Holiday shopping along the northern Great River Road

Friday, November 01, 2019

Black Friday is just around the corner and thoughts are turning to holiday shopping. Here are some fun shops along the Great River Road, guaranteed to make you the season’s most unique gift giver!

Wabasha, Minnesota

Photo by Lark Toys

If you’ve got kids, Lark Toys in Wabasha, Minnesota is a must-visit. (You might even want to bring them along, this is place is so fun!) Lark Toys was voted Minnesota’s favorite toy store, with 20,000 sq. ft. of toys, puzzles, crafts, games, dolls, trains and even nostalgic toys to take you back to simpler times. They’ve also got a cafe with ice cream, a candy store full of taffy, jelly beans, old-fashioned candy and fudge and a hand-carved carousel you can ride for just $2. There’s an antique toy museum and you can watch them make wooden toys on site. Come back in the spring to play the 18-hole mini-golf course overlooking the bluffs of the Mississippi River!

La Crosse Area, Wisconsin

Photo by Great River Popcorn

La Crosse, Wisconsin is home to the largest shopping district in a nine-county area, so come hungry because this is the place to go for tasty food gifts! Le Coulee Cheese in nearby West Salem has 50 cheeses to choose from, along with Wisconsin sausage, honey, syrup and other gifts. At Great River Popcorn in La Crosse, there are 40+ flavors of high-quality gourmet popcorn to choose from, made in store, in small batches. A short drive north will take you to the Holmen Meat Locker where you can pick up artisan cheese, farm fresh eggs, sausages and other meats. If you stop by Friday between 6-10pm, check out their new wine bar with over 200 varieties of domestic and imported wines and raise a toast to getting a jump on your holiday shopping!

Red Wing, Minnesota

Photo by Featherstone Pottery

Red Wing, Minnesota is a great spot for handmade crafts and pottery. Visit Red Wing Arts Gallery & Shop, in a historic train depot, to shop for fine arts and crafts from over 100 local and regional artists, or swing by the Pottery Museum of Red Wing. Here you’ll find more than 6,000 pieces of stoneware, art, pottery and folk art on display—then check out their gift shop for a unique piece to take home. Two more spots for specialty pottery: Larry’s Jugs Antiques, for contemporary crocks, jugs, bowls, with antiques on site as well, and Featherstone Pottery, a stoneware and ceramics store run by two brothers.

Follow the Pilot’s Wheel along the Great River Road

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Great River Road is one of America’s greatest drives, stretching for nearly 3,000 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in southern Louisiana. Read on to learn more about the history of the Great River Road and how it operates.

How long has the Great River Road been around?

The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (also known as the MRPC) is the 10-state organization that oversees the preservation and promotion of the Great River Road and the surrounding river communities. The MRPC was formed by an act of Congress in 1938 to develop and oversee the Great River Road (then called the Mississippi River Parkway).

Initially, the idea was to create one continuous byway along the river, but as the years passed, that plan evolved into establishing the Great River Road an interconnected series of state and federal highways on both sides of the river from Minnesota to Louisiana.

So it’s not just one road?

Yup. The Great River Road is not one continuous stretch of road but rather a collection of federal- and state-controlled highways that take travelers along the Mississippi River through 10 states. The Great River Road includes some iconic stretches of road, including a portion of U.S. Highway 61—“the Blues Highway”—in Mississippi and scenic state Highway 35, which passes through 33 charming river towns along the Wisconsin Great River Road.

What’s the deal with the pilot’s wheel?

The pilot’s wheel is an iconic representation of river travel, harkening back to the days when riverboats dominated the waters of the Mississippi River. While you’ll still see plenty of barges—and even some classic paddleboats—on the river today, pilot’s wheel logo appears on signs up and down the river, helping motorists identify sections of the Great River Road in each of the 10 states.

Why do the Great River Road signs say ‘Canada to Gulf’? Doesn’t the road start in Minnesota?

Eagle-eyed travelers will notice that the signs featuring the Great River Road logo do indeed say “Canada to Gulf.” That’s because in the 1950s, the Canadian province of Ontario joined the efforts to establish the Great River Road as a scenic byway, citing the “joint cultural ties of the Mississippi River states and Canada.” Early concepts would have extended the road to Kenora, Ontario, but those plans never came to fruition.

Where can I get resources for traveling the Great River Road?

