With the holidays fast approaching, it’s wise to have some conversation starters on hand. Check out these Great River Road fun facts!
From the headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the grand finale in New Orleans, Louisiana, it would take 22 hours of non-stop driving to complete one half of the Great River Road.
But, if you were a raindrop, it’d take you 90 days to travel the same distance!
Minnesota has the longest portion of the Great River Road at 575 miles long.
Kentucky is home to the smallest section of the Great River Road, just 63 miles.
The Great River Road runs on both sides of the river, except between Hastings, Minnesota and the byway’s northern terminus.
Great River Road town Hannibal, Missouri is the hometown of famed author Mark Twain.
Two-thirds of Wisconsin’s Great River Road passes along or through protected natural areas.
Some of the oak trees along Louisiana’s Great River Road are more than 300 years old!
Illinois’s Great River Road is home to the confluence of three rivers – the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.
River town Alton, Illinois has been named “One of the Most Haunted Small Towns in America” by the Travel Channel.
Accolades come easy for the Great River Road. It’s been named, “Prettiest Drive in America,” one of the “U.S.A.’s Ten Best Motorcycle Roads,” one of the “1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die,” and “Best Drive in America.”
November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich history of our great nation, especially the Native American influences along the Great River Road. Here are a few stops along the Mississippi that honor the diverse cultures and influences of Native American people.
Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa) – Located just four miles north of Marquette, Iowa these sacred mounds are associated with as many as 20 different American Indian tribes. There are more than 200 mounds surrounded by some of the most beautiful views of the Upper Mississippi River Valley you’ll ever experience.
Toolesboro Indian Mounds & Museum (Iowa) – These Wapello, Iowa mounds claim to be the “best-preserved and accessible remains of an ancient culture flourishing from 200 B.C. to A.D. 300.” Stop in the visitor center to learn about the Hopewellian people who created these beautiful mounds.
Black Hawk State Historic Site (Illinois) – This site in Rock Island was home to native peoples beginning 12,000 years ago up until about A.D. 250. This area was the land of the Sauk and Meskwaki people, then an amusement park, then a rail line. In the 1930s, veterans of the First World War transformed it into a historic site with trails, parking lots and shelters, planting trees and wildflowers along the way.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Illinois) – Cahokia was once one of the greatest cities in the world, and was larger than London in A.D. 1250. These remains claim to be of “the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico.” It’s also home to Monks Mound, the largest man-made earthen mound in North America. The people of this area were builders, unsurpassed in their skills at the time.
Wickliffe Mounds (Kentucky) – In Wickliffe, Kentucky you’ll find the site of a village once belonging to the Mississippian Native Americans. Beginning about 900 years ago, these peaceful farmers grew and prospered here until the village was mysteriously abandoned in the 1350s. Don’t miss the Archaeology Walking Trail tour or the hands-on activity stations.
Trail of Tears State Park (Missouri) – This scenic state park is a sobering reminder of one of America’s saddest chapters, the Trail of Tears March, which forced tens of thousands of Cherokees from their homes. A stop here will help you to better understand the great sacrifice native people endured.
August is Family Fun Month, so hop in the car, get on the Great River Road and check out these family-friendly stops along the way.
Minnesota – Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the country is in Bloomington, Minnesota. Sure there are more than 400 stores, but there’s also a theme park, an aquarium, a comedy club, a mini golf course and more. Fun for all ages and interests. Bring your sneakers.
Wisconsin – In La Crosse, drive or hike to the top of Grandad Bluff. Have a picnic and enjoy the amazing views of this robust river town. After lunch, head downtown to the Gertrude Salzer Gordon Children’s Museum. You’ll find three floors of hands-on exhibits, including a giant Operation game, a kid-sized convenience store and a television news set.
Iowa – The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque is a must-see. Learn about the history of the river with historical exhibits and 3D and 4D theaters, then visit the aquarium and explore the wildlife that calls the river home, including turtles, fish, otters, even alligators!
Illinois – Head to Grafton and conquer your fear of heights together as a family! The Grafton Zipline at Aerie’s Winery has nine lines, nearly two miles in total length. Peak height? 250 feet up. It’s an exciting experience that’s safe enough for even your little ones.
Missouri – Your kids are bound to come across Mark Twain’s many works during their school years. Take them to Hannibal, Missouri to visit the author’s boyhood home. (It’s where the real adventures of Tom Sawyer took place!) You can also visit the Huckleberry Finn House, where the real Huck Finn grew up, and see seasonal performances of Twain’s works.
Tennessee – In the northwest corner of Tennessee you’ll find Reelfoot Lake State Park. The lake was created in the early 1800s by violent earthquakes that forced the Mississippi River to flow backwards. If that cool story isn’t enough for you, the lake is also a flooded forest, dotted with Cypress trees and home to tons of wading birds and waterfowl. Catch a canoe or pontoon boat tour and explore this unique gem.
Arkansas – Arkansas’s largest natural lake, Lake Chicot is a site to behold. Twenty miles long, the lake is nestled in a pecan grove, so the scenery is absolutely stunning. Rent a pontoon, fishing boat or kayak and spend the day exploring. There are wildlife tours available and a visitor center with interpretive exhibits that tell the story of the area’s natural history.
