Your Guide to Driving Down the Great River Road
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The Great River Road—following along the mighty Mississippi River is the granddaddy of all road trips. Buckle up and get ready for the experience of a lifetime.
The mighty Mississippi River is the stuff that legends are made of. Some of the greatest songs and stories in our nation’s history were written about its beauty and mythology. There’s no greater way to appreciate its majesty and lore than on an epic Great River Road Trip, one of the 50 best road trips in America. It’s been federally designated as an official scenic byway, well-marked by Pilot’s Wheel Road Signs which follow a series of roads traversing through ten states and crossing over both sides of the Mississippi River. There are over 70 interpretive centers along the way and other points of cultural and historical interest, viewing areas, and other highlights. Our advice? Come hungry! The regional foods you’ll sample along the way are not to be missed.
Buckle up and start your Great River Road trip in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, also known as the Twin Cities. If you’ve never been here before, you’ll want to take at least a day to explore these vibrant communities. Don’t miss the Mississippi River Center in St. Paul which is full of films and interactive exhibits target at both adults and children dedicated to the culture and history of the Mississippi River. Also in St. Paul, Fort Snelling has a difficult history. It was built on the land where the Dakota Tribe made their home for thousands of years; they called the area Bdote. In 1820, the U.S. Army built the fort, and the military officers and fur traders who stayed there used enslaved people to perform the labor of the fort. Today, Fort Snelling doesn’t shy away from this history but rather educates visitors on its complicated past, which makes it a must-stop during the Great River Road Trip.
Other highlights in Minnesota include several dams and a few not-to-be-missed scenic viewpoints like Great River Bluffs State Park which offers sweeping blufftop views of the Mississippi Valley and Barn Bluff in Red Wing which is notable not only for striking views but as a sacred spot to the Dakota people and the site of many ancient burial mounds. Learn 13 facts about Native Americans you didn’t learn about in history class.
Where to stay and eat: If you’re staying the night, the sleek Loews Minneapolis Hotel is within walking distance to many of the city’s bright spots, including Spoon and Stable, an incredible restaurant in a vintage carriage house using seasonal Midwestern ingredients to put a new spin on French cuisine.
From Minnesota, you’ll make your way to Wisconsin and wind your way through the gorgeous agricultural country. Be sure to sample some of the amazing farm-fresh Wisconsin cheese. It’s famous for a reason! The Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center in Prescott is a great spot to stretch your legs and learn more about the history and geology of the Mississippi River while taking in gorgeous vistas of the place where the Mississippi intersects with the St. Croix River. Next, the Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie de Chien is a must for anyone interested in Civil War history. If you’re thirsty, grab a beer with a side of history at Potosi Brewing Company in Potosi, which was originally founded in 1852 along the Great River Road. There are also two museums on-site.
If you’re looking for views there are gorgeous scenic overlooks at Nelson Dewey State Park in Cassville, Grandad Bluff in La Crosse, and Buena Vista Park in Alma. These are more of the best scenic road trips in the United States to add to your list.
Where to stay and eat: Stay the night in the Charmont Hotel in La Crosse, a boutique hotel located in a renovated candy factory dating back to 1898. They also have a restaurant, rooftop terrace, and several bars.
Iowa has 18 different Great River Road interpretive centers, so take your time to explore as you make your way through The Hawkeye State. The Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center has a gorgeous view and plenty of interesting films and displays dedicated to the culture, history, and nature that formed the area. Make time to stop at The Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harper’s Ferry, a sacred place preserving 200 Indian mounds from over 20 different tribes. The George M. Verity Riverboat Museum in Keokuk is located in a historic riverboat, and is a great place to learn more about the riverboats that were essential to development in the western part of the country during the early 1800s. There are also eight dams to explore in Iowa. Find out the best state parks in every state.
The best scenic overlook in the state can be found in Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor. In addition to stunning views of the river, it’s a great place to get out of the car, move around, and enjoy the short walk to the waterfall.
Where to stay and eat: Stay the night at the gorgeous Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport. It’s the perfect place to unwind after a long day of driving with a spa, bowling alley, and an incredible restaurant. There’s even a coffeehouse on-site to get you started in the morning.
Your next stop on this incredible road trip will be in the state of Illinois, which you’ll enter after crossing the iconic Chain of Rocks Bridge (shown above). Villa Katherine, in Quincy, is a castle-like Moroccan-style mansion built in 1900 with a gorgeous view of the Mississippi River. Today it’s a museum and a great place to learn about the history of the area. The National Great Rivers Museum in Alton is the perfect place to learn more about locks and dams along, with more information about the history and nature surrounding the Great River Road and Mississipi River. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville. This is the site of what was once a thriving pre-Columbian Native American city dating back to A.D. 1250. Fantastic spots to take in views include the Chain of Rocks Bridge which crosses over from Madison, Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri, and Sunset Park on Rock Island.
Where to stay and eat: Holiday Inn Rock Island is a great place to stay while you’re exploring the historical highlights of the area. While you’re on Rock Island, be sure to enjoy an unforgettable meal at Igor’s Bistro, a casual local restaurant featuring spooky Halloween decor all-year-round.
In addition to Cahokia Mounds, here are 23 more cities you learned about in school that no longer exist.