You can order a copy of our free (donations are accepted) 10-state map and request information on individual states here. You can download our free Drive the Great River Road app, which highlights and helps you navigate to scenic overlooks and Interpretive Centers, here.

Explore the northern Great River Road’s natural history this fall

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Late fall is a great time to explore the northern Great River Road’s natural history. The leaves are still colorful so you’re guaranteed a beautiful road trip, but just in case the winter temps come calling a little too soon, here are some spots you can visit and enjoy indoors too.

National Eagle Center, Wabasha, Minnesota

Photo courtesy of the National Eagle Center

At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota you can explore two floors of interactive exhibits, including the chance to climb in an eagle’s next and test your strength versus our national bird’s. You can meet bald and golden eagles during the daily demonstrations, then step outside to see the birds making their migratory journey along the Mississippi River Flyway. The center even offers eagle viewing trips to take you to hotspots along the river. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults, $7 for kids 4-17 and free for kids ages 3 and under.

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa

Photo courtesy of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is one of the jewels of Dubuque. It focuses on life in and around the country’s waterways. Here you can see turtles, alligators, bald eagles, octopi, otters, sturgeon and more. Exhibits will teach you about the first people to live along the river, erosion, marshes and bayous. You can visit a blacksmith shop, conservation lab, log cabin and 3- and 4-D theaters. Admission ranges between $12 and $23 depending on age and if you include the films.

Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota

Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota

The Science Museum of Minnesota is located right on the the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The museum is full of exciting things to explore, but for river lovers, check out the Mississippi River Gallery. You can feel what it’s like to captain a real river towboat, conduct weather experiments and, if you find an object like a rock, fossil or pine cone at home, do a little research, then come and talk to staff about it, they’ll trade you for something new, like a shell, crystal or skull. Don’t miss the Native American Exhibition that tells the story of the Dakota and Ojibwe people who made their home along the river in Minnesota. Admission is $19.95 for adults, $14.95 for kids 4-17 and free for 3 and under.

Genoa National Fish Hatchery, Genoa, Wisconsin

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service

The Genoa National Fish Hatchery is a wonderful place to learn about the natural resources of the Upper Mississippi River. Here you’ll find a wetland and native prairie boardwalk with a walking trail to explore, plus buildings that house 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels and amphibians. You can also see 13 species of fish reared on site. Check out the educational exhibits that teach about the history of the area as well, including the pearl button industry and the Battle of Bad Axe. Admission is free.

Relay of Voices update: 2 states to go!

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Since July, Relay of Voices has been traveling the Mississippi River north to south, sharing stories of residents and communities all along the Great River Road.

Relay of Voices participants recently reached Clarksdale, Miss., meaning they only have a little more than a month to go before reaching the end of their journey near Venice, La.

What have they been up to lately? Here’s a look at some recent stops along their voyage:

Keep up with the rest of Relay of Voices journey by visiting their website or following them on Facebook or Instagram.

(Photo credit: Relay of Voices)

Five Reasons to Travel the Great River Road by Author Dean Klinkenberg

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Five Reasons to Travel the Great River Road

by Dean Klinkenberg, author of Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Volume 1

When I moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1982, the Mississippi River captured my heart and imagination. Thirty-seven years later, I still can’t get enough of the storied river. I’ve been lucky enough to travel it in many different ways, but the easiest way is simply to fill up my gas tank and drive the Great River Road, one of the best road trips in the United States. I’ve driven more than 125,000 miles along its blacktop from where it begins at Itasca State Park in Minnesota to where it ends at Venice, Louisiana.

Why have I spent so much time on the Great River Road? Here are five good reasons:

1. The Great Outdoors

The essence of any trip along the Great River Road is the natural beauty of the Mississippi River itself. While you can appreciate much of it while driving, the river entices visitors to get up close and personal. Go hiking at a state park; paddle a canoe or kayak through the rich backwater habitats; ride a bike along the Great River Trail. For perspective on the entire river system, tour the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.

2. Four Seasons of Fun

Sure, most people choose to visit the Mississippi River in summer when the weather is most reliably accommodating, but every season along the river offers something unique. Fall color is spectacular along the upper half of the river. Spring blossoms and migrating songbirds liven up spring. Winter sports keep locals busy Up North (have you ever tried curling or broomball?), while the southern reaches of the river enjoy pleasant days to view the wildlife that migrated south.

