Discover beautiful fall scenery, historic sites and more!
September is Drive the Great River Road Month, so that means it’s time to get out and explore one of the country’s newest All-American Roads. The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, so there’s plenty to see. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
The headwaters of the Mississippi River
If you’re exploring the Mississippi River and the Great River Road, why not start at the beginning. The Mississippi River gets its start at Lake Itasca in far northern Minnesota, and the Great River Road National Scenic Byway starts its journey there, too, at Itasca State Park. The park spans more than 30,000 acres; head to the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center shares the history of the park and northern Minnesota. From there, it’s just a short walk to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which is only about 20 feet wide and can be easily traversed via a series of stepping stones. (People also like to wade in the shallow river on warm days.) See a live webcam of the Mississippi River headwaters here.
Scenic overlooks and parks
September is a wonderful time to start your travels on the Great River Road, since you can follow fall color as you head south from Minnesota through the Midwest and into the central and southern states. Peak fall color usually hits at the very end of September into early October for the northern states, with the southern states seeing peak color mid-October into November. But where to see it? It’s easy enough to enjoy along the bluffs in the northern states (explore Highway 61 in Minnesota, Highway 35 in Wisconsin, and Highway 52 in Iowa), and the route is lined with scenic overlooks and state and local parks from north to south.
- Scenic spots on the Great River Road
- Explore natural beauty along the Great River Road
- Chasing fall color on the Great River Road
One of the reasons the Great River Road was selected as an All-American Road is because of the Mississippi River region’s rich history—it tells the story of the country for thousands of years, from the earliest Native American inhabitants to the Civil War to the present day. Great River Road trippers can visit dozens of Interpretive Centers—museums, historical sites and more—along the route to learn about the people, places and historical events that shaped the region.
- Discover ancient cultures and engaging history on the Great River Road
- History comes alive on the Great River Road
- American history awaits on the Great River Road
There’s no shortage of great music along the Great River Road—the route will take you through iconic music destinations like Memphis, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. Here’s a look at some music attractions you shouldn’t miss on or near the Great River Road
- Paisley Park, Prince’s home and recording studio, in the suburbs of Minnesota’s Twin Cities
- The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi (also home to the famed “Crossroads” where Robert Johnson purportedly sold his soul for his musical talent)
- Memphis music attractions like Beale Street, Graceland, Sun Studio and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
- New Orleans’ live music venues, famous festivals and the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park
What’s a trip along the Great River Road without sampling some of the very best local cuisine? Walleye in Minnesota, fresh cheese curds in Wisconsin, Memphis barbeque and more—each state along the Mississippi River has its own unique dishes and flavors. Explore the Flavors of the Great River Road section of our website to find fan recommendations on great places to eat, the top spots for wine, beer, and craft cocktails, and more.
Getting ready to explore one of the country’s newest All-American Roads? Here’s a look at some of the one-of-a-kind attractions you’ll find along the Great River Road.
Perrot State Park, Wisconsin
At the confluence of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers, Great River Road travelers will find the stunning, scenic 1,200-acre Perrot State Park. The park sits among 500-foot bluffs, offering outstanding views of the Mississippi River region, as well as outstanding options for recreation, including canoeing, kayaking and biking along the Great River State Trail. Visit the park’s nature center to learn about the area’s natural history and cultural importance to Native Americans, French explorers and others.
Metal Museum, Tennessee
Did you know that Memphis is home to a one-of-a-kind museum honoring the works of metalsmiths around the country and the world? The Metal Museum (previously known as the National Ornamental Metal Museum) features a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions, a sculpture garden and an on-site blacksmith shop and foundry. Metalworking demonstrations take place every Saturday, and the museum also offers hands-on training for young artists.
Columbus-Belmont State Park, Kentucky
Columbus-Belmont State Park in western Kentucky not only offers outstanding views of the Mississippi River, it also provides visitors with a glimpse into the area’s Civil War history. In 1861, Confederate forces occupied and fortified the area that now makes up the park to block Union ships from traveling south along the Mississippi River, even devising a massive anchor and chain that served as a barricade (the anchor can be seen at the state park today).
