Category Archives: Activities & Recreation

Fall migration on the Great River Road

Thursday, October 08, 2020

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.

Locks and dams of the upper Mississippi River

Monday, June 22, 2020

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.)

Minnesota

Wisconsin

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.

Iowa

Illinois

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.

Missouri

 

Historic photos: sights along the Mississippi River

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

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.


Steamboats in New Orleans, 1890


Eagle Point Bridge, Dubuque, Iowa, 1960s.


Jackson Street, St. Paul, Minn., 1905


Riverboat near Vicksburg, Miss., 1936


Lake Itasca – Mississippi River headwaters, 1936


New Orleans levee, 1903


 

Family at Dyess Colony, Arkansas, 1935


Memphis sunset, 1900


New Orleans panorama, 1910


Eads Bridge, St Louis, late 1960s

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)

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.

 

Notes from an epic adventure

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

While many people travel part of the Great River Road every year, a select group drives the entire 3,000-mile route. Here are some stories and photos from people who have taken on the whole 10-state route. Sound like fun? Order the free Great River Road 10-State Map, the Drive the Great River Road App and start planning your own adventure. And let us know when you’re done – we’ll send you a certificate!

 

I received the map and I thought that this would be a nice trip, so I got in my car by myself and took off on one of the most enjoyable trips in my 82 years. I could write a book on this trip all good things about the trip. This summer I am going to finish the trip from St. Louis down to Venice, LA.. To sum it up, FANTASTIC,” – Robert B, St. Louis

 

We have visited the USA on many occasions and our plan was to visit those state we had not visited. Our road trip started in Nashville, TN. We then traveled through KY, WV, OH, IN, IL and WI before commencing our adventure down the Great River Road in MN. The river was covered in snow for many miles through MN, WI, IA, IL, MO, KY, TN, AR, MS and LA – despite the extreme weather, there were many wonderful sights and places to visit. We have now visited all 48 states and Hawaii – only Alaska to go!” – David and Cathie M., Queensland, Australia

My favorite part of the drive involved travel on the levees… from the area between Baton Rouge & Natchez, up the Mississippi Delta, from Memphis to Cairo, IL, the Cahokia mounds, and the Driftless Area.” – Lucas P., New York, New York

My husband and I spent periods of time in several river towns when he was working temporary jobs in them and were enchanted by the river. Decided to one day drive the Great River Road. He passed away before we could, but I drove it accompanied by our little rat terrier, Buck. It was a beautiful drive and I loved visiting with people and learning the history of different areas. I have a 50,000 words journal with pictures of the trip and am looking for a publisher.” – Pat W., Manhattan, Kansas

I drove the entirety of the GRR from North to South – covering almost every mile on both sides (a few were underwater thanks to the flooding last Autumn). I can be mobile for work, so I’ve started driving the long roads in the Lower 48 in an RV – it was your 80th, so I took the opportunity to explore. It was a 90-day trip, including all the loop backs – I started on the 7th of Sept at the Headwaters and wrapped it up south of the Venice Marina on the 6th of Dec.” – Sara N., Land O Lakes, Florida

I traveled the first half of the GRR in 2016, from Venice, LA to St Louis, and back to NOLA… then in 2017, from St Louis to Grand Rapids, MN and back to Chicago. I have spent the past five years documenting the scenic backways of the United States. My favorite part of the drive was finding dirt roads, old abandoned routes, remote places, and especially driving up on levees. Mississippi Delta, Driftless Area and Cahokia Mounds were some favorite parts.” – Randy R., New York, New York

We traveled the Road last Summer from 8/9/18 to 8/25/18. The reason – just wanted to experience the whole trip from North to South. Plus, we like road trips that include lots of 2 lane highways…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!” – Howard B, La Quinta, California

“I love road trips. Having done Route 66 a few years ago, this seemed like a natural. At the end of each day, I did a thumbnail sketch of the day which I shared with friends via email and FaceBook…BTW: This epic journey was done by myself, my wife, and my sister. We drove the entire length, from Lake Itasca to the Gulf. – Ronald B., Clovis, California

See the spring migration along the river

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Spring is an incredible time to go birdwatching along the Mississippi River! Check out some of our favorite stops to watch the spring migration in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge

Photo by Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge is actually 240,000 acres and 261 miles long, running through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois and lies within the Mississippi Flyway, the migratory path for birds.

An excellent spot to visit is Lake Onalaska, just north of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The lake is actually a pool of the Mississippi River, and the river’s the widest spot. Bald eagles are frequent visitors, as are tundra swans, and If you’re lucky you’ll catch the migration of canvasback ducks – there have been reports of 75,000-100,000 of them using Lake Onalaska as a springtime staging area (approximately one third of their North American population).

Pikes Peak State Park

Photo by Travel Iowa

Another great stop in the Wildlife Refuge is Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa. Here you can make the trek up the 500 foot bluff for views of where the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers meet. You’ll find plenty of songbirds here – eastern bluebirds, warblers, catbirds, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, but eagles and pelicans too. Be sure to explore the effigy mounds while you birdwatch.

National Eagle Center

Photo by National Eagle Center

The observation deck at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota is a great place to view eagles in the wild as they soar above the Mississippi. They even offer eagle viewing field trips that will take you to hotspots along and near the river. Inside the center are two floors of interactive exhibits where you can climb inside a nest and test your strength against our national bird’s. Be sure to stay for the daily demonstrations where you can meet bald and golden eagles face to face.

