Category Archives: Activities & Recreation

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 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.

St. Louis jazz in your living room

The Dark Room in St. Louis showcases “the best in St. Louis jazz, with a touch of blues and soul.” Every Wednesday through Saturday, check out Live from the Archives, which replays some of the great sets from The Dark Room stage. Support the artists by contributing to their virtual tip jars. Or listen in on their Open Air outdoor series.

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.

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!