Great Family Fun With 48-hours In Southeast Iowa

I have long heard about the one-of-a-kind Snake Alley in Burlington, the National Pearl Button Museum, and Old Fort Madison, but I had no idea how much there is to do in southeastern Iowa. 

You’ll need more than 48-hours in southeast Iowa to fit in all the fun in this corner of our state. 

Here’s a quick 48-hour itinerary of our family’s trip:

Night at The Highlander Hotel in Iowa City

Day 1: 

  • The Candy Kitchen, Wilton
  • Wild Cat Den State Park and Pine Creek Grist Mill
  • Downtown Muscatine including The National Pearl Button Museum and the Muscatine Art Center

Night in Burlington

Day 2:

  • Snake Alley Burlington
  • Old Fort Madison, Madison 

There are so many things to do in the area that your family will have an amazing time no matter which direction you are traveling from or how long you stay.

A Stop-By-Stop Guide!


First stop: The Candy Kitchen in Wilton, Iowa has been serving made-from-scratch sodas and lunch for over 150 years.  All the soda syrups are created in-house at The Candy Kitchen with attention to detail. The chocolate syrup alone takes 45 minutes to make.

Soda Jerk and owner Brenda Ochiltree delighted us with an explanation and demonstration of how to make a fountain soda using original fountain machinery from 1951.

48-hours in southeast iowa

But that’s not the only unique piece of history. The building dates to the pre-civil war era and is honored on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. The marble countertops date back to 1922, the green Hamilton Beach Malt Mixers are still in use from the 1940s, and the exterior neon “Soda Candy Lunch” sign was installed in 1946.

Located in the back of the building is The Candy Kitchen Wilton Heritage Museum which is filled with all sorts of items, furniture, and documents.  

Many of Iowa’s famous public figures and politicians have visited The Candy Kitchen along with a few national celebrities, including President George Bush Senior and Mark Zuckerberg. Local community members are daily customers and take pride in their small town soda fountain. Don’t miss this Iowa treasure!

48-hours in southeast iowa

Wilton also has a charming main street district with fun street art. Follow the community on Facebook and plan an overnight stay once the Candy Kitchen opens an Air B&B above their shop.

48-hours in southeast iowa

Wild Cat Den State Park

Not too far away is Iowa’s fabulous Wild Cat Den State Park. Filled with sandstone bluffs, the Melpine one-room schoolhouse, and a working grist mill.

Pine Creek Grist Mill was built in 1848 by Benjamin Nye and is one of the few remaining working mills in Iowa. Regular tours and events are offered during the warm weather months by the donor-supported, preservation group Friends of the Mill.  Watch this cool video here!

48-hours in southeast iowa

Devil’s Punch Bowl trail has been on my bucket list for a long time and it didn’t disappoint! We started our hike off on the Punch Bowl Trail which quickly led us to the circular carved sandstone. We followed the trail around to Canyon Ridge Trail and hiked back out. 

There are several short trails in the park system that are rated as moderate to expert. Our family found the trails to be fun and easy to navigate. We did carry the toddler in a child-designed carrying pack for a portion of the time and brought plenty of water. 

Cave Trail is more challenging but offered fabulous scenery. You can find the trailhead in the Lower Picnic Area.

48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa

Great River Road

I have completely fallen in love with Iowa’s Great River Road towns which are often nestled up against rocky bluffs and filled with historic homes and vibrant downtown areas. The communities of Muscatine, Burlington, and Fort Madison do not disappoint during our 48-hours in southeast Iowa.

48-hours in southeast iowa


As another unique historical river town, Muscatine is the county seat for Muscatine County. The downtown area has shops, restaurants, and more. Near the river is the Mississippi Mist Fountain (wear a swimsuit), a playground, park, and a trail system.

48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa

The Muscatine Art Center is located in a historic home with an attached 3-level modern gallery. Always rotating exhibits, the center brings world-class art to the community for free. A few highlights from the permanent collection include The Mississippi Collection, a piece by George O’Keeffe, a drawing by Vincent van Gogh, and more, with a focus on American art dating back to the 1800s. 

48-hours in southeast iowa

An additional interesting collection is the 117 letters from Daviel Parvin, a Muscatine Civil War soldier. Watch a six-part short film Muscatine & the Civil War.

The Musser-McColm home is furnished with turn-of-the-century features and has art displayed throughout. Similarities are found between the Musser-McColm home and the Iowa Governors’ mansion.

