National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the Midwest has a hidden gem in the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Visiting the museum on a family vacation to Dubuque, Iowa, this is one for your road trip bucket list.
Affordable at $15/adult and $10 for kids ages 3-10 (seniors meet in the middle at $13), a family could easily spend four hours taking in the museum, the grounds, and a film playing in the 3D/4D theater (although this costs a bit more).
Six large aquariums, a wet lab, and sea otter habitat are interwoven with interactive exhibits, historical displays, and hands-on play areas for the younger crows. Visiting on a Saturday, our trip included interpretive talks and animal encounters scheduled throughout the day.
Visiting in perfect weather, a good portion of our stay was spent outdoors touring the W.M. Black, a dredge boat used on the Missouri River during World War II (note: hold tight to your toddlers on this one). On the way back to inspect the inner organs of a giant carp, we darted in and out of a fur trader’s log cabin and Native American lodge; authentic replicas, of course. For $1/token, kids can drive remote controlled boats in a small pond or play on the lawn while parents inspect steamboat artifacts in the boatyard.
Back indoors, roll up your sleeves and prepare to spend some time in the wetlab—get up close and personal with freshwater mussels, snails, and crawfish in the touch tank. Microscopes, educational materials, and animal artifacts are also fair game. For the younger crowd, the Riverworks Play area is less biology and more earth science. Getting wet while learning about the water cycle, kids can build and float boats down stream.
Perhaps the best places for a photo opportunity are near one of the “Noodle your Own Catfish” displays. Parents can subject children to shoving their tiny arms into the mouth of Mississippi River catfish for Hallmark moments like ours. A close runner-up is the 60 pound anaconda in the Amazon Exhibit, a realistic and lighter-weight plastic version of one of the more famous reptiles in South America. Bilingual exhibits feature scientists, current research, and fun ways to bring a little diversity and global awareness into the Midwest.
Eventually you will become hungry. Beverages and cold sandwiches are available in the snack bar next to the Mississippi River Center. Hot food is served at the River’s Edge Cafe in the National River Center building and can be eaten indoors or outside on the covered patio. We purchased popcorn and candy from the 3D/4D movie theater snack bar and enjoyed our treats to the backdrop of the 40,000 gallon “Gulf of Mexico” tank complete with sharks, sting rays, and other fish found at the mouth of the Mississippi River. If you do this, make sure and say “hi” to Walter the octopus in his nearby display.
Rounding out the day learning about erosion, habitats, and man’s influence on a precious resource we often take for granted in the Great Lakes, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is a place to be visited often. Between a one to three hour drive from cities including Madison, Rochester, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, La Crosse, and the Quad Cities, this is a perfect way to spend a random Saturday.