By Cathy Henry

We in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service often describe the three dozen national wildlife refuges along the Mississippi River as rest stops for migrating birds, but they are also rest stops for people.

The Great River Road and Mississippi River Trail follow the river from Minnesota to Louisiana. Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge sits along the route on Louisa County Road X61 in southeast Iowa and is a prime spot for river visitors to stop. Natural resources are the biggest attraction, with plenty of county, state and federal lands for recreation. But there happen to be no towns along the river in Louisa County and no reliable bathroom breaks or water stops for cyclists and motorists. Meeting people's most basic needs can be the first step in getting them to stop and visit.

Local leaders often discuss how to improve tourism. The number one obstacle that seems to surface is a lack of rest stops and bathrooms.

Port Louisa Refuge was fortunate to complete a new headquarters building in 2014 that set the stage for a welcoming and visible place for visitors to stop. The refuge subsequently received a National Scenic Byways grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pay for facilities to complement the new headquarters. Construction of a comfort station was recently completed with those funds. It is open 24 hours, seven days a week, and has a drinking fountain and bottle filler outside. The grant also paid for an information kiosk, trail improvements and displays inside the headquarters.

Although the refuge now has a great visitor facility, we do not have the staff to be open on weekends, when most travelers are on the Great River Road. While we cannot be there to greet people, we can provide information and basic needs for people to enjoy the refuge.

Now, cyclists and motorists can stop to fill their water bottles, take in the refuge overlook, and get information about the Mississippi River and our conservation message. The facilities will likely become a common rest stop for organized bicycle rides. An active trails council in Louisa County is helping to organize bike rides and trail walks that include the refuge. All of this should benefit refuge programs.

This project would not have been possible, or turned out as nicely, without the support from Midwest Region engineering staff and regional Refuge System transportation coordinator Brandon Jutz.

“The Mississippi draws millions of tourists to travel the Great River Road, and it is important for those visitors to easily stop and enjoy places like Port Louisa Refuge. This is a perfect rest and recreation stop where they can also learn and experience the amazing wild side of life along the mighty river,” says Mary Stahlhut, National Scenic Byways program manager with Iowa Department of Transportation.

Todd Criswell of the Midwest Region Division of Engineering agrees that the comfort station adds a great deal of value to the overall headquarters project.

While it might be a bit against our grain to refer to refuges as “rest areas,” the inference is well worth the potential gains in refuge awareness that come from happy, comfortable people who might not have known about us before. Now we are a visible entity along the road. Instead of zooming by to get to the next town, travelers may stop for a rest, take a walk and maybe even do some bird watching.

Cathy Henry is the manager at Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. This article originally appeared on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Inside Region 3 web page.