Once a common sight along Midwestern rivers, paddleboats provided a quick route to river towns. Communities tried to outbid one another to be a riverboat port. It was often the difference between a town surviving or eventually becoming a ghost town. Today, exploring the Midwest via paddleboat offers a relaxing opportunity to learn about an area’s history as well as view attractions from a different angle. Enjoy a drink or a bite to eat, grab a seat in the enclosed lower level or outside on the top deck and have fun experiencing the Midwest like an old-time traveler.
You’ll find riverboats from St. Paul to St. Louis on the Mississippi River and along the Missouri River from Omaha to Bismarck. They’re also on big lakes, such as Lake Superior and Clear Lake, Iowa. While not all riverboats are paddleboats, each offers a special experience.
Here’s a look at nine of my favorite boat tours in the Midwest.
1. Lady Of The Lake
Clear Lake, Iowa
Clear Lake quickly became one of my favorite cities in the country. Having visited the small city several times over the years, the lake gives me a special feeling. Lady of the Lake rates as one of the best paddleboats in the Midwest. The 90-minute ride around Clear Lake includes comments from the boat’s captain regarding the history of the glacier-created body of water and information about the area. I have a personal connection to Lady of the Lake because it was the last ferry on the Missouri River. It provided transportation across the river between Niobrara, Nebraska, and Running Water, South Dakota. When my niece was born at a hospital in South Dakota, our family rode the ferry across the river en route to the rural hospital. When the owner stopped offering ferry service, he renovated it as a riverboat. It was later sold to a group looking to bring a paddleboat to Clear Lake.
Pro Tip: Lady of the Lake offers lake tours from Memorial Day weekend to mid-September.
2. Padelford Riverboats
St. Paul, Minnesota
From the urban skyline to eagles, herons, and other wildlife, a ride on the Mississippi River aboard a Padelford Riverboats tour features unique views of the Twin Cities. Enjoy your tour from the enclosed first floor or step outside and take in the views from along the railings. The spacious upper deck gives an unobstructed view of the river’s scenery. With 90- and 120-minute tours, Padelford Riverboats tours include sightseeing, lunch, and sunset cruises.
Pro Tip: Padelford offers cruises in the Twin Cities area from May through October.
3. Riverboat Twilight
Take a 2-day cruise or a 90-minute scenic tour with the Riverboat Twilight. A 2-day cruise along the Mississippi River offers a unique trip on the Twilight riverboat. Boarding early in the morning at LeClaire, the birthplace of Buffalo Bill Cody, the 2-day cruise travels upriver to Dubuque, taking you past picturesque river towns while you view American bald eagles and other wildlife along the water. Docking in Dubuque in the afternoon, you’ll spend the evening and the following morning exploring the northeastern Iowa city. Your cruise includes admission to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Your trip also provides an overnight stay at the Grand Harbor Resort.
The Twilight’s sightseeing tour takes you upriver along the Mississippi River, offering looks at beautiful scenery hugging the shoreline. You’ll see wildlife and pass quaint river towns as the boat’s captain shares stories of the river’s past and interesting sights. The tour includes a complimentary soft drink.
Pro Tip: While lunch and snacks are offered on the cruise, no meals are served on the local sightseeing cruise. You’ll want to bring a bag lunch if you’d like to eat during the tour. River cruises run from late April until late October.
4. Mark Twain Riverboat
Grab a seat on the top deck of the Mark Twain Riverboat, and your imagination takes you back to the days of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher. You may even envision the legendary author sitting at a nearby table, sipping an iced tea, enjoying the sightseeing tour with you. The hour-long tour explores the Mississippi River that Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain’s real name — made famous with his novels about his childhood in Hannibal. The Mississippi River valley is beautiful, with plush trees butting up against the shoreline, offering great views of American bald eagles and other wildlife. The narrated tour includes a look at the area’s history and legends.
Pro Tip: The Mark Twain Riverboat sails April through early November.
5. Celebration Belle
Board at Moline and the Celebration Belle takes you past the cities joining Moline as the Quad Cities — Davenport, Iowa, Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois. While you enjoy the area’s skyline, the 90-minute paddleboat cruise includes a bit of history as you travel past Rock Island Arsenal, opened in 1832, and the site of the country’s largest military weapons installation. You’re also likely to see waterfowl enjoying their own cruise, sitting on logs floating downriver.
The almost 40-year-old company also offers themed cruises, Iunch and dinner tours, as well as overnight excursions.
Pro Tip: The Celebration Belle’s tours run mid-April through October.
6. Riverboats At The Gateway Arch
St. Louis, Missouri
Any riverboat that includes views of the St. Louis Arch is my kind of boat. I love the Arch — its design, history, and views. It’s always a must-visit when we’re in St. Louis. With hour-long cruises, Riverboats at the Gateway Arch include views of the Arch, St. Louis’ riverfront, and other unique pieces of history of one of the oldest cities in the western United States. The sightseeing tour is narrated, offering insight into the area’s history. Also offering themed excursions, one of the best is the Blues Cruise. Is there anything that better defines life along the Mississippi than blues music?
Pro Tip: Riverboats at the Gateway Arch offers tours from March to November.
7. Stillwater River Boats
Minnesota To Wisconsin
Cruise the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin aboard one of the paddleboats with Stillwater River Boats. Whether you enjoy a summer tour or take in the colors of a fall river trip, the Stillwater boat offers a laid-back trip downriver on a 2-hour excursion. The first half of the tour includes narration about the area’s logging industry and Native American history. The second half offers you personal time, where it’s recommended to check out the boat’s enclosed lower level or the open-air upper deck. Meals are included with cruises, while the riverboat company also offers themed cruises, such as a jazz band entertaining during Sunday brunch.
Pro Tip: With limited parking, plan to arrive no later than 45 minutes before departure. The paddleboat will not delay its departure. Stillwater River Boats offers tours May through mid-October.
8. Vista Fleet
Sensing the enormity of Lake Superior, a cruise aboard a Vista Fleet boat takes you around the Duluth-Superior (Wisconsin) area, where you’ll cruise near giant freight ships. As your tour heads out through the Duluth harborfront, pushing through the same canal as the 1,000-foot-long ships, you get an up-close look at the lake. From 45 minutes to almost 2 hours long, cruises take you out on one of the largest of the Great Lakes, where you’d swear you’re on an ocean. The tour aboard one of the most modern and sleek boats you’ll find in the Midwest includes views of the Duluth skyline, shoreline, and the docks where the freighters offload and onload shipments. Vista Fleet also offers dining cruises, including a sunset dinner trip.
Pro Tip: Vista Fleet offers Lake Superior tours June through mid-October.
9. Lewis And Clark Riverboat
Bismarck, North Dakota
Exploring the Missouri River today is much easier than when Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery made its way upriver in the early 1800s. Sunset is the best time to enjoy a Missouri River cruise aboard the Lewis and Clark Riverboat in Bismarck. The 90-minute tour departs at 8 p.m., which is perfect for enjoying shoreline views along the river, as well as catching smaller boats speeding along the water. Cruising the Missouri River in Bismarck may remind you of a large lake with the calmness of the water. A river tour is a great way to relax after a busy day of sightseeing in North Dakota’s capital city. You may want to purchase a drink or snack to enjoy during the cruise. Or, you can reserve a spot on a themed cruise featuring lunch, dinner, or even a taco or pizza party. Lewis and Clark Riverboat offers an hour-long cruise at 3 p.m. and a second 90-minute tour at 6 p.m.
Pro Tip: Lewis and Clark Riverboat offers tours May through early September.