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Unique roadside attractions along the northern Great River Road

Friday, August 05, 2022

A trip along the Great River Road means not only great scenery, fantastic food, and engaging history—it means a chance to discover some of the unique attractions that travelers can find along the route. Here’s a closer look at a few places to visit along the northern stretch of the byway.

Minnesota

Head to Bemidji—“the first city on the Mississippi”—to find a larger-than-life (or maybe not) statue of two Northwoods legends. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox have a long, storied history dating to the lumberjack camps of the early 20th century, and visitors to Bemidji will find giant statues of the famed duo outside the Tourist Information Center, 300 Bemidji Ave. The center is open year-round and features Paul Bunyan memorabilia as well as information about local attractions. 

The Big Fish Supper Club and Resort, located just east of Bemidji on U.S. Highway 2, certainly lives up to its name. Visitors who pull up to this iconic roadside attraction between Leech Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish will be greeted by a giant musky, its mouth open wide.

Wisconsin

The “big fish” theme continues in Wisconsin, with several communities along that state’s section of the Great River Road boasting oversized aquatic creatures. Trempealeau, which is home to an annual Catfish Days celebration every July, has a giant catfish on its welcome sign along Highway 35, and Onalaska (about 15 miles to the south) has its own aquatic icon: Sunny the Sunfish, who overlooks Lake Onalaska from a roadside park.

Further south in Dickeyville, just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, road trippers will find the Dickeyville Grotto, a unique stone creation on the Holy Ghost Parish grounds. Father Matthias Wernerus served at the parish from 1918 to 1931 and crafted the grotto and shrines, which consist of stone and mortar and are adorned with an array of unique objects, from colored glass and gems to seashells and petrified wood.

Iowa

Visitors to the city of Burlington in southeastern Iowa will find one of America’s crookedest streets in the heart of downtown. Snake Alley, initially built in the 1890s to connect the residential district at the top of the bluff with the commercial district below, consists of five half-curves and two quarter-curves, covering 275 feet and rising nearly 60 feet along a 21% grade.

Another short route that’s worth the ride is Dubuque’s Fenelon Place Elevator, which was also built to solve the problem of getting from the homes at the top of the bluffs to the businesses below and vice versa. The Fenelon Place Elevator is billed as the shortest and steepest railroad in the world, traveling just shy of 300 feet from street level to the top off the bluff. The elevator is open from April 1 through November 30 and costs $4 round-trip for adults and $2 round-trip for children 5-12.

Illinois

Great River Road travelers might not know they’re passing a UNESCO World Heritage site when they drive through Collinsville in northwestern Illinois, but nearby Cahokia Mounds has had the notable distinction since 1982. Cahokia Mounds was home to the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico and was occupied between approximately 800-1400, with a population of 10,000 to 20,000 residents at its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries. Today, visitors can see Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, which rises more than 90 feet over the surrounding landscape.

Motorists along Route 100 near Alton could find themselves face-to-face with a mythological beast. On the bluffs above the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois, visitors can discover a painting of the Piasa bird, a feared creature among the Illini Native Americans who inhabited the area. First seen by Jacque Marquette in his voyage down the river in 1673, the Piasa (pronounced pie-uh-saw) bird was repainted on the bluffs in the 1990s and greets Great River Road travelers today. 

Missouri

Learn about the life of one of America’s most famous authors in the city of Hannibal in northeastern Missouri. Mark Twain called Hannibal home in his youth, and inspired many of his later tales, including serving as the setting for Tom Sawyer’s adventures. Today, visitors can stroll the historic downtown and visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum to learn about the writer’s early life and his experiences in Hannibal, tour the Mark Twain Cave Complex (where the outlaw Jesse James once hid out), and celebrate events like the Twain on Main Festival and National Tom Sawyer Days.

It wouldn’t be a legitimate list of roadside attractions without a “world’s largest” something, so head to Cape Girardeau in southeastern Missouri to find the World’s Largest Fountain Drink Cup outside the Rhodes Convenience Store on Mt. Auburn Road just off Interstate 55. The giant cup stands more than 13 feet high and holds more than 4,700 gallons.

