Category Archives: States

Learn all about the northern Great River Road

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

The northern states of the Great River Road—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri—offer an abundance of natural beauty (including the headwaters of the Mississippi River), interesting attractions, and much more to explore. Here’s a closer look at the Great River Road in each of these states—what routes to drive, what towns and cities you shouldn’t miss, and what Interpretive Centers you should visit.

Minnesota

The Great River Road starts (or ends, depending on which way you’re driving) at Itasca State Park in far northern Minnesota and travels through the beautiful woodlands of northern Minnesota as it heads north to Bemidji then south to the Twin Cities before reaching the southeastern corner of the state, where it follows the Mississippi River alongside stunning limestone bluffs.  

Notable Great River Road towns & cities in Minnesota:

  • Bemidji
  • Minneapolis
  • St. Paul
  • Red Wing
  • Winona

Notable highways that make up the Great River Road in Minnesota:

  • County Highway 75 (Beltrami County – Bemidji)
  • U.S. Highway 169 (Aitkin)
  • Interstate 494 (Twin Cities)
  • U.S. Highway 61 (Hastings to La Crescent)

Notable Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Minnesota: 

  • Itasca State Park, Park Rapids
  • Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, St. Paul
  • National Eagle Center, Wabasha

See more Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Minnesota here.

Wisconsin

On the eastern side of the Mississippi River, the Wisconsin Great River Road travels for 250 miles through 33 river towns on the state’s western border, offering great opportunities for recreation on and off the river, easy-to-explore historic cities and towns, and interesting attractions throughout the region.

Notable Great River Road towns & cities in Wisconsin:

  • Pepin
  • Onalaska
  • La Crosse
  • Prairie du Chien
  • Potosi

Notable highways that make up the Great River Road in Wisconsin:

  • State Highway 35 (Prescott to Dickeyville)

Notable Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Wisconsin:

  • Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge Visitor Center, Onalaska
  • Stonefield Historic Site, Cassville
  • Villa Louis, Prairie du Chien

See more Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Wisconsin here.

Illinois

Illinois is home to the longest stretch of the Great River Road—over 500 miles—and road trippers will discover a lot to explore along the way, including Galena (a historic town that’s often named one of the top towns in America), Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that tells the story of the largest native civilization north of Mexico), and the meeting of the Great River Road and historic Route 66 in southwestern Illinois.

Notable Great River Road towns & cities in Illinois:

  • Galena
  • Quad Cities (Moline and Rock Island in Illinois)
  • Nauvoo
  • Quincy
  • Alton

Notable highways that make up the Great River Road in Illinois:

  • U.S Highway 20 (Galena)
  • State Highway 84 (Elizabeth to the Quad Cities)
  • State Highway 96 (Nauvoo to Kampsville)
  • State Highway 100 (Grafton and Alton)
  • State Highway 3 (Wood River to Cairo)

Notable Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Illinois:

  • Mississippi River Visitor Center at Locks & Dam 15, Rock Island
  • Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton
  • Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Collinsville

See more Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Illinois here.

Iowa

Motorists will find postcard-perfect historic towns and eye-catching riverscapes along Iowa’s section of the Great River Road, which passes through big cities and small towns alike. Stunning views abound as well—don’t miss the stunning vistas from Pike’s Peak State Park in McGregor or the views from the top of Dubuque’s Fenelon Place Elevator.

Notable Great River Road towns & cities in Iowa:

  • Lansing
  • Dubuque
  • Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa)
  • Burlington
  • Keokuk

Notable highways that make up the Great River Road in Iowa:

  • County Road X52 (Lansing to Harpers Ferry)
  • State Highway 76 (Harpers Ferry to Marquette-McGregor)
  • U.S. Highway 67 (Sabula to the Quad Cities)
  • State Highway 99 (Wapello to Burlington)
  • U.S. Highway 61 (Fort Madison to Keokuk)

Notable Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Iowa:

  • Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry
  • National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque
  • Putnam Museum & Science Center, Davenport

See more Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Iowa here.

