The Great River Road is America’s oldest and longest National Scenic Byway, so it makes sense that it’s also home to a lot of history and unique attractions. Here are a few things you might not know about the Mississippi River and the cities and states along the Great River Road.
It takes approximately 90 days for a raindrop to travel the length of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
People often forget how easy it is to traverse the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtown areas by bike. In fact, Bicycling.com rated Minneapolis the best American city for biking in 2015. To see why, make a day of traveling between the two cities on two wheels (which is guaranteed to save you big bucks on parking). Plus, you’ll get to see pretty stellar spots along the Great River Road. Plan to make several stops along the way — you won’t believe how much you’ll be able to pack into 25 miles of trail.
Start your journey in St. Paul, the older and sleepier of the twins. Spend the morning touring the majestic basilica or exploring a new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Hop on the path just behind the museum, on the other side of the river from Harriet Island.
You’ll be able to see the historic base of Fort Snelling on the other side of the river as you bike under Highway 5. If you like military museums, this is a must-see; just take the pedestrian path adjacent to the highway. If not, continue to follow the path without crossing the river.
Minnehaha Park is a fantastic stop on the West side of the river. Once in the park, check out the beautiful Minnehaha Falls and grab a bite to eat at Sea Salt, a cute little seafood cafe.
If you continue on the east side of the river, check out the picturesque views at the lookout point where Summit Avenue intersects with the bike path.
Hop onto the East River Parkway via the Lake Street bridge to bike through the University of Minnesota campus. The shiny deconstructionist building you’ll see is the Weisman Art Museum by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Once you reach downtown Minneapolis via the West River Parkway, marvel at the Mill City Museum and Guthrie Theater, two cultural landmarks with very different architectural styles, before crossing the iconic Stone Arch Bridge into northeast Minneapolis. Stop and take a picture with the Minneapolis skyline as your backdrop!
Once in Northeast, you’ll have your pick of breweries. Try Dangerous Man just a few blocks down from the river.
Once you’ve concluded your adventure, you can bike back or bring your bike with you on the light rail return trip to downtown St. Paul.
The Great River Road is one of the world’s premier spots for birding. The road traces the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route followed by 40 percent of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds. The Great River Road is flanked by vast refuges, expansive forests and beautiful parks that provide rich habitat and protection for these beautiful creatures.
Travelers on the Great River Road have the opportunity to encounter an abundance of species and there are endless places to relax and take in the beauty of the flyway’s birds.
Here are some great places to start a birding adventure on the Great River Road:
Itasca State Park. The home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park in Minnesota, hosts birds in its boreal forests and mixed hardwoods. Established in 1891, Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest park. With 222 species found here, it’s also one of Minnesota’s premier birding locations.
Reelfoot Lake State Park. Located in the northwest corner of Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake was created by a series of earthquakes in the early 1800s and today is a magnificent wildlife viewing and birding location. You’ll find many varieties of shore and wading birds here and white pelicans and eagles pay seasonal visits to the park.
National Eagle Center. Want to get up close and personal with an eagle? Pay a visit to Wabasha, Minn., where you can meet bald and golden eagles at daily demonstrations or take a look at eagles perched above the Mississippi River from the observation deck.
Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge. In western Kentucky near Benton, this 8,500-acre refuge contains bottomland hardwood forests used by over 200 species of neotropical songbirds for a migration stopover spot or for nesting.
With warm spring temperatures come the flocks of migratory birds, flying north along the Mississippi River. The Mississippi Flyway is the migration route followed by 40% of all waterfowl and shorebirds in North America. Wildlife refuges, state forests, federal forests and parks protect the crucial habitat and food sources for these birds.
Grab a pair of binoculars, because you won’t believe the variety of fowl that nests along the Mississippi. Here are a few of our favorites, and where you can find them:
Bald eagle. Watch our nation’s bird soar over the pines and lakes along the Mississippi. Nearly every state from Arkansas to Minnesota boasts superb bald eagle viewing. The conditions of the Mississippi are simply plentiful. If you want to learn more about the majestic bird, the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota is a regional favorite for group visits. Climb into an eagle’s nest, meet the resident raptors, or join a guided field tour to see the birds the in wild. Further south, at the Mississippi River Visitor Center in Rock Island, Illinois, you’ll find a bald eagle hot spot. This location is best in late winter and very early spring, when the eagles gather near the open water to feed.
White pelican. These shy white birds start migrating north in early March. They’re frequently spotted near locks and dams near state parks, like the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Bellevue, Iowa.
Prothonotary Warbler. This small vibrantly yellow songbird is conspicuous all along the lower Mississippi River states, like Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. When the weather warms, you’re sure to spot it migrating north from its summer near the West Indies. It forges for food in hardwood swamps and nests in natural and artificial cavities like woodpecker holes.
Great blue heron. Watch this majestic bird stalk its prey in shallow wetlands before taking flight with a loud squawk and a loud thump from its 6 foot wingspan. Great blue herons nest in treetop colonies called rookeries. You can find rookeries along the islands in Minnesota, like the North Mississippi River Park in Minneapolis, or the wetlands of Tennessee.