There is perhaps no name more synonymous with the Mississippi River than that of Mark Twain, so don’t miss the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal. The Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis (shown above) is also not to be missed. It tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s expansion of the west and also the history of enslaved people and women suffragists in the area. The Trail of Tears State Park in Jackson is dedicated to the thousands of Native Americans who perished when they were forced to march to Oklahoma in the brutal heart of winter, and is an important stop on the Great River Road. It’s all the site of one of the best scenic overlooks in the state. The Old Mississippi River Bridge Scenic Overlook in Cape Girardeau is another one worthy of a pit stop.
Where to stay and eat: Spoil yourself with a room at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis with its iconic views of the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi River. For dinner, enjoy incredible classic Cajun seafood at the Broadway Oyster Bar. Get inspired for your road trip by taking a gander at these 17 best snapshots from road trips across America.
After Missouri, you’ll make your way to Kentucky. The state is only home to two official Great River Road Interpretive Centers but luckily, they’re both fantastic. The Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site was the site of a Native American village from about A.D.1100 to A.D. 1350. The native Mississippian people who lived there built earthen mounds and permanent structures, and many of their artifacts have been excavated and are on display. There are also stunning views and walking trails looking down upon the river. Columbus-Belmont State Park in Columbus is a fantastic place to take in the views, traverse hiking trails, and learn local Civil War history. From there, you’ll encounter a series of charming small towns as you make your way out of the beautiful state of Kentucky. If you want to stay the night, there are several lodging options within a short drive to the Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site.
Where to stay and eat: The Homewood Suites by Hilton Paducah is an excellent choice, with fun amenities like a saltwater pool and a putting green. They also fuel you up with a free breakfast before you leave in the morning. There are a bounty of dining options, including Freight House which specializes in mouthwateringly fresh new Southern cuisine. Be sure to sample a glass of world-famous Kentucky Bourbon after your meal. Speaking of cuisine, find out the most delicious food in every state.
Once you leave Kentucky you’ll find yourself in beautiful Tennessee. Be sure to make a stop at Reelfoot Lake State Park in Tiptonville, an underwater forest created when an earthquake caused the Mississippi River to flow backward, creating a 15,000-acre lake. Next, you’ll drive to Memphis. Be sure to build time into your itinerary to explore the sights and sounds of this fabulous city. Mud River at Mud Island River Park is a great place to learn more about the fascinating history of the lower Mississippi River. The C.H. Nash Museum is an official stop on the Great River Road, combining the history of an ancient Indian mound complex with a modern archeological laboratory and an arboretum dedicated to ancient plant species used for dye, medicines, and other purposes well before Europeans set foot on the continent.
Where to stay and eat: The best place to stay the night is the Central Station Memphis, located in a 100-year old, still operating train station. The hotel’s bar has a fabulous vinyl collection and its restaurant, Bishop, serves wonderful French brasserie with a Southern influence. Best of all, it’s within walking distance of star attractions like the National Civil Rights Museum and the excitement, energy, and live music of Beale Street. Don’t forget that Memphis is one of the best American cities for live music lovers.
You’ll cross the river from Memphis into Arkansas, which boasts some of the most unique stops on the Great River Road. The Hampson Archeological Museum is home to an incredible collection of exhibits and artifacts from the Nodena site, a 15-acre enclosed agricultural village that thrived from A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1650. The Sultana Disaster Museum tells the little known story of the largest maritime disaster in the history of the United States, in which 1,200 people perished when an overcrowded steamboat exploded on the Mississippi River in 1865. Another site you won’t want to miss is the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee. Between 1942 to 1945 more than 8,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly imprisoned there, and it’s a moving and important record of their experience.
Where to stay and eat: The Days Inn by Wyndham Lake Village is a comfortable place to stay the night and it won’t break the bank. Be sure to stop by Rhoda’s Famous Tamales for an order of tamales and sweet potato pie. Make time to check out these 20 gorgeous river photos from around the world.
The Great River Road in Mississippi has several must-stops, including the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale which tells the fascinating story of Blues music. The remains of the cabin where Muddy Waters lived as a sharecropper are also preserved on site. Vicksburg National Military Park (shown above) is at the site of a 47-day Civil War battle, and an important site for Civil War buffs. The Natchez Visitor Center is a great stop. Staff can point you towards some of the beautiful historic homes in the area and downtown Natchez is full of charm.
Where to stay and eat: Stay the night in the Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens which was originally built in 1818. They also serve amazing food in their onsite restaurant. Discover the most beautiful mansion in every state.
Your Great River Road trip ends at the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana but be sure to take your time to enjoy the Bayou State. The LSU Rural Life Museum, in Baton Rouge, is an outdoor museum with 27 different buildings, exhibits, and reenactments depicting the lifestyle of the people who lived in the area in the 19th century. No trip to Louisiana would be complete without a visit to New Orleans (shown above). The Historic New Orleans Collection is located in the historic French Quarter and a must for anyone interested in the culture and history of the Crescent City or Louisiana as a whole. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Reserve is a beautiful combination of nature and history with a long boardwalk through the swamp. Bring your camera and keep your eye open for alligators.
Where to stay and eat: Stay the night at the nearby luxurious Maison De La Luz. It’s steps away from the French Quarter and within walking distance to countless restaurants, music venues, parks, and museums. For dinner, enjoy sustainably caught local seafood at the delicious Seaworthy. (New Orleans is about 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.) End your amazing journey here, gazing at the water, filled with the smell of sea salt and memory. Make your journey a success by learning the 15 must-follow road trip planning tips.
Some sites listed here may not be open or may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Please check with them before you go.
For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.