History comes alive on the Great River Road

Friday, January 29, 2021

A trip on America’s greatest drive is a trip through time. Up and down the Mississippi River, historic sites beckon—iconic music venues and the birthplace of blues in Mississippi, the Missouri river town that inspired America’s most famous author, and the historic home of a war hero and president, just to name a few. There’s so much to discover.

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.

Dockery Plantation

Dockery Plantation was a massive cotton plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi, that employed as many as 2,000 people at its peak. It’s considered to be the place where blues music was born—the plantation was home to such greats as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. It’s home to several well-preserved buildings, including a vintage service station.

Ground Zero Blues Club

Ground Zero Blues Club

Clarksdale is as close to the epicenter of Blues as you can get in Mississippi. The city’s Delta Blues Museum honors Mississippi as the birthplace of the blues, and you can see amazing live performances at the Ground Zero Blues Club. Following the juke-joint tradition, the club makes its home in the former Delta Grocery and Cotton Company building.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum

Mark Twain Boyhood Home Hannibal Missouri

The fascinating life of America’s most famous author can be found in Hannibal, Missouri. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum is in the building once where Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as author Mark Twain, lived from 1844 to 1853. The museum contains artifacts from Twain’s life and interactive exhibits that tell the story of his childhood and the paddleboat era on the Mississippi River, where he took much of his inspiration. 

Felix Vallé House State Historic Site

Felix Vallé House Ste. Genevieve Missouri

Ste. Genevieve in southeastern Missouri is rich in French history. Explore the American influence on this French community at the Felix Vallé House, a carefully preserved Federalist home that’s decorated in the style of the 1830s. It’s part of a collection of historic buildings that are part of the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site.

Ulysses S. Grant Home

Ulysses S. Grant Home Galena Illinois

The Ulysses S. Grant Home in Galena, Illinois is the former home of Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general who later became 18th President of the United States. The people of Galena gave Grant the home in 1865 in thanks for his service in the war. He became president four years later, cementing the future of the home as a historic site. It’s been open to the public since 1904.

American history awaits on the Great River Road

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Native Americans, European settlers, and Civil Rights struggles—the stories of the 10 states along the Mississippi River are the stories of America, including its triumphs and tragedies. The museums, historical sites and other attractions along the Great River Road preserve this history and share it with visitors.

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.

Historic Prairie du Chien

Head to the southwestern corner of Wisconsin to find the scenic and historic city of Prairie du Chien. (The city’s name, French for “Prairie of the Dog,” comes from a Fox chief of the same name who lived in the area.) Located just above the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, Praire du Chien was established as a settlement in the 1600s and 1700s and was even the site of Wisconsin’s only battle in the War of 1812. Today, history fans can find historic sites throughout the city, including Villa Louis (the mansion home of Hercules Louis Dousman, Wisconsin’s first millionaire) and the Fort Crawford Museum, which celebrates the historic fort that stood guard over the city from 1816 to 1856.

Jackson Square and The Cabildo

New Orleans’ famous Jackson Square is filled with many historic sites, including the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, but visitors shouldn’t miss The Cabildo. This structure, constructed in the late 1700s after a fire destroyed the original building, was the home of the Spanish municipal government in New Orleans. It served as the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer in 1803 and hosted the Louisiana Supreme Court for more than 50 years. In 1994, the Cabildo was reopened to the public and now houses extensive exhibits and collections highlighting the history of New Orleans and Louisiana. 

St. Anthony Falls Historic District

Did you know that there’s only major waterfall on the Mississippi River? It’s true—St. Anthony Falls, which sits just northeast of downtown Minneapolis, was an important site for the region’s Native American tribes and achieved fame in the Western world when Father Louis Hennepin wrote about it in the late 1600s. The river—and the falls—played a key part in establishing Minnesota’s flour milling industry, once the city’s most important industry. Today, visitors can view the falls (after the collapse of the original falls, the Mississippi currently flows over a concrete spillway) and other historic sites around the area, including the Stone Arch Bridge, the Mill City Museum—built into the ruins of a former mill—and Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

One of the most powerful museums in the country can be found at the site of one of its greatest tragedies. Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, now pays tribute to the slain Civil Rights leader—and the generations before him engaged in the same fight—at the National Civil Rights Museum. A Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum uses interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement from the 17th century to the present. Visitors will get a new perspective on historical icons and movements through more than 250 artifacts, dozens of films, interactive media and more, including the preserved rooms at the motel where King spent his last hours.

