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.
It’s easy to find fun ways to get in the holiday spirit this year along the northern Great River Road! Check out these holiday activities happening up and down the Mississippi in Minnesota and Wisconsin this December.
100 Miles of Christmas
100 Miles of Christmas isn’t just one festive event, but a whole series taking place in Winona, Kellogg and Lake Pepin, Minnesota, and Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, December 7-8, 2019. You can visit with Santa, take in a choral or orchestra concert, shop arts & crafts shows, raise a toast at a beer and wine tasting, attend a lighted parade or even an Elvis tribute!
Canadian Pacific Holiday Train
Courtesy of Canadian Pacific
The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train will make a stop in Winona, Minnesota, on December 9, 2019, from 3:45-4:15pm at the Winona Amtrak Depot. This beautifully decorated train brings along three performers who perform a mix of traditional and modern holiday songs. The event is free but they ask that you bring a food or monetary donation for the local food bank. If you want to see the train in its full glory at night, catch it in Wabasha the same day at 5:45-6:15pm.
Courtesy of Rotary Lights, La Crosse
Happening through New Year’s Eve in La Crosse, Wisconsin’s beautiful Riverside Park along the Mighty Mississippi, is the annual Rotary Lights. There are over three million lights on display and you can walk, drive or take a carriage ride (for a fee) to explore them all. Stop in the gingerbread house for hot drinks and cookies, check out the gift shop or check the schedule for all the special happenings going on throughout December. There will be live musical performances, a living nativity, Santa and his reindeer, hayrides and ice skating (weather permitting). It’s free to walk or drive through Rotary Lights, but they ask for food and cash donations to help feed the hungry.
Family Droppin’ of the Carp Party
Along the Great River Road in southern Wisconsin is the charming city of Prairie du Chien. On New Year’s Eve, they embrace the role that fishing plays in the community and throw a bash honoring river carp. At the Family Droppin’ of the Carp Party on New Year’s Eve early evening, families can play games, win prizes, enjoy food, music and a DJ all leading up the lowering of “Lucky Carp Jr.,” instead of a giant crystal ball, to ring in the new year.
Other options for holiday fun along the Great River Road:
Visit Alton, Illinois to marvel at more than 4 million lights at the annual Christmas Wonderland at Rock Spring Park, which runs nightly through December 29.
Take in the nightly Mighty Lights show at Big River Crossing, a pedestrian bridge that connects Memphis, Tennessee, to West Memphis, Arkansas
Find gifts for everyone on your shopping list at charming stores in river towns like Natchez, Dubuque, and Galena
Fall is a great time to explore the Great River Road, and not just because September is Drive the Great River Road Month. This 3,000-mile driving route—one of America’s oldest and longest National Scenic Byways—spans 10 states along the Mississippi River and provides every traveler with a special and unique experience.
Looking for some travel inspiration? Here are some stories from those rare adventurers who have driven the entire route.
“We started in the fall—September—and followed the season south. A spirit of adventure and desire to see new parts of our country were our motivation. We loved seeing the various cultures and sampling delicious foods along the way. Being from (Tennessee), the pasties and cheese curds were new to us and we loved all Southern foods. In addition to the various cultures, we were interested in the Mississippi commerce. Grains loaded early in the trip were off-loaded near the end. Try it—you’ll love it!” – Jane H., Kingsport, Tenn.
“After reading ‘Roadtrip with a Raindrop’ by Gayle Harper we were excited to begin our own journey down The Great River Road. We began the trip on a tandem bike pulling our small dog along behind. We dipped our tire in the shallow waters at Itasca State park and began our journey. Our plan was to do it in stages on the bike. Plan A changed. So we went with Plan B and finished the trip in a 2-seater convertible. What a blast! – Ron & Lynn W., Rochester, Minn.
“I wanted to see the Mississippi River and learn about people, culture, history, politics, nature, food. I got authentic insight into all of these and met interesting people and learned a lot. The best part was Missouri and Louisiana because of the landscape and the wildlife. The signage of the Great River Road was very good most of the time, also the map and the app!” – Mijat F., Herten, Germany
“I was born in Osceola, Wisconsin, on the bluffs of the St. Croix River, and my husband, Patrick, and I decided it would be fun to drive the full length of the Mississippi River in October, 2011. Our daughter Evelyn was 19 months old, and I was expecting our daughter Carly. Our favorite stops were Hannibal, Missouri; Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee; and the magical city of New Orleans, Louisiana. We enjoyed the scenic and historic journey as much as our trips down Route 66.” – Kate A., Clermont, Fla.
