A few miles downstream from the Quad Cities, Muscatine is a place with volumes of history, going back to the early days of Euro-American settlement in Iowa.
One resident in the 19th century was Mark Twain, who adored the sunsets over the Mississippi, and you can find out why at the scenic Riverside Park and Mark Twain Overlook.
Muscatine is known as “The Pearl of the Mississippi” and this title goes back to the pearl button industry, which sparked a boom at the turn of the 20th century.
Downtown Muscatine has a lot of fine old buildings from this period, and you can uncover the city’s absorbing history at museums and historical buildings.
1. Wildcat Den State Park
Blending history with awe-inspiring nature, Wildcat Den State Park is a must visit, a short drive up the Mississippi from downtown Muscatine.
The park is on Pine Creek as it meanders through a wooded gorge on the way to the Mississippi.
Trails will take you along sandstone bluffs, rising more than 75 feet above the creek, and to magnificent formations like Steamboat Rock and the Devil’s Punch Bowl.
This land was settled by Euro-Americans as long ago as the 1830s, and two structures, Pine Creek Mill (1848) and the Pine Mill Bridge (1878) are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The park has a non-modern campground with 28 sites, as well as two open shelters that can be rented.
2. Downtown Muscatine
Set on the river plain with surrounding residential areas posted on the slopes, Muscatine’s central commercial district hasn’t moved since the 19th century.
The architecture downtown recalls the days when companies like the Musser Lumber Company and Weber & Sons Button Co. were market leaders.
One giant commanding the riverfront is the seven-story Hotel Muscatine (1914-1915), the tallest building in the city until the 1970s.
And while there are almost 100 contributing buildings in the Downtown Commercial Historic District, the center of Muscatine is full of life, with restaurants, bars, craft breweries, mom and pop stores, events and beautiful public spaces that we’ll cover below.
3. Muscatine History and Industry Center
An essential stop downtown is this attraction highlighting the important companies based in Muscatine down the years.
One is the Weber & Sons Button Co., the fascinating story of which is told inside by the National Pearl Button Museum. From the 1880s this company established Muscatine as the world’s largest producer of pearl buttons, manufactured from freshwater mussel shells.
By 1905 Muscatine produced 1.5 billion buttons annually, more than a third of the world’s total output.
The museum documents the staggering rise and steady fall of an industry that attracted thousands of migrants to the Midwest.
You’ll find out about clamming (harvesting), the craft of button cutting and the labor issues that affected the industry, culminating with the Strike of 1911, which had repercussions across the nation.
4. Riverside Park
There’s a long linear park fronting the Mississippi in downtown Muscatine. Riverside Park is a stirring place to be late or early in the day in summer, when the skies are spectacular.
It helps that there isn’t much on the Illinois bank than woods, giving the views a timeless quality.
Then during the day this is somewhere to watch a modern waterway in action, as countless boats and barges make their long journeys along the river.
Riverside Park also has a new splash pad for kids, as well as a playground, boat ramp, picnic shelters, multi-use trails and basketball courts.
5. Muscatine Art Center
A multifaceted attraction, the Muscatine Art Center combines an art gallery, history museum and richly furnished historic home.
The building is the Colonial Revival mansion completed in 1908 for the lumber heiress Laura Musser.
The main floor has a set of period rooms loaded with Edwardian details, from fixtures to furniture, tableware, sculpture, textiles, photographs and paintings belonging to Musser.
The center also has an important collection of artifacts relating to the full length of the Mississippi, with prints, maps, ephemera and more.
The adjoining two-story Stanley Gallery is a showcase for the center’s rich art collections, with works by the likes of Renoir, Chagall, van Gogh, Pissarro, Picasso and Matisse, as well as Regionalists like Grant Wood and Marvin Cone.
6. Pine Creek Grist Mill
Not to be missed at Wildcat Den State Park is a mill dating back to 1848. Still on its original site and still in working order, Pine Creek Grist Mill may be the oldest operating mill of its kind between the Rockies and the Mississippi.
The mill was one of three built by Benjamin Nye (1796-1852) who was born in Vermont and became one of the area’s first Euro-American settlers in the 1830s.
You can visit the mill May through September to see buckwheat flour being made, and to discover the various milling processes used here between the 1840s and 1920s.
7. Weed Park
Slightly withdrawn from the riverfront northeast of downtown, Weed Park goes back to a land donation by Mr. and Mrs. James Weed as long ago as 1907.
For decades this scenic 72-acre park was home to Muscatine’s Zoo, which eventually closed in 1980. That attraction is remembered with a garden dotted with carbon steel animal sculptures.