A virtual trip down the Great River Road

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

There’s a lot to discover on America’s greatest driving route. At every bend of the river you’ll find something special—beautiful wildlife and scenery, incredible history, lively attractions and more. While there’s nothing quite like a trip on the open road, virtual experiences can give you a good taste of what it’s like to travel the route from the comfort of your home. So “pack your bags” and check out these virtual experiences on the Great River Road.

Follow Muddy Waters

The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, has a series of virtual exhibits that spotlight the history of this important American musical genre. The exhibits include fascinating details about icons like McKinley Morganfield, best known as Muddy Waters. The museum’s exhibits are of very high quality and have drawn the praise of international travel writers. See the exhibits here.

What bird are you?

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, the Science Museum of Minnesota features 370,000 square feet of exhibit space. It includes a 10,000-square-foot temporary exhibit gallery, five permanent galleries, acres of outdoor space and an Imax Convertible Dome Omnitheater. The museum has a variety of virtual offerings that appeal to science lovers of all ages. The “Which Minnesotan bird are you?” quiz will help you determine if you’re a loon or chickadee!

Behind-the-scenes art tour

Another Minnesota experience of interest to art lovers is the Walker Art Center’s Garden Stories. Through short interactive narratives, this ongoing series created by the famous Minneapolis museum presents behind-the-scenes tours of your favorite outdoor sculptures.

Stroll Oak Alley

On the west bank of the Mississippi River, in the community of Vacherie, Louisiana, is a historic plantation called Oak Alley. It was named after a double row of live oak trees that leads from the mansion to the river. The plantation is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Visit Oak Alley virtually here.

Visit Vicksburg

Vicksburg National Military Park preserves the site of the American Civil War Battle of Vicksburg. The park, located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, along the Mississippi River, also commemorates the Vicksburg Campaign which led up to the battle. A virtual tour offers a look at the landscape and offers important details of this significant site. Take the Vicksburg Virtual Tour here.

Say hello to a hippo

The popular Memphis Zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals representing over 500 different species. The zoo has been a Memphis fixture for more than a century, welcoming 1.2 million visitors annually. The zoo has live webcams of some of its most popular exhibits. See what the pandas, flamingos, elephants and hippos are up to here.

See birds take flight

The Great River road traces the Mississippi Flyway, a major migratory path for many species of birds. A good place to see these birds on their journey is the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a 261-mile long protected area in and along the Upper Mississippi River. It runs from Wabasha, Minnesota, in the north to Rock Island, Illinois, in the south. There are webcams placed in the refuge so you can see the winged action any time you like. See the webcams here.

Enjoy more scenes from the road

Webcams up and down the Great River Road provide a live view of America’s greatest scenic drive. We’ve assembled a collection of some popular views—see them here.

Why we’re thankful for the Great River Road

Friday, November 06, 2020

America’s greatest scenic drive has introduced generations of travelers to the natural beauty and vibrant culture of the Mississippi region. Everyone who travels this route has their own Great River Road experience and this month, we’re taking time to reflect on some of our favorite things about the byway.

Here are just a few of the things we’re thankful for.

Sweeping vistas

Scenic views of the Mississippi never get old and travelers along the route are treated to some dramatic scenes. All you need to do is pull over and get out your camera. In Trempealeau, Wisconsin, Perrot State Park is located where the Trempealeau River meets the Mississippi River. From the top of 500-foot cliffs you can see for miles. Stunning views can also be found downriver at Pikes Peak State Park in  McGregor, Iowa. A drive will take you up to scenic overlook areas at the top of the park’s 500-foot bluffs. You can see a broad expanse of river and numerous small islands. The park is one of the most photographed spots in Iowa.