48-hours in southeast iowa

A special room in the home is the Family Room where children can dress up, play, read, and perform with puppets. This space is well done and has over a dozen activities. 

Don’t miss the Family Guide to make the most out of your visit!

48-hours in southeast iowa

I have wanted to visit the National Pearl Button Museum for a long time and I can say, it’s worth the wait and trip! While not a large space, the museum is packed with fascinating history. Plan for around an hour at this gem in Muscatine. 

While there is no admission fee, donations are appreciated. There is also a small gift shop that features items made by local artists. 

48-hours in southeast iowa

The museum exhibit starts off by explaining the process of catching the mussels, called “clamming” and what life along a river camp was like. Next, visitors can learn about how the shells were made into buttons and see the machinery used. 

48-hours in southeast iowa

Follow along to see how workers were impacted and what factory life was like. A few interactive exhibits keep students busy, like practicing counting 144 buttons. Make sure to stop by the display about the mussel life cycle. 

The second floor of the museum houses exhibits dedicated to the local economy and community. 

48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa


An Instagram favorite, Snake Alley is a southern Iowa historic icon. Laid in 1894, the curved street descends 58 feet, which feels much further when walking along the five half-curves and two quarter-curves. The street is open to driving, walking, or biking. 

Useful Tip: Find Snake Alley at 400 N 6th Street.

48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa

One thing we love to do when traveling along the Mississippi River is to visit a Lock & Dam. It’s fun to see the boats come and go as they move up and downriver. Burlington’s Lock & Dam 18 is located on the Illinois side of the river at 1675N, Gladstone, IL 61437. 

In addition to unique historical attractions like Snake Alley, Burlington also hosts indoor entertainment centers and a children’s play museum.

A few places we didn’t get to visit during our 48-hours in southeast Iowa were The Port of Burlington Welcome Center,  Burlington Heritage Center Museum, Wildlife Lakes Elk Farm, and Starr’s Cave Nature Center & Preserve. Plenty of reasons to return to Burlington, Iowa48-hours in southeast iowa

Fort Madison

While the Tri-State Rodeo is bringing in an estimated 10,000 visitors to Fort Madison in early September, the Old Fort itself is putting on a show and blasting cannons away. 

At the end of the week on Saturday, the rodeo holds a well-attended parade on Avenue G in The Historic Downtown that can last over two hours. Consider parade traffic when making your plans. 

Taking place since 1948, Gene Autry was the rodeo’s first entertainment lineup and honored as Grand Marshal in the first parade. Since then, stars like Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Nelly, and more have delighted the crowds.

Pro Tip: Accommodations in the area can fill up fast, so prepare in advance for your stay. Across the railroad tracks from Old Fort Madison is the Kingsley Inn, which is a boutique hotel. 

While the parade is taking place, the Siege of 1812 weekend event is starting up at Old Fort Madison. Repeat demonstrations and activities take place in the morning and afternoon, with the afternoon being the busier time due to the parade. 

48-hours in southeast iowa

Volunteers, under the leadership of museum director Dr. Eugene Watkins, engage in battle reenactments, artillery demonstrations, and more. Visitors can meander in and out of the fort’s buildings while interacting with the costumed volunteers in a relaxed setting. 

There is plenty of parking and beautiful views of the river. Guests most likely will not need a stroller for little ones, as the fort is not that large. Plan to spend 1-2 hours enjoying the program and viewing all the historical artifacts.

48-hours in southeast iowa
48-hours in southeast iowa

In the morning, a skirmish reenactment is organized with volunteers inside and outside of the fort walls. At other times, the skirmish advances over the fort walls. 

Sometimes the American side wins the skirmish and other times the opposing side wins.

Other area attractions include some great agricultural tourism sites along Highway 2, The Villages of VanBuren County, George M. Verity Riverboat Museum, and the Keokuk Dam & Historic Nauvoo, Illinois.

48-hours in southeast iowa

Our family had a fantastic time traveling and spending 48-hours in southeast Iowa. We know you’ll love it too! 

Great Family Fun With 48-hours In Southeast Iowa

Near By Trips

Looking for more adventures in the area? Check out these four amazing museums in the Quad Cities.

Extend your trip and drive north all along the Mighty Mississippi with Eastern Iowa Family Road Trip – Field Trip Iowa.

Whether you have 48-hours in southeast Iowa or longer, you’ll love it!

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