Missouri

A trip along Missouri’s Great River Road is a trip through history. Stop in Hannibal in the northeastern part of the state to learn about the life of America’s most famous author, Mark Twain—the Mark Twain Boyhood & Home is a must-visit, and the historic city is home to many other Twain-themed attractions and events. St. Louis’ Gateway Arch offers outstanding views and tells the story of America’s westward expansion, and the town of Ste. Genevieve was settled nearly 300 years ago.

Notable Great River Road towns & cities in Missouri:

  • Hannibal
  • St. Louis
  • Ste. Genevieve
  • Cape Girardeau
  • New Madrid

Notable highways that make up the Great River Road in Missouri:

  • U.S. Highway 61 (Hannibal)
  • State Highway 79 (Hannibal to St. Charles)
  • Interstate 70 (St. Charles, St. Louis)
  • U.S. Highway 61 (Herculaneum to Sikeston)

Notable Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Missouri:

  • Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, Hannibal
  • Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis
  • Ste. Genevieve Welcome Center

See more Great River Road Interpretive Centers in Missouri here.

Photo: Mississippi River overlook at Buena Vista Park in Alma on the Wisconsin Great River Road/Travel Wisconsin

Spring recreation along the Great River Road

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Get ready to go outside as you explore the Mississippi River and its surroundings. There are great opportunities for outdoor recreation up and down the Great River Road in spring, from hiking and biking to birdwatching and paddling—here’s where to go.

Hiking

There are lots of places to enjoy a scenic stroll along the Mississippi River in the spring or find a more challenging hike with stunning overlooks that make the hike worth the challenge.  On the northern half of the Great River Road (through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, and into Missouri), many cities and towns along the river are home to scenic local and state parks that offer outstanding hiking opportunities along the limestone bluffs overlook the Mississippi River. The flatter terrain on the southern half of the river is no less impressive, as places like Mississippi’s Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge and Louisiana’s Barataria Preserve offer outstanding scenic walks as well.

Where to go: Pike’s Peak State Park (McGregor, Iowa); Mississippi River State Park (Marianna, Arkansas); Columbus-Belmont State Park (Columbus, Kentucky)

Biking

Explore the scenery of the Great River Road and the Mississippi River region on two wheels. Many cities along the route—Minneapolis and Saint Paul in Minnesota, the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, and St. Louis, just to name a few—offer scenic paved bike trails alongside the river, and local and state parks up and down the Great River Road provide mountain bike trails for more adventurous pursuits.

Where to go: Quincy Riverfront Trail (Quincy, Illinois); Mississippi River Levee Bike Path (Baton Rouge, Louisiana); St. Louis Riverfront Trail (St. Louis, Missouri)

Birdwatching

The Great River Road is a perfect place for avid and amateur birdwatchers alike, as the Mississippi River Flyway is the migration route followed by 40 percent of all waterfowl and shorebirds in North America. Spring is a particularly good time to catch migrating birds, as songbirds like warblers, gnatcatchers, and vireos head back north after the winter and swallows, swifts, and migratory woodpeckers return to the bluffs and forests along the Mississippi River

Where to go: Reelfoot Lake State Park, Tiptonville, Tennessee; Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Visitors Center, Onalaska, Wisconsin 

Paddling

Want to get off the Great River Road and onto the actual Mississippi River? There are plenty of places to do so in the 10 states along the Great River Road, including serene backwaters, massive lakes, and the main channel of the mighty Mississipp’ itself.

Where to go: Mississippi River State Water Trail, Minnesota; Quapaw Canoe Company, Vicksburg, Mississippi 

(Photo: Kayaking in Mississippi River State Park, Marianna, Arkansas/Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism)

Don’t miss these fun annual events in the South

Friday, February 09, 2024

Mardi Gras, food festivals, and more—the states along the southern Great River Road offer an outstanding calendar of events all year long. Here’s a look at just a few of the annual events you’ll find in Mississippi River cities and towns in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Kentucky

  • Banana Festival, Fulton – Every September, the twin towns of Fulton, Kentucky, and South Fulton, Tennessee, come together for this fun event that celebrates the area’s history as an important railroad stop (it had the only icehouse on the way to Chicago from New Orleans, meaning fruits like bananas could make the long trip). The festival includes food vendors, craft vendors, and (obviously) lots of banana treats. 

