Explore these charming Mississippi River cities & towns

Monday, December 13, 2021

All along the Great River Road, you’ll find villages, small towns and big cities rich in the culture, history and cuisine of the Mississippi River region. Here’s a closer look at just a few river communities you shouldn’t miss on your next Great River Road trip.

Red Wing, Minnesota

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River about an hour south of the Twin Cities, Red Wing has a great small-town vibe, with a welcoming downtown filled with historic buildings, as well as an impressive food and drink scene and great spots for scenery and outdoor recreation.

Stockholm, Wisconsin

Head across the Mississippi River at Red Wing and travel south along Highway 35 on the Wisconsin side of the river, and you’ll find the quaint village of Stockholm. Stockholm, which sits upon the shores of the impressive Lake Pepin (the largest lake on the Mississippi River), takes its Swedish heritage seriously and embraces its historic downtown, whose storefronts are filled with restaurants and shops catering to visitors.

Galena, Illinois

Consistently named one of the best small towns in America, Galena is a popular travel destination that’s a “one-tank trip” from many Midwestern cities. Visitors will marvel at Galena’s well-preserved 19th-century buildings (you can take them in while riding a trolley on one of the town’s historic tours) as well as its iconic Main Street, which is home to more than 125 shops and restaurants.  

Dubuque, Iowa

Proclaiming itself as the place “where Iowa started,” Dubuque sits along a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River in east-central Iowa. Visitors will find unique attractions like the Fenelon Place Elevator—the world’s shortest, steepest railway, which takes visitors up the bluffs overlooking downtown. Shop and dine in a downtown that was once home to a booming warehouse industry or visit the Mines of Spain Recreation Area.

Memphis, Tennessee

Well, Memphis isn’t exactly a small river town, but it is definitely worth a visit if you’re traveling along the southern section of the Great River Road. The list of places to go is almost endless—Beale Street, Graceland, BBQ restaurants and important sites like the National Civil Rights Museum all make the list—but there’s really so much to explore in the Home of the Blues.

Clarksdale, Mississippi

Speaking of the blues, Clarksdale—about an hour and a half south of Memphis along iconic Highway 61—is home to the Delta Blues Museum, which shares the stories of the legendary musicians from Mississippi and throughout the Delta who helped develop this uniquely American form of music. The blues lives on in Clarksdale to this day, too—you can find live music almost every night and fun music festivals throughout the year.

Discover more cultural attractions along the Great River Road

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Great River Road was recently designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration, in part because of the National Scenic Byway’s historic and cultural significance. Here are a few places to visit where you can learn about the people and places that shaped the Mississippi River Region.

Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, Kentucky

Learn about the sophisticated cultures that called the Mississippi River Valley home at this state historic site just across the river from Cairo, Illinois. The Mississippian (or mound-building) culture called this area home between the years of about 1100 and 1350, and present-day visitors can see several mounds built by these Native peoples at this scenic site. There is also a museum that features exhibits of items excavated from the archaeological site, including Mississippian pottery, stone tools and other artifacts. The Ceremonial Mound—the largest at the site—offers a spectacular view of the Mississippi River and surrounding bluffs.

Learn more about Wickliffe Mounds here.

Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin

One of Wisconsin’s oldest state parks, this stunning natural area sits 500 feet above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers just south of Prairie du Chien. The park is well-known for its natural beauty, with several stunning vistas of the river valleys below, and dozens of animal and bird species, including deer, beaver, fox, eagles, owls, and songbirds, make their home in the park. Wyalusing State Park—the name means “of the warrior” in the Lenape language of the tribes who lived in the region—is also home to the Wyalusing State Park Mounds Archaeological District, a collection of several Native American burial mounds that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about Wyalusing State Park here.

Arkansas Post National Memorial, Arkansas

Located at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, this historic site is the home of the first semi-permanent French settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley—a trading post called “Poste de Arkansea” established in 1686 at the Quapaw village of Ostouy. Arkansas Post has served as a gathering place for the French, Spanish and Americans in the centuries since, and by 1819, it was a thriving river port and was selected as the first capital of the Arkansas Territory. Today, travelers can explore the visitor center and museum to view exhibits on the site’s history, explore Arkansas Post’s historic town site via walking trails and even see historic weapons demonstrations.

Learn more about Arkansas Post National Memorial here.

