Fall discoveries on the Great River Road

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

September is drive the Great River Road Month, a perfect time to take a trip on America’s greatest driving route. The Great River Road stretches more than 3,000 miles across 10 states so there’s a lot to discover. Fall days bring lower humidity, beautiful foliage and comfortable temperatures so it’s a good time to slow down and explore some of the sights on the route. Here’s a sample of what you can see along the road.

And be sure to enter the Drive the Great River Road Sweepstakes—you could win $500 for your next Great River Road adventure!

Mississippi Headwaters, Itasca, Minnesota

Want to see where the Mississippi River starts? At Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, you’ll find Lake Itasca, the starting point of the mighty Mississippi. Here, the river is less than 20 feet wide and can be walked across via a series of stepping stones.

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa. One of the jewels of Dubuque, this fascinating museum focuses on life in and around the country’s waterways. You can see turtles, alligators, bald eagles, octopi, otters, sturgeon and more. 

Columbus-Belmont State Park, Columbus, Kentucky. Learn about the Mississippi River’s role in the Civil War at Columbus-Belmont State Park, where you can find a six-ton anchor that – along with a mile-long chain – was used to blockade the river during battles between the North and South.

White River National Wildlife Refuge, Charles, Arkansas. Home to 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.

Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center and Museum, Tunica, Mississippi. Traveling through the Mississippi Delta? Stop by the Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center and Museum on Highway 61. The museum shares the remarkable story of how The Blues was born and the role Tunica played in building the genre’s legacy.

Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana. You might recognize this place from numerous movies and TV shows. Oak Alley welcomes visitors with an awe-inspiring canopy of 300-year-old oak trees leading to a pristine antebellum plantation.

Celebrate fall on the Great River Road

Friday, September 11, 2020

This month is a spectacular time to experience the best scenic driving route in America. September is Drive the Great River Road Month, a month that celebrates this incredible 10-state scenic byway. The seasons are changing and the scenery on the road is simply unforgettable. In the northern stretches of the route, trees are turning brilliant shades of red, yellow and gold. Further south along the route, humidity of the summer is giving way to perfect fall weather. Below are three more reasons to travel the byway.

And be sure to enter the Drive the Great River Road Sweepstakes—you could win $500 for your next Great River Road adventure!

History

The Great River Road offers travelers an opportunity to learn about the fascinating culture, heritage and history of the Mississippi River region. Discover more than 80 Interpretive Centers—museums, historical sites and more—along the Great River Road. Visit the boyhood home of celebrated author Mark Twain and learn how the Mississippi influenced his writings, tour a working farm that uses techniques practiced in the 19th century.

Music

A drive along the Great River Road will take you through a region steeped with musical history and tradition. The southern states are a must for music lovers. Louisiana is a rich gumbo of musical traditions, including Cajun, Dixieland, Jazz, Blues, Country and Rock ‘n Roll. Head to the heart of New Orleans for a big helping of Louisiana’s musical offerings. The State of Mississippi gave birth to of Delta Blues, a style which is widely considered to be the progenitor of all other forms of the Blues. Tennessee is another state steeped in musical history. Memphis is called the “Birthplace of the Blues” and is home to Beale Street, Tennessee’s most-visited attraction. Before leaving town, head to Graceland to see the famous estate of Elvis Presley.

Food

The route rewards food lovers at every turn. Fishing, farming, cheese factories, roadside produce stands, local eateries—there’s a lot of food to explore all along the Great River Road. See some of the area’s great agritourism attractions here. And that’s not even to mention the award-winning restaurants, hidden gems and classic eateries where you’ll find some of the best meals you’ve ever had. Check out some of our favorite flavors of the Great River Road here.

Chasing fall color on the Great River Road

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Autumn is one of the most spectacular times to travel the Great River Road. The Mississippi River Valley’s unique landscape explodes in brilliant shades of red and gold. Parks along the route offer dramatic vistas—they are perfect places to take in the beauty of the season. Here are some good bets for fall color along the northern section of the Great River Road.