Photo: Travel Wisconsin

22 reasons to drive the Great River Road

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

It’s a new year, the perfect time for a new adventure on the Great River Road. This All-American Road offers everything you need in a road trip, from amazing scenery to engaging history to delicious cuisine. Here are some reasons why you should hit the road along the Mississippi River this year.

  1. Nearly 3,000 miles of road that passes through 10 states’ worth of history, culture, food and beautiful scenery
  2. A chance to visit charming river towns and big cities
  3. The Great River Road is now an All-American Road, a distinct honor from the Federal Highway Administration that acknowledges the road’s significance and one-of-a-kind attractions
  4. A network of nearly 100 Interpretive Centers—museums, historical sites & more that tell the story of the river
  5. Stunning scenery all along the drive
  6. See the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park in Minnesota, where the Mississippi is so narrow you can walk across it
  7. Great music sites like the Delta Blues Museum in Mississippi, Beale Street and Graceland in Memphis and New Orleans’ Frenchman Street
  8. National Park sites: Gateway Arch National Park (Missouri); Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Minnesota); Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa); Arkansas Post National Memorial; Natchez National Historic Park (Mississippi) and more
  9. Chances to get out on the water all along the Great River Road
  10. Head out in September to celebrate Drive the Great River Road Month, one of the best times of the year to make the drive
  11. Incredible local parks and scenic overlooks
  12. Can’t-miss history museums like the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis,  The Cabildo in New Orleans and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
  13. Local flavors at restaurants, farmers’ markets and more—see some of our fans’ favorites here
  14. Great birdwatching—more than 300 species of birds make their migratory round trip every year via the Mississippi River Flyway
  15. Impressive civil engineering at the more than two dozen locks and dams on the northern Mississippi River
  16. Hidden gems like Arkansas’s World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest & Wings Over the Prairie Festival and Mike the Tiger—a real-live tiger that lives on the campus of Louisiana State University (see more hidden gems here and here)
  17. River cruises—you can find daylong excursions on the backwaters or weekslong cruises on the northern and southern sections of the river
  18. Amazing opportunities to see fall color
  19. UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Cahokia Mounds (Illinois) and Poverty Point (Louisiana)
  20. Opportunities for outdoor recreation all along the route
  21. Great places to learn about the river region’s natural history, like the National Eagle Center and the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
  22. Tasty wineries and breweries all along the route

That’s just a quick look—plan your Great River Road getaway today and find your own reasons to take America’s greatest drive.

Discover more cultural attractions along the Great River Road

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Great River Road was recently designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration, in part because of the National Scenic Byway’s historic and cultural significance. Here are a few places to visit where you can learn about the people and places that shaped the Mississippi River Region.

Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, Kentucky

Learn about the sophisticated cultures that called the Mississippi River Valley home at this state historic site just across the river from Cairo, Illinois. The Mississippian (or mound-building) culture called this area home between the years of about 1100 and 1350, and present-day visitors can see several mounds built by these Native peoples at this scenic site. There is also a museum that features exhibits of items excavated from the archaeological site, including Mississippian pottery, stone tools and other artifacts. The Ceremonial Mound—the largest at the site—offers a spectacular view of the Mississippi River and surrounding bluffs.

Learn more about Wickliffe Mounds here.

Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin

One of Wisconsin’s oldest state parks, this stunning natural area sits 500 feet above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers just south of Prairie du Chien. The park is well-known for its natural beauty, with several stunning vistas of the river valleys below, and dozens of animal and bird species, including deer, beaver, fox, eagles, owls, and songbirds, make their home in the park. Wyalusing State Park—the name means “of the warrior” in the Lenape language of the tribes who lived in the region—is also home to the Wyalusing State Park Mounds Archaeological District, a collection of several Native American burial mounds that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about Wyalusing State Park here.

Arkansas Post National Memorial, Arkansas

Located at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, this historic site is the home of the first semi-permanent French settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley—a trading post called “Poste de Arkansea” established in 1686 at the Quapaw village of Ostouy. Arkansas Post has served as a gathering place for the French, Spanish and Americans in the centuries since, and by 1819, it was a thriving river port and was selected as the first capital of the Arkansas Territory. Today, travelers can explore the visitor center and museum to view exhibits on the site’s history, explore Arkansas Post’s historic town site via walking trails and even see historic weapons demonstrations.