Mississippi – In Clarksdale, you’ll find the Delta Blues Museum. Situated in the “land of the blues,” this museum will teach your kids valuable musical history through sculptures, photography, interactive exhibits and of course, plenty of tunes.
Louisiana – At the end of the Great River Road, you’ll find great family fun. New Orleans is home to the Audubon Zoo, one of the top-ranked zoos in the country, with unique animals like white tigers and white alligators. It’s also home to Mardi Gras World, a hands-on museum celebrating the annual festival. Here kids can watch the floats being built, try on traditional costumes and sample king cake.
May is National Bike Month, so hook the bike on the car and hop on the Great River Road for an early summer adventure you won’t soon forget.
Try exploring a classic river town on two-wheels along the Mississippi River Trail. It’s nearly 3,000 miles of on-road bikeways and pedestrian and bike paths you can take from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
Check out these National Wildlife Refuges along the Mississippi River Trail:
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (240,000 acres, 241 river miles long through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa)
Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge (15,000 acres, part of the largest bottomland hardwood swamp in America, runs through Louisiana)
Or bike to a national park:
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (aka the St. Louis Gateway Arch)
Natchez National Historical Park (Natchez, Mississippi; see an antebellum estate)
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (New Orleans, Louisiana; made of six sites where you can learn about everything from wildlife to the Battle of New Orleans)
Find out more about the Mississippi River Trail and get detailed maps here.
Spring is here and it’s the perfect time for birdwatching along the Great River Road, thanks to its location along the Mississippi Flyway, the migration route followed by 40% of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds.
Charles, Arkansas is home to the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Over 300 lakes and ponds, the Bottomland Hardwood Forest and the White River make an ideal home for migrating birds. You’ll see bald eagles, wood ducks, prothonotary warblers and many kinds of birds native to the south.
At the midway point of the Wisconsin Great River Road is Onalaska, home to protected woodlands and wetlands perfect for migrating birds. Drop into the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge and look for raptors and rare birds. Or stop by the Onalaska Spillway and see the white pelicans that make their way through the area each spring. Don’t miss the two eagle nests here as well.
At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota you can meet real bald and golden eagles, climb in a nest or see how your strength stacks up against the national bird’s. Admission is very modest and if you plan your trip at the right time you can even take an eagle viewing field trip to see these majestic birds in the wild.
Arkansas is rich in history and there’s no better way to take it all in than a trip down the Great River Road.
Delta Cultural Center
Located in downtown Helena, the Delta Cultural Center is really two buildings. The Depot features two permanent exhibits, one telling the story of the Arkansas Delta and its people, from prehistoric days to the present and the second detailing the role the state played in the Civil War. One block away you’ll find the Visitors Center, which is home to several traveling exhibits and its permanent feature, Delta Sounds. Delta Sounds features listening stations where visitors can listen to all the music of the Arkansas Delta, including blues, gospel and rockabilly. It’s also home to the longest running daily blues radio show in the U.S. – King Biscuit Time.
Lake Chicot State Park
Lake Chicot is Arkansas’s largest natural lake. This 20-mile long oxbow lake was part of the Mississippi River until centuries ago, when the river altered its course and the lake was cut off. Now the lake is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Thanks to its location along the Mississippi Flyway, the birding is fantastic and the water is rife with crappie, bass and catfish. There are campsites and cabins and boat and bicycle rentals to round out your visit.
The Lakeport Plantation house in Lake Village is the last remaining antebellum Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River. Built in 1859, the home has been beautifully restored into a museum focusing on the lifestyles and relationships between and people who lived and worked at Lakeport.
Parkin Archeological State Park
Parkin Archeological State Park was the site of a former American Indian village from A.D. 1000 to 1600 which is believed to be Casqui, the village visited by explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541. Archeological excavations are often underway here and can be viewed via guided tour. Exhibits and audio tours are also available. Parkin remains one of the last archeological sites of its kind in the region as many were destroyed during the settling of eastern Arkansas.
Tennessee is home to world-famous sights and fantastic local secrets. There’s much to see and do, and here are a few good places to start.
The King lives on in this iconic Memphis estate. Never been? You have to, if only for the jumpsuits. Made the pilgrimage before? Welcome back to the Jungle Room. Exhibits change yearly in this National Historic Landmark so this is a destination worth revisiting. Check out the King’s 1955 pink Cadillac, admire the gold records and Grammys in the trophy room and see the piano that Elvis used to play his final songs. Before you leave, pause at the Meditation Garden and pay your respects.
Is the best thing about Beale Street the blues, the beer or the barbeque? Who cares? No one has to choose in this happy hub of good times. This iconic Memphis street starts at the Mississippi River and runs east into the heart of downtown fun. The Beale Street Entertainment District features a cluster of restaurants, nightclubs and shops and the party continues late into the night.
See a different kind of wildlife in this northwest Tennessee lake, a migratory stop for pelicans and a nesting place for bald eagles. The shallow 15,000-acre lake was created when a series of violent earthquakes in 1811-1812 briefly caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards. The Reelfoot Lake today is a great place for boating and birding. Check out Reelfoot Lake State Park, which features a visitor center, campgrounds and picnic facilities.
Stay in the loop!
Stay up to date on the latest Great River Road events, contests and deals.