“We wanted to experience an authentic insight into American culture, meet new people, experience differences and similarities between urban and rural areas, go hiking, see wildlife, eat authentic food. It was worth it! The best parts were in Missouri and Louisiana because of the landscape.” – Kathrin R., Herten, Germany
“We previously visited St. Louis in 1976 and decided to return now that (the Arch) is a National Park. Along the way, we completed the section of the Great River Road we’d not previously driven as well as seeing a few sites along the opposite bank from our previous trip. We have now driven from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico along the Great River Road.” – Ginny L., Austin, Texas
Where there’s smoke, there’s… some of the best barbecue in the United States.
Sure, you might automatically (and correctly) think of St. Louis and Memphis as barbecue hot spots on the Mississippi River, but the truth is, you can find delectable BBQ at restaurants up and down the Great River Road—it’s just a matter of knowing where to go.
Here’s a region-by-region breakdown of where you can find the best brisket, ribs and more along America’s greatest drive.
Even if they don’t have the traditions of their Southern cousins, the states of the northern Great River Road still have plenty of restaurants that produce delicious barbecue. In the Twin Cities, visitors can find authentic Carolina barbecue at Revival, which has restaurants in Minneapolis and Saint Paul (and also sells smoked meats at the Keg and Case Market in Saint Paul).
Head to La Crosse—the biggest city on Wisconsin’s section of the Great River Road—for great bites at Piggy’s (and don’t miss live blues music in the Smokin’ Blues Lounge downstairs on Saturday nights). Across the river in Bellevue, Iowa, you’ll find another barbecue-and-blues restaurant at Flatted Fifth Blues & BBQ, housed in a historic grist mill on the banks of the Mississippi.
A short drive from St. Louis, Beast Craft BBQ Co. in Belleville, Illinois, has won lots of awards since it opened in 2015, including nods from Thrillist (who called it one of the 33 best BBQ joints in America) and Food & Wine magazine (Illinois’ best barbecue).
Now this is barbecue country. We could do a whole article—or several, in fact—on the offerings in St. Louis and Memphis alone, but we’ll pick a few that you must check out. In St. Louis, don’t miss Pappy’s Smokehouse near Saint Louis University; while you’re waiting in line for their award-winning ribs, check out the autographed menus plastered on the walls.
In the tiny town of Bardwell, Kentucky, locals flock to Prince Pit BBQ (which also has a store in nearby Barlow). Further south in Memphis, you’ll find delicious barbecue almost anywhere, but be sure to visit the iconic Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, which has welcomed rock stars, presidents and regular folks alike to its alley-front location since 1948.
Did you know that Arkansas’ only James Beard Award-winning restaurant can be found in a town of just 3,500 people? Well, that’s how good the reputation is for Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, which has been serving customers since at least 1910 and may be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the state.
Clarksdale, Mississippi, is home to the infamous Crossroads—the place where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul in exchange for his unearthly musical talent. Just a few steps away from the marker commemorating this location is Abe’s Bar-B-Q, which has been serving locals and visitors to unfettered acclaim for decades.
Louisiana is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, so it only makes sense that you’ll find po’ boys and fried chicken in addition to the barbecue favorites on the menu at The Francis Smokehouse & Specialty Meats in St. Francisville. What started out as a specialty meat shop now serves hundreds of sandwiches daily; don’t miss their fancier relative, The Francis Southern Table & Bar, next door.
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 traveledthe 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
The best drive in America leads travelers to some of the best meals in America. Local and regional delicacies can be found up and down the river, fueling travelers with dishes that are entwined with the region’s culture and people. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find on the Great River Road.
The Dairy State loves its cheese and that will be clear when you stop into a Wisconsin restaurant on the Great River Road. Brew pubs, fast food restaurants and upscale establishments all have something in common on the menu: cheese curds. You’ll find them breaded, deep fried and served with a side of ranch salad dressing. Enjoy! This summer, be sure to check out the Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival.
Memphis declares itself the Barbecue Capital of the World for good reason—its ribs are in a class of their own. There’s an ongoing debate on where to find the best ribs, but one place that has legions of fans is a downtown restaurant called Rendezvous. As one Great River Road foodie put it, “Best. Ribs. In. The. World.”
This Latin American classic has been an Arkansas food staple for generations. Filling and portable, Tamales were once common lunches in the cotton fields. Today you’ll find delicious versions along the Great River Road. One favorite spot: Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village, on the shore of Lake Chicot.