Something that attracts families today is the three-acre lagoon, a honeypot for ducks, geese and other waterfowl.
To complement the zoo garden there’s an exquisite rose garden, as well as ten tennis courts, seven picnic shelters, two sand volleyball courts and an outdoor pool, which we’ll talk about next.
8. Muscatine Aquatic Center
Perfect for those hot summer days, there’s a public water park in Weed Park that opened in 2004.
The Muscatine Aquatic Center has five water slides, two of which are drop slides, along with a lap pool joined to a large zero-depth entry area full of sprays, jets and climbable features for kids.
The center is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and has a lot of space for parents who just want to lie back in the shade.
Amenities include full concessions, family restrooms, a rentable multipurpose room and self-service lockers.
9. Mark Twain Overlook
Moments from downtown there’s a small bluff with a breathtaking view of the Mississippi. In summer, this elevated spot is as good as any to experience the sunsets that Mark Twain remembered with such fondness.
The Mark Twain Overlook is a small, scenic park on the site of Muscatine’s first radio station, KTNT (Know the Naked Truth), operated between 1925 and 1931 by broadcaster and entrepreneur, Norman G. Baker (1882-1958).
There’s a historical marker quoting Twain’s praise of Muscatine’s sunsets, while humorously pleading ignorance about the sunrises, “The sunrises are also said to be exceedingly fine. I do not know”.
10. Deep Lakes Park
Near the riverbank south of Muscatine is a 435-acre park on the site of a former quarry. More than a quarter of Deep Lakes Park is made up of water, so in summer this is a hotspot for fishing, boating, paddling or just relaxing in the sun.
You can rent a canoe or kayak here, and there’s a beach on Lake Chester, open 6am to 9pm in the summer months. On land there’s a 1.2-mile paved walking and biking trail, leading through woods, dunes and grasslands.
And if you’d like to spend the night there are four different cabins that can be rented, accommodating up to four people.
11. Running River Trail System
At Muscatine you can soak up the full beauty of the Mississippi with the help of a trail system that extends the full length of the city’s riverfront.
Starting off north of the lagoon at Weed Park the Running River Trail System takes you through Riverside Park and all the way down to Musser Park.
Much of the trail is lighted, and if you happen to get up early the sunrise is nothing short of spectacular on this east-facing stretch of the riverfront.
Open to walkers, bicyclists and joggers the trail is just over five miles long and links with a variety of other pathways in the city.
12. Discovery Park
Just five minutes west of downtown Muscatine, the 100-acre Discovery Park is on reclaimed farmland.
This space is more about enjoying nature and passive activities than sports: Environmental Learning Center for instance has natural history exhibits and two 1,200-gallon aquariums displaying native fish, amphibians and reptiles.
Discovery Park is also a favorite with fishing enthusiasts thanks to two stocked ponds with docks. Harking back to this land’s farming days is the Old Barn, open on second Saturdays in the summer, with kids’ crafts and displays about Muscatine’s agricultural heritage.
13. Muscatine Arboretum
Accessed via the Muscatine Environmental Learning Center at Discovery Park is a 13-acre arboretum, displaying a large variety of native and exotic trees and shrubs, all surrounding a reconstructed prairie wetland.
This is arguably the best place for a relaxed walk in Muscatine, on paved and unpaved trails past fine tree collections and delightful plantings of flowers and native grasses.
In spring and summer the arboretum is alive with bees and butterflies, and there are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the color.
14. Muscatine Municipal Golf Course
Off of Highway 38 in the north of Muscatine is the city’s highly-rated municipal golf course. This is an 18-hole track accompanied by a pro sho, cart rental, concession area and a full practice facility with driving range.
The course plays better than most munis you’ve seen, with a long and open front nine contrasted by a back nine that requires a light touch and precision.
Waters comes into play once you hit the teens, with a tricky tee shot over water on the 13th. An amenity here that you might not have seen before is an 18-hole “footgolf” course, mixing soccer and golf.
15. Contrary Brewing Company
In a lovely spot by Riverside Park there’s a thriving microbrewery with no fewer than 25 beers on tap.
The head brewer/owner at Contrary Brewing Company has decades of beer making experience, and gained a passion for the craft after spending time in Germany with the Armed Forces in the 1980s.
The selection at the taproom is diverse and includes IPAs, Stouts, Porters, Brown Ales, a Pilsner and a Düsseldorf-style Altbier, and that’s just to begin with.
For an accompaniment, there’s also a kitchen with a changing menu dominated by flatbread pizza and shareable quick bites.