Five reasons to drive the Great River Road this spring

Monday, March 02, 2020

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

  1. Outstanding scenery

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

  1. Charming river towns and big cities

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

  1. A tour through American history

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

  1. Food, glorious food

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

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

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

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

Great beer stops along the northern Great River Road

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

Pearl Street Brewery, La Crosse, Wisconsin

Photo courtesy of Pearl Street Brewery Facebook page

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

Kelly’s Tap House, Red Wing, Minnesota

Photo courtesy of Kelly’s Tap House Facebook page

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

Potosi Brewing Company, Potosi, Wisconsin

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

Roundhouse Brewery, Brainerd, Minnesota

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

Travel the Great River Road

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Thank you for your interest in the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, the best scenic drive in America. The Great River Road travels through America’s heartland, following the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles through 10 states. By joining our email list, you’ll receive information to help you get the most out of your time with this national treasure. Here’s what you’ll enjoy as a subscriber:

  • Chances to win special travel contests
  • Information on the route’s fascinating network of interpretive centers
  • Details on every state featured on the route
  • Information about parks and overlooks with inspiring Mississippi River views

Discover even more Great River Road travel and navigation information with the free Drive the Great River Road app, available for Apple and Android devices. There’s so much to love, and so much to experience on the Great River Road.

Plan your journey today!

Fall in love with the Great River Road

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Great River Road National Scenic Byway passes through 10 states and hundreds of river towns. There’s so much to explore – the more you travel the route, the more you’ll find to love. Many people who drive this route, return again and again to experience America’s greatest drive.

Planning a first date? Here are some things to love on the northern section of the route.

Downtown Winona, Minnesota

There’s a lot to discover in this charming riverfront town, including places that will please lovers of fine craft beverages. Pay a visit to Oaks Wine Bar or Island City Brewing—tours and tastings are available. While you are in town, check out the shops in the historic downtown shopping district – find gifts, antiques, toys, clothes, outdoor gear and more.

Mill City Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota

This beautiful  museum was built on the ruins of a historic mill. Learn about the people who worked there and the history flour milling and don’t miss the observation deck with panoramic views of the Mississippi River and St. Anthony Falls.

Mt. La Crosse Ski Area, La Crosse, Wisconsin

There are a number of outstanding ski areas near the Great River Road. Mt. La Crosse serves skiers of all abilities including those who like a challenge—Wisconsin’s longest run and mid-America’s steepest trail can be found at Mt. La Crosse. There’s also a terrain park to test your skills.

Red Wing Brewery, Red Wing, Minnesota

Taste history in this brewery that creates beers using recipes that date from the 1800s and early 1900s. The brewery also produces new varieties, like Work Boot Red, an Irish ale that’s a nod to a famous local factory. Bring an appetite—they serve delicious handmade pizza that has a big local following.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium & National Rivers Hall of Fame, Dubuque Iowa

Learn about the region’s rich ecology in this fascinating museum has a massive aquarium that features the broad array of wildlife found in the Mississippi River. Animals include ducks, frogs, turtles, catfish, shovelnose sturgeon and dozens of other species.

Looking for more to love along the river? Check out out these attractions, located in every state along the route.

 

 

Resolve to drive the Great River Road in 2020

Monday, January 06, 2020

This new year, make one of your resolutions a road trip along the Great River Road!

Here are three great reasons to pack up the car and drive.

Interpretive centers

Photo courtesy of Potosi Brewing Company

Nearly 80 interpretive centers can be found along the Great River Road from Minnesota to Louisiana, including many gems people might not know about.

In Minnesota, visit the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, located along the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s a great family-friendly educational destination with exhibits on dinosaurs, the human body and Native American culture, along with an IMAX digital laser dome theater (one of only three in the world!).

In Wisconsin, you’ll love the Potosi Brewing Company (in Potosi) not only for its great beer (with all their proceeds going to local charities), but also for it’s cool National Brewery Museum. Here you’ll find an extensive collection of beer memorabilia, including signs, bottles and cans, advertising materials and various other collectibles.

