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)

Outdoor dining on the Great River Road

Summer is here, and it’s time to take advantage of the beautiful weather and outstanding views all along the Mississippi River. Here’s a look at just a few of the great places along the Great River Road where you can dine outside—be sure to stop in for a bite (and some great scenery) on your next road trip.

Minnesota

Head to Levee Park on Riverfront Street in downtown Winona to grab a seat on the patio and enjoy drinks or dinner at the Boat House. You’ll find classic Minnesota dishes with a twist, like the Boat House Lucy, the restaurant’s take on a Juicy Lucy—an 8-ounce grass-fed burger stuffed with Ellsworth Dairy cheese curds.

Wisconsin

Named by locals as the best outdoor dining in La Crosse, Huck Finn’s on the Water offers a scenic setting for your next lunch or dinner. Head outside for a seat on their massive patio overlooking North Bay on Pool 8 of the Mississippi River. Order a classic burger or try one of their signature drinks like Herb Lemonade.

Iowa

A restaurant and brew pub located in pretty much the middle of the Mississippi River between Iowa and Wisconsin, Catfish Charlie’s in Dubuque offers a fun setting for lunch and dinner. Sample unique items like alligator nuggets or catfish fingers or choose from nearly a dozen beers that are brewed on-site.

Tennessee

Truly one of the most scenic spots along the Great River Road, Blue Bank Resort overlooks the waters of Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee. Reelfoot Lake is a flooded former cypress forest known for its outstanding fishing, so it only makes sense that fish is prevalent on the menu at Blue Bank Resort’s on-site restaurant, The Fishhouse. Diners can choose from Southern-fried catfish, shrimp, oysters and more, as well as chicken, steaks and pork, all while enjoying the views of Reelfoot Lake.

Mississippi

Want a great view with your dinner? Head to 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill in downtown Vicksburg. Take in an amazing sunset over the Mississippi River and then enjoy a delicious dinner from a menu featuring classic dishes and Southern favorites like chicken & waffles, shrimp & grits, and blackened catfish.

Louisiana

When you’re in Louisiana, you need to sample some seafood, and one of the best places to do so is Parrain’s Seafood Restaurant in Baton Rouge. Located in the mid-city district of Louisiana’s capital, Parrain’s offers fresh, high-quality seafood in dishes like andouille-encrusted fish, crawfish etouffee and New Orleans BBQ shrimp. Grab a seat on their patio and dig in!

Don’t forget to share your favorite flavors of the Great River Road here. And be sure to check out other travelers’ recommendations and helpful info about restaurants, agritourism attractions and more all along the Great River Road here.

Tasty summer finds along the Great River Road

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Summer is an excellent time to explore some of the tasty finds along the Great River Road. Here are some can’t miss stops in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Photo courtesy of Winona Farmers Market

Winona Farmers Market, Winona, MN

The Winona Farmers Market is one of the best along the Great River Road. It happens every Saturday, rain or shine, from 7:30am to noon at Levee Park in Winona, Minnesota. Produce that’s debuting in July includes cabbage, cucumbers, corn, peppers, potatoes, raspberries, tomatoes and zucchini. You can also find baked and canned goods, honey, eggs, teas, flowers, bread, coffee, meats, plus prices that can’t be beat!

Photo courtesy of Elmaro Vineyard

Elmaro Vineyard, Trempealeau, WI

At Elmaro Vineyard in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, the views are just as amazing as the wines you’ll sample. Enjoy the landscape of nearby Perrot State Park and the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge while you sit on the patio and sample any of their nearly two dozen varieties of wine. Their grapes are grown in Wisconsin and Minnesota and their wines are made from delicious fruits like apples, raspberries, cranberries, cherries and plums. You can even arrange a picnic here, with wine, cheese, crackers and sausages on a private picnic site with a blanket and umbrella.

Photo courtesy of Piggy’s Restaurant & Blues Lounge

Piggy’s Restaurant & Blues Lounge, La Crosse, WI

Piggy’s Restaurant has called La Crosse, Wisconsin home since 1980. This hot spots is nationally famous for BBQ baby back ribs, but also for their pork chops, prime rib and steaks. If you like smoked meat, this is the place for you! Their hardwood smoker does its magic with hickory and Minnesota Applewood from the nearby hills and bluffs. Don’t miss live blues music in the Blues Lounge downstairs on Saturday nights, and check out their wine cellar, with more than 60 options to choose from!

Photo courtesy of Isles Bun & Coffee

Isles Bun & Coffee, Minneapolis, MN

Isles Bun & Coffee is an itty bitty bake shop just a couple blocks from Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They’re known for their morning rolls, especially cinnamon, caramel and caramel pecan rolls, but are also famous for their Puppy Dog Tails, which are smaller versions of their cinnamon rolls, twisted up. Here they use only real ingredients, no food starch or corn syrup and everything is made from scratch. Don’t be afraid to go for the extra frosting on your rolls – you won’t be sorry you did!