Learn more about Arkansas Post National Memorial here.

Mississippi River towns, Minnesota

A trip along the southern part of Minnesota’s section of the Great River Road is a trip through history. These cities depended on the Mississippi River for their livelihood, and signs of these towns’ prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century can still be seen today. Hastings is home to two historic districts: the East Second Street Commercial Historic District, which includes 35 structures built between 1860 and 1900, and the West Second Street Residential Historic District, consisting of more than a dozen homes built in the 19th century. Red Wing—home to the famous boot company of the same name—has five historic districts, and the St. James Hotel, which was built in 1874, is one of the only hotels of its size and character still in operation along the river in Minnesota. Other river towns of note include Wabasha (Minnesota’s oldest city) and Winona (known for its historic downtown and attractions like the Minnesota Marine Art Museum).

Cultural attractions along the Great River Road

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Cultural attractions abound on the Great River Road, recently named an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration. Here’s a closer look at some unique attractions along the route that educate travelers about the history and culture of the river region.

South Main Arts District, Tennessee

This famed district in downtown Memphis (between Beale Street and Crump Boulevard) is home to some of the city’s headline attractions, including the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the Blues Hall of Fame and The Arcade (one of Elvis’ favorite restaurants). Visitors can also take in incredible local art with a DIY walking tour of the district’s murals and mosaics, and three galleries (Art Village Gallery, Jack Robinson Gallery and Edge Gallery) showcase everything from photography to global artworks. Learn more about the South Main Arts District here

Village of Elsah, Illinois

Walking through downtown Elsah—just a short drive across the river north of St. Louis—is like taking a step back in time. In fact, the entire village was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and visitors can walk through historic buildings that are now charming shops, tasty restaurants and welcoming places to stay. Elsah is home to unparalleled natural beauty, too, as it sits between limestone bluffs on the banks of the Mississippi River, offering outstanding vistas of the surrounding area. Learn more about Elsah here.

Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark, Iowa

Near the confluence of the Iowa and Mississippi rivers in southeastern Iowa lies a collection of seven Indian burial mounds constructed by the Hopewell people (a name given to them from the location of an archaeological dig; there has been no evidence of written language, so historians do not know how the group referred to themselves). The mounds were constructed sometime between 100 BC and AD 200—today, visitors can see two of the mounds (including Mound 2, the largest) when they visit the Educational Center, where they can also learn more about the Hopewell tradition. Learn more about Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark here.

Plantation homes, Louisiana

Just west of New Orleans, travelers on the Great River Road in Louisiana will discover several sites that allow visitors to see what Southern history was like. Laura Plantation in Vacherie highlights the lives of the Creole inhabitants of the region and how they lived their lives, as well as examining slavery as it existed at Laura Plantation. Oak Alley Plantation, also in Vacherie, is famous for its alley of 300-year-old oak trees, and visitors can explore exhibits on the Civil War, slavery and other topics on the grounds. Houmas House in nearby Darrow takes visitors on a tour of a 250-year history of the site and is also home to the on-site Louisiana Great River Road Museum, which features exhibits on the culture, commerce, folklore and music of the river region.

Scenic spots on the Great River Road

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Great River Road was named one of the country’s newest All-American Roads this year, meaning it’s one of the very best of America’s National Scenic Byways. There are a lot of reasons for that, including the region’s rich history, culture and heritage, but don’t miss this simple fact: the drive is incredibly scenic. Here are some photo-worthy stops along the route you should visit on your next trip.

big river crossing AR -credit-big river strategic initiative llc

Big River Crossing, Arkansas/Tennessee

Take in views of the Mississippi River from the Big River Crossing, a railroad bridge-turned-pedestrian walkway that connects Memphis, Tennessee, with West Memphis, Arkansas. Big River Crossing is nearly a mile long, making it the longest public pedestrian bridge across the mighty river. It’s open daily from 6am to 10pm and accessible to walkers and bicyclists. Keep your eyes peeled for the nightly light show, held hourly from sunset to 10pm.

Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, Illinois

This site in Hartford marks the location of Camp River Dubois, which served as the winter home for the explorers from December 1803 to May 1804 as they prepared for their famous journey. The site includes a 14,000-square-foot Interpretive Center and reconstructed cabins and other buildings. A great view of the area can be found at the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower about a mile to the north of the historic site.

Mines of Spain & E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, Iowa

This 1,400-acre property just south of Dubuque was where Native Americans and European settlers mined lead for hundreds of years (the name comes from a land grant European settler Julien Dubuque received from the Governor of Spain in 1796) and is now a popular site for outdoor exploration. A monument honoring Dubuque overlooks the Mississippi River, and the spot offers outstanding views of the surrounding region.

Jackson Square, Louisiana 

New Orleans is alive with history and culture, and it’s got some can’t-miss photo opportunities. In the heart of the city’s French Quarter, Jackson Square—originally known as Place d’Armes—faces the northern banks of the Mississippi River, where visitors can see paddle wheelers, barges and more making their way along the river. Jackson Square is surrounding by iconic buildings, including the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere and Cabildo Museums, as well as the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in the United States (now a combination of shops, restaurants, galleries and yes, apartments).

buena vista WI

Buena Vista, Wisconsin 

The town of Alma on the Wisconsin Great River Road is filled with rich history (it was established in the 1840s, became a village in 1868 and is designated as a National Historic District), but it also offers one of the best views of the Mississippi River. Head to the top of the 500-foot bluffs that loom over this charming river town to find the Buena Vista Overlook, a small park that offers outstanding views of the river from a natural viewing platform.

Explore natural beauty along the Great River Road

Friday, April 16, 2021

Some of the most beautiful scenery in America can be found in the Mississippi River Valley, and the Great River Road is the route that will take you there. You’ll pass scores of gorgeous parks and natural areas—here are some of the finest that offer a chance to experience nature on and off the water.

Reminder: Local and state safety regulations may lead to reduced hours or changes in operations. Please contact specific businesses or attractions for more information before you visit.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa

In this important national park in Iowa, you’ll find more than 200 earthen effigy mounds. Taking the shapes of a bird, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtle or panther, these mounds were built by Native Americans 750 to 1,400 years ago for ceremonial purposes. The best way to tour the 2,526-acre park is to hike along the 14 miles of trails that wind their way through the landscape of forests, tallgrass prairies and wetlands. Along the way you’ll see some dramatic views of the Mississippi River.

Columbus-Belmont State Park, Kentucky

Discover a mix of natural beauty and history at this gorgeous Kentucky state park. The park is uniquely educational, standing as a National Trail of Tears Site, and featuring a museum highlighting Civil War history—it was once a civil War hospital. Visitors can enjoy the natural wonders of Kentucky by camping out at one of the park’s 38 sites and hiking along picturesque bluffs of the Civil War Heritage Trail. 

Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas

Adventure awaits in this family-friendly park in Marianna. The park is popular for fishing, boating and kayaking excursions. The park is located within the 3,000-acre St. Francis National Forest, and there are seven bodies or water to explore. You’ll also find scenic hiking trails, welcoming picnic facilities and two swimming beaches.

Black Hawk State Historic Site, Illinois

Along the Rock River in Rock Island, Illinois, you’ll find the Black Hawk State Historic Site. It’s a wooded, steeply rolling 208-acre park that has a scenic 3-mile hiking trail that will take you along the Rock River and through a nature preserve. Prehistoric Indians and 19th century settlers made their homes here, but the area is most closely identified with the Sauk Nation and the warrior-leader Black Hawk. Discover the history of Black Hawk and the Sauk and Meskwaki people by visiting the park’s John Hauberg Museum.

Poverty Point World Heritage Site, Louisiana

Hike through time, history and natural beauty at this important site in Louisiana. Poverty Point is the location of a massive earthen structure that was built thousands of years ago. Archaeologists are still uncovering its secrets, but it’s believed to be an ancient residential, trade and ceremonial center. The site features a 2.7-mile trail that will take you through this amazing place and past carpets of seasonal wildflowers.  