Tennessee

  • Memphis in May – Head to the Home of the Blues every spring for a monthlong celebration of music, international culture, and food. The festivities traditionally kick off with the Beale Street Music Festival (on pause for 2024), which attracts world-famous acts from a diverse array of genres for a three-day celebration. Bring your appetite for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in the middle of the month and work of the calories at the annual Great American River Run over Memorial Day weekend. 
  • Let it Glow Light Show, Union City – Discovery Park of America is part of the official network of Great River Road Interpretive Centers and holds events throughout the year for school groups and other visitors. A holiday highlight is the Let it Glow Light Show, a walk- or drive-thru display that features more than a million lights spread throughout the park’s grounds, as well as live music, visits from Santa and Mrs. Clau, and other attractions.

Arkansas

  • King Biscuit Blues Festival, Helena-West Helena – Discover the sounds of the Delta at this annual event held the weekend before Columbus Day. Named for King Biscuit Time, the longest-running daily radio show (which broadcasts from the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena), the festival brings thousands of visitors to the banks of the Mississippi for a weekend of blues music from performers across the South and the country.
  • Lake Chicot Fall Festival, Lake Village – The community of Lake Village in southeastern Arkansas is home to not only Lake Chicot—the state’s largest natural lake and the largest oxbow lake in North America at 20 miles long—but also the annual Lake Chicot Fall Festival, which features a barbecue cookoff, a classic car show, and more fun events.

Mississippi

  • Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale – Clarksdale is rich in blues history—it’s the site of the Delta Blues Museum and the famous Crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul for his legendary musical talent—so it makes sense that it’s home to lots of great opportunities to catch live music. One event that visitors shouldn’t miss is the annual Juke Joint Festival, which features a day (and night) of live music from more than 100 blues artists at venues throughout the city.
  • Spring Pilgrimage, Natchez – Every March and April, the historic city of Natchez—the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River, it was officially established in 1716—opens more than a dozen of its iconic homes to the public for tours as part of the Spring Pilgrimage. The event includes guided tours of pre-Civil War homes and other properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

Louisiana

  • Christmas Eve bonfires, St. James Parish – This uniquely Louisiana tradition features the lighting of gigantic bonfires along the levees on the Mississippi River to help “Papa Noel” (the Cajun Santa Claus) navigate his route on Christmas Eve. These bonfires can be found throughout Louisiana’s river parishes but are most common in the communities of Grammercy, Lutcher, and Paulina in St. James Parish, about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans.
  • Festivals & celebrations, New Orleans – New Orleans isn’t called the Festival Capital of the World for nothing. Throughout the year, the Big Easy welcomes millions of visitors to music festivals, cultural celebrations, arts events, and much more. There’s a festival going on every weekend—visitors can find fun at Mardi Gras, Essence Fest, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and many more.

Photo Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Annual events on the northern Great River Road

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

There’s a lot more to explore along the Great River Road than just scenery and history—the cities and towns along the Mississippi River host engaging events that bring visitors back year after year. Here are some of the top recurring events you shouldn’t miss along the Great River Road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.

Minnesota

  • Saint Paul Winter Carnival – Held in Minnesota’s capital city from the end of January to early February, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival has celebrated the season for more than 135 years. This 10-day festival features a wide array of events and attractions, including an ice sculpture garden, parades, kids’ activities and much more.  
  • Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona – Enjoy the classic works of William Shakespeare under the Mississippi River bluffs in the charming river town of Winona in southeastern Minnesota every summer. The Great River Shakespeare Festival features three main stage shows during its seasonal run in June and July, as well as other activities, including free concerts and a sonnet competition.

