The Best Way to Drive the Great River Road
The Great River Road is a fantastic road trip that takes you on a winding trip from Minnesota all the way to Louisiana. This good, old-fashioned road trip is dotted with everything from scenic rivers, quaint little towns, historic attractions, a multitude of scenic landscapes and a lot more.
The Mississipi River is likely the most iconic river in the United State and one of the longest rivers in the world – making a Great American road trip along its banks a bucket-list-worthy vacation!
Basically – it’s the ultimate road for exploring the Midwest with all of its glory.
So, what’s the Great River Road?
Known as the GRR, THE Great River Road is a 3000-mile-long road the takes you along the Mississippi River.
It was first created in 1983 and passes through 10 different states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennesse, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
This waterfront drive will take you through staggeringly diverse scenery – from lush grassy meadows to wetlands to little towns – you’ll find it all.
It’s no surprise that the Great River Road has become one of the Midwest’s most prized cultural attractions.
Top Sights You Wouldn’t Want to Miss Along the Great River Road
You’ll be covering 3,000 miles of road – meaning there is no shortage of noteworthy attractions and stops along your road trip.
Luckily, there won’t be a lot of interchanging since the entirety of the road trip will be guided by the Mississipi River. You’ll get to fully immerse yourself in the Midwest’s culture and living history by embracing the juxtaposition between vibrant metropolises and quaint riverside villages.
Here are some sights you simply cannot miss on your Great River Road trip:
1. Fort Snelling – Minnesota
The historic Fort Snelling has long been a significant attraction in Minnesota due to its historic importance.
It was built in the 1820s as a military base and today you can take a tour of the whole building, engage with the rich heritage of the surrounding area and learn all about military history, the US-Dakota War and a lot more!
2. Chain of Rocks Bridge – Illinois
This sure is an unusual bridge that tops both our most famous bridges in the US list and Route 66 attractions that can’t be missed. It’s an interesting attraction to check-out along your Great River Road trip.
The bridge stretches across the Mississipi River and is one of the longest pedestrian/bicycle-only bridges in the world.
It’s great to walk along (or bike) the bridge for the incredible scenery that overlooks the natural chain of rocks.
3. Nelson Dewey State Park – Wisconsin
If you’re looking for the perfect birds-eye view of the Mississippi River, then you need to stop at the Nelson State Park.
This is one of the adventurous parts your Great River Road trip.
There you’ll be able to stay the night, camp, go hiking, or relax by the river. If you’re craving some history in addition to nature, then I highly recommend visiting the Stonefield Historic Site for a good old dose of history.
4. Buffalo Bill Museum – Iowa
You’ll learn all about Buffalo Bill, the Mississippi River and you’ll get to see an exhibit about the first riverboat to be piloted on the river.
5. Delta Blues Museum – Mississippi
Mississippi has always been considered one of the states where the blues began.
It’s no surprise then, that you’d find a museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Blues genre.
You’ll find plenty of photographs, musical instruments, art, and plenty of memorabilia left by some of the region’s best blues masters.
6. The Gateway Arch – St. Louis
You can’t go on a trip along the Great River Road and not stop by the Gateway Arch.
The arch soars majestically into the sky (with an awe-inspiring height of 630-foot), and is one of the tallest memorials in the U.S. To get a full gist of the attraction, I recommend riding up the leg of the Arch (it’s a 5-minute ride) so you can enjoy the views of downtown St. Louis.
7. Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site – Kentucky
This area is filled with abundant wildlife and is a great archaeological site to spend a few hours in thanks to its historic significance.
Between 1100 – 1350 A.D the whole area was occupied by Native Americans who had homes overlooking the Mississippi River.
Today, you can learn all about the history of the site, see ancient pottery, incredible displays and educational exhibits and revel in the surrounding nature..
Make sure you don’t miss out on the large ceremonial mound!
8. Trail of Tears State Park – Missouri
This is an important attraction to visit along your Great River Road trip.
Despite the heart-wrenching story behind the park, the place is historically significant enough to be on top of your list of things to see. You will get to directly learn about the struggle of the nine Cherokee Indians who had to cross the river while fighting off the extreme weather conditions.
After a quick history lesson, you can spend the rest of the day hiking, horseback riding, fishing and much more.
9. Lakeport Plantation – Arkansas
This plantation house is the only one remaining on the river right now and has been transformed into a museum filled with dozens of mini-history lessons about the 1859 site.
10. Historic New Orleans Collection – Louisiana
New Orleans is known for its unique culture. This museums perfectly preserves and showcases the New Orleans’ culture with plenty of galleries, constantly changing exhibits and much more.
What Can You Do During Your Great River Road Trip
If you want to indulge in adventure and immerse yourself in a fully comprehensive experience, then I recommend partaking in activities along your trip.
Some things you can do include:
- Biking the Great River Road.
- Fishing at the Kinnickinnic State Park.
- Camp and hike at the Kinnickinnic State Park
- Hike the Maiden Rock Bluffs and enjoy its scenic views of Lake Pepin.
- Enjoy some quirky shopping in Stockholm.
- Relax at the Harbor View Café in Pepin.
- Stop at Lynxville for birdwatching.
- Try boating or kayaking at Ferryville.
- Make sure you grab a drink at the Potosi Brewing Company.
When’s the best time to go on a Mississippi River Road Trip
I always recommend going on this trip during the very months of fall or the late months of spring.
Anything other than that and you’re bound to experience harsh weather (either extremely cold weather or sweltering days in the summer.
How long do I need for a trip along the Great River Road?
The drive (straight-up) takes approximately 36 hours. However, since you’ll be stopping multiple times, I highly recommend you plan from 7 to 10 days for this trip, depending on where you want to stop.
The Best Great River Road Itinerary
Start at Minnesota where you’ll get to see:
- Fort Snelling
- Itasca State Park (one of the state’s oldest parks with plenty of scenic lakes)
- The Mill City Museum
Head over to Wisconsin, to explore:
- The 19th century Villa Louis
- The Potosi Brewing Company that has been there since the 1800’s and is one of the best places to grab a pint on your trip.
- The Nelson Dewey State Park – perfect for hiking and camping by the river.
Your next stop will be Iowa where the main attractions will include:
- Effigy Mounds National Monument
- The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (perfect if you’ve got kids with you!)
- Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
- The Trail of Tears State Park
Next, spend some time at St. Louis in Missouri and explore:
- Gateway Arch
- The Missouri Botanical Garden
- The Forest Park
- St. Louis Zoo
- The Missouri Civil War Museum
You’ll be halfway there already… your next stop will be Kentucky:
- Checkout the Wickliffe Mounds Historic Site
- If you don’t mind a detour, head over to Mammoth Cave National Park
Drive over to Arkansas to immerse yourself in history through:
- The Lakeport Plantation House
- Lake Chicot State Park
- Helena Museum for a good old history lesson.
Head into Mississipi (the land of the blues!) where you’ll get to see:
- The Delta Blues Museum
- Vicksburg National Military Park
- Tunica River Park & Museum
And finally for the grand finale…Louisiana!
- Check out the Historic New Orleans Collection
- The Louisiana State Museum
- The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve
- Walk around the lively streets of Nola.
Have you driven the Great River Road?
Going on the Great River Road drive will take you through the Midwest’s top cities in as little as 7 days and is definitely worth going on if you’re looking for an of adventure, history, culture and nature.
How many of you have driven it?
Let me know in the comments below!
Cover photo credit: Mac H