Five Reasons to Travel the Great River Road
When I moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1982, the Mississippi River captured my heart and imagination. Thirty-seven years later, I still can’t get enough of the storied river. I’ve been lucky enough to travel it in many different ways, but the easiest way is simply to fill up my gas tank and drive the Great River Road, one of the best road trips in the United States. I’ve driven more than 125,000 miles along its blacktop from where it begins at Itasca State Park in Minnesota to where it ends at Venice, Louisiana.
Why have I spent so much time on the Great River Road? Here are five good reasons:
1. The Great Outdoors
The essence of any trip along the Great River Road is the natural beauty of the Mississippi River itself. While you can appreciate much of it while driving, the river entices visitors to get up close and personal. Go hiking at a state park; paddle a canoe or kayak through the rich backwater habitats; ride a bike along the Great River Trail. For perspective on the entire river system, tour the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.
2. Four Seasons of Fun
Sure, most people choose to visit the Mississippi River in summer when the weather is most reliably accommodating, but every season along the river offers something unique. Fall color is spectacular along the upper half of the river. Spring blossoms and migrating songbirds liven up spring. Winter sports keep locals busy Up North (have you ever tried curling or broomball?), while the southern reaches of the river enjoy pleasant days to view the wildlife that migrated south.
3. A Deep Dive into American History
The Mississippi River cuts a deep path through thousands of years of American history, much of which you can get to know from traveling the Great River Road. Here’s a quick sample:
• Archaeological sites offer a peek into the lives of early American cultures at places like Effigy Mounds National Monument (Iowa), Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Illinois), and Poverty Point World Heritage Site (Louisiana).
• The updated museum at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis showcases America’s westward expansion.
• Several places highlight the growth of agricultural and industrial economies, including the John Deere sites in Moline (Illinois), the Iron Ranges of Minnesota, and the Cotton Museum of Memphis.
• The rich cultural heritage of the valley is on display at places like the blues museums in the Mississippi Delta and St. Louis, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, and The Cabildo in New Orleans.
There’s whole lot more, too (I didn’t even mention historic forts or Civil War sites), which means there are always reasons to come back.
4. Beautiful Small Towns and Vibrant Big Cities
The Great River Road is blessed with attractive small towns and exciting big cities. Many small towns offer a mix of unique lodging, good food and conversation, and recreation. Make plans for a day trip or weekend escape to charming communities like Little Falls (Minnesota), Alma (Wisconsin), McGregor (Iowa), Galena (Illinois), Kimmswick (Missouri), Clarksdale (Mississippi), and St. Francisville (Louisiana).
If you’re more of a city person, spend a long weekend getting to know Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans. Each offers surprising and unheralded neighborhoods that are a pleasure to explore, in addition to the attractive riverfront spaces and better known sites.
5. A Cross Section of America
When Europeans began moving into the Mississippi River, dozens of American Indian tribes lived along or near the river. Some are still connected to the river today, like the Ojibwe and Dakota of Minnesota and the Chitimacha of Louisiana. Visitors can connect with American Indian communities at pow-wows, but many tribal colleges also have events open to the public.
New Orleans and Sainte Genevieve (Missouri) retain strong influences from the early French who founded them. Fulton, Illinois, still celebrates it Dutch heritage. The Quad Cities hosts the only interstate St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The Mexican community in Fort Madison, Iowa, has been throwing a late summer fiesta for a century. Guttenberg, Iowa, shows off its German roots with a big annual festival. The River Road African American Museum in Donaldson, Louisiana offers a look at the experiences of Africans and African Americans in the United States.
Again, these are just a few of examples. The river has been home and passageway for just about every group that has lived in North America or moved here, and many river communities still celebrate those ties. A trip along the Great River Road is a reminder of the many people and forces that have shaped the country we know today.
These are the reasons I keep coming back to the Great River Road, but they aren’t the only ones, obviously. (I didn’t even mention the food!) Still, I hope you’ll explore the Great River Road, too, and find your own reasons to come back again and again.
Dean Klinkenberg is the Mississippi Valley Traveler. He writes fiction and non-fiction about the Mississippi River. His most recent travel guide, Road Tripping the Great River Road, Volume 1, covers the drive from northern Minnesota to Southern Illinois. He lives in St. Louis.