Autumn is one of the most spectacular times to travel the Great River Road. The Mississippi River Valley’s unique landscape explodes in brilliant shades of red and gold. Parks along the route offer dramatic vistas—they are perfect places to take in the beauty of the season. Here are some good bets for fall color along the northern section of the Great River Road.
A good bet for fall color is this forested Wisconsin state park is located where the Trempealeau River meets the Mississippi River. Don’t miss the view from the top of 500-foot cliffs. Consider bringing walking shoes—the area’s hiking trails will take you through some spectacular foliage.
Get ready for dramatic views when you get out of your car at the top of Pike’s Peak. This park’s 500-foot bluffs offer fantastic vistas of the river valley from the Iowa side. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Iowa, and in the fall, the views are incredible.
Another breathtaking spot to take in the fall beauty is Great River Bluffs State Park in Winona. This preserve features steep-sided 500-foot bluffs. Hike the King’s Bluff trail to discover sweeping fall views of the Mississippi River Valley.
Head up for some of the best fall color in La Crosse. From this 600-foot 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.
The world’s shortest, steepest elevator ride is your ticket to fall color in Dubuque. The elevator was originally built to help people who lived in the bluffs get home more quickly than driving their horse and buggy up the steep hills. The ride is about 300 feet long but takes you 189 feet up. From above you’ll see a panoramic view of fall color that covers three states!
This unusual bridge is considered one of the area’s best places to see fall color. Built in 1929, the bridge is unlike any other—it actually bends mid-way across the Mississippi. Today the bridge is open to bikes and pedestrians. Bring your camera!
As the Great River Road leads travelers along the path of America’s greatest river, it also takes them through the rich history and vibrant cultures of the Mississippi River. In kitchens along the route, the abundance of the region awaits hungry visitors.
In Louisiana, the smell of Cajun and Creole food beckons travelers. While Cajun and Creole are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, they are in fact different cultures with deliciously distinct foods. For those who are new to the region, here’s a quick look at what makes these cultures and foods unique.
Cajuns are descended from French Canadians who migrated to Louisiana. The culture still thrives in Louisiana—you’ll hear French accents on the street, Zydeco music on the radio and taste delectable Cajun food in the restaurants.
Cajun food is hearty and rustic and includes one-pot masterpieces like gumbo and jambalaya as well as boudin, a sausage made of pork, rice and spices. One festive Cajun tradition is the crawfish boil, a celebration of food where Cajuns boil large pots of crawfish, potatoes, onions and corn over an outdoor propane stove. Other Cajun delicacies include andouille sausage, etouffee and tasso ham.
There’s some debate over what exactly defines Creole culture—historians have suggested Creole represents and ethnic group consisting of individuals with European and African, Caribbean or Hispanic descent or individuals born in New Orleans with French or Spanish ancestry. What’s not debatable is the impact of Creole culture on Louisiana—visitors can explore Creole culture through art, historical sights and food.
One big way in which Creole food differs from Cajun food is use of tomato. Creole dishes incorporate tomatoes and tomato-based sauces—Cajun food does not. Some Creole menu items might seem similar to Cajun food, however the seasoning and preparation can be very different. Creole food includes roux-based gumbos, shrimp creole and creole chicken fricassee.
The Great River Road is one of America’s greatest drives, stretching for nearly 3,000 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in southern Louisiana. Read on to learn more about the history of the Great River Road and how it operates.
How long has the Great River Road been around?
The Mississippi River Parkway Commission (also known as the MRPC) is the 10-state organization that oversees the preservation and promotion of the Great River Road and the surrounding river communities. The MRPC was formed by an act of Congress in 1938 to develop and oversee the Great River Road (then called the Mississippi River Parkway).
Initially, the idea was to create one continuous byway along the river, but as the years passed, that plan evolved into establishing the Great River Road an interconnected series of state and federal highways on both sides of the river from Minnesota to Louisiana.
So it’s not just one road?
Yup. The Great River Road is not one continuous stretch of road but rather a collection of federal- and state-controlled highways that take travelers along the Mississippi River through 10 states. The Great River Road includes some iconic stretches of road, including a portion of U.S. Highway 61—“the Blues Highway”—in Mississippi and scenic state Highway 35, which passes through 33 charming river towns along the Wisconsin Great River Road.
What’s the deal with the pilot’s wheel?
The pilot’s wheel is an iconic representation of river travel, harkening back to the days when riverboats dominated the waters of the Mississippi River. While you’ll still see plenty of barges—and even some classic paddleboats—on the river today, pilot’s wheel logo appears on signs up and down the river, helping motorists identify sections of the Great River Road in each of the 10 states.
