you can take a full day cruise from Dubuque (7am until 5pm) up to Guttenberg and back, which includes breakfast, lunch and snacks.
If you don’t have your ‘sea legs’ and like to stay on dry land, check out the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque! You can learn facts about the Mississippi River and the history, as well as see the types of animals that call the Mississippi River home (and potentially never want to swim in the river ever again), including a whole section about the Gulf of Mexico with sea turtles and a sting ray touch tank!
Related Reading: 35 Things To Do in Dubuque Iowa in Summer
Have you ever gone wild camping or spent a night on a Mississippi River sandbar? I’d love to find out your experience!
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