Wisconsin

  • Potosi Brewfest – Beer lovers: Head to Potosi on the Wisconsin Great River Road, and you’ll find a historic brewery that dates to the 1850s. Potosi Brewing Company was once the fifth-largest brewery in the state and is now home to the National Brewery Museum, a restaurant and brew pub, an event space, and more. Every August, more than 60 vendors (craft breweries, distilleries, and wineries and specialty food vendors) come to the area for the annual Potosi Brewfest, which features games, live music, and food.
  • Oktoberfest, La Crosse – Celebrate German culture and the oncoming fall season at the Midwest’s longest-running Oktoberfest celebration in the Midwest every September in La Crosse. Feel the spirit of Gemütlichkeit (that’s German for friendliness and good cheer) as you enjoy traditional German food and beverages, dance along to German music, or catch some of the fun events like the wiener dog races.

Illinois

  • Great Galena Balloon Race, Galena – Look to the skies over the historic town of Galena in northwestern Illinois every June to marvel at the display of colorful hot air balloons. It’s all part of the Great Galena Balloon Race, an annual fundraiser that’s during the third full weekend of June and includes balloon races, kids’ activities, a car show, and live music.
  • Christmas Wonderland, Alton – When the holiday season rolls around, don’t miss this impressive light display, which starts after Thanksgiving and runs through the end of December at Rock Spring Park in Alton. The drive-through display features more than 4 million lights.

Iowa

  • Snake Alley Art Fair, Burlington – This annual art fair (held every Father’s Day) has taken place for more than 50 years in the welcoming river city of Burlington. Artisans and crafters from across the Midwest set up their booths on the city’s famous Snake Alley—“the crookedest street in the world”—and the event also features art activities for kids, live music, and local food vendors.
  • Dubuquefest – This August festival celebrating music, art, and culture has been held in downtown Dubuque (where else?) every summer since 1979. The free event features live music, food from local restaurants, and a weekend art fair.

Missouri

  • Art in Bloom, St. Louis – One of St. Louis’ signature events, Art in Bloom is held every March at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. Dozens of local florists use their creativity to reinterpret art from the museum’s collection, resulting in stunning arrangements that spark the imagination. In addition to displays, the festival features special events, family activities, and food and drink.
  • National Tom Sawyer Days, Hannibal – Head to Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal—about an hour’s drive north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River—over the Fourth of July holiday week to join the fun at this festival that’s been going strong since the 1950s. Tom Sawyer Days features and abundance of family-friendly events, from fence painting and frog jumping competitions to live music and a carnival.

Photo Credit: Travel Wisconsin

Unique shops along the Great River Road

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Whether you’re looking for holiday gifts or just want to visit some of the country’s most unique retailers, you’ll find outstanding shopping opportunities up and down the Great River Road. Here’s a look at some of the distinctive shops you can discover as you travel along the Mississippi River.

Northern Great River Road

Minnesota is home to some one-of-a-kind retailers, and nothing is more one-of-a-kind than the Mall of America (located in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington), the country’s largest shopping and entertainment complex and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul offer other outstanding local retailers, too, located in shopping districts like Nicollet, downtown Saint Paul, and the North Loop. Head further down the Mississippi to discover charming cities like Red Wing, where shoppers can explore the Red Wing Shoe Company store and museum and find Scandinavian gifts at Uffda Shop, or Winona, which is home to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (which has an outstanding gift shop).

Galena is consistently cited as one of the most charming small towns in America, and this Illinois city boasts dozens of retailers in its historic downtown district. More than 125 storefronts offer a wide selection of clothing, jewelry, antiques, and more—don’t miss popular destinations like Galena Book & Paper Co. and Flashback. The Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa provide a memorable shopping experience at stores like Antique Archaeology (featured in the History Channel series “American Pickers”) in LeClaire, Iowa, and the John Deere Store (part of the sprawling John Deere Pavilion) in Moline, Illinois.