Perrot State Park, Trempealeau, Wisconsin

A good bet for fall color is this forested Wisconsin state park is located where the Trempealeau River meets the Mississippi River. Don’t miss the view from the top of 500-foot cliffs. Consider bringing walking shoes—the area’s hiking trails will take you through some spectacular foliage.

Pikes Peak State Park, McGregor, Iowa

Get ready for dramatic views when you get out of your car at the top of Pike’s Peak. This park’s 500-foot bluffs offer fantastic vistas of the river valley from the Iowa side. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Iowa, and in the fall, the views are incredible.

Great River Bluffs State Park, Winona, Minnesota

Another breathtaking spot to take in the fall beauty is Great River Bluffs State Park in Winona. This preserve features steep-sided 500-foot bluffs. Hike the King’s Bluff trail to discover sweeping fall views of the Mississippi River Valley.

Grandad Bluff, La Crosse, Wisconsin

Head up for some of the best fall color in La Crosse. From this 600-foot bluff you can take in the city of La Crosse and the rolling landscape referred to as the Coulee Region. You can see three states from this vantage point: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque, Iowa

The world’s shortest, steepest elevator ride is your ticket to fall color in Dubuque. The elevator was originally built to help people who lived in the bluffs get home more quickly than driving their horse and buggy up the steep hills. The ride is about 300 feet long but takes you 189 feet up. From above you’ll see a panoramic view of fall color that covers three states!

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, Madison, Illinois, to St. Louis, Missouri

This unusual bridge is considered one of the area’s best places to see fall color. Built in 1929, the bridge is unlike any other—it actually bends mid-way across the Mississippi. Today the bridge is open to bikes and pedestrians. Bring your camera!

Cajun vs. Creole: deliciously distinct

Thursday, July 30, 2020

As the Great River Road leads travelers along  the path of America’s greatest river, it also takes them through the rich history and vibrant cultures of the Mississippi River. In kitchens along the route, the abundance of the region awaits hungry visitors.

In Louisiana, the smell of Cajun and Creole food beckons travelers. While Cajun and Creole are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, they are in fact different cultures with deliciously distinct foods. For those who are new to the region, here’s a quick look at what makes these cultures and foods unique.

Cajun culture

Cajuns are descended from French Canadians who migrated to Louisiana. The culture still thrives in Louisiana—you’ll hear French accents on the street, Zydeco music on the radio and taste delectable Cajun food in the restaurants.

Cajun cuisine

Cajun food is hearty and rustic and includes one-pot masterpieces like gumbo and jambalaya as well as boudin, a sausage made of pork, rice and spices. One festive Cajun tradition is the crawfish boil, a celebration of food where Cajuns boil large pots of crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn over an outdoor propane stove.  Other Cajun delicacies include andouille sausage, etouffee and tasso ham.

Creole culture

There’s some debate over what exactly defines Creole culture—historians have suggested Creole represents and ethnic group consisting of individuals with European and African, Caribbean or Hispanic descent or individuals born in New Orleans with French or Spanish ancestry. What’s not debatable is the impact of Creole culture on Louisiana—visitors can explore Creole culture through art, historical sights and food.

Creole food

One big way in which Creole food differs from Cajun food is use of tomato. Creole dishes incorporate tomatoes and tomato-based sauces—Cajun food does not. Some Creole menu items might seem similar to Cajun food, however the seasoning and preparation can be very different. Creole food includes roux-based gumbos, shrimp creole and creole chicken fricassee.

Here’s a closer look at what differentiates Creole and Cajun cuisine from neworleans.com and Louisiana Travel.

Feeling hungry? Travelers on the Great River Road have shared some of their favorite restaurants. See their suggestions here. And for a chance to win $500 for your own culinary tour, enter the Flavors of the Great River Road Giveaway.

(Photo by Sidney Pearce on Unsplash)

Locks and dams of the upper Mississippi River

Monday, June 22, 2020

Travelers along the Great River Road will encounter a marvel of engineering. There are 29 lock and dam structures built along the upper Mississippi River, creating a “stairway of water” that allows pleasure boats, tow boats and barges to travel from St. Louis to St. Paul (or vice versa). These impressive structures help these boats and barges deal with the change in altitude on the northern section of the river (a 420-foot drop from Minneapolis to Granite City, Illinois, according the Applied River Engineering Center.)