You can’t visit New Orleans without sampling this classic French doughnut, which happens to be the state doughnut of Louisiana. Served with a dusting of powdered sugar, these are best enjoyed hot and fresh with some chicory coffee. One famous place to sample this delicacy is Café Du Monde. One traveler said she recently waited 40 minutes in the rain to get her beignet.
“Worth it,” she reported.
Feeling hungry? Find more traveler tips on where to eat on the Great River Road here.
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.
Arkansas’ Delta Byways region is home to outstanding Southern flavors, from catfish to tamales to award-winning barbecue. Plus, the state’s fertile farmlands are home to soybeans, rice and more. Here’s a quick look at some of the best tastes to seek out in your trip through the Natural State.
Barbecue. You might not expect to find a James Beard award-winning restaurant in the Arkansas Delta, but a visit to Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna will show you what the fuss is all about. The Jones family has been serving locals—and since their Beard Award win, people from all over the world—for more than 100 years. Stop by this nondescript diner for some great food and a true taste of the South.
Tamales. Like its neighbor Mississippi to the east, Arkansas celebrates the mixing of many cultures in its cuisine. Take the tamale, which can be found at restaurants big and small throughout the Delta. A blink-and-you’ll-miss it spot to check out in Lake Village is Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, which is famous for its coffee can-packed tamales (a dozen in each that you can take home).
Delta Cultural Center. Learn about the history and heritage of the Arkansas Delta at this unique museum in Helena. Explore exhibits that examine the history of the area, starting with early settlements on rich croplands. Speaking of food, the Delta Cultural Center has been the home of the King Biscuit Radio Show—the longest-running daily blues radio show in the United States—since 1990. Stop by from 12:15 to 12:45pm Monday through Friday to listen to “Sunshine” Sonny Payne broadcast live.
Lake Chicot State Park. Want to catch your own meal? Lake Chicot is an angling haven, whether you’re going after catfish or crappie and bass.
(Photos courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)
If you’re planning a road trip this year, consider a voyage along the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi River from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Travelers will find delicious dining, unique attractions, welcoming river towns and more along the Great River Road, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2018.
Here are 18 reasons to drive the Great River Road in 2018.
There are 10 states to explore. Whether you’re cruising through rugged northern Minnesota or exploring the Mississippi Delta, you’ll discover countless places for new adventures in the states along the Great River Road.
Mouth-watering cuisine. Beignets and gumbo in New Orleans. Fish fry and cheese curds in Wisconsin. Barbeque in Memphis and St. Louis. Bring your appetite—there’s food to please any palate along the Great River Road.
Educational museums. Learn about the ecology, history and culture of the Mississippi River region at nearly 80 official Interpretive Centers along the route.
Outstanding outdoor recreation. The Great River Road isn’t just for driving—travelers can find good biking, fishing, paddling and more.
You’ll learn about important moments in American history at sites like Vicksburg (Miss.) National Military Park or the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.
Beautiful views. You’ll find beautiful scenic overlooks on both sides of the Mississippi River, especially along the northern half of the Great River Road.
Music, music and more music. Whether you’re visiting Graceland and Sun Studio in Memphis or paying tribute to blues music’s founders in the Delta, music lovers will be singing a sweet song as they explore the Great River Road. Find more river attractions here.
The mighty Mississippi. Along many sections of the Great River Road, you’ll be side-by-side with America’s most iconic river. Travelers will also find several parks and scenic overlooks, as well as opportunities to explore the river via boat, canoe or kayak.
Friendly communities. Up and down the river, you’ll be welcomed in towns and cities large and small, all accustomed to hosting visitors.
Locks & dams. There are more than two dozen locks and dams on the northern half of the Mississippi River, and many of them are open for tours. It’s also fun to just pull over and watch barges as they make their way through these impressive structures. Find information on locks and dams here.
It’s a trip through the heart of America. From friendly riverside communities along the northern stretch of the river to iconic cities like St. Louis and New Orleans farther south, you’ll take a voyage through the cultural, historical and culinary center of America.
If you’re a birder, you’ll see plenty of feathered friends. The Great River Road cuts through the Mississippi Flyway, the migration route followed by nearly half of all shorebirds and waterfowl in North America.
You can do a section of road or the whole thing. With 10 states to explore, your Great River Road trip can cover as much or as little ground as you want.
You can literally walk across the start of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park.
Here’s to a great adventure on the Great River Road in 2018!
Win $500 for your next Great River Road trip!
Discover wonderful fall colors and fun outdoor activities all along the Great River Road!