Historic Fort Snelling, Minnesota
Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the state capital of Saint Paul, Historic Fort Snelling tells the stories of 10,000 years of human history, from Native Americans and the fur trade to the fort’s role as a training center for Civil War troops. Today, visitors can tour the 1820s-era fort and the grounds and learn about the area’s history through displays and interactive. Fun fact: Musket demonstrations are offered daily.
There’s a lot to discover on the Great River Road (recently named one of the country’s newest All-American Roads). Here’s a look at a few unique events and attractions you can find along the route that you might not have heard of before.
Wings Over the Prairie Festival, Arkansas
Stuttgart, Arkansas—located about an hour southeast of Little Rock—is home to a unique event every Thanksgiving week: the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest & Wings Over the Prairie Festival. This annual celebration is the largest outdoor expo in the mid-South promoting duck hunting, a popular activity in the Arkansas Delta. The event includes a Queen Mallard pageant, several duck calling contests, outdoor exhibits, games, midway rides, food, vendors and much more.
Stuttgart is also home to the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie, one of the Great River Road’s official Interpretive Centers.
Popeye the Sailor Man, Illinois
Travel the Great River Road in Illinois to discover the hometown of Popeye the Sailor Man. Chester, Illinois (population: 8,300) was the home of Popeye creator Elzie C. Segar, and a statue of his famous character can be found in Segar Memorial Park. Head to the Chester Welcome Center, where you can learn more about the Popeye & Friends Character Trail.
Did you know that the Great River Road town of Muscatine, Iowa, is the Pearl Button Capital of the World? Pearl buttons—made from clamshells found in the Mississippi River and other waterways—were a big business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, signifying wealth and prestige. By the early 1900s, Muscatine produced 1.5 billion buttons annually, accounting for 37 percent of the world’s total production. Learn about this unique industry and the history of Muscatine at this interesting museum in downtown Muscatine.
Tiger Stadium and Mike the Tiger, Louisiana
How many college campuses have a real-live tiger on campus? That’s the case at Louisiana State University (LSU to college football aficionados), located in Louisiana’s capital of Baton Rouge. Whether you’re in town on a Saturday for a game at Tiger Stadium (a bucket list item for any college football fan) or just visiting the campus, you can find the habitat of LSU’s favorite feline Mike the Tiger on North Stadium Drive across from the stadium. Mike is usually outside every day between 8am and 8pm (but if you miss him, you can always check out his webcam).
A trip along the Great River Road—recently named one of America’s newest All-American Roads—is a great summer adventure, but sometimes you need to find a spot to cool off. Here’s a look at some great places you can dip your toes in the Mighty Mississippi or hop on a boat and explore the waters yourself.
Lake Village, Arkansas
Lake Village is located on the shores of Lake Chicot, the largest natural lake in Arkansas and the largest oxbow lake in North America. Lake Chicot was formed three centuries ago by the meandering of the Mississippi River but has since been cut off from the mighty riverway, resulting in a 20-mile-long oxbow lake that’s a popular recreation destination. Lake Chicot State Park has 14 cabins and more than 120 campsites for rent and is a great place for fishing, boating, and birdwatching.
Lake Itasca, Minnesota
Did you know you can walk across the Mississippi River? It’s true: If you visit the headwaters of the mighty river at stunning Itasca State Park in north-central Minnesota to see where the Mississippi River starts, you can cross from one side of the river to another, a trip of only about 20 feet. If you’re feeling daring (or it’s hot), you can wade in the shallow waters of the river as it empties out of Lake Itasca on its journey south. Itasca State Park—Minnesota’s oldest—is also a great place for boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and stand-up paddleboarding.
Clements Fishing Barge, Wisconsin
Located just upstream from Lock & Dam #8, Clement’s Fishing Barge has been inviting anglers to cast their lines for walleye, bluegill, catfishing, bass and more in the Mississippi River since 1936. Park along Highway 35 (the Wisconsin Great River Road) in Genoa, raise the flag on shore, and wait for the small boat to ferry to you to the barge. Fishing runs from 7am to 5pm Sunday to Thursday and 7am to 6pm Saturday to Sunday from mid-March through mid-November. Single-day prices are $20 for adults and $5 for kids; three-day, seven-day and season passes are also available.
Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center, Iowa
Explore the backwaters of the Mississippi River in a canoe or kayak or hop on a pontoon boat for a guided tour at this engaging, educational center in Camanche, about a 45-minute drive from the Quad Cities. The Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center educates visitors about the natural history of the Mississippi River in Iowa and is home to an 8,000-gallon aquarium filled with local fish species. Launch your canoe or kayak from the campground or climb aboard the Blue Heron, a 26-passenger pontoon boat, for a guided tour of fish and wildlife habitat through backwaters, sloughs and the main channel.
National Great Rivers Museum, Illinois
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River near Alton at the Melvin Price Locks & Dam #26, the National Great Rivers Museum tells the story of the people and natural process that have shaped the river. Interactive exhibits illustrate the impact of the Mississippi River on the region.
Confluence of the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers, Kentucky
The Mississippi and Ohio rivers come together where three Great River Road states intersect: Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. This scenic confluence can be seen from a couple different spots, including Fort Defiance Park in Cairo, Illinois, and Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Wickliffe, Kentucky.
Mud Island River Park & Museum, Tennessee
True, this park sits pretty much in the heart of the Mississippi River in Memphis (it’s accessible from a skybridge off Front Street downtown), but you can also walk along a scale-model version of the lower Mississippi River here to see how the Big Muddy weaves its path through the southern Great River Road states. The museum features 18 galleries with exhibits on the culture and history of the river, and Mud Island is also home to a 5,000-seat concert venue. Admission is free to the park, but amphitheater events are ticketed.
The Great River Road was named one of the country’s newest All-American Roads this year, meaning it’s one of the very best of America’s National Scenic Byways. There are a lot of reasons for that, including the region’s rich history, culture and heritage, but don’t miss this simple fact: the drive is incredibly scenic. Here are some photo-worthy stops along the route you should visit on your next trip.
Big River Crossing, Arkansas/Tennessee
Take in views of the Mississippi River from the Big River Crossing, a railroad bridge-turned-pedestrian walkway that connects Memphis, Tennessee, with West Memphis, Arkansas. Big River Crossing is nearly a mile long, making it the longest public pedestrian bridge across the mighty river. It’s open daily from 6am to 10pm and accessible to walkers and bicyclists. Keep your eyes peeled for the nightly light show, held hourly from sunset to 10pm.
Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, Illinois
This site in Hartford marks the location of Camp River Dubois, which served as the winter home for the explorers from December 1803 to May 1804 as they prepared for their famous journey. The site includes a 14,000-square-foot Interpretive Center and reconstructed cabins and other buildings. A great view of the area can be found at the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower about a mile to the north of the historic site.
This 1,400-acre property just south of Dubuque was where Native Americans and European settlers mined lead for hundreds of years (the name comes from a land grant European settler Julien Dubuque received from the Governor of Spain in 1796) and is now a popular site for outdoor exploration. A monument honoring Dubuque overlooks the Mississippi River, and the spot offers outstanding views of the surrounding region.
Jackson Square, Louisiana
New Orleans is alive with history and culture, and it’s got some can’t-miss photo opportunities. In the heart of the city’s French Quarter, Jackson Square—originally known as Place d’Armes—faces the northern banks of the Mississippi River, where visitors can see paddle wheelers, barges and more making their way along the river. Jackson Square is surrounding by iconic buildings, including the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere and Cabildo Museums, as well as the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in the United States (now a combination of shops, restaurants, galleries and yes, apartments).
Buena Vista, Wisconsin
The town of Alma on the Wisconsin Great River Road is filled with rich history (it was established in the 1840s, became a village in 1868 and is designated as a National Historic District), but it also offers one of the best views of the Mississippi River. Head to the top of the 500-foot bluffs that loom over this charming river town to find the Buena Vista Overlook, a small park that offers outstanding views of the river from a natural viewing platform.
Thank you for entering the Drive the Great River Road All-American Road Sweepstakes! We’ll be announcing our grand prize winner later this fall, so be sure to keep an eye on your email to see if you’ve won.
