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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Great River Road in Missouri treats travelers to a rich mix of culture and natural heritage. This is the midpoint of the route, and you’ll find a lot to discover, from the roots of Mark Twain to the inspiring sight of an iconic national monument. Here’s a bit of what you’ll find in Missouri.
As Mark Twain once said (according to legend), “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” A prematurely published obituary allegedly triggered Twain’s comment, but it holds true in Hannibal, a place that still celebrates the great American author who was born by the name Samuel Clemens. In Hannibal you can see where Twain lived and learn about his early days at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. And, if you’re in town on the Fourth of July, be sure to catch National Tom Sawyer Days, which features a fence-painting competition, a frog jumping contest and a “Tom & Becky” contest.
An impressive building created for the 1904 World’s Fair, the Saint Louis Art Museum (or SLAM, as it’s affectionately known) houses one of America’s great art museums. It boasts more than 33,000 works, covering everything from ancient Egypt to contemporary American art. It contains at least six pieces (including Max Beckmann and Matisse pieces) that Nazis removed from their own museums because they believed the pieces to be “degenerate”; fortunately they escaped destruction. You can see these impressive pieces and others for free; there is no admission charge for the museum, thanks to a subsidy from a local cultural tax.
You can’t miss the opportunity to travel to the top of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch when you’re in town. A trip to the top of the 630-foot architectural wonder will put you at the highest point in downtown St. Louis, and, if it’s a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view. (Be sure to take in the exhibits at the Arch to learn more about the history of St. Louis and the Arch itself, too.)
Long ago, massive earthquakes once struck in this part of the country, briefly causing the Mississippi River to run backwards. In 1811 and 1812, the river town of New Madrid in Missouri’s southeastern corner experienced three significant earthquakes, all with magnitudes of 7.5 or above. The quakes could be felt as far away as New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C. You can learn more about this unique seismic event and more at the New Madrid Historical Museum, which also has an interesting collection of Native American and Civil War artifacts.
Some of the most dramatic views of the heartland can be found along the Mississippi. In Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, towering bluffs allow travelers to take in sweeping views of the river and farms and forests below. They are great places to visit to go for a hike, have a picnic or simply pause to take in the view.
Here are some awe-inspiring spots to take in the scenery.
From this 600-foor bluff you can take in the city of La Crosse and the rolling landscape referred to as the Coulee Region. You can see three states from this vantage point – Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
With the holidays fast approaching, it’s wise to have some conversation starters on hand. Check out these Great River Road fun facts!
From the headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the grand finale in New Orleans, Louisiana, it would take 22 hours of non-stop driving to complete one half of the Great River Road.
But, if you were a raindrop, it’d take you 90 days to travel the same distance!
Minnesota has the longest portion of the Great River Road at 575 miles long.
Kentucky is home to the smallest section of the Great River Road, just 63 miles.
The Great River Road runs on both sides of the river, except between Hastings, Minnesota and the byway’s northern terminus.
Great River Road town Hannibal, Missouri is the hometown of famed author Mark Twain.
Two-thirds of Wisconsin’s Great River Road passes along or through protected natural areas.
Some of the oak trees along Louisiana’s Great River Road are more than 300 years old!
Illinois’s Great River Road is home to the confluence of three rivers – the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.
River town Alton, Illinois has been named “One of the Most Haunted Small Towns in America” by the Travel Channel.
Accolades come easy for the Great River Road. It’s been named, “Prettiest Drive in America,” one of the “U.S.A.’s Ten Best Motorcycle Roads,” one of the “1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die,” and “Best Drive in America.”
Harper’s award-winning book follows a raindrop named Serendipity as it takes the 90-day journey along the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Hear stories from the people who make their homes along the Mississippi and enjoy 200 color photos highlighting the voyage.
To order your own personalized, autographed copy, click here.
Fall is the perfect time to drive the Great River Road. Vibrant colors paint the trees from Minnesota to northern Mississippi, and you’ll find festivals, farmers markets and fun activities all along the Mississippi River corridor.
Stay in the loop!
Stay up to date on the latest Great River Road events, contests and deals.