The Mighty Mississippi is more than just a river. It runs right through the heart of the US, and a lot of what makes America so American grew from the quaint towns and bustling cities that have grown up along it. From folktales and music, to scenery and food, it’s a perfect slice of America, and the best way to discover the history and beauty of the Mississippi is by a road trip down the Great River Road.
The trip itself is around 3,000 miles, and it passes through ten states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. If you drive it straight without stopping you're looking at about 36 hours of drive time. But, c'mon, with so much to do and see along the Mississippi, this road trip down the Great River Road makes for a fantastic river adventure.
WHAT TO SEE
The very beginning of the Mississippi River is at Itasca State Park, Minnesota's oldest state park. It’s over 32,000 acres and has more than 100 lakes. You could easily spend an entire afternoon here. From there head out about a half an hour to Bemidji, and visit Lake Bemidji State Park, where you can enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, camping, biking, you name it. After that there's Scenic State Park in Bigfork, MN and the National Eagle Center in Minnesota, where the little ones can interact with live eagles, learn through hands-on activities and take a guided eagle viewing family field trip.
Once you reach Wisconsin, the 1,270 acre Perrot State Park in Trempealeau is located in Wisconsin's "Driftless Area" where the Trempealeau and Mississippi rivers meet. Here you can get incredible views showcasing limestone bluffs and the river valleys below. Grandad Bluff Park in La Crosse is another option for hiking and beautiful scenic overlooks. Plus, the town of La Crosse has a charm all its own. After hiking up Grandad Bluff for some seriously epic scenery, wander through the ancient and mysterious Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. The Effigy Mounds are a peaceful place to take a rest after a long day of driving, with over Native American mounds in one of the most picturesque sections of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Then explore the swamps of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park—maybe you’ll even find buried pirate treasure!
A few other outdoors highlights include the Blue Heron Eco-Cruises in Camanche, which is a 26-passenger pontoon boat allowing an up-close-and personal tour of the Mississippi River. The historic Big River State Forest is a modest conservation area in Illinois that was acquired way back in 1925. Lastly, Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton offers lodging and 8,000 acres of water and outdoors sports from hunting to riding, birding and camping.
History buffs will want to step back in time with a visit the Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien. This was the home of one of the wealthiest families in Wisconsin's history. The Pine Creek Grist Mill in Muscatine, IA is a beautiful historic building in Wildcat Den State Park, it's now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in Missouri/Illinois stretches a mile across the Mississippi from Madison Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri. Now reserved for pedestrians, the bridge is truly a unique way to experience the river. Mastodon State Historic Site is a wonderfully-preserved archaeological and paleontological site that features a massive bone bed. Lastly, no trip down the Great River Road is complete without a trip to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS. Not only is this the state's oldest music museum and the world's first museum devoted to the blues, it's also where you can learn about the legendary American crossroads (at Hwy 61 and Hwy 49) where prolific American musician Robert Johnson "sold his soul to the devil."
According to folklore, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox are the ones responsible for creating the mighty Mississippi. Paul Bunyan’s “official” birthplace is in Akeley, so stop by and pay your respects to the legendary giant. Then head over to Paul Bunyan's Animal Land in Bemidji, MN and a quick detour to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which is a very picturesque vacation spot, with lots of lakes and lush forests, plus it’s Judy Garland Birthplace and there's a really cute museum there that's full of Judy Garland memorabilia. After that head to Crosby, a city with a little over 2,00 people, but what it lacks in population, it makes up for in history and natural beauty. Then, it’s on to Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd.
Pay tribute to another important piece of Mississippi history at the George M. Verity Riverboat Museum in Keokuk, Iowa, which is located in a historic riverboat. Wisconsin's Potosi Brewing Company has an attached brewery museum (i.e. the Great River Road Interpretive Center and Transportation Museum), so beer-lovers can study up and then grab a drink. You can’t road travel the Great River Road without visiting Mark Twain’s birthplace—as you may remember from high school English class, Twain wrote fondly about growing up along the river. A can't-miss Missouri museum is the St. Louis City Museum is one of America's coolest museums, loaded with repurposed industrial and architectural objects. It's also built out of a former shoe factory.