Why do the Great River Road signs say ‘Canada to Gulf’? Doesn’t the road start in Minnesota?
Eagle-eyed travelers will notice that the signs featuring the Great River Road logo do indeed say “Canada to Gulf.” That’s because in the 1950s, the Canadian province of Ontario joined the efforts to establish the Great River Road as a scenic byway, citing the “joint cultural ties of the Mississippi River states and Canada.” Early concepts would have extended the road to Kenora, Ontario, but those plans never came to fruition.
Where can I get resources for traveling the Great River Road?
You can order a copy of our free (donations are accepted) 10-state map and request information on individual states here. You can download our free Drive the Great River Road app, which highlights and helps you navigate to scenic overlooks and Interpretive Centers, here.
Late fall is a great time to explore the northern Great River Road’s natural history. The leaves are still colorful so you’re guaranteed a beautiful road trip, but just in case the winter temps come calling a little too soon, here are some spots you can visit and enjoy indoors too.
National Eagle Center, Wabasha, Minnesota
Photo courtesy of the National Eagle Center
At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota you can explore two floors of interactive exhibits, including the chance to climb in an eagle’s next and test your strength versus our national bird’s. You can meet bald and golden eagles during the daily demonstrations, then step outside to see the birds making their migratory journey along the Mississippi River Flyway. The center even offers eagle viewing trips to take you to hotspots along the river. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults, $7 for kids 4-17 and free for kids ages 3 and under.
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque, Iowa
Photo courtesy of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is one of the jewels of Dubuque. It focuses on life in and around the country’s waterways. Here you can see turtles, alligators, bald eagles, octopi, otters, sturgeon and more. Exhibits will teach you about the first people to live along the river, erosion, marshes and bayous. You can visit a blacksmith shop, conservation lab, log cabin and 3- and 4-D theaters. Admission ranges between $12 and $23 depending on age and if you include the films.
Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota
The Science Museum of Minnesota is located right on the the Mississippi River in St. Paul. The museum is full of exciting things to explore, but for river lovers, check out the Mississippi River Gallery. You can feel what it’s like to captain a real river towboat, conduct weather experiments and, if you find an object like a rock, fossil or pine cone at home, do a little research, then come and talk to staff about it, they’ll trade you for something new, like a shell, crystal or skull. Don’t miss the Native American Exhibition that tells the story of the Dakota and Ojibwe people who made their home along the river in Minnesota. Admission is $19.95 for adults, $14.95 for kids 4-17 and free for 3 and under.
Genoa National Fish Hatchery, Genoa, Wisconsin
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service
The Genoa National Fish Hatchery is a wonderful place to learn about the natural resources of the Upper Mississippi River. Here you’ll find a wetland and native prairie boardwalk with a walking trail to explore, plus buildings that house 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels and amphibians. You can also see 13 species of fish reared on site. Check out the educational exhibits that teach about the history of the area as well, including the pearl button industry and the Battle of Bad Axe. Admission is free.
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.
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.
“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 Great River Road has scores of iconic attractions, impressive vistas and natural wonders, and it’s possible to get a preview of many of these places online. Webcams up and down the Great River Road provide a live view of America’s greatest scenic drive. If you’re planning a trip—or just dreaming about one—these webcams are a great way to see what you can discover.
Want to see where the Mississippi River starts? At Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, you’ll find Lake Itasca, the starting point of the mighty Mississippi. Here, the river is less than 20 feet wide and can be walked across via a series of stepping stones. Check out the webcam in the summer to find visitors wading in the shallow waters of America’s most iconic river.
Minnesota’s capital city of Saint Paul sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, and this webcam scrolls through several different cams throughout the metro area, including several that overlook the river.
The Iowa-based Raptor Resource Project is a non-profit organization that helps preserve and protect habitats for eagles, falcons, hawks and other birds throughout the Midwest. This webcam is located in Brice Prairie, Wisconsin, and shows avian activity along the Mississippi River near La Crosse.
One of the most iconic sights along the Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch overlooks the river and downtown St. Louis. Gateway Arch Park and Gateway Arch National Park recently underwent a multi-year renovation and expansion, and the park’s cams give visitors several vantage points of this iconic attraction.
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.
There’s no better place for a driving adventure than the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, the best scenic drive in America. There’s so much to take in—the 3,000-mile route travels through 10 states, from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Here are some tools to help you plan the perfect trip.
An ideal resource for navigating the byway fits in your pocket. The Drive the Great River Road app is available for Apple and Android devices and includes scenic overlooks, museums, historical sites and more.
The byway has a network of nearly 100 museums and historic sites that showcase fascinating stories of the Mississippi River. Make plans to visit some of these centers to learn about the river and find useful travel information. See the full listing of interpretive centers.