Unforgettable meals

Food lovers: the Great River Road will lead you to some of America’s great cuisines. There are so many delicious things to savor on the route. In Wisconsin, a state that celebrates all things dairy, cheese curds rule at roadside restaurants. Order them with the local condiment of choice: ranch dressing. In Arkansas, hot tamales, a Latin American staple, has been the go-to meal for generations. It will be perfect fuel for your road trip in this beautiful state. In Louisiana, you can’t beat a beignet, the state doughnut. It’s best enjoyed slowly, between sips of hot chicory coffee. Learn more about these byway staples here.

Historical wonders

All along the route, you’ll encounter impressive historical sites, including many that predate European settlement. In Arkansas, Parkin Archeological State Park was the site of a former American Indian village from A.D. 1000 to 1600. The village visited by explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541. In Illinois, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the remains of the largest and most sophisticated native civilizations north of Mexico. See more historic sites along the routes and other attractions here.

Incredible Interpretive Centers

Along the whole stretch of the Great River Road, you’ll find a network of more than 70 museums and historic sites that showcase fascinating stories of the Mississippi River. These Interpretive Centers provide information about the river and the people who call the region home and include historical museums, impressive parks and national monuments. Some interpretive centers you’ll encounter on the route include the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site in Minnesota, the Delta Blues Museum in Mississippi and the Mark Twain Museum Home & Museum in Missouri. Learn more about the Great River Road’s Interpretive Centers here.

Support the Great River Road!

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Do you love traveling the Great River Road? So do we! The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC) is a 10-state non-profit organization that helps preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River, including the Great River Road.

Please fill out the form below to make your tax-deductible donation to the MRPC.

Fall migration on the Great River Road

Travelers on the Great River Road this season may notice they have some company.

The Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the path of the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory route used by 35 percent of North American birds. It the biggest flyway for migratory birds and is used by 325 different species. Some bids will travel a few hundred miles on the flyway, others more than a thousand as they move from vast breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada to wintering areas in southern states, Central America and Mexico.

The Mississippi River Valley provides food, habitat and protection for millions of birds as they make this epic twice-yearly journey. Along the route, travelers will see birds on the move, including vast flocks of geese as well as cranes, ducks, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and warblers.

So what’s the best way to see these beautiful creatures?

Start by visiting one of the birding locations on the route. Locks & dams and scenic overlooks along the route offer fantastic birding. See a list of these spots here. Consider bring along some binoculars and a birding book so you can identify the birds you encounter.

There are also many parks and museums of interest to bird lovers on the route.

  • At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota you can meet real bald and golden eagles, climb in a nest or see how your strength stacks up against the national bird’s. The museum is open but pre-registration is required.
  • The Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge stretches for 261 miles through IllinoisIowaWisconsin and Minnesota and offers some of the best birdwatching in the world during the spring and fall migrations. 
  • Charles, Arkansas is home to the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Over 300 lakes and ponds, the Bottomland Hardwood Forest and the White River make an ideal home for migrating birds. You’ll see bald eagles, wood ducks, prothonotary warblers and many kinds of birds native to the south.
  • In Louisiana, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve, you’ll find more than 200 species of birds, from herons, egrets and ibis to prothonotary warblers and painted buntings. The scenery is breathtaking here with canals, forests and swamps.

Interested in learning even more? The Great River Birding Trail has specific details on birds on the rote, including the abundance of different species, nesting locations and directions to more birding spots along then northern part of the Mississippi. Click below to see maps for some of the different segments on the route.

Fall discoveries on the Great River Road

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

September is drive the Great River Road Month, a perfect time to take a trip on America’s greatest driving route. The Great River Road stretches more than 3,000 miles across 10 states so there’s a lot to discover. Fall days bring lower humidity, beautiful foliage and comfortable temperatures so it’s a good time to slow down and explore some of the sights on the route. Here’s a sample of what you can see along the road.