In Iowa, visit the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque for the ecological story of the Mississippi River told through educational exhibits and giant aquariums.

In Kentucky, The Columbus-Belmont State Park is home to an interesting Civil War Museum housed in a farmhouse that was once a Confederate hospital. 

Louisiana’s Poverty Point World Heritage Site features the remnants of a complex array of earthen works that predates the Mayan pyramids. The mounds and ridges form a C-shape with a diameter of nearly three-quarters of a mile. Much of their purpose remains a mystery, although many believe the ridges were used as sites for homes.

See archaeological investigation in action In Parkin, Arkansas. The Parkin Archaeological State Park protects the site of an Indian village that occupied this location on the St. Francis River from A.D. 1000 to 1600. Research is ongoing at the site.

In Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Delta Blues Museum showcases the region’s rich musical heritage. See the sharecropper home of Muddy Waters. See guitars played by blues greats such as John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Burns and Son Thomas. 

 

Charming small towns

Photo courtesy of Visit Galena

Galena is a charming small town in northwestern Illinois — a very popular travel destination in the Midwest. Here you’ll find historic homes (including that of Ulysses S. Grant) and buildings, a popular shopping district downtown and quaint B&Bs.

Located on scenic Lake Pepin, the widest navigable stretch of the Mississippi River, is beautiful Pepin, Wisconsin. It’s the birthplace of children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder and here you’ll find the Ingalls Museum (open May-Oct), as well as the “Big Woods Cabin,” a replica of Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace, located about 7 miles outside Pepin and open year-round.

Bemidji, Minnesota is the first city on the Mississippi River, and is actually located north of the river’s headwaters at Lake Itasca (the Mississippi flows north to Bemidji before starting its trip south). Bemidji is a great family vacation destination with lots of outdoor activities, even in winter, as a popular snowmobiling destination. Don’t miss a photo with Paul Bunyan and Babe at the visitor center/chamber of commerce.

Dyess, Arkansas is the site of the Dyess Colony, created in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to aid in the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Depression. Several historic buildings are open to visitors and they tell the story of the impoverished families who worked for a better future, including the family of Johnny Cash.

Head to small-town Louisiana to see some grand historic plantations. One of the most photographed places in Louisiana lies in Vacherie. The Oak Alley Plantation is a Greek revival mansion situated at the end of a majestic alley of live oak trees.

Visit Vicksburg, Mississippi to see a city rich in Civil War history and culture. There are monuments throughout the city that share the story of Vicksburg’s role during the war. You’ll also find art galleries and fascinating museums like the Southern Heritage Air Museum.

 

Sample delicious dishes

Photo courtesy of Nelson Cheese Factory

Check out some tasty treats along the Great River Road during your trip!

Cheese curds are the jewel in Wisconsin’s crown. For fresh curds, you’ll want to visit the Nelson Cheese Factory (in the city of the same name) (they also have ice cream!) and you can find fried curds at pretty much any bar or casual restaurant in Wisconsin (and Minnesota and Iowa too!).

Traditional pork tenderloin is tastiest at Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa. This classic sandwich is worth showing up early for, since Breitbach’s can get busy at lunch and dinner with hungry diners.

Find some of Minnesota’s best walleye at Sparkling Waters in Bemidji. You’ll love the upscale vibe and lake views and you can choose from deep-fried walleye or walleye a la meuniere.

A trip to Arkansas is not complete without a plate of hot tamales – find them in Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village. One enthusiastic fan calls them the “best in the universe.”

You can’t visit New Orleans without sampling this classic French doughnut, which happens to be the state doughnut of Louisiana. Served with a dusting of powdered sugar, these are best enjoyed hot and fresh with some chicory coffee. One famous place to sample this delicacy is Café Du Monde. You won’t be disappointed! 

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.