Discover ancient cultures and engaging history on the Great River Road

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

To travel the Great River Road is to travel through the history of the people and cultures of the Mississippi River. Marvel at a once-massive ancient city created by the mound-building people of southern Illinois, see the agricultural settlement where a young Johnny Cash spent his formative years, and learn about an important battle in Civil War history.

Reminder: Local and state safety regulations may lead to reduced hours or changes in operations. Please contact specific businesses or attractions for more information before you visit.

Lakeport Planation

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Lakeport Planation

Built in 1859, Lakeport Plantation sits just a short distance from the banks of the Mississippi River in Lake Village, Arkansas. It’s the last remaining Mississippi River plantation home in Arkansas and is considered one of the state’s top historic structures. Exhibits in the home tell the stories of the people who lived and worked on the plantation, as well as how the home was restored to its original condition. Tours are available Monday through Friday year-round and also on Saturdays in the winter.
Learn more.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

(Photo courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism)

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Drive to Collinsville, Illinois—just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis—and you’ll find one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the Great River Road. Cahokia Mounds was inhabited for about 700 years from 700 to 1400 AD, and it its peak, was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people. The inhabitants built more than 120 mounds on the site, which covers more than 6 square miles. An interpretive center and tours help visitors learn more about this fascinating site.
Learn more.

Historic Dyess Colony

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Historic Dyess Colony

The Dyess Colony in northeastern Arkansas was created as a federal agricultural settlement as part of the New Deal in 1934, giving a new start to hundreds of poor farming families in the state. One of those families, the Cashes had a son, Johnny, who went on to become one of the most notable names in American music. Several of the colony’s buildings have been restored and are open to visitors, including the Johnny Cash Boyhood home.
Learn more.

Columbus-Belmont State Park
Columbus-Belmont State Park

This 156-acre site in Kentucky is the site of a Confederate fortification, and the Battle of Belmont—fought here in 1861—marked the beginning of the Union’s Western campaign. The battle for the fort, which had blocked the Union forces looking to travel south on the Mississippi River, was the first real action for Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. The site is also home to a Civil War Museum, and visitors can see the massive chain and anchor that was meant to prevent Union ships from passing.
Learn more.

Delta Cultural Center

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Delta Cultural Center

The Arkansas Delta has made immense contributions to American culture, blues music and more—hear the stories of Delta residents at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. Exhibits and guided tours educate visitors about the people and history of this region. The Delta Cultural Center is also home to “King Biscuit Time,” a live daily blues broadcast that has been on the air for nearly 80 years.
Learn more.

Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site

Discover the history of the Mississippian—or mound-building—native culture that called this area home at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Kentucky. This site was home to a Native American village from about 1100 to 1350, and visitors to the historic site can walk interpretive archaeological trails, learn about the culture that lived here and see artifacts and tools at the Wickliffe Mounds museum, which has been open to the public since 1932.
Learn more.

Fort de Chartres State Historic Site

This French fort was constructed nearly 300 years ago on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis. It served as a base for French soldiers during their occupation of what is today Illinois.. Interpretive signage guides visitors around the site, and on weekends, costumed interpreters offer additional information and reenactments.
Learn more.

Fort Jefferson Hill Park and Memorial Cross

Fort Jefferson was established in 1780 on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River a mile south of the present-day city of Wickliffe, Kentucky. The fort, which was only occupied for a short time, was intended to protect the western border of the then-newfound United States. The cross towers 95 feet high above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers andcan be seen from three states. Fort Jefferson is also a Lewis and Clark Expedition historic site.
Learn more.

Sultana Disaster Museum

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Sultana Disaster Museum

The greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred on the Mississippi River in Arkansas in 1865. The Sultana, a Civil War-era steamboat, exploded on April 27, 1865, killing more than 1,200 people aboard. Among the dead were Union soldiers who had been released from prison camps in Andersonville and Cahaba. Learn about this oft-overlooked disaster at the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion.
Learn more.

Support the Great River Road!

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Do you love traveling the Great River Road? So do we! The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC) is a 10-state non-profit organization that helps preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River, including the Great River Road.

Please fill out the form below to make your tax-deductible donation to the MRPC.