Ivory-billed woodpecker. If you happen to spot this quirky bird, consider yourself one of the few. Thought to be extinct, this bird was spotted flying over Arkansas in 2002. The Dale Bumpers White River Widelife Refuge in Arkansas is home to 300 lakes and ponds, making the Bottomland Hardwood Forest and the White River an ideal home for migrating birds, and maybe, just maybe, the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Want more birding advice for your Great River Road experience? Be sure to check out our page devoted to bird-watching.
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.
It’s Thanksgiving next week, so we’re thinking about all the reasons we’re giving thanks this season. Here are just a few things we’re thankful for along the Great River Road.
Beautiful scenery. We’re past peak color season, but traveling the Great River Road in spring, summer and fall offers awe-inspiring scenery. Scenic areas along the Mississippi River bluffs in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa provide spectacular views of the river and are especially picturesque in fall.
Delicious food. Farm-to-table delicacies. Mouth-watering barbecue. Fresh seafood. Whatever you have an appetite for, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find it in your drive along the Great River Road. If you’re headed south on the Great River Road, be sure to visit New Orleans—one of the best food cities in the world.
Interesting attractions. Up and down the Great River Road, you’ll find scores of interesting attractions, from fish hatcheries to art museums to science centers. Stop by one of the more than 70 interpretive centers along the Great River Road to learn about the culture, heritage, history and ecology of the Mississippi River Region.
Hometown hospitality. From big cities like St. Louis, New Orleans and Minneapolis to small river towns across the northern and southern sections of the river, you’ll find friendly folks all along your drive. Spend some time exploring charming Main Streets or taking in the hustle and bustle of the big city (or give both a try).
Spring is here and it’s the perfect time for birdwatching along the Great River Road, thanks to its location along the Mississippi Flyway, the migration route followed by 40% of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds.
Charles, Arkansas is home to the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Over 300 lakes and ponds, the Bottomland Hardwood Forest and the White River make an ideal home for migrating birds. You’ll see bald eagles, wood ducks, prothonotary warblers and many kinds of birds native to the south.
At the midway point of the Wisconsin Great River Road is Onalaska, home to protected woodlands and wetlands perfect for migrating birds. Drop into the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge and look for raptors and rare birds. Or stop by the Onalaska Spillway and see the white pelicans that make their way through the area each spring. Don’t miss the two eagle nests here as well.
At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota you can meet real bald and golden eagles, climb in a nest or see how your strength stacks up against the national bird’s. Admission is very modest and if you plan your trip at the right time you can even take an eagle viewing field trip to see these majestic birds in the wild.
There are numerous places along the Great River Road that are best enjoyed with a loved one. The beauty of this amazing river is simply wonderful to share. Here are seven beautiful spots along the Great River Road to savor with someone special.
Great River Bluffs State Park, Winona, Minnesota: Enjoy breathtaking views of the Mississippi River Valley.
Perrot State Park, Trempealeau, Wisconsin: Walk up to the overlook and take in amazing river views from the Wisconsin bluffs.
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry, Iowa: See more than 200 American Indian mounds in this picturesque protected area.
Sunset Park, Rock Island, Illinois: This is a perfect place to watch the light change as the day grows late.
Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, Wickliffe, Kentucky: Enjoy a spectacular view of the bluff area on top of the Ceremonial Mound.
LSU Rural Life Museum and Windrush Gardens, Baton Rouge, Louisiana: This picturesque site offers a look at the past and it serves as a beautiful backdrop of many weddings and special events.
Learn more about special places on the river here.
September is Drive the Great River Road Month, a great time to explore America’s longest and oldest National Scenic Byway.
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.
Looking for a few things to see and do in each of the 10 Great River Road states? We’ll head north to south with our suggestions:
Minnesota: Want to see where the Mississippi River starts its journey to the Gulf of Mexico? Visit Itasca State Park in Minnesota, where you can walk – yes, walk – across the headwaters of the Mississippi.
Wisconsin: A perfect stop to see fall color, Grandad Bluff in La Crosse gives you a 600-foot-high view of the city below and the Mississippi River beyond.
Illinois: Make a stop in the charming community of Galena, where you can find historic sites, tempting shopping, and toast-worthy wineries.
Iowa: Want a great view? Hop aboard Dubuque‘s Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway. Ride to the top for an astonishing panoramic view of the Mississippi River and three states.
Missouri: This stop isn’t really more of a where, it’s a what: St. Louis barbecue. St. Louis has dozens of delicious barbecue options, including perennial favorite Pappy’s Smokehouse.
Kentucky: Learn about the Mississippi River’s role in the Civil War at Columbus-Belmont State Park, where you can find a six-ton anchor that – along with a mile-long chain – was used to blockade the river during battles between the North and South.
Tennessee: Students of American history should visit The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, an educational experience built around the preserved Lorraine Motel. Learn about the struggle for civil rights in America and see the preserved hotel rooms where Martin Luther King, Jr., spent his last hours.
Louisiana: You might recognize this place from numerous movies and TV shows — Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie welcomes visitors with an awe-inspiring canopy of 300-year-old oak trees leading to a pristine antebellum plantation.
Find more attractions in each state here.
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