Central Great River Road

Historic Hannibal, Missouri, is not just the boyhood home of Mark Twain, it’s also a fun shopping spot—visitors can find retailers like the Dutch Country General Store, Mark Twain Book & Gift, and Mississippi Marketplace. Travel south along the river to St. Louis, where unique locales like City Foundry STL (a former foundry building that now houses a food hall and specialty retailers) and the Cherokee Antique Row shopping district await.

In Memphis, shoppers will find interesting souvenir shops all along Beale Street, including A. Schwab’s which was established in 1876 that carries everything from clothing to voodoo supplies. (The store’s motto is “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re probably better off without it.”) Speaking of iconic shopping spots, don’t forget Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid—a sprawling outdoors store that also features a 103-room hotel, a 600,000-gallon lagoon with more than 1,800 fish, and an amazing observation deck atop the 32-story building on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Southern Great River Road

Mississippi offers a unique shopping experience in historic downtowns all throughout the Delta region. Clarksdale—“the home of the Blues”—is home to the Delta Blues Museum (and its related gift shop) and one-of-a-kind stores like Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. Vicksburg’s downtown and Washington Street hosts a wide variety of boutiques, antique shops, and more, including the Attic Gallery and the Levee Street Marketplace. Natchez, the oldest city on the Mississippi River, has a historic downtown filled with interesting shops like Silver Street Gallery & Gifts and Lower Lodge Antiques.

The southern end of the Great River Road travels through Louisiana, which is home to can’t-miss retailers in cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Perkins Rowe in Baton Rouge has a mix of retailers, restaurants, and entertainment spaces, and the city’s massive Mall of Louisiana, which features nearly 200 stores and the world’s third-largest indoor carousel. New Orleans is an iconic shopping destination, whether you’re exploring the French Market, Magazine Street, or the French Quarter.

Photo Credit: Explore Minnesota

Holiday events along the Great River Road

Monday, October 30, 2023

There are plenty of ways to celebrate the holiday season along the Great River Road, from winter festivals and markets to light shows and parades. Here’s a look at the kinds of events you’ll find this winter in communities up and down the Mississippi River.

Light shows & festivals

Every winter in Dubuque in northeastern Iowa, motorists take a scenic drive through stunning holiday light displays at Reflections in the Park, an annual event held at Louis Murphy Park, which sits atop a limestone bluff and overlooks the city and the Mississippi River. See more holiday attractions in Dubuque here.

There are plenty of reasons to visit New Orleans any time of year, but there’s a particularly special event that welcomes guests right around Christmastime. NOLA ChristmasFest is held at the city’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center over the last two weeks of December, and highlights include New Orleans’ only skating rink, carnival rides, a Gingerbread Village, and more.

Head to the Memphis Zoo for their annual Zoo Lights display, which dazzles visitors with more than a million holiday lights, an LED Ferris wheel, Santa’s workshop, live reindeer, holiday events and more. Zoo Lights runs on select nights from after Thanksgiving to early January.

The GLOW Holiday Festival in Minnesota’s capital city of St. Paul runs from mid-November to New Year’s Eve. The event, held at CHS Field—home of the St. Paul Saints baseball team—is a family-friendly event where you’ll find everything from a tubing hill to a zip line.

Christmas & holiday markets

For nearly 60 years every November, the city of La Crosse on Wisconsin’s section of the Great River Road has hosted its annual Holiday Fair, which is home more than 100 arts and crafts vendors who sell seasonal wares, from ornaments to home décor to apparel. (While you’re in La Crosse, don’t miss the Rotary Lights display in Riverside Park, which attracts more than 100,000 people a year.)

Belleville, a city of 42,000 in southwest Illinois—just on the other side of the river from St. Louis—holds its annual Christkindlmarkt, an open-air German Christmas market, in the public square every weekend from late November until just before Christmas. Visitors will can shop for unique European and handcrafted items and enjoy food, beverages, and live entertainment.

