Category Archives: Activities & Recreation

Explore natural beauty along the Great River Road

Friday, April 16, 2021

Some of the most beautiful scenery in America can be found in the Mississippi River Valley, and the Great River Road is the route that will take you there. You’ll pass scores of gorgeous parks and natural areas—here are some of the finest that offer a chance to experience nature on and off the water.

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.

Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa

In this important national park in Iowa, you’ll find more than 200 earthen effigy mounds. Taking the shapes of a bird, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtle or panther, these mounds were built by Native Americans 750 to 1,400 years ago for ceremonial purposes. The best way to tour the 2,526-acre park is to hike along the 14 miles of trails that wind their way through the landscape of forests, tallgrass prairies and wetlands. Along the way you’ll see some dramatic views of the Mississippi River.

Columbus-Belmont State Park, Kentucky

Discover a mix of natural beauty and history at this gorgeous Kentucky state park. The park is uniquely educational, standing as a National Trail of Tears Site, and featuring a museum highlighting Civil War history—it was once a civil War hospital. Visitors can enjoy the natural wonders of Kentucky by camping out at one of the park’s 38 sites and hiking along picturesque bluffs of the Civil War Heritage Trail. 

Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas

Adventure awaits in this family-friendly park in Marianna. The park is popular for fishing, boating and kayaking excursions. The park is located within the 3,000-acre St. Francis National Forest, and there are seven bodies or water to explore. You’ll also find scenic hiking trails, welcoming picnic facilities and two swimming beaches.

Black Hawk State Historic Site, Illinois

Along the Rock River in Rock Island, Illinois, you’ll find the Black Hawk State Historic Site. It’s a wooded, steeply rolling 208-acre park that has a scenic 3-mile hiking trail that will take you along the Rock River and through a nature preserve. Prehistoric Indians and 19th century settlers made their homes here, but the area is most closely identified with the Sauk Nation and the warrior-leader Black Hawk. Discover the history of Black Hawk and the Sauk and Meskwaki people by visiting the park’s John Hauberg Museum.

Poverty Point World Heritage Site, Louisiana

Hike through time, history and natural beauty at this important site in Louisiana. Poverty Point is the location of a massive earthen structure that was built thousands of years ago. Archaeologists are still uncovering its secrets, but it’s believed to be an ancient residential, trade and ceremonial center. The site features a 2.7-mile trail that will take you through this amazing place and past carpets of seasonal wildflowers.  

Discover ancient cultures and engaging history on the Great River Road

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

To travel the Great River Road is to travel through the history of the people and cultures of the Mississippi River. Marvel at a once-massive ancient city created by the mound-building people of southern Illinois, see the agricultural settlement where a young Johnny Cash spent his formative years, and learn about an important battle in Civil War history.

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.

Lakeport Planation

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Lakeport Planation

Built in 1859, Lakeport Plantation sits just a short distance from the banks of the Mississippi River in Lake Village, Arkansas. It’s the last remaining Mississippi River plantation home in Arkansas and is considered one of the state’s top historic structures. Exhibits in the home tell the stories of the people who lived and worked on the plantation, as well as how the home was restored to its original condition. Tours are available Monday through Friday year-round and also on Saturdays in the winter.
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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

(Photo courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism)

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Drive to Collinsville, Illinois—just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis—and you’ll find one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the Great River Road. Cahokia Mounds was inhabited for about 700 years from 700 to 1400 AD, and it its peak, was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people. The inhabitants built more than 120 mounds on the site, which covers more than 6 square miles. An interpretive center and tours help visitors learn more about this fascinating site.
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Historic Dyess Colony

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Historic Dyess Colony

The Dyess Colony in northeastern Arkansas was created as a federal agricultural settlement as part of the New Deal in 1934, giving a new start to hundreds of poor farming families in the state. One of those families, the Cashes had a son, Johnny, who went on to become one of the most notable names in American music. Several of the colony’s buildings have been restored and are open to visitors, including the Johnny Cash Boyhood home.
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Columbus-Belmont State Park
Columbus-Belmont State Park

This 156-acre site in Kentucky is the site of a Confederate fortification, and the Battle of Belmont—fought here in 1861—marked the beginning of the Union’s Western campaign. The battle for the fort, which had blocked the Union forces looking to travel south on the Mississippi River, was the first real action for Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. The site is also home to a Civil War Museum, and visitors can see the massive chain and anchor that was meant to prevent Union ships from passing.
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Delta Cultural Center

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Delta Cultural Center

The Arkansas Delta has made immense contributions to American culture, blues music and more—hear the stories of Delta residents at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. Exhibits and guided tours educate visitors about the people and history of this region. The Delta Cultural Center is also home to “King Biscuit Time,” a live daily blues broadcast that has been on the air for nearly 80 years.
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Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site

Discover the history of the Mississippian—or mound-building—native culture that called this area home at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Kentucky. This site was home to a Native American village from about 1100 to 1350, and visitors to the historic site can walk interpretive archaeological trails, learn about the culture that lived here and see artifacts and tools at the Wickliffe Mounds museum, which has been open to the public since 1932.
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Fort de Chartres State Historic Site

This French fort was constructed nearly 300 years ago on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis. It served as a base for French soldiers during their occupation of what is today Illinois.. Interpretive signage guides visitors around the site, and on weekends, costumed interpreters offer additional information and reenactments.
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Fort Jefferson Hill Park and Memorial Cross

Fort Jefferson was established in 1780 on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River a mile south of the present-day city of Wickliffe, Kentucky. The fort, which was only occupied for a short time, was intended to protect the western border of the then-newfound United States. The cross towers 95 feet high above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers andcan be seen from three states. Fort Jefferson is also a Lewis and Clark Expedition historic site.
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Sultana Disaster Museum

Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Sultana Disaster Museum

The greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred on the Mississippi River in Arkansas in 1865. The Sultana, a Civil War-era steamboat, exploded on April 27, 1865, killing more than 1,200 people aboard. Among the dead were Union soldiers who had been released from prison camps in Andersonville and Cahaba. Learn about this oft-overlooked disaster at the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion.
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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.

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.