From its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River divides the United States, east from west. Along this natural border runs the Great River Road, a conglomeration of state, federal, and local roads traversing over 2,000 miles leading travelers through 10 states.
A drive along this route will reveal local legends, quirky roadside attractions, engaging history, amazing scenery, and nature showcased in all its glory.
Highlights for Families Along the Great River Road
A trip from the beginning to the end of the Mississippi River would take far longer than a week, but these family-friendly highlights will help you plan your Great River Road Trip no matter where you choose to begin your journey.
Lake Itaska State Park
The Mighty Mississippi begins as a babbling brook in Lake Itaska State Park in Minnesota. Not far from here, the legend of Paul Bunyon was born. Though no one has been able to trace the origins of Paul Bunyon and his Blue Ox, Babe, the first ‘life-size’ statue of the duo stands on the shore of Lake Bemidji. If you prefer pop culture to local legend, just a few more miles along the Great River Road will lead you to the Big Fish Supper Club and its 65-foot-long tiger muskie, which was immortalized in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (Flickr: FaceMePLS)
The river gracefully meanders through the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, allowing their Midwestern beauty to shine. As you enter Minneapolis you’ll see the famous “Spoonbridge with a Cherry” sculpture at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden before passing the highly acclaimed Walker Art Center. St. Paul, the smaller of the ‘twins’, is home to the Minnesota History Center’s fascinating historical exhibit and Prohibition gangers history at the Wabasha Street Caves. Before leaving town, take to the river on a Padelford Riverboat for a historic sightseeing cruise.
The Great River Road stays close to the river after leaving the Twin Cities, leading you into Wisconsin. Though the Big Woods aren’t likely as big as they once were, fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will enjoy a visit to the site of the Ingalls cabin, now reconstructed, to see the Little House in the Big Woods.
Back to Minnesota
Crossing the river back into Minnesota at Wabasha, the National Eagle Center offers visitors the chance to learn about and see our national bird as well as other entertaining and educational activities.
Effigy Mounds National Monument
As the road meanders down river, you’ll come to Marquette, Iowa. Nestled along the river is Effigy Mounds National Monument; 200 distinct burial mounds within 2,500 acres of natural riverside ecosystem. The mounds, constructed between AD 350-1300, were built in the shapes of animals and spirits by a Native American culture now known as the Effigy Moundbuilders.
The Great River Road winds with the river leading you to the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. It was here that the first railroad bridge crossed the Mississippi – and was promptly sued by a steamboat company. The railroad’s lawyer- Abraham Lincoln- successfully argued that a person has as much right to cross a river as to travel upon it. Adjacent to Rock Island is Arsenal Island which houses an arsenal museum, Corps of Engineers visitor center, and Civil War cemeteries. In Moline, visit the John Deere Pavilion where you can see the evolution of farming from early tractors to the modern farm machinery of today. Take the Government Bridge – trains cross on the upper deck, cars on the lower- across the river to explore the River Music Experience, an interactive Mississippi music museum, in Davenport.
Rediscover Mark Twain
Now would be a good time to start listening to the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” as you make your way to Hannibal, Missouri. Rightly proud of their famous son, Hannibal has preserved half a dozen historic building and also has a very nice Mark Twain Museum which brings his novels to life. Kids will especially enjoy the Mark Twain Cave Complex where costumed guides share tales of Tom and Huck, fences are waiting to be whitewashed, and gemstones can be panned.
Gateway Arch in St. Louis (Flickr: Bryan Werner)
As you approach St. Louis, the Gateway Arch comes into view. Below the arch is a museum, created in a wonderful timeline format, of the settlement of the West. Stop at the information desk so the kids can pick up their Junior Ranger kit and earn a badge. A ride to the top of the arch is a nearly sci-fi experience, as you enter pods that carry you 630 feet above the river. Paddlewheel riverboats – the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher- provide guided cruises of the river. St. Louis is filled with free family activities, many found at Forest Park. A day could be spent at the St. Louis Zoo, Science Center, History Museum, and Art Museum with the evening ending at the Muny, an outdoor theater.
Graceland (Flickr: Mr. Littlehand)
Famous for barbecue and Elvis, Memphis offer road-trippers more than great food and Graceland. The National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, leads visitors through five centuries of history. For a real taste of the south, visit the Center for Southern Folklore to explore folk art, southern comfort food, and live music. After leading the kids through all that history, cross the pedestrian bridge to Mud Island in the center of the Mississippi River, home of the Mississippi River Museum and the Riverwalk – a scale model of the lower Mississippi River that you can splash in ending in an acre-size Gulf of Mexico where you can enjoy a pedal boat ride.
The Plantation Alley
Great plantation mansions adorn the road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, earning the 100-mile stretch the nickname of Plantation Alley. The properties, most of which are open to tour or have become luxurious B&Bs, sit regally on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Oak Ally Plantation is stunning, with rich history of life on the plantation and the Civil War. Nearby Laura is a Creole Plantation, filled with the mystique of ethnic influences that still flavor Louisiana today.
A journey along the Great River Road is a journey through America – her history, her people, and what makes her great. The stories will enchant you and draw you back again and again.
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