Mississippi River towns, Minnesota

A trip along the southern part of Minnesota’s section of the Great River Road is a trip through history. These cities depended on the Mississippi River for their livelihood, and signs of these towns’ prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century can still be seen today. Hastings is home to two historic districts: the East Second Street Commercial Historic District, which includes 35 structures built between 1860 and 1900, and the West Second Street Residential Historic District, consisting of more than a dozen homes built in the 19th century. Red Wing—home to the famous boot company of the same name—has five historic districts, and the St. James Hotel, which was built in 1874, is one of the only hotels of its size and character still in operation along the river in Minnesota. Other river towns of note include Wabasha (Minnesota’s oldest city) and Winona (known for its historic downtown and attractions like the Minnesota Marine Art Museum).

Cultural attractions along the Great River Road

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Cultural attractions abound on the Great River Road, recently named an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration. Here’s a closer look at some unique attractions along the route that educate travelers about the history and culture of the river region.

South Main Arts District, Tennessee

This famed district in downtown Memphis (between Beale Street and Crump Boulevard) is home to some of the city’s headline attractions, including the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the Blues Hall of Fame and The Arcade (one of Elvis’ favorite restaurants). Visitors can also take in incredible local art with a DIY walking tour of the district’s murals and mosaics, and three galleries (Art Village Gallery, Jack Robinson Gallery and Edge Gallery) showcase everything from photography to global artworks. Learn more about the South Main Arts District here

Village of Elsah, Illinois

Walking through downtown Elsah—just a short drive across the river north of St. Louis—is like taking a step back in time. In fact, the entire village was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and visitors can walk through historic buildings that are now charming shops, tasty restaurants and welcoming places to stay. Elsah is home to unparalleled natural beauty, too, as it sits between limestone bluffs on the banks of the Mississippi River, offering outstanding vistas of the surrounding area. Learn more about Elsah here.

Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark, Iowa

Near the confluence of the Iowa and Mississippi rivers in southeastern Iowa lies a collection of seven Indian burial mounds constructed by the Hopewell people (a name given to them from the location of an archaeological dig; there has been no evidence of written language, so historians do not know how the group referred to themselves). The mounds were constructed sometime between 100 BC and AD 200—today, visitors can see two of the mounds (including Mound 2, the largest) when they visit the Educational Center, where they can also learn more about the Hopewell tradition. Learn more about Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark here.

Plantation homes, Louisiana

Just west of New Orleans, travelers on the Great River Road in Louisiana will discover several sites that allow visitors to see what Southern history was like. Laura Plantation in Vacherie highlights the lives of the Creole inhabitants of the region and how they lived their lives, as well as examining slavery as it existed at Laura Plantation. Oak Alley Plantation, also in Vacherie, is famous for its alley of 300-year-old oak trees, and visitors can explore exhibits on the Civil War, slavery and other topics on the grounds. Houmas House in nearby Darrow takes visitors on a tour of a 250-year history of the site and is also home to the on-site Louisiana Great River Road Museum, which features exhibits on the culture, commerce, folklore and music of the river region.

Discover the Great River Road’s greatest hits

Thursday, August 26, 2021

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.

Historic sites

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.

Music

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

Food

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.

More hidden gems to discover along the Great River Road

Thursday, August 12, 2021

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

National Ornamental Metal Museum sign

Credit: National Ornamental Metal Museum

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

Reenactment at Columbus-Belmont State PArk

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. 

Discover these hidden gems on the Great River Road

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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

Popeye statue

Photo: Great Rivers County

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.

National Pearl Button Museum, Iowa

Muscatine History and Industry Center Used Shells

Photo: Paula Mayer

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

Mike the Tiger-swimming

Photo: Louisiana State University

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).

Getting on the water along the Great River Road

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

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

Lake Itasca

Photo: Sandra Dempsey on Unsplash

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

Clements Fishing Barge

Photo: Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission

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

Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center

Photo: Iowa Mississippi River Parkway Commission

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

Confluence of the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers

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

Mud Island River Park & Museum

Photo: Tennessee Tourism

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.

Scenic spots on the Great River Road

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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 AR -credit-big river strategic initiative llc

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.

Mines of Spain & E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center, Iowa

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 WI

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!

Thursday, May 06, 2021

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, here’s a little travel inspiration for your next Great River Road trip:

You can also share your Great River Road photos with us on Instagram—use the hashtag #GreatRiverRoad and tag us @greatriverroad!

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Explore natural beauty along the Great River Road

Friday, April 16, 2021

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.