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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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.
Late fall is a great time to explore the northern Great River Road’s natural history. The leaves are still colorful so you’re guaranteed a beautiful road trip, but just in case the winter temps come calling a little too soon, here are some spots you can visit and enjoy indoors too.
National Eagle Center, Wabasha, Minnesota
Photo courtesy of the National Eagle Center
At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota you can explore two floors of interactive exhibits, including the chance to climb in an eagle’s next and test your strength versus our national bird’s. You can meet bald and golden eagles during the daily demonstrations, then step outside to see the birds making their migratory journey along the Mississippi River Flyway. The center even offers eagle viewing trips to take you to hotspots along the river. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults, $7 for kids 4-17 and free for kids ages 3 and under.
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa
Photo courtesy of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is one of the jewels of Dubuque. It focuses on life in and around the country’s waterways. Here you can see turtles, alligators, bald eagles, octopi, otters, sturgeon and more. Exhibits will teach you about the first people to live along the river, erosion, marshes and bayous. You can visit a blacksmith shop, conservation lab, log cabin and 3- and 4-D theaters. Admission ranges between $12 and $23 depending on age and if you include the films.
Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota
The Science Museum of Minnesota is located right on the the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The museum is full of exciting things to explore, but for river lovers, check out the Mississippi River Gallery. You can feel what it’s like to captain a real river towboat, conduct weather experiments and, if you find an object like a rock, fossil or pine cone at home, do a little research, then come and talk to staff about it, they’ll trade you for something new, like a shell, crystal or skull. Don’t miss the Native American Exhibition that tells the story of the Dakota and Ojibwe people who made their home along the river in Minnesota. Admission is $19.95 for adults, $14.95 for kids 4-17 and free for 3 and under.
Genoa National Fish Hatchery, Genoa, Wisconsin
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service
The Genoa National Fish Hatchery is a wonderful place to learn about the natural resources of the Upper Mississippi River. Here you’ll find a wetland and native prairie boardwalk with a walking trail to explore, plus buildings that house 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels and amphibians. You can also see 13 species of fish reared on site. Check out the educational exhibits that teach about the history of the area as well, including the pearl button industry and the Battle of Bad Axe. Admission is free.
When I moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1982, the Mississippi River captured my heart and imagination. Thirty-seven years later, I still can’t get enough of the storied river. I’ve been lucky enough to travel it in many different ways, but the easiest way is simply to fill up my gas tank and drive the Great River Road, one of the best road trips in the United States. I’ve driven more than 125,000 miles along its blacktop from where it begins at Itasca State Park in Minnesota to where it ends at Venice, Louisiana.
Why have I spent so much time on the Great River Road? Here are five good reasons:
1. The Great Outdoors
The essence of any trip along the Great River Road is the natural beauty of the Mississippi River itself. While you can appreciate much of it while driving, the river entices visitors to get up close and personal. Go hiking at a state park; paddle a canoe or kayak through the rich backwater habitats; ride a bike along the Great River Trail. For perspective on the entire river system, tour the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.
2. Four Seasons of Fun
Sure, most people choose to visit the Mississippi River in summer when the weather is most reliably accommodating, but every season along the river offers something unique. Fall color is spectacular along the upper half of the river. Spring blossoms and migrating songbirds liven up spring. Winter sports keep locals busy Up North (have you ever tried curling or broomball?), while the southern reaches of the river enjoy pleasant days to view the wildlife that migrated south.
3. A Deep Dive into American History
The Mississippi River cuts a deep path through thousands of years of American history, much of which you can get to know from traveling the Great River Road. Here’s a quick sample:
• Archaeological sites offer a peek into the lives of early American cultures at places like Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa), Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Illinois), and Poverty Point World Heritage Site (Louisiana).
• The updated museum at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis showcases America’s westward expansion.
• Several places highlight the growth of agricultural and industrial economies, including the John Deere sites in Moline (Illinois), the Iron Ranges of Minnesota, and the Cotton Museum of Memphis.
• The rich cultural heritage of the valley is on display at places like the blues museums in the Mississippi Delta and St. Louis, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, and The Cabildo in New Orleans.
There’s whole lot more, too (I didn’t even mention historic forts or Civil War sites), which means there are always reasons to come back.
4. Beautiful Small Towns and Vibrant Big Cities
The Great River Road is blessed with attractive small towns and exciting big cities. Many small towns offer a mix of unique lodging, good food and conversation, and recreation. Make plans for a day trip or weekend escape to charming communities like Little Falls (Minnesota), Alma (Wisconsin), McGregor (Iowa), Galena (Illinois), Kimmswick (Missouri), Clarksdale (Mississippi), and St. Francisville (Louisiana).
If you’re more of a city person, spend a long weekend getting to know Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans. Each offers surprising and unheralded neighborhoods that are a pleasure to explore, in addition to the attractive riverfront spaces and better known sites.
5. A Cross Section of America
When Europeans began moving into the Mississippi River, dozens of American Indian tribes lived along or near the river. Some are still connected to the river today, like the Ojibwe and Dakota of Minnesota and the Chitimacha of Louisiana. Visitors can connect with American Indian communities at pow-wows, but many tribal colleges also have events open to the public.
New Orleans and Sainte Genevieve (Missouri) retain strong influences from the early French who founded them. Fulton, Illinois, still celebrates it Dutch heritage. The Quad Cities hosts the only interstate St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The Mexican community in Fort Madison, Iowa, has been throwing a late summer fiesta for a century. Guttenberg, Iowa, shows off its German roots with a big annual festival. The River Road African American Museum in Donaldson, Louisiana offers a look at the experiences of Africans and African Americans in the United States.
Again, these are just a few of examples. The river has been home and passageway for just about every group that has lived in North America or moved here, and many river communities still celebrate those ties. A trip along the Great River Road is a reminder of the many people and forces that have shaped the country we know today.
These are the reasons I keep coming back to the Great River Road, but they aren’t the only ones, obviously. (I didn’t even mention the food!) Still, I hope you’ll explore the Great River Road, too, and find your own reasons to come back again and again.