From Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Great River Road stretches for 3,000 miles, full of beautiful scenery and rich history. Plan your road trip with our top stops.
The mighty Mississippi River is a defining feature of the U.S. landscape and a central character in many of its best stories. Following this massive river on a trip down Great River Road is as romantic a notion as anything Huck Finn could cook up for a rafting adventure down the big muddy.
Great River Road is actually a series of state highways that follow the river along the east and west banks of the Mississippi. Designated and marked with official signs, some parts of the road are listed as a National Scenic Byway. In total, approximately 3,000 miles of road follow the river’s course through 10 states. The 36-hour trip is one of inspiring beauty, rich history, and a wide range of American culture, from Norwegian-American towns in the north to Cajun country in the south.
Itasca State Park
Where does the Mississippi River begin? It all starts at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota where the banks of the lake flow over a ridge of rocks on its northern edge. Hop the rocks or wade the 20 feet across the river at its origins — a big draw for visitors — to snap a photo next to the headwaters monument that marks the spot.
Explore more of the mighty river’s modest beginnings at the 32,000-acre Itasca State Park, the second oldest state park in the country, where you can hike 49 miles of trails through old-growth red pine forests. Campsites and cabins are available overnight, and you can rent a range of watercraft, from pontoons to kayaks and canoes, to explore the park’s 100-plus lakes.
Stonefield Historic Site
From St. Paul, Minnesota, drive south on Hwy 35 along the Wisconsin border. The Mississippi on this stretch is filled with bluff-top views of beautiful waterscapes and wooded islands that dot the river. At Wyalusing State Park, stand at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi at the same spot as Marquette and Joliet, the first explorers to navigate the river in 1673.
A few miles south, stop at Nelson Dewey State Park, once part of the Stonefield estate of Nelson Dewey, the state’s first governor. The Stonefield village and historic site is a replica of a late-1800s farmstead community with more than 30 buildings, including a general store, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and other social institutions. Pick up a plow and try to imagine what early farming life was like along the river.
As you cross into Illinois on Highway 20, be sure to check out the storybook town of Galena, one of the most charming on Great River Road route. Tall bluffs surround well-preserved historic buildings that date to the mid-19th century. The 1826 Dowling House is the town’s oldest building and first trading post that now serves as a museum with tours. Visit the home of Ulysses S. Grant, a gift to the Civil War general and president from the townspeople. For spectacular views of the river and three states, climb Horseshow Mound on the outskirts of town.
Great Rivers Museum
Just north of St. Louis, stop for a tour of National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, Illinois. Learn about the ecology and commerce of the Mississippi, and take advantage of the pilot house simulator to experience a working model of the system of locks and dams that make river traffic possible. For some exercise, pedal the scenic 20-mile Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail that parallels the river and ends at Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois and a winter home to bald eagles.
Veer a few miles east to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site just outside St. Louis. The World Heritage Site consists of 80 earthen mounds that were part of a bustling native American civilization of about 20,000 inhabitants that lived in the area from 600 to 1400 A.D. Excavations are ongoing at the site, and you can visit the Cahokia Museum and Interpretive Center to learn about these early people, their customs, daily life, and the Mississippian culture of the region.
Head south from Memphis into the state of Mississippi to enter “blues alley” in Delta blues country — the blues style known for its soulful slide guitar and harmonica, a big part of the river region’s culture in the early 1900s. Explore formative music and life in the delta at Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, housed in a historic railroad depot. Exhibits include the childhood shack of blues legend Muddy Waters and guitars belonging to greats B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.
Of all the states along the river, Louisiana may have the culture most influenced by the Mississippi. For a taste of this world, visit or stay overnight at one of the many plantations and historic antebellum homes found near the river road, such as Houmas House in Darrow or Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie. To spice up your trip, try Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, allegedly one of the most haunted spots in the country. The beautiful 1796 home features hand-painted stained glass and a wrap-around porch, where you can enjoy a patio lunch in the shade of ancient oaks as you keep an eye out for Chloe (the ghost).
The beauty and variety found along Great River Road is unrivaled and more than photo-worthy. Share your own river adventure photos with us on Instagram.