If you haven't gotten enough of Mark Twain, once you hit Natchez, MS there's the Mark Twain Guesthouse / Under the Hill Saloon, which was once known as "the most licentious spot on the Mississippi River." And speaking of "licentious" spots, your Great River Road trip ends in New Orleans' French Quarter, the oldest neighborhood in the city and a hotbed of unique shops, voodoo stores, cozy cafes, bustling dive bars and the best Creole cuisine this side of the Mississippi (or anywhere to be honest).
WHERE TO EAT
Since the Great River Road cuts through a big chunk of middle America, there’s just tons of awesome, diverse dining. Try the Bachelor Farmer for food that honors Minnesota’s Nordic heritage if you’re looking to try something a little different. Kay's Kitchen in St. Joseph, MN is a local favorite, and solid diner known for their burgers, all-day breakfast and tasty homemade pies. The historic WA Frost & Company in St. Paul is more upscale than Kay's, and good for unwinding in the evening with a glass of wine on their patio. Another classic in Bena, MN is the Big Fish Supper Club and Resort, which has a killer ambiance. There’s a massive fish in a restaurant with a super rustic, northern vibe. Over in La Crosse there's the Front Street Cafe and the Great River Roadhouse in De Soto. The town of Stockholm, WI is an incredibly-charming town to stop at along the route and the Bogus Creek Cafe & Bakery is absolutely worth a stop for their Swedish donuts.
If classic American grub is more your style, then stop by the historic Crown Candy Kitchen in St. Louis for some sweets and candy counter lunch. Chubby's BBQ in Hayti, MO has a great atmosphere and is known for their BBQ ribs, chicken, pork steak and onion rings. Next major foodie stop is Memphis, Tennessee, where there's Automatic Slim's a super quirky and fun place to hangout and snack on tropical-inspired treats and cocktails. And of course, BBQ in Memphis is a must—stop by Cozy Corner Barbecue, and the Old Country Store serves up some of the best fried chicken and cornbread, and once you reach New Orleans, you can dig into Cajun favorites at Mother’s Restaurant and Café Du Monde.
WHERE TO SLEEP
The Covington Inn in Maplewood, MN is a fantastic place to rest your weary head along the Great River Road. It's a floating bed and breakfast that's moored along the Mississippi river. You sleep in a restored 1946 towboat, just a mile and a half from St. Paul's downtown. From there head south to Trempealeau, Wisconsin, it’s about an hour and twenty minutes away. While you’re in town you should stay at the Historic Trempealeau Hotel and Restaurant. Then check into the Holiday Shores Riverfront Motel in McGregor, Iowa, or the nearby Gutenberg Haus B&B, which will be your base for exploring Guttenberg, Iowa, the Field of Dreams Movie Site. When you get to St. Louis, check into the Moonrise Hotel, which is a funky boutique hotel with a galactic theme that promises to take guests "on a journey through space and time." If you’re feeling swanky, then book a stay at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. There’s lots of repurposed historic buildings along the Great River Road that are now some of the country’s most awesome and odd hotels, like Taylor Falls, MN's Old Jail B&B and Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana (which is not for the faint of heart-- it's crazy haunted)... but you can never go wrong with camping along the Mighty Mississippi if that’s more your scene.
Best time to road trip along the Great River Road
Although the Great River Road is really a wonderful road trip any time of year, winter you can see many of these charming towns blanketed in snow, you can find plenty of swimming holes to take a dip in during the hot summers. But, the consensus of road travelers is that fall is the perfect time to drive the Great River Road. The foliage along the route is particularly amazing from Minnesota all the way down through northern Mississippi. Plus, there's loads of festivals and farmers markets to stop at. In fact, the Mississippi River association has declared September to be "Drive the Great River Road Month."