Other events

Natchez, Mississippi—the oldest city on the Mississippi River—rings in the holiday season every November and December with its Christmas in Natchez celebration, a monthlong event that features a tree lighting ceremony, weekly caroling and other events.

The charming town of Galena, Illinois, offers a full calendar of holiday events in November and December, including its annual holiday parade through the historic downtown, the Holiday Fire in the Sky fireworks show, and the Night of Luminaria and Living Windows, where more than 5,000 candelit luminaries light up the street and Main Street businesses display their holiday-inspired Living Windows.

Photo Credit: Travel Wisconsin

Outdoor dining on the southern Great River Road

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Looking for a spot to grab a bite to eat outside while you’re traveling the southern half of the Great River Road? Here’s a look at some outdoor dining options in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Perhaps more of a “take it to go” place (though there is some outdoor seating outside the small restaurant), Prince Pit BBQ has two locations along Kentucky’s section of the Great River Road—one in Barlow and one in Bardwell. At both spots, you’ll find delicious barbecue, including pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and more.

Wilson Café cooks up Southern fare with an upscale twist for brunch, lunch, and dinner in a historic building in downtown Wilson, Arkansas, about a 45-minute drive from Memphis. The café is a popular spot that’s well known for dishes that use local ingredients, and diners can enjoy the outdoors (and even some live music) on The Wilson’s outdoor patio. 

Flight Restaurant in downtown Memphis offers outdoor seating right on Main Street in the heart of the Bluff City, and diners can enjoy delicious dishes like scallop caprese and lobster and crab benedict or Southern favorites like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits. If you’re in the mood for a drink, be sure to try one of the restaurant’s white wine or red wine flights.

Take in outstanding views of the Mississippi River on the 10th floor of the First National Building as you enjoy a meal at 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill in downtown Vicksburg, Mississippi. This casual—and scenic—dining spot serves up a wide range of tasty dishes, from blackened catfish (this is Mississippi, after all) to fried green tomatoes to burgers.

If you’re headed to New Orleans, don’t miss The Court of Two Sisters in the city’s famous French Quarter. This historic restaurant is housed in a historic 1832 building and is famous for its beautiful open-air courtyard, daily live jazz brunch buffets, and romantic ambiance.

Find more flavors of the Great River Road here.

(Photo: Wilson Café/Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism)

Summer events along the Great River Road

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Summer Fun on the Great River Road logo

Summer is just around the corner, and that means it’s a great time to drive the Great River Road. You’ll find a lot to see and do along the Mississippi River, from exploring parks to visiting museums and unique attractions, but there are also a lot of great summer events you shouldn’t miss—here’s a closer look.

We’ve asked organizations up and down the river to share some of their best summer events; see a searchable listing here.

Farmers’ markets & foodie events

The Great River Road cuts through some of the most fertile agricultural land in the county, so it’s no surprise that the 10 states along the Mississippi are home to outstanding farmers’ markets, food festivals, and more. Food Truck Fight comes to three Great River Road destinations this summer and fall (Galena in Illinois and Bettendorf and Muscatine in Iowa) and offers tasty food from local food trucks. In mid-May, the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest takes place as part of the annual Memphis in May celebration in Tennessee. (The event also includes the Beale Street Music Festival and the Great American River Run.)

During growing season, Great River Road travelers will find delicious offerings from local producers at farmers all along the river from the La Crosse Farmers Market in Wisconsin to the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans.

Festivals & other fun events

Visit the charming river towns along the Great River Road on the weekend in the summer, and you’re likely to find some sort of fun festival or community celebration. Take the upcoming Mayfest in historic downtown Blytheville, Arkansas, which features a chicken wing competition, live music, and more. Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi is celebrating the 160th anniversary of the famous Civil War siege this year with lectures, cannon firing demonstrations, and walking tours. Or, head to Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Kentucky in September to celebrate Kentucky Archaeology Month.