3. A Deep Dive into American History

The Mississippi River cuts a deep path through thousands of years of American history, much of which you can get to know from traveling the Great River Road. Here’s a quick sample:
• Archaeological sites offer a peek into the lives of early American cultures at places like Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa), Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Illinois), and Poverty Point World Heritage Site (Louisiana).
• The updated museum at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis showcases America’s westward expansion.
• Several places highlight the growth of agricultural and industrial economies, including the John Deere sites in Moline (Illinois), the Iron Ranges of Minnesota, and the Cotton Museum of Memphis.
• The rich cultural heritage of the valley is on display at places like the blues museums in the Mississippi Delta and St. Louis, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, and The Cabildo in New Orleans.

There’s whole lot more, too (I didn’t even mention historic forts or Civil War sites), which means there are always reasons to come back.

4. Beautiful Small Towns and Vibrant Big Cities

The Great River Road is blessed with attractive small towns and exciting big cities. Many small towns offer a mix of unique lodging, good food and conversation, and recreation. Make plans for a day trip or weekend escape to charming communities like Little Falls (Minnesota), Alma (Wisconsin), McGregor (Iowa), Galena (Illinois), Kimmswick (Missouri), Clarksdale (Mississippi), and St. Francisville (Louisiana).

If you’re more of a city person, spend a long weekend getting to know Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans. Each offers surprising and unheralded neighborhoods that are a pleasure to explore, in addition to the attractive riverfront spaces and better known sites.

5. A Cross Section of America

When Europeans began moving into the Mississippi River, dozens of American Indian tribes lived along or near the river. Some are still connected to the river today, like the Ojibwe and Dakota of Minnesota and the Chitimacha of Louisiana. Visitors can connect with American Indian communities at pow-wows, but many tribal colleges also have events open to the public.

New Orleans and Sainte Genevieve (Missouri) retain strong influences from the early French who founded them. Fulton, Illinois, still celebrates it Dutch heritage. The Quad Cities hosts the only interstate St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The Mexican community in Fort Madison, Iowa, has been throwing a late summer fiesta for a century. Guttenberg, Iowa, shows off its German roots with a big annual festival. The River Road African American Museum in Donaldson, Louisiana offers a look at the experiences of Africans and African Americans in the United States.

Again, these are just a few of examples. The river has been home and passageway for just about every group that has lived in North America or moved here, and many river communities still celebrate those ties. A trip along the Great River Road is a reminder of the many people and forces that have shaped the country we know today.

These are the reasons I keep coming back to the Great River Road, but they aren’t the only ones, obviously. (I didn’t even mention the food!) Still, I hope you’ll explore the Great River Road, too, and find your own reasons to come back again and again.


Dean Klinkenberg is the Mississippi Valley Traveler. He writes fiction and non-fiction about the Mississippi River. His most recent travel guide, Road Tripping the Great River Road, Volume 1, covers the drive from northern Minnesota to Southern Illinois. He lives in St. Louis.

Fall adventures on the Great River Road

Sunday, September 01, 2019

 

Fall is a great time to explore the Great River Road, and not just because September is Drive the Great River Road Month. This 3,000-mile driving route—one of America’s oldest and longest National Scenic Byways—spans 10 states along the Mississippi River and provides every traveler with a special and unique experience.

Looking for some travel inspiration? Here are some stories from those rare adventurers who have driven the entire route.

“We started in the fall—September—and followed the season south. A spirit of adventure and desire to see new parts of our country were our motivation. We loved seeing the various cultures and sampling delicious foods along the way. Being from (Tennessee), the pasties and cheese curds were new to us and we loved all Southern foods. In addition to the various cultures, we were interested in the Mississippi commerce. Grains loaded early in the trip were off-loaded near the end. Try it—you’ll love it!” – Jane H., Kingsport, Tenn.

“After reading ‘Roadtrip with a Raindrop’ by Gayle Harper we were excited to begin our own journey down The Great River Road. We began the trip on a tandem bike pulling our small dog along behind. We dipped our tire in the shallow waters at Itasca State park and began our journey. Our plan was to do it in stages on the bike. Plan A changed. So we went with Plan B and finished the trip in a 2-seater convertible. What a blast! – Ron & Lynn W., Rochester, Minn.

