Epic Road Trip along Great River Road Following the Mississippi

When most travelers talk about a road trip in the USA, they usually mean that they are going from coast to coast, from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa. While that is an incredible way to see the USA unfold in all its cultural and geographic glory, another route to consider is one that follows from north to south.

The Great River Road, which is a collection of state highways and country roads, follows the path of the Mississippi, the mighty river that divides the country into east and west. The Mississippi River flows from its source in northern Minnesota for 2,340 miles through 10 states until it reaches southern Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

The fourth longest river in the world, the Mississippi is divided into three sections. The upper, middle, and lower sections are determined by the river's confluence with other rivers along its route, including the Missouri, the St. Croix, and the Ohio.

Because of the Mississippi's enduring significance to trade, there are a number of historic landmarks and several large cities along the Great River Road. Following is a state-by-state guide to some of the sites to see along the Great River Road. If you are considering following the length of the road, consider the seasons.

During cooler months, particularly in the autumn, follow the route from north to south. In summer months, try a south to north route. Note that while spring travel along the Mississippi may be beautiful, it can also be the most disruptive as river flooding is more likely during this time of year. However, flooding can occur at any time. So stay tuned to NOAA for river forecasts while you pack your bag and clean your travel shoes.

Epic Road Trip along Great River Road

1. Minnesota

The headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi begin at Lake Itasca, travel east to Grand Rapids, and meander down the state of Minnesota through Brainerd, St. Cloud, and the Twin Cities until reaching the border of Iowa. The total mileage for the Minnesota portion alone is 590 miles. Give or take 140 miles as the national route for the Great River Road crosses over into Wisconsin at Hastings in order to follow the Mississippi's eastern shore.

A state route along the western shore runs from Hastings until the Iowa border. So it's useful to visit the website for the Great River Road of Minnesota for details on breaking up the route. You can also explore the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area for itinerary ideas. Must-see attractions along Minnesota's Great River Road include Itasca State Park, Minnesota's oldest state park, and Minnehaha Park, a 193-acre parkland in downtown Minneapolis.

2. Wisconsin

The Wisconsin portion of the Great River Road, also known as Wisconsin's Highway 35, borders the Minnesota side from Prescott, at the confluence of the St. Croix River, until reaching the Illinois border at Potosi. It totals approximately 250 miles, gently curving past 33 riverside towns, including La Crosse, and tree-crowned bluffs.

3. Iowa

Scenic bluffs paired with small town sights characterize the experience of traveling along Iowa's Great River Road route. Passing on the eastern border of Iowa, across 10 counties for a little over 300 miles, the Great River Road takes in scenic byways; archaeological sites (Effigy Mounds National Monument); museums; and wildlife refuges. In Dubuque, you can see the widest part of the Upper Mississippi River at Eagle Point Park and learn more about the river at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.

4. Illinois

Spanning 550 miles, the Great River Road of Illinois follows the state's entire western border from East Dubuque to Waterloo. Highlights on this portion of the River Road include Galena, a historic Illinois town known for being the home of Ulysses S. Grant and its historic Main Street. Additional historic sites of note along the Illinois route include archaeological and natural sites, most notably the Cahokia Mounds.

5. Missouri

One of the best known stretches of the Mississippi River in the American imagination is the one that skirts the eastern border of Missouri. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) grew up in Hannibal and wrote about rafts and steamboats along the Mississippi in such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Further down the river is one of the nation's most famous river towns. In the late 19th century, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the United States thanks to its importance as a Mississippi port. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, also known as the Gateway Arch, explains St. Louis's role in western expansion, including the significance of the Mississippi River in the Louisiana Purchase, and also provides visitors with an amazing view of the city and the river. Learn more about the sites along Missouri's Great River Road.

Epic Road Trip along Great River Road

6. Kentucky

The Great River Road is at its shortest in Kentucky, where it touches four counties. Attractions along and near the route include Columbus-Belmont State Park, an integral outpost during the Civil War; the Warren Thomas Black History Museum and Church, a church built by freed slaves in 1890; and the Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross, an impossible-to-miss cross located on the bluffs above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

7. Tennessee

Approximately 186 miles of country roads along the eastern side of the Mississippi River to form Tennessee's portion of the Great River Road. Near the end of the Tennessee route is Memphis, where Mud Island River Park and its Mississippi River Museum explain the geography, biology, and history of the fabled waterway. Of course, Memphis is another well known river city, famous for its music scene, barbecue, and role as one of the major sites of America's Civil Rights Movement.

8. Arkansas

Arkansas's Great River Road Byway covers 362 miles passing through wetlands and forests in the Arkansas Delta. Travelers will find national wildlife refuges in Big Lake, Wapanocca, and White River. Other sites along this western stretch of the Mississippi range from an archaeological site at Parkin to Johnny Cash's boyhood home in Historic Dyess Colony.

9. Mississippi

In the state with the same name as the river, the water meanders for 382 miles, forming the entire western border. Two significant destinations in this part of Mississippi are Vicksburg, site of the Civil War battle that left control of this section of the river to Union forces, and Natchez, a small but historic town that once served as the capital of the American Mississippi Territory.

10. Louisiana

Louisiana is the final stop for the Mississippi River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The river splits here, allowing travelers to follow the Mississippi on its left or right banks. Most opt for the east side, which flows past the capital of Baton Rouge to New Orleans and just beyond. The route offers access to numerous historical sites, including the majority of Louisiana's antebellum plantation homes and slave quarters; culinary byways informed by Cajun and Creole cooking; and the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, a Civil War battleground that is also of ecological importance.

So, why are you waiting? Prepare for the exiting road tour along the great Mississippi - get your travel kits ready, load fully the jeep trunk. Never miss to carry your favorite flip flops, small cooker and other travel gears. Have a great journey.

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