Barn Bluff

Photo by Miranda Mae via Facebook

Barn Bluff is another beautiful spot to see eagles, located in Red Wing, Minnesota. If you make the 340-foot climb up to the top of the bluff, you’ll see them soaring over the river and bluffs, along with turkey vultures and pelicans too. Barn Bluff is a hotspot for nature photography too, so bring your camera!

Chasing blossoms on the Great River Road

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spring officially arrives today on the Great River Road and new blossoms are opening daily! Now is the perfect time to take a trip to a botanical garden or embark on a wildflower walk in a natural area. The Great River Road will take you to some gorgeous spots to enjoy the spring flowers. Beautiful blossoms can be enjoyed now in southern states on the route; northern states will be in full bloom before we know it.

Here’s a sample of great flower spots near the route.

Memphis Botanic Garden

There’s a lot to take in every spring at this beautiful garden in Memphis, Tenn., which covers 96 acres and has 31 specialty gardens.  See a carpet of yellow daffodils on daffodil Hill—over 300,000 are planted! Follow the Michie Magnolia Trail and take in the spectacle of 300 beautiful trees. Or admire the delicate cherry blossoms, stroll through crocuses and smell the winter Jasmine. You won’t be disappointed!

Natchez Spring Pilgrimage

The oldest city on the Mississippi bustles with visitors this time of year. The annual Spring Pilgrimage takes place from March 16-April 16 in Natchez, Miss., a time when historic homes open their doors for visitors. Natchez has been described as a living museum of southern history and beautiful spring blossoms grace the impressive Antebellum homes on the tour.

Cohn Arboretum, Baton Rouge, La.

Fruit trees explode with color in this relaxing 16-acre arboretum that features more than 300 species of native and adaptable trees and shrubs. Walking trails wind through the park, along the edge of a small lake. It’s an ideal place for a spring walk.

New Orleans Botanical Garden, New Orleans City Park

The Big Easy is in bloom this month! Head to the Botanical garden to see impressive Azaleas, coral honeysuckle, Chinese Ground Orchids and more. These carefully cultivated gardens have been a fixture in the city since the 1930s and are open daily. Take a stroll and take your time – this is the Big Easy!

Traveling through history in Arkansas

Thursday, November 08, 2018

A tour on the Great River Road in Arkansas will take you through a land with a long and rich history. Official Interpretive Centers on the route will help you experience this past, with exhibits and information that will take you back to earlier days in region. Here are some Interpretive Centers to visit in Arkansas and a sample of what you can explore.

Parkin Archeological State Park: (A.D. 1000+)

This National Historic Landmark protects the site of a Mississippian Period American Indian village that occupied this location on the St. Francis River from A.D. 1000 to 1600. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that Hernando de Soto visited this site in 1541. A visitor center at the site houses artifacts and interesting exhibits.

Lakeport Plantation (1830s+)

This plantation produced cotton for nearly a century. The plantation house, a Greek Revival house built in 1859, is the only remaining Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River. It serves as a museum telling the story of plantation life in the Mississippi delta.

Helena Museum of Phillips County (various time periods)

This local history museum housed in a former library today was founded with the help of Mark Twain. Today it houses American Indian Artifacts, a collection of Thomas Edison’s works, information about the Civil War Battle of Helena and more.

WWII Japanese Internment Museum (1942-1945)

This museum preserves the history and heritage of the 17,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly evacuated from their homes and interned at camps in Jerome and Rohwer from 1942-45. During the war, more than 8,000 Japanese Americans were interned at this camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. A self-guided walking tour takes visitors along the southern boundary of the original camp.

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Uniquely Iowa Great River Road stops

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Great River Road travels 328 miles through Iowa, along national wildlife refuges, past historic sights and through some of Iowa’s oldest communities. Some of the Mississippi’s most dramatic lookouts are on this section of the road and there are some memorable sights along the route. Here are a few of our favorite stops.

Pikes Peak State Park

This northern Iowa state park is one of the most photographed areas in the entire state. Trek to the top of the 500-foot bluffs and you’ll see why—you’ll take in a breathtaking view of the meeting of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.

Historic Dubuque

Just across the Mississippi River from the Wisconsin/Iowa border, the city of Dubuque offers something for every traveler. Dubuque’s charming downtown is filled with historic buildings and has gone through a revival in recent years, with a thriving arts scene and some of the region’s tastiest restaurants. Take in a dramatic view of downtown with a ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway, 296 feet in length, elevating passengers 189 feet from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place.

Effigy Mounds National Monument

More than 200 earthen mounds are located within the boundaries of Effigy Mounds National Monument, located in Harpers Ferry. Taking the shapes of a bird, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtle or panther, these mounds were built 750 to 1,400 years ago for ceremonial purposes. The best way to tour the 2,526-acre park is hiking along the 14 miles of trails that wind their way throughout the landscape. A film at the visitor center provides an excellent introduction.

Putnam Museum

Visit this Davenport museum to learn about everything from ancient Egypt to outer space. Don’t miss the Hall of Mammals–travel from an artic glacier to an African waterhole, and check out who’s come for a drink. Not only will you see these animals in their natural habitats, you’ll hear them too!

Snake Alley

Iowa happens to be home to the “crookedest street in the world.” Don’t miss Burlington’s Snake Alley, which was built in 1894 with locally fired bricks. It’s reminiscent of vineyard paths in France and Germany

The Sawmill Museum

Timber! Discover Clinton’s lumber heritage in this fascinating museum. Kids – and adults who are young at heart – can visit a recreated 1888 lumberjack camp and play the part of a lumberjack. See a restored 1920s sawmill in action, take a ride on the Midwest Lumber Train and meet Clinton’s lumber barons.

See a full list of Iowa Great River Road attractions.