Live entertainment

A trip along the Mississippi River is a trip through America’s musical history, and you’ll find plenty of options for live music pretty much everywhere you go. Many of the river towns along the Great River Road offer free concerts during the summer—for instance, you can pull up a chair outside the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, and take in live music at the museum’s Music Under the Stars series. There are also music festivals aplenty, like Weekend at the Cave in Murphysboro, Illinois, where you can enjoy live music in an open air, natural rock-formed amphitheater in the Shawnee National Forest

But it’s not just music—keep your eyes peeled for arts fairs and other events. Theater lovers shouldn’t miss the annual Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, which offers performances of The Bard’s work throughout June and July.

(Photo: Shawnee Cave Amphitheater)

4 historic sites you should visit on the Great River Road

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

The Great River Road’s network of nearly 100 Interpretive Centers shares the history of the Mississippi River, its people, and its cultures at museums, Civil War battle sites, national parks, and more. Here are four you shouldn’t miss on your next road trip.

Mill City Museum, Minnesota

This might be the best-smelling museum along the Great River Road. Located along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis—in the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill—this unique museum tells the story of the Mississippi River and how it shaped the people and industry of Minneapolis through multimedia exhibits, hands-on displays, and yes, even baking classes and demonstrations. 

Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri

Initially founded in 1935 as a national memorial to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s dream of westward expansion, this iconic St. Louis attraction—which includes the Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse, and the park grounds along the Mississippi River—was dedicated as a National Park in 2018. Take a tram ride to the top of the Arch to get a bird’s-eye view of downtown St. Louis and the river or visit the Museum at the Gateway Arch to learn about the city’s role in westward expansion.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi

Another National Park Service in west-central Mississippi highlights one of most consequential campaigns in Civil War history. Vicksburg National Military Park commemorates the battle of Vicksburg, which took place from March 29 to July 4, 1863, and was a key event in determining control of the Mississippi River between Union and Confederate forces. The park includes the largest burial site for Union soldiers and sailors, historic monuments, a museum, a cannon display, battle fortifications, and more.

Louisiana Great River Road Interpretive Center and Museum

Drive west of New Orleans along the Great River Road, and you’ll come to the Great River Road Interpretive Center and Museum, located on the grounds of the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow. The museum educates visitors on what life was like along the Mississippi River through the centuries, from native tribes and early explorers to enslaved peoples to wealthy plantation owners. Exhibits include information on ships and steamboats, river folklore, Civil War and Reconstruction, and more.

(Photo: Chris Hardy/Unsplash)

Explore the northern Great River Road states on this 5-day trip

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Spring is just around the corner, so it’s a perfect time to discover the scenic sights, historical attractions, and charming cities and towns along the northern Great River Road states. Use this itinerary for a quick trip through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri on our All-American Road.

Day 1 – Minneapolis/Saint Paul

Start your northern Great River Road adventure in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, which offer tons of opportunities for recreation and fun along the Mississippi River. Explore the wonders of the river at the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, snap some photos of the iconic Minnehaha Falls at Minnehaha Regional Park, or hop on a river cruise and see the sights.

History lovers should check out the riverside Mill City Museum, which makes its home in an old flour mill and uses an engaging multimedia presentation to tell the story of the region. Another iconic attraction is Historic Fort Snelling, a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1825 and is located near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. 

If you’re up for a bit of a road trip, head north for about 200 miles to reach Itasca State Park and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Here, the river is narrow enough to walk across with the help of some strategically placed stepping stones.

Day 2 – Minnesota river towns and Wisconsin

Head southeast out of the Twin Cities along the Great River Road to find a series of charming Minnesota river towns, Red Wing and Winona among them. Red Wing (yes, it’s the namesake for the famous boot brand and the iconic pottery company) has a historic downtown filled with shops, restaurants and even the flagship Red Wing Shoe Store and Museum where you’ll find the largest boot ever produced. Winona is home to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and stunning views of the river at places like Garvin Heights Park.