And be sure to enter the Drive the Great River Road Sweepstakes—you could win $500 for your next Great River Road adventure!

Mississippi Headwaters, Itasca, Minnesota

Want to see where the Mississippi River starts? At Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, you’ll find Lake Itasca, the starting point of the mighty Mississippi. Here, the river is less than 20 feet wide and can be walked across via a series of stepping stones.

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa. One of the jewels of Dubuque, this fascinating museum focuses on life in and around the country’s waterways. You can see turtles, alligators, bald eagles, octopi, otters, sturgeon and more. 

Columbus-Belmont State Park, Columbus, Kentucky. Learn about the Mississippi River’s role in the Civil War at Columbus-Belmont State Park, where you can find a six-ton anchor that – along with a mile-long chain – was used to blockade the river during battles between the North and South.

White River National Wildlife Refuge, Charles, Arkansas. Home to over 300 lakes and ponds, the Bottomland Hardwood Forest and the White River make an ideal home for migrating birds. You’ll see bald eagles, wood ducks, prothonotary warblers and many kinds of birds native to the south.

Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center and Museum, Tunica, Mississippi. Traveling through the Mississippi Delta? Stop by the Gateway to the Blues Visitor Center and Museum on Highway 61. The museum shares the remarkable story of how The Blues was born and the role Tunica played in building the genre’s legacy.

Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana. You might recognize this place from numerous movies and TV shows. Oak Alley welcomes visitors with an awe-inspiring canopy of 300-year-old oak trees leading to a pristine antebellum plantation.

Celebrate fall on the Great River Road

Friday, September 11, 2020

This month is a spectacular time to experience the best scenic driving route in America. September is Drive the Great River Road Month, a month that celebrates this incredible 10-state scenic byway. The seasons are changing and the scenery on the road is simply unforgettable. In the northern stretches of the route, trees are turning brilliant shades of red, yellow and gold. Further south along the route, humidity of the summer is giving way to perfect fall weather. Below are three more reasons to travel the byway.

And be sure to enter the Drive the Great River Road Sweepstakes—you could win $500 for your next Great River Road adventure!

History

The Great River Road offers travelers an opportunity to learn about the fascinating culture, heritage and history of the Mississippi River region. Discover 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.

Music

A drive along the Great River Road will take you through a region steeped with musical history and tradition. The southern states are a must for music lovers. Louisiana is a rich gumbo of musical traditions, including Cajun, Dixieland, Jazz, Blues, Country and Rock ‘n Roll. Head to the heart of New Orleans for a big helping of Louisiana’s musical offerings. The State of Mississippi gave birth to of Delta Blues, a style which is widely considered to be the progenitor of all other forms of the Blues. Tennessee is another state steeped in musical history. Memphis is called the “Birthplace of the Blues” and is home to Beale Street, Tennessee’s most-visited attraction. Before leaving town, head to Graceland to see the famous estate of Elvis Presley.

Food

The route rewards food lovers at every turn. Fishing, farming, cheese factories, roadside produce stands, local eateries—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.

Chasing fall color on the Great River Road

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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.

Perrot State Park, Trempealeau, Wisconsin

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.

Pikes Peak State Park, McGregor, Iowa

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.

Great River Bluffs State Park, Winona, Minnesota

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.

Grandad Bluff, La Crosse, Wisconsin

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.

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque, 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!

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, Madison, Illinois, to St. Louis, Missouri

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!

Cajun vs. Creole: deliciously distinct

Thursday, July 30, 2020

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.

Cajun culture

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 cuisine

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.

Creole culture

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.

Creole 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.

Here’s a closer look at what differentiates Creole and Cajun cuisine from neworleans.com and Louisiana Travel.

Feeling hungry? Travelers on the Great River Road have shared some of their favorite restaurants. See their suggestions here. And for a chance to win $500 for your own culinary tour, enter the Flavors of the Great River Road Giveaway.

(Photo by Sidney Pearce on Unsplash)