In the meantime, discover what makes the Great River Road so special:
- Learn more about the Great River Road’s All-American Road designation
- How to get on the water along the Great River Road
- Discover hidden gems along the Great River Road
- Explore the Great River Road’s natural beauty | Scenic spots along the route
- Learn more about Drive the Great River Road Month
- Order a free 10-state Great River Road map
- Follow the Great River Road on Facebook and Instagram
You can also share your Great River Road photos with us on Instagram—use the hashtag #GreatRiverRoad and tag us @greatriverroad!
Some of the most beautiful scenery in America can be found in the Mississippi River Valley, and the Great River Road is the route that will take you there. You’ll pass scores of gorgeous parks and natural areas—here are some of the finest that offer a chance to experience nature on and off the water.
Reminder: Local and state safety regulations may lead to reduced hours or changes in operations. Please contact specific businesses or attractions for more information before you visit.
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa
In this important national park in Iowa, you’ll find more than 200 earthen effigy mounds. Taking the shapes of a bird, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtle or panther, these mounds were built by Native Americans 750 to 1,400 years ago for ceremonial purposes. The best way to tour the 2,526-acre park is to hike along the 14 miles of trails that wind their way through the landscape of forests, tallgrass prairies and wetlands. Along the way you’ll see some dramatic views of the Mississippi River.
Columbus-Belmont State Park, Kentucky
Discover a mix of natural beauty and history at this gorgeous Kentucky state park. The park is uniquely educational, standing as a National Trail of Tears Site, and featuring a museum highlighting Civil War history—it was once a civil War hospital. Visitors can enjoy the natural wonders of Kentucky by camping out at one of the park’s 38 sites and hiking along picturesque bluffs of the Civil War Heritage Trail.
Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas
Adventure awaits in this family-friendly park in Marianna. The park is popular for fishing, boating and kayaking excursions. The park is located within the 3,000-acre St. Francis National Forest, and there are seven bodies or water to explore. You’ll also find scenic hiking trails, welcoming picnic facilities and two swimming beaches.
Black Hawk State Historic Site, Illinois
Along the Rock River in Rock Island, Illinois, you’ll find the Black Hawk State Historic Site. It’s a wooded, steeply rolling 208-acre park that has a scenic 3-mile hiking trail that will take you along the Rock River and through a nature preserve. Prehistoric Indians and 19th century settlers made their homes here, but the area is most closely identified with the Sauk Nation and the warrior-leader Black Hawk. Discover the history of Black Hawk and the Sauk and Meskwaki people by visiting the park’s John Hauberg Museum.
Poverty Point World Heritage Site, Louisiana
Hike through time, history and natural beauty at this important site in Louisiana. Poverty Point is the location of a massive earthen structure that was built thousands of years ago. Archaeologists are still uncovering its secrets, but it’s believed to be an ancient residential, trade and ceremonial center. The site features a 2.7-mile trail that will take you through this amazing place and past carpets of seasonal wildflowers.
To travel the Great River Road is to travel through the history of the people and cultures of the Mississippi River. Marvel at a once-massive ancient city created by the mound-building people of southern Illinois, see the agricultural settlement where a young Johnny Cash spent his formative years, and learn about an important battle in Civil War history.
Reminder: Local and state safety regulations may lead to reduced hours or changes in operations. Please contact specific businesses or attractions for more information before you visit.
Built in 1859, Lakeport Plantation sits just a short distance from the banks of the Mississippi River in Lake Village, Arkansas. It’s the last remaining Mississippi River plantation home in Arkansas and is considered one of the state’s top historic structures. Exhibits in the home tell the stories of the people who lived and worked on the plantation, as well as how the home was restored to its original condition. Tours are available Monday through Friday year-round and also on Saturdays in the winter.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Drive to Collinsville, Illinois—just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis—and you’ll find one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the Great River Road. Cahokia Mounds was inhabited for about 700 years from 700 to 1400 AD, and it its peak, was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people. The inhabitants built more than 120 mounds on the site, which covers more than 6 square miles. An interpretive center and tours help visitors learn more about this fascinating site.
Historic Dyess Colony
The Dyess Colony in northeastern Arkansas was created as a federal agricultural settlement as part of the New Deal in 1934, giving a new start to hundreds of poor farming families in the state. One of those families, the Cashes had a son, Johnny, who went on to become one of the most notable names in American music. Several of the colony’s buildings have been restored and are open to visitors, including the Johnny Cash Boyhood home.