On the Wisconsin side of the river, you’ll find great places to explore like Perrot State Park north of Trempealeau and Wyalusing State Park near Prairie du Chien. The La Crosse Region offers outstanding recreation along the Mississippi River Trail and fantastic views from the top of Grandad Bluff.

In the southwestern corner of the state lies Potosi, home to the historic Potosi Brewing Company (don’t miss the transportation museum and the National Brewery Museum on site, too). All along the Wisconsin Great River Road you’ll find unique roadside stops, too, like the one-of-a-kind Dickeyville Grotto.

Day 3 – Galena and Iowa

Head across the state line into northwestern Illinois and you’ll find Galena, routinely named one of the most charming towns in the country. The Galena River—which empties into the Mississippi River—passes through the historic downtown that’s home to tasty restaurants, unique gift shops, and more. And you can take in views of the Mississippi River at places like Chestnut Mountain Resort, which is home a scenic ski hill in the winter and offers an alpine slide, zip lining, river cruises, and more in the spring, summer, and fall.

Drive west across the river into Iowa on U.S. Highway 20 and you’ll hit Dubuque, which is home to several interesting attractions. Head to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, a Smithsonian affiliate museum that’s home to more than 200 species of fish, mammals, reptiles, and other animals that can be found along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Just south of downtown Dubuque, you’ll find the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center, a 1,400 acre park that offers outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities, great recreational trails, and panoramic views of the Mississippi River.

Another great view of the river can be found at Bellevue State Park, which is about a 30-minute drive south of Dubuque. The park—split into northern (Nelson) and southern (Dyas) units—is home to scenic overlooks, a nature center, a butterfly sanctuary, and more than 7 miles of hiking trails.

Keep heading south along the river and spend your night in the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side of the river and Rock Island and Moline on the Illinois side.

Day 4 – Iowa and Illinois

The Quad Cities offer a great mix of outdoor recreation (check out their bike paths along the Mississippi River), great shopping and dining, and unique attractions. One spot you shouldn’t miss is the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, which houses new and vintage equipment made by the agricultural manufacturer, as well as interactive exhibits.

Other Quad Cities attractions include the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Rock Island, where you can watch barges pass through Lock & Dam 15; Modern Woodmen Park, home to the Class-A Quad Cities River Bandits baseball team; Rock Island’s Black Hawk State Historic Site, named for the Native American leader whose tribe made their home in the area; and the architecturally stunning Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

Engaging river towns and unique attractions line both sides of the river as you head south through Iowa and Illinois. In Iowa, take a drive or walk on Burlington’s Snake Alley, the so-called “world’s crookedest street,” or learn about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Mormon pioneers who made their homes in Nauvoo along the Mississippi River in western Illinois.

End your day in Quincy, a historic city in Illinois that’s home to iconic architecture, the Mississippi Valley Wine Trail, and much more.

Day 5 – Missouri

Finish your tour of the northern Great River Road in the hometown of America’s most famous author. Hannibal, Missouri, is located about 20 miles south of Quincy—you’ll know you’ve reached it when you see the Mark Twain signs everywhere. Hannibal was where Mark Twain spent his formative years, and the city honors their native son to this day at attractions like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, the Mark Twain Cave Complex, and dozens of businesses, parks, and other attractions that bear the author’s name. 

Stay on the Missouri side of the river and head south for about 2 hours and you’ll arrive in St. Louis, home to everything from Major League Baseball to mouthwatering barbeque. Some sites you shouldn’t miss: Gateway Arch National Park, Forest Park (which is home to free attractions like the St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum), and the world-famous Budweiser Brewery Experience.

If you want to head even further south on your road trip, you can visit Ste. Genevieve, the oldest permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi River for a true taste of history. The scenic Shawnee National Forest, located between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in southern Illinois, covers nearly 300,000 acres and is home to awe-inspiring attractions like Garden of the Gods.

(Photo: Travel Wisconsin)