The Great River Road

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USA ROAD TRIP - MIDWEST

GREAT RIVER ROAD

The Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The scenic route passes through 10 states and hundreds of river towns. The Great River Road is arguably the longest and most important scenic byway in America.

Minnesota


Picture of Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park

The GRR begins here among the cattails and tall pines, in the park that protects the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. The small, clear brook tumbling out of the north end of Lake Itasca will eventually carry runoff from nearly two-thirds of the United States and enough silt to make the muddy plume at the river’s mouth visible from space. But at its headwaters, 2,320-odd meandering miles from the Gulf of Mexico, you can wade across the Mississippi, and the water is still so clean and clear you can see the bottom.

The fact that the lakeshore has been “improved” from its naturally marshy state, the surrounding old-growth pine forest—the most extensive stand of virgin timber left in the state—and outdoorsy amenities such as paved bike trails, boat launches, and a café near the “official headwaters,” all contribute to Itasca’s popularity. Bike and boat rentals (218/266-2150) are available spring through fall.

No matter when or how long you visit Lake Itasca, or anywhere in Minnesota, really, be sure to pack plenty of potent repellent for ticks and mosquitoes.

Wisconsin


Picture of Maiden Rock

Maiden Rock

At Maiden Rock, about 50 mi (81 km) southeast of St. Paul, Hwy-35 enters the heart of the Driftless Region, picking its way between steep bluffs and the wide Mississippi. Small towns, populations numbering only in the hundreds, cling to the margin, competing for the distinction of having the longest Main Street in the nation, if not the world; for some of these long hamlets the GRR is nearly the only street.

Picture of Trempealeau

Trempealeau

At the sleepy hamlet of Trempealeau (pop. 1,630), the GRR would have you zigzag right through town, but detour a block down toward the river’s edge to find the Historic Trempealeau Hotel, Restaurant & Saloon, sole survivor of an 1888 downtown fire—maybe that’s why the whole joint is smoke-free. The hotel dining room offers a surprisingly eclectic menu, from steak and seafood to burgers and vegetarian dishes; just head for the neon sign reading “Delicious Food.” The rooms are nice (and cheap).

The hotel also hosts concerts throughout the summer including Reggae Fest. There are more than 100 mi (161 km) of paved bikeways and rail-trails that pass from town to nearby Perrot State Park, which has lodging to rent or even canoes and kayaks for hardy souls desiring to relax along the nearly 5 mi (8 km) Long Lake Canoe Trail.

Iowa


Picture of Effigy Mounds National Monument

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Preserves 2,500 ac (1,012 ha) of natural riverside ecosystems plus more than 200 distinct burial mounds, many shaped like animals, for example, the Great Bear Mound. The unusual mounds are traces of the people who lived along the Mississippi from around 500 BC to the time of first European contact. The visitors center has exhibits on the archaeology of the mounds, and 12 mi (19.3 km) of hiking trails reach from the river to restored vestiges of the native tall grass prairie.

Picture of Pike's Peak

Pike's Peak


Just south of town, the 500-ft-high (152-m) limestone bluff known as Pike’s Peak is located. It is one of the highest points anywhere along the Mississippi River and has been protected at the center of spacious green Pike’s Peak State Park (563/873-2341), with hiking trails, scenic viewpoints, and a campground with a small store, hot showers, and RV hookups.

Picture of Guttenberg

Guttenberg

Another postcard-pretty old river town that has a downtown that lines the Mississippi. In fact, it’s one of the few Mississippi riverfronts where the river itself has not hidden away behind levees. A long, green riverside park, just a quick two blocks east of the main highway, makes the downtown area a particularly pleasant place to stroll.

Guttenberg is indeed named in honor of Johannes Gutenberg, 15th-century inventor of printing from moveable type. Local legend has it that an official of French descent purposely added the extra “t” after German residents won a vote to change the town’s name from the original Prairie la Porte. Germanic surnames still predominate in the local phone book, and the two main streets, which run perpendicular to the Mississippi, are named Schiller and Goethe.

There are great views to be had in the first few miles of Iowa’s GRR route south of Guttenberg. Just over 10 well-signed mi (16.1 km) south of Guttenberg, you can take the Cassville ferry across the Mississippi from Millville and visit the unique Dickeyville Grotto, or stay on the Iowa side and cruise through the Germanic eye-blink towns that dot the rolling uplands between Guttenberg and Dubuque. Midway along, tiny Balltown, in particular, is worth a stop to sample the huge portions and captivating decor at Breitbach’s (563 Balltown Rd., 563/552-2220), a bar and restaurant that’s so old President Millard Fillmore issued the permit allowing it to open.

St. Louis


Picture of Gateway Arch National Park

Gateway Arch National Park

One thing you have to see when in St. Louis is the Gateway Arch National Park, still dominating the city skyline. Eero Saarinen’s stunning 630-ft (192-m) stainless-steel monument, officially called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, rises up from the riverfront at the foot of Market Street. A small tram ($12) carries visitors to an observation chamber at the top.

Picture of Forest Park

Forest Park

A 1,300 beautifully landscaped acres (526 ha), museums of fine art, history, and science fill buildings that date back to the 1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis’s world-class swan song.

Memphis


Picture of Beale Street

Beale Street

One of the most iconic streets in America. It is three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants, and shops in the heart of downtown Memphis, and a melting pot of delta blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, R&B, and gospel.

Picture of Mud Island

Mud Island

Mud Island Park sits in the heart of the Mississippi River, a short walk from downtown Memphis. The park features the new 50-ft "MEMPHIS" sign, a scale model of the Lower Mississippi River, an 18-gallery river museum, a 5,000-seat concert venue, and fantastic views of the Memphis skyline.

Mississippi


Picture of Natchez Trace Parkway

Natchez Trace Parkway

A scenic route managed by the National Park Service. The parkway follows the route of the old Natchez Trace, a pre-Columbian path that grew into the major overland route between the Gulf Coast and the upper Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys in the years before steamboats provided a faster alternative. The Natchez Trace appeared on maps as early as 1733, and from the 1780s to the 1820s, it was one of the nation’s most traveled routes.

The National Park Police keep the parkway under thorough radar surveillance.

Picture of The Ruins of Windsor

The Ruins of Windsor

Once the state’s most lavish Greek Revival mansion and a landmark to river pilots, it was reduced by an 1890 fire to its bare Corinthian ribs.

Picture of Emerald Mound

Emerald Mound

A prehistoric platform over 400 ft (122 m) wide and 35 ft (10.1 m) tall. The second-largest mound in North America, it was built around AD 1250 and was still in use as a ceremonial center when the first Europeans arrived; Emerald Mound is located on Hwy-553 just west of Natchez Trace Parkway milepost 10.3.

New Orleans


Picture of New Orleans Jazz Museum

New Orleans Jazz Museum

The New Orleans Jazz Museum celebrates the history of jazz, in all its forms, through dynamic interactive exhibits, multigenerational educational programming, research facilities, and engaging musical performances. The Jazz Museum enhances New Orleans’ ongoing cultural renaissance by providing diverse resources for musicians and music lovers of all languages and nationalities. We fully explore America’s quintessential musical art form in the city where jazz was born.

Picture of Preservation Hall

Preservation Hall

Live music aplenty in all styles and modes with redolent ambience and the live traditional Dixieland jazz, still going strong after 50 years!

Picture of Fort Jackson

Fort Jackson

Built following the War of 1812 to help protect the river from invasion, Fort Jackson was flooded and badly damaged by the Hurricane Katrina storm surge.