You won’t find locks and dams on lower sections of Mississippi River. Why? The Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Ohio, and other rivers flow into the Mississippi, making the river naturally wider and deeper downstream.  The barges need a lot of river to operate. According to the Applied River Engineering Center, a “full tow” includes a tow boat and 15 barges, arranged three wide and five deep. Together, these connected barges stretch as long as 1,200 feet!

Here’s a look at the locks & dams you’ll see as you’re driving along the northern Great River Road from north to south. (Interested in a tour? See which locks & dams offer tours here.)

Minnesota

Wisconsin

To see what it’s like out on a barge (and perhaps catch a big fish) check out the Clements Fishing Barge near Lock and Dam #8 in Genoa, Wisconsin. The business offers a fun and affordable way to experience some river fishing.

Iowa

Illinois

Lock & Dam 15 at Rock Island is home to the Mississippi River Visitor Center, where visitors can learn about the geologic and industrial history of the Upper Mississippi River, as well as flood control efforts along the river and the mechanics behind the locking-through process for boats and barges.

Missouri

 

Historic photos: sights along the Mississippi River

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

It’s hard to visit America’s greatest river without wanting to take a few photos—and the same was true a century ago. Here’s a collection of historic photos from along the Mississippi that show what the river looked like in days past. While a lot has changed on the route since these photos were taken, the river is as impressive today as it was in the steamboat era. If you’ve traveled the route before, you may even recognize some of these spots.


Steamboats in New Orleans, 1890


Eagle Point Bridge, Dubuque, Iowa, 1960s.


Jackson Street, St. Paul, Minn., 1905


Riverboat near Vicksburg, Miss., 1936


Lake Itasca – Mississippi River headwaters, 1936


New Orleans levee, 1903


 

Family at Dyess Colony, Arkansas, 1935


Memphis sunset, 1900


New Orleans panorama, 1910


Eads Bridge, St Louis, late 1960s

COVID-19 and the Great River Road

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Updated June 16, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted recreational travel on the Great River Road, but many businesses and attractions are starting to reopen.

For state-specific information about travel, please visit the state tourism sites below: 

Many of our Interpretive Centers and attractions have begun to reopen with additional guidelines for health and safety in place. Please contact individual businesses or attractions with questions.

Most local  and state parks and recreation areas remain open to the public. If you choose to visit a park, please ensure that you follow CDC and state and local guidelines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Interested in planning your next Great River Road trip, whenever that might be? Order a copy of our free 10-state map here.

(Photo by Justin Wilkens on Unsplash)

Five reasons to drive the Great River Road this spring

Monday, March 02, 2020

Get out on the road this spring to explore the Great River Road, the National Scenic Byway that follows the Mississippi River from the northern Minnesota woodlands to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Here are five reasons you should take this uniquely American drive this spring.

  1. Outstanding scenery

You’ll discover incredible views up and down the Great River Road, from soaring sandstone bluffs in the north to sun-soaked cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta. Whether you’re looking for a scenic overview of the river or great spots for fall color, you’re sure to find some photo-worthy stops on your Great River Road trip. Here are a few places to start.

  1. Charming river towns and big cities

Take a stroll through a quaint downtown filled with welcoming cafes and antique shops or immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle of a big city. The Great River Road runs through metropolitan centers and small towns, so take time to get out of your car and explore wherever your trip takes you. Here are just a few of the cities and towns you should check out along your drive:

  1. A tour through American history

Learn about the culture, heritage and history of the Mississippi River region at more than 80 Interpretive Centers—museums, historical sites and more—along the Great River Road. Visit the boyhood home of celebrated author Mark Twain and learn how the Mississippi influenced his writings, tour a working farm that uses techniques practiced in the 19th century or learn about the origins of blues music and see the instruments used by some of its masters.

