The Mighty Mississippi is more than just a river. It runs right through the heart of the U.S., and a lot of what makes this country what it is grew from the quaint towns and bustling cities that have grown up along the river. From folktales and music to scenery and food, it’s a perfect slice of the U.S. The best way to discover the history and beauty of the Mississippi is by a road trip down the Great River Road.
According to folklore, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox are the ones responsible for creating the Mighty Mississippi. Paul Bunyan’s “official” birthplace is in Akeley, so stop by and pay your respects to the legendary giant. Then head over to Paul Bunyan's Animal Land in Bemidji, Minnesota.
The very beginning of the Mississippi River is at Itasca State Park, Minnesota's oldest state park. It contains over 32,000 acres and has more than 100 lakes. You could easily spend an entire afternoon here. From here, head 30 minutes to Bemidji and visit Lake Bemidji State Park, where you can enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, camping, biking, and more. After that, visit Scenic State Park and the National Eagle Center, where the little ones can interact with live eagles, learn through hands-on activities, and take a guided eagle viewing family field trip.
Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is a very picturesque vacation spot with lots of lakes and lush forests. Plus it’s Judy Garland's birthplace, and there's a really cute museum there that's full of Judy Garland memorabilia. After that, head to Crosby, a city that may only be home to a little over 2,000 people, but what it lacks in population, it makes up for in history and natural beauty.
Don't miss Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd. It's home to an animated, massive, 26-foot-tall Paul Bunyan.
Since the Great River Road cuts through a big chunk of middle America, there’s just tons of awesome, diverse dining. Try the Bachelor Farmer for food that honors Minnesota’s Nordic heritage, or Kay's Kitchen in St. Joseph. This local favorite is a solid diner known for burgers, all-day breakfast, and tasty, homemade pies.
There's also the historic WA Frost & Company in St. Paul, which is more upscale than Kay's, and good for unwinding in the evening with a glass of wine on their patio. Another classic over in Bena, MN is the Big Fish Supper Club and Resort, which has a killer ambiance, and there’s a massive fish in the restaurant, which has a very Minnesota-esque, Northern, rustic vibe.
When you're ready to call it a day, The Covington Inn in Maplewood, MN is a fantastic place to rest your weary head along the Great River Road. It's a floating bed and breakfast on a boat that's moored along the Mississippi river. The rocking of the restored 1946 towboat, just a mile and a half from St. Paul's downtown, will lull you to sleep.
Grandad Bluff Park in La Crosse is another option for hiking and beautiful scenic overlooks. Plus, the town of La Crosse has a charm all its own.
After hiking up Grandad Bluff for some seriously epic scenery, wander through the ancient and mysterious Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. The Effigy Mounds are a peaceful place to take a rest after a long day of driving. The Native American earthworks are located in one of the most picturesque sections of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.
From there head south to Trempealeau, Wisconsin, which is about an hour and twenty minutes away. While you’re in town you should stay at the Historic Trempealeau Hotel and Restaurant. Or, you can drive some more and check into the Holiday Shores Riverfront Motel in McGregor, Iowa, or the nearby Gutenberg Haus B&B, which can be your base for exploring Guttenberg, Iowa, and the iconic "Field of Dreams" movie filming location.
This 14-acre complex features hundreds of animals (including alligators), artifacts, and interactive exhibits about North America’s second-longest river.
If you choose to spend more time in Bellevue, make sure to stop by Bellevue State Park, which has one of the best scenic Mississippi River overlooks, situated atop a 250-foot limestone bluff. You'll be hard pressed to find a better view of the Upper Mississippi!
History buffs will want to step back in time with a visit to the Villa Louis Historic Site in Prairie du Chien. This was the home of one of the wealthiest families in Wisconsin's history. The Pine Creek Grist Mill in Muscatine, IA is a beautiful historic building in Wildcat Den State Park, that is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you're still on a history kick, head to Warsaw Brewing. This brewery is a famous Warsaw, IL landmark. It was established in 1861 by Rudolph Giller, who took advantage of the great location along the booming river town. Unfortunately, it no longer brews beer, but it's a gorgeous old building that makes for a great photo op.
You can’t travel down the Great River Road without visiting Mark Twain’s birthplace in Florida, MO. Twain wrote fondly about growing up along the river here. And nearby is another famous Mark Twain landmark, the Mark Twain Cave just outside Hannibal, MO. It's the oldest operating show cave in Missouri, and has been conducting tours since 1886, when people flocked to the caverns after reading about them in Twain's famous novel "Tom Sawyer".
Best time to road trip along the Great River Road: The Great River Road is really a wonderful road trip any time of year. During winter, you can see many of these charming towns blanketed in snow, and during the summer you can find plenty of swimming holes to take a dip in, but the consensus of road travelers is that fall is the perfect time to drive the Great River Road. The foliage along the route is particularly amazing from Minnesota all the way down through northern Mississippi. Plus, there's loads of festivals and farmers markets to stop at. In fact, the Mississippi River association has declared September to be "Drive the Great River Road Month"!