This 156-acre site in Kentucky is the site of a Confederate fortification, and the Battle of Belmont—fought here in 1861—marked the beginning of the Union’s Western campaign. The battle for the fort, which had blocked the Union forces looking to travel south on the Mississippi River, was the first real action for Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. The site is also home to a Civil War Museum, and visitors can see the massive chain and anchor that was meant to prevent Union ships from passing.
Delta Cultural Center
The Arkansas Delta has made immense contributions to American culture, blues music and more—hear the stories of Delta residents at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. Exhibits and guided tours educate visitors about the people and history of this region. The Delta Cultural Center is also home to “King Biscuit Time,” a live daily blues broadcast that has been on the air for nearly 80 years.
Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site
Discover the history of the Mississippian—or mound-building—native culture that called this area home at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Kentucky. This site was home to a Native American village from about 1100 to 1350, and visitors to the historic site can walk interpretive archaeological trails, learn about the culture that lived here and see artifacts and tools at the Wickliffe Mounds museum, which has been open to the public since 1932.
Fort de Chartres State Historic Site
This French fort was constructed nearly 300 years ago on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis. It served as a base for French soldiers during their occupation of what is today Illinois.. Interpretive signage guides visitors around the site, and on weekends, costumed interpreters offer additional information and reenactments.
Fort Jefferson Hill Park and Memorial Cross
Fort Jefferson was established in 1780 on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River a mile south of the present-day city of Wickliffe, Kentucky. The fort, which was only occupied for a short time, was intended to protect the western border of the then-newfound United States. The cross towers 95 feet high above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers andcan be seen from three states. Fort Jefferson is also a Lewis and Clark Expedition historic site.
Sultana Disaster Museum
The greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred on the Mississippi River in Arkansas in 1865. The Sultana, a Civil War-era steamboat, exploded on April 27, 1865, killing more than 1,200 people aboard. Among the dead were Union soldiers who had been released from prison camps in Andersonville and Cahaba. Learn about this oft-overlooked disaster at the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion.
The Great River Road, the National Scenic Byway dedicated to the Mississippi River, has received notice that eight of its states’ byways have been designated “All-American Roads” by the Federal Highway Administration.
To receive the All-American Road designation, a byway must be nationally significant and have one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere. The road or highway must also be considered a “destination unto itself.” It must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make it drive a primary reason for their trip. These roads are considered the very best of America’s National Scenic Byways Program.
The Great River Road claims eight of this year’s 15 All-American Road designations across the country.
See a full list of All-American Road and National Scenic Byway designations here.
“The Great River Road enables travelers to access the stories of America,” said Anne Lewis, Mississippi River Parkway Commission Pilot and board chair. “From big cities to small river towns, through historic sites and interpretive centers, the Great River Road holds the history of America, from native people and immigrant communities to river industry and transportation, and from agriculture to river life ecology. This designation gives credence to why so many people choose to experience the Great River Road every year.”
The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC), a non-profit organization founded to preserve and improve the resources, viability and amenities of the Mississippi River Valley, says the All-American Road status will bring new attention to the Great River Road.
“More attention means more visitors to the 10 great states that line the Mighty Mississippi,” Lewis added. “More travelers equal more money spent in stores, restaurants, hotels and attractions. That economic boost is absolutely vital to the communities of the Great River Road. We look forward to more road trips than ever in 2021!”
More Information about the Great River Road
Created in 1938 and stretching for 3,000 miles through and beside 10 states, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway is the longest such designated roadway and one of the oldest. The 10-state Mississippi River Parkway Commission works to promote and preserve the byway. Travelers planning a journey along the road can order a free 10-state Great River Road map from the Commission or download its free Drive the Great River Road app. Travelers can also find The Great River Road on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
- New ‘All-American Roads’ and scenic byways will take travelers on a journey around the USA, Lonely Planet
- Explore the country on these 49 new ‘All-American Roads’ and scenic byways, Travel + Leisure
- Great River Road, two other scenic routes win national designations, La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune
- Iowa’s Great River Road announces All-American Road designation, Burlington Hawk Eye
- Three Louisiana byways receive prestigious designations, KALB (Alexandria)
(Photo courtesy of Arkansas.com)