  1. Food, glorious food

A trip through the Great River Road states is a trip through the culinary heart of America. Fishing, farming, cheese factories, roadside produce stands, fairs and festivals—there’s a lot of food to explore all along the Great River Road. (See some of the area’s great agritourism attractions here.) And that’s not even to mention the award-winning restaurants, hidden gems and classic eateries where you’ll find some of the best meals you’ve ever had. (Check out some of our favorite flavors of the Great River Road here.)

  1. It’s a great drive – just ask the people who have done it

The Great River Road is a popular drive among roadtrippers, and while we encourage people to explore as little or as much of it as they like, there are lots of daring adventurers who have driven the entire route, from northern Minnesota to southern Louisiana. “From the beautiful headwaters of Itasca State Park, where we could walk across the Mississippi, all the way down to Venice, La., where it ends into the Gulf of Mexico, it was a spectacular road river ride!” writes Howard B. from La Quinta, Calif., in one of our many testimonials. Hear from more people who have completed the route or share your story here.

(Photo: Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna, IL – courtesy of Karis Keenan)

Great beer stops along the northern Great River Road

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s talk about some of the best spots to grab a beer along the Great River Road!

Pearl Street Brewery, La Crosse, Wisconsin

Photo courtesy of Pearl Street Brewery Facebook page

La Crosse, Wisconsin is a big beer town with City Brewing Company and 3 craft breweries, but the Pearl Street Brewery has been around for more than 20 years. You can take a tour every Friday and Saturday – no reservations needed and it’s just $8/person. Check out the brewing area from the bar, check out the stools and counters in the tasting room made from the same 100-year-old wood as the floors, and imagine the building as the rubber factory it once was. There are games to play, live music and 16 of their own creations on tap. Try the D.T.B. Brown Ale, with a nutty flavor and roasted undertones — it was a Gold Medal Winner at the World Beer Championships.

Kelly’s Tap House, Red Wing, Minnesota

Photo courtesy of Kelly’s Tap House Facebook page

Kelly’s Tap House in Red Wing, Minnesota is a favorite among the locals. It’s right on the Mississippi River, with great views of the river and bluffs, especially if you sit outside on the patio. They’ve got the widest selection of taps in town, with more than 60 beers available — 18 brewed in Minnesota and many more in the Midwest. Dream of patios and warm weather with an Orange Dream State Cream Ale from Tin Whiskers Brewing Company in St. Paul — it’s a creamsicle cream ale infused with orange and vanilla and sure to bring back memories of summer. Fun fact: If you’re familiar with the band Trampled by Turtles, the song “Kelly’s Bar” was written about this place.

Potosi Brewing Company, Potosi, Wisconsin

The Potosi Brewing Company is a Great River Road Interpretive Center, a brewery and a restaurant, but is also home to the National Brewery Museum with an eclectic collection of bottles, cans, trays, coasters, collectibles and advertising materials. Tours are Saturdays and Sundays, $13/person. In the restaurant, look for the plexiglass window in the floor – you’ll see spring water gushing by when things start to warm up! We recommend the Fiddler Oatmeal Stout — a strong coffee aroma with notes of caramel and chocolate — also a Gold Medal Winner at the World Beer Championships.

Roundhouse Brewery, Brainerd, Minnesota

The Roundhouse Brewery in Brainerd, Minnesota, opened in 2016 and is named for the “roundhouse” railroad facility where train cars were repaired that was once located just outside where the brewery is today (in the old Northern Pacific Railroad Yard). The building has an industrial feel, but very casual and friendly — explore the old railroad yard outside while you’re here! It’s a family-friendly gathering spot, offering root beer and lemonade too, along with giant Jenga and bean bags in the taproom and live music. Try the Warrior Brew while you’re here — it’s an American-style pale ale made with Minnesota grown malt and hops, plus a portion of the sales go to the Brainerd Sports Boosters, which supports youth athletic programs in the area. They’ve also worked with, or donated to, nearly 50 charitable organizations in just the few years they’ve been open, so you can feel good about patronizing them!