“I wanted to see the Mississippi River and learn about people, culture, history, politics, nature, food. I got authentic insight into all of these and met interesting people and learned a lot. The best part was Missouri and Louisiana because of the landscape and the wildlife. The signage of the Great River Road was very good most of the time, also the map and the app!” – Mijat F., Herten, Germany

“I was born in Osceola, Wisconsin, on the bluffs of the St. Croix River, and my husband, Patrick, and I decided it would be fun to drive the full length of the Mississippi River in October, 2011. Our daughter Evelyn was 19 months old, and I was expecting our daughter Carly. Our favorite stops were Hannibal, Missouri; Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee; and the magical city of New Orleans, Louisiana. We enjoyed the scenic and historic journey as much as our trips down Route 66.”  – Kate A., Clermont, Fla.

“We wanted to experience an authentic insight into American culture, meet new people, experience differences and similarities between urban and rural areas, go hiking, see wildlife, eat authentic food. It was worth it! The best parts were in Missouri and Louisiana because of the landscape.” – Kathrin R., Herten, Germany

“We previously visited St. Louis in 1976 and decided to return now that (the Arch) is a National Park. Along the way, we completed the section of the Great River Road we’d not previously driven as well as seeing a few sites along the opposite bank from our previous trip. We have now driven from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico along the Great River Road.” – Ginny L., Austin, Texas

Want to plan your own Great River Road adventure? Order the free 10-state Great River Road map or download the Drive the Great River Road app and start planning your own trip. And let us know when you’ve completed the route—we’ll send you a certificate!

 

Sharing the stories of the Mississippi: Update on Relay of Voices

Friday, August 30, 2019

Relay of Voices, a project of the nonprofit A House Unbuilt, is “a research expedition traveling down the Mississippi River with the goal of gathering ‘voices’ from the landscape and individual residents of the river region.”

The project started at the headwaters of the Mississippi River on July, and participants are following the Great River Road all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. They plan to reach the Gulf in early November.

Learn more about Relay of Voices and find a schedule here.

Here’s a look at some of the media coverage from the areas Relay of Voices has visited this summer.

See more media coverage of Relay of Voices here and see the “voices” from their trip here.

(Photo courtesy of Relay of Voices)

Wineries to try along the northern Great River Road

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Summer is a great time to explore a new winery! Just grab a glass of red, white or rosé, sit back, sip and relax. Here are some can’t-miss wineries along the northern Great River Road.

Seven Hawks Vineyards

Photo by Seven Hawks Vineyards

In beautiful Fountain City, Wisconsin is Seven Hawks Vineyards. Located on steep bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River Valley, this is one of the largest vineyards in the upper Midwest, with 18,000 vines. They make 12 varieties of wines, 100% from locally grown grapes and fruit. Wine tastings here are free of charge and the tasting room and wine bar are situated in a beautifully restored historic 1870s building. Make a getaway of your visit — they’ve got cottages and suites on-site you can rent that overlook the bluffs, vineyard, or Fountain City. It’s especially gorgeous in the fall!

Falconer Vineyards & Winery

Photo by Falconer Vineyards & Winery

Falconer Vineyards is a beautiful, family-owned winery located in historic Red Wing, Minnesota. Here they make about 20 different varieties of wine, including whites, reds, rosés, dessert and port wines. They use only grapes grown in the northern U.S., with a special focus on grapes for cold climates. Tastings here are a modest $7/person. Hungry? Their bistro is open through October, offering 11 different kinds of delicious pizza to pair with your wine. While the weather is cooperative, sit on the deck and enjoy amazing sunset views.

Vino in the Valley

Photo by Vino in the Valley

In the heart of the Rush River Valley along the Mississippi River in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin is Vino in the Valley — not just a winery, but a unique outdoor dining experience. Open just Thursdays through Sundays, this is your chance to enjoy gourmet pizza and pastas outdoors in the gorgeous 5-acre vineyard.  After dinner, stroll around the vineyard or grab another glass of wine and relax next to the bonfire. Since this spot is new, the vineyard is not producing its own grapes yet, but the winery buys grapes from Minnesota growers and contracts with Cannon River Winery to produce three types of wine especially for Vino in the Valley. Come back in late November and December for horse-drawn sleigh rides and cookies, or to cut down your own Christmas tree at the tree farm next door!

Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery

Photo by Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery

Maiden Rock Apples, Winery & Cidery can be found in Stockholm, Wisconsin, located in the bluffs above the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin. It’s a small operation, but one that prides itself on quality over quantity. Unlike other wineries, Maiden Rock doesn’t grow grapes, but rather, apples. They make about a half-dozen delicious varieties of apple and crabapple wines, along with some excellent hard ciders. Plan to stroll through the apple orchard or picnic in the gazebo while you’re here.

Agritourism attractions on the Great River Road

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Great River Road spans 10 states through the heart of America, so it’s no surprise that you’ll find abundant farms, orchards, wineries and other agritourism attractions along the route. (In fact, we’ve got a searchable list of agritourism attractions here.)

Got an appetite for a new Great River Road adventure? Here are a few agritourism attractions you should check out.

Minnesota

The Oliver Kelley Farm is a historic 1860s farmstead and agricultural education center in Elk River—a 35-mile drive from the Twin Cities. This family-friendly branch of the Minnesota Historical Society tells “the story of farming, food and agriculture” through interactive exhibits and events. The farm hosts cooking classes featuring Minnesota products throughout the year, and their Farm to Fair Weekend on Aug. 24-25 lets visitors sample 1860s-era recipes and judge 4-H and FFA veggies, bakery items and canned goods.

Wisconsin

When you’re traveling the Great River Road in Wisconsin, be sure to stop at the Nelson Cheese Factory. While it’s no longer an operating cheese factory, this retail store and restaurant remains a popular spot among roadtrippers looking for groceries, a quick bite or an ice cream cone.

Iowa

Discover farm-fresh finds at the Dubuque Farmers’ Market, the oldest farmers market in Iowa. Every Saturday from 7am to noon, May through October, the Dubuque Farmers’ Market welcomes patrons to three city blocks on Iowa Street in downtown Dubuque to peruse locally grown produce, breads, meats, jams, jellies, craft items and much more.  

Illinois

More than 4,500 people—and 100 wiener dogs—attended Galena’s Oktoberfest celebration last year, and this charming town is set to welcome another batch of visitors this fall. This year’s Galena Oktoberfest will be held from noon to 10pm Saturday, Oct. 5, at Depot Park, and feature traditional German food like bratwurst, potato sausage soup and German potato salad, as well as fun events like a beer stein endurance contest and (of course) wiener dog races.

Tennessee

Another mouth-watering event along the Great River Road is the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which takes place every year as part of the Memphis in May International Festival. More than 75,000 attendees pass through the gates of Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River to sample delectable barbecue ribs, pork shoulders, hot wings, sauce and all things ‘cue.

Louisiana

A museum dedicated to food and drinks seems like an obvious choice for New Orleans, so it’s kind of surprising that it took until 2008 for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to open in the Big Easy. This museum, located in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, features special exhibits, demonstrations, lectures and tastings throughout the year and is also home to the Museum of the American Cocktail.

Introducing Relay of Voices

Thursday, July 11, 2019

This summer and fall, an intriguing project will take place in communities along the Mississippi River. 

Relay of Voices, a project of the nonprofit A House Unbuilt, is “a research expedition traveling down the Mississippi River with the goal of gathering ‘voices’ from the landscape and individual residents of the river region.”

From the Relay of Voices website

“Relay of Voices is spearheaded by artist, athlete, and Louisiana native, Victoria Bradford Styrbicki, who is working to connect the voices of river communities by traveling the 2,400 miles of the river at a pedestrian scale with the assistance of a “relay team” made up of support staff and regional volunteers. … A primary reason for choosing the Mississippi River region was the dichotomy of rural and urban communities there, with many of them still making a living off the water and land.”

Here’s a look at one of the first voices of the project:

“Terry Larson, mid sixties, born and raised in Itasca Township, now lives on Wolf Lake some 30-40 miles away, still along the Mississippi. Family land—Gulsvig Landing—remains an important fixture of his and his family’s life here at Itasca. He’s often considered the “first man of the river,” and he has been interviewed and written about many, many times before. He’s a practiced interviewee, coming with prepared stories and recitations, and yet the sentiment feels true and authentic. He launched our time together speaking of his family history and land as we met right upon it, and he wandered into a more personal story of his experience with injury—how it changed his life to suffer and overcome pain, with much thanks to the river.”

(Photo courtesy of Relay of Voices)