Autumn is one of the most spectacular times to travel the Great River Road. The Mississippi River Valley’s unique landscape explodes in brilliant shades of red and gold. Parks along the route offer dramatic vistas—they are perfect places to take in the beauty of the season. Here are some good bets for fall color along the northern section of the Great River Road.
A good bet for fall color is this forested Wisconsin state park is located where the Trempealeau River meets the Mississippi River. Don’t miss the view from the top of 500-foot cliffs. Consider bringing walking shoes—the area’s hiking trails will take you through some spectacular foliage.
Get ready for dramatic views when you get out of your car at the top of Pike’s Peak. This park’s 500-foot bluffs offer fantastic vistas of the river valley from the Iowa side. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Iowa, and in the fall, the views are incredible.
Another breathtaking spot to take in the fall beauty is Great River Bluffs State Park in Winona. This preserve features steep-sided 500-foot bluffs. Hike the King’s Bluff trail to discover sweeping fall views of the Mississippi River Valley.
Head up for some of the best fall color in La Crosse. From this 600-foot bluff you can take in the city of La Crosse and the rolling landscape referred to as the Coulee Region. You can see three states from this vantage point: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
The world’s shortest, steepest elevator ride is your ticket to fall color in Dubuque. The elevator was originally built to help people who lived in the bluffs get home more quickly than driving their horse and buggy up the steep hills. The ride is about 300 feet long but takes you 189 feet up. From above you’ll see a panoramic view of fall color that covers three states!
This unusual bridge is considered one of the area’s best places to see fall color. Built in 1929, the bridge is unlike any other—it actually bends mid-way across the Mississippi. Today the bridge is open to bikes and pedestrians. Bring your camera!
As the Great River Road leads travelers along the path of America’s greatest river, it also takes them through the rich history and vibrant cultures of the Mississippi River. In kitchens along the route, the abundance of the region awaits hungry visitors.
In Louisiana, the smell of Cajun and Creole food beckons travelers. While Cajun and Creole are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, they are in fact different cultures with deliciously distinct foods. For those who are new to the region, here’s a quick look at what makes these cultures and foods unique.
Cajuns are descended from French Canadians who migrated to Louisiana. The culture still thrives in Louisiana—you’ll hear French accents on the street, Zydeco music on the radio and taste delectable Cajun food in the restaurants.
Cajun food is hearty and rustic and includes one-pot masterpieces like gumbo and jambalaya as well as boudin, a sausage made of pork, rice and spices. One festive Cajun tradition is the crawfish boil, a celebration of food where Cajuns boil large pots of crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn over an outdoor propane stove. Other Cajun delicacies include andouille sausage, etouffee and tasso ham.
There’s some debate over what exactly defines Creole culture—historians have suggested Creole represents and ethnic group consisting of individuals with European and African, Caribbean or Hispanic descent or individuals born in New Orleans with French or Spanish ancestry. What’s not debatable is the impact of Creole culture on Louisiana—visitors can explore Creole culture through art, historical sights and food.
One big way in which Creole food differs from Cajun food is use of tomato. Creole dishes incorporate tomatoes and tomato-based sauces—Cajun food does not. Some Creole menu items might seem similar to Cajun food, however the seasoning and preparation can be very different. Creole food includes roux-based gumbos, shrimp creole and creole chicken fricassee.
Travelers along the Great River Road will encounter a marvel of engineering. There are 29 lock and dam structures built along the upper Mississippi River, creating a “stairway of water” that allows pleasure boats, tow boats and barges to travel from St. Louis to St. Paul (or vice versa). These impressive structures help these boats and barges deal with the change in altitude on the northern section of the river (a 420-foot drop from Minneapolis to Granite City, Illinois, according the Applied River Engineering Center.)
You won’t find locks and dams on lower sections of Mississippi River. Why? The Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Ohio, and other rivers flow into the Mississippi, making the river naturally wider and deeper downstream. The barges need a lot of river to operate. According to the Applied River Engineering Center, a “full tow” includes a tow boat and 15 barges, arranged three wide and five deep. Together, these connected barges stretch as long as 1,200 feet!
Here’s a look at the locks & dams you’ll see as you’re driving along the northern Great River Road from north to south. (Interested in a tour? See which locks & dams offer tours here.)
To see what it’s like out on a barge (and perhaps catch a big fish) check out the Clements Fishing Barge near Lock and Dam #8 in Genoa, Wisconsin. The business offers a fun and affordable way to experience some river fishing.
Lock & Dam 15 at Rock Island is home to the Mississippi River Visitor Center, where visitors can learn about the geologic and industrial history of the Upper Mississippi River, as well as flood control efforts along the river and the mechanics behind the locking-through process for boats and barges.
It’s hard to visit America’s greatest river without wanting to take a few photos—and the same was true a century ago. Here’s a collection of historic photos from along the Mississippi that show what the river looked like in days past. While a lot has changed on the route since these photos were taken, the river is as impressive today as it was in the steamboat era. If you’ve traveled the route before, you may even recognize some of these spots.
Many of our Interpretive Centers and attractions have begun to reopen with additional guidelines for health and safety in place. Please contact individual businesses or attractions with questions.
Most local and state parks and recreation areas remain open to the public. If you choose to visit a park, please ensure that you follow CDC and state and local guidelines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Interested in planning your next Great River Road trip, whenever that might be? Order a copy of our free 10-state map here.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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)
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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