Holiday fun along the Great River Road

Friday, November 29, 2019

It’s easy to find fun ways to get in the holiday spirit this year along the northern Great River Road! Check out these holiday activities happening up and down the Mississippi in Minnesota and Wisconsin this December.

100 Miles of Christmas

100 Miles of Christmas isn’t just one festive event, but a whole series taking place in Winona, Kellogg and Lake Pepin, Minnesota, and Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, December 7-8, 2019. You can visit with Santa, take in a choral or orchestra concert, shop arts & crafts shows, raise a toast at a beer and wine tasting, attend a lighted parade or even an Elvis tribute!

Canadian Pacific Holiday Train

Courtesy of Canadian Pacific

The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train will make a stop in Winona, Minnesota, on December 9, 2019, from 3:45-4:15pm at the Winona Amtrak Depot. This beautifully decorated train brings along three performers who perform a mix of traditional and modern holiday songs. The event is free but they ask that you bring a food or monetary donation for the local food bank. If you want to see the train in its full glory at night, catch it in Wabasha the same day at 5:45-6:15pm.

Rotary Lights

Courtesy of Rotary Lights, La Crosse

Happening through New Year’s Eve in La Crosse, Wisconsin’s beautiful Riverside Park along the Mighty Mississippi, is the annual Rotary Lights. There are over three million lights on display and you can walk, drive or take a carriage ride (for a fee) to explore them all. Stop in the gingerbread house for hot drinks and cookies, check out the gift shop or check the schedule for all the special happenings going on throughout December. There will be live musical performances, a living nativity, Santa and his reindeer, hayrides and ice skating (weather permitting). It’s free to walk or drive through Rotary Lights, but they ask for food and cash donations to help feed the hungry.

Family Droppin’ of the Carp Party

Courtesy carpfest.org

Along the Great River Road in southern Wisconsin is the charming city of Prairie du Chien. On New Year’s Eve, they embrace the role that fishing plays in the community and throw a bash honoring river carp. At the Family Droppin’ of the Carp Party on New Year’s Eve early evening, families can play games, win prizes, enjoy food, music and a DJ all leading up the lowering of “Lucky Carp Jr.,” instead of a giant crystal ball, to ring in the new year.

Other options for holiday fun along the Great River Road:

  • Visit Alton, Illinois to marvel at more than 4 million lights at the annual Christmas Wonderland at Rock Spring Park, which runs nightly through December 29.
  • Take in the nightly Mighty Lights show at Big River Crossing, a pedestrian bridge that connects Memphis, Tennessee, to West Memphis, Arkansas
  • Find gifts for everyone on your shopping list at charming stores in river towns like Natchez, Dubuque, and Galena

Relay of Voices update: The final stretch

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

For four months this summer and fall, Relay of Voices traveled the Mississippi River north to south, sharing the stories of people and communities all along the Great River Road.

Now, they’re posting their final blog entries from their voyage, which ended at the mouth of the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana on November 5. Here’s a look at some of the latest entries.

Visit the Relay of Voices website to see more of their posts.

Five reasons to be thankful about the Great River Road

Monday, November 18, 2019

In 1938, states along the Mississippi River had the foresight to establish a driving route along America’s greatest river. The route was named the Great River Road and it spanned 3,000 beautiful miles and 10 states. For generations, people have been following the green and white pilot wheel signs to unforgettable adventures. There are probably as many reasons to be thankful for this route as there are travelers, but here are a few reasons why so many return to this beautiful byway.

Culinary adventures

The Great River Road leads travelers to some unforgettable meals. From Arkansas hot tamales to Louisiana beignets, you’re never far from a delicious local specialty. Need some recommendations? Check out our fan favorites- they’ve shared some of their favorite restaurants, bakeries, breweries, farmers markets and more. Search their tips by state to find great food stops for your trip.

Interpretive Centers

Travelers on the Great River Road will pass a network of more than 70 Interpretive Centers—these museums and historic sites showcase and preserve the incredible story of the river and its people. Centers include such treasures as the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois and the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Music

The Mississippi Delta is Blues country, and the route is your ticket to the show. Start by taking a trip through the Magnolia State and drive through the land of legends. Here are some of the sights you won’t want to miss along the route.

Scenic beauty

The Mississippi River Valley offers spectacular scenery that changes dramatically along the route. Northern stretches will take you through forests and past towering bluffs. You’ll discover impressive vistas in places like Perrot State Park in Trempealeau, Wisconsin and Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa.

Beautiful birds

Look up, when you’re on the Great River Road and you’ll likely find you have company. This Great River Road travels along the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route used by 40 percent of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds. There are abundant birding locations along the route; here are a few good bets.

 

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)