The Great River Road is a scenic route that follows the course of the Mississippi River. The course winds through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The road traverses through ten states, beginning at its headwaters in Minnesota down to Louisiana, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
This historic road is unique because you can experience the history, food, and culture of many US states while getting fantastic photo ops and the chance to view the river’s diverse wildlife. Take a road trip this summer and discover 12 incredible things along the Mississippi River’s Great River Road.
1. Itasca State Park
The Mississippi River begins as a gentle stream in Itasca State Park in Minnesota, the first stop on the list. This beautiful state park is 32,690 acres in the Northern part of the state and features over 100 lakes. While summer is always a fun time to visit, consider stopping by this park during fall when all the leaves are fiery red and orange. There are many things to do here, including swimming, boating, bike trails, hiking trails, wilderness drive, boat tours, and camping. You can also stay in one of their log cabins and dine at one of several restaurants or check out the gift shop.
2. St. Anthony Falls
Located in Northeast Downtown, Minneapolis is the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River. St. Anthony Falls is a natural waterfall dating back 12,000 years ago that holds spiritual and cultural significance to the native people inhabiting the land before European exploration. Today thousands of people visit the falls and walk around the Heritage Trail that surrounds it. Check out Stone Arch Bridge and Water Power Park for the best views.
3. Nelson Dewey State Park
The Nelson Dewey State Park is 756 acres of Wisconsin land that overlooks the mighty Mississippi. It was once the home of Wisconsin’s first governor but is now a recreational area for picnicking, camping, and hiking. Check out the 500-foot scenic overlook for a panoramic view of the river and wilderness below, and spend the day biking, boating, and fishing. This park is open year-round and supports recreation every season, including winter sports like skiing and snowshoeing.
4. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium combines a museum, aquarium, and science center. It’s associated with the Smithsonian Institute and focuses on creating an educational experience for people of all ages around rivers, history, and science. This family-friendly center is in Dubuque, Iowa, and features a full aquarium, exhibits, a boatyard, a movie theater, and a restaurant. Bring the whole family for a fun, hands-on experience!
5. Pike’s Peak State Park
This Iowa state park is nearly one thousand acres and features a 500-foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Pike’s Peak is one of the most popular parks in the state and the perfect destination for those who participate in recreational activities. Hike 11 miles of scenic bluffs and valleys, where you can view ancient fossils and take in the Iowa landscape. There is also a Native American monument, playgrounds, campsites, and mountain biking trails.
6. Pere Marquette State Park
The Pere Marquette State Park is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers in Grafton, Illinois. This park is 8,000 acres and is revered for its spectacular fall foliage and bald eagle viewings. There are endless things to do here, including hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing, and boating. You can also stay at the lodge and enjoy its amenities like delicious food and award-winning cellar wine.
7. Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum
Marks Twain’s boyhood home turned museum is on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri. This famous American author wrote many beloved books that challenged fundamental issues in the country during his time. The museum stands to cultivate an appreciation for his life and work. Tour the historic home, explore interactive exhibits and view memorabilia of his life.
8. Reelfoot Lake State Park
Located in the Northwest corner of Tennessee is 280 acres of state park around Reelfoot Lake. Reelfoot Lake State Park is a beautiful flooded cypress forest on a 15,000-acre lake, created by violent earthquakes in the early 1800s (the same ones that made the Mississippi River flow backward). It’s a fantastic place for birdwatching, particularly eagles and white pelicans, but it also provides opportunities for kayaking, boating, hiking, fishing, and camping.
9. The Historic New Orleans Collection
The Historic New Orleans Collection is in the French Quarter. This museum and research center provides cultural and historic preservation and education of New Orleans and the Gulf South Region. Visit the free museum exhibits, take a tour through historical sites, and eat some of the best food in the world. And while you’re there, visit the rest of the French Quarter. Explore French markets, cajun eateries, and vibrant jazz clubs.
10. Jean Lafitte National Park
Named after a French pirate, Jean Lafitte has six separate sites and a park headquarters. Its purpose is to preserve the nature and culture of the Mississippi River Delta region. It’s a perfect place to stop and appreciate New Orlean’s rich culture and wildlife, including the infamous gator. Watch the alligators swim in the swamps and bayous, visit an old battlefield, and learn about the history of one of America’s most unique cities.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Willard
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Can you drive to the end of the Mississippi River?
You can get very close! The road ends in Venice, Louisiana, right before the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Where does the Great River Road start?
The road begins at the river’s headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota.
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