Details

  • DesignationAll-American Road (2009/2021)
  • Intrinsic QualitiesHistoric, Natural
  • LocationAR, IL, IA, KY, LA, MN, MS, MO, TN, Wi
  • Length63 of 3292.5 total miles
Byway Visitor Information
Kentucky Great River Region Organization
Statewide Byway Partners
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
Kentucky Department of Tourism
Framed by two stout oaks at Kentucky’s Columbus-Belmont State Park
Amy Williams HNTB Photo

Overview

The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River, the second longest river in America, begins as a trickle at Lake Itasca headwaters and grows and strength as it travels south to create state lines for 10 states. The byway lines both sides of the river in Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

The river was important for settlement of the western United States as goods were shipped north. Logs, from northern forests, were shipped downstream to be cut into lumber for new settlements. The Mississippi River is teeming with history and culture as riverboats moved people up and down the river and gave travelers the opportunity to enjoy its music, like the blues in Tennessee, or the Cajun and Creole culture from New Orleans’ French Quarter, and Louisiana’s cooking, jazz, and blues.

The Mississippi offers a variety of recreational opportunities. Limestone cliffs line the river allowing for overlooks to see Mississippi’s splendid panoramas, or to enjoy the wildlife that calls the Mississippi River home, or to watch boats and barges as they navigate the Lock and Dam systems. Waterfalls, forests, prairies, and communities of every size dot the Great River Road. Be sure to allow time to enjoy its parks, beaches, museums, music, and food.

Local Byway Partners

Story of the Byway

This is the land that the Founding Fathers thought would become a great inland empire with the Mississippi River as its supporting spine. This is the land that determines the boundaries of our nation. This is the critical confluence that had to be held if the Northwest Territories were to become part of the United States. The National Route of the Great River Road provides a continuous roadway parallel to the river from the river’s headwaters in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the delta in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Great River Road in Kentucky represents the great span of human history. The byway begins in Kentucky just north of Wickliffe, which has been inhabited by humans since 13,000 BC. Historical remains of Native American inhibition can be seen at Wickliffe Mounds in northwestern Ballard County. This archaeological site of a village of the Mississippian mound builders is located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi river. The complex settlement was occupied from about 1100 A.D. to 1350 A.D., featured permanent houses and earthen mounds situated around a central plaza. Today, visitors can explore this history at the Wickliffe Mounds State Park.

Also in Wickliffe is Fort Jefferson. In 1780 during the Revolutionary War, General George Rogers Clark established Fort Jefferson on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River one mile south of present-day Wickliffe. The fort was intended to protect what was then the western boundary of the United States from raids by the British Army and Native Americans. It was abandoned in 1781 after a siege by the Chickasaw tribe. The location became the site of a second Fort Jefferson which Lewis and Clark visited in November of 1803 to recruit members for the Discovery Expedition. The site later served as a Union Army post during the American Civil War.

The counties along the Great River Road did not become part of the United States until the Jackson Purchase in 1818. During the Civil War, Kentucky was one of the border states, sitting on the dividing line between the northern and southern regions of the United States. It was one of the few slave states to stay in the Union; however, it officially declared neutrality. This neutrality was violated on September 4, 1861 by Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk when he occupied Columbus and constructed Fort DeRussy, Polk’s “Gibraltar of the West.” Kentucky became a battlefield. Today, visitors can stop by many of these sites along the Great River Road Scenic Byway. Fort DeRussy is now a state park and open-air museum. Flooding in 1925 exposed the remains of the giant chain, which are now on display. Among others, the remains of “Lady Polk,” a giant experimental cannon named for Polk’s wife, can also be seen.

Visitors to the byway today can explore Western Kentucky’s outdoor recreational offerings. ATV riding is a thrilling way to explore Kentucky’s recreational playground. ATV riding is permissible along the trail at two locations: Wright’s Area 252 Riding Park and Carlisle County River Trails. Other visitors will enjoy exploring historic trails, wildlife management areas, and water recreation along the Mississippi River.

Driving Directions

The byway begins by heading south on US Route 51 through Cairo and WIckclife. Follow State Route 1203 to State Route 123 through Columbus to Oakton from Oakton travel south to Cayce before heading west on State Route 94 through Hickman to the Kentucky-Tennessee border, following the path of the Mississippi River.

Points of Interest

  • Rusted Roots

    This boutique sells trendy clothing for the younger crowd as well as arts and crafts like locally made soaps.

  • Wickliffe Mounds State Park

    Wickliffe Mounds is a prehistoric, Mississippian culture archaeological site located in Ballard County, Kentucky, just outside the town of Wickliffe, about 3 miles from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

  • Columbus-Belmont State Park

    Columbus-Belmont State Park, on the shores of the Mississippi River in Hickman County, near Columbus, Kentucky, is the site of a Confederate fortification built during the American Civil War.

  • Bluegrass Restaurant

    Serving up home-cooked fare along Highway 60 seems straight out of the 1950s, and the restaurant’s neon lights are a thing of beauty when lit up at night

  • Dorea Hickman Ferry

    The Dorena–Hickman Ferry is a ferry across the Mississippi River between Dorena, Missouri and Hickman, Kentucky. A single boat takes vehicular traffic across the river seven days a week during daylight hours.

  • Cayce, KY

    This is the home to American folk hero Casey Jones

  • Carnegie Library Museum & Visitor Center

    A restored 1906 Carnegie Library Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sits on the bluffs at the confluence of the Mississippi River and Bayou de Chien providing a spectacular scenic view of Missouri and Kentucky. Significant resources for visitors eager to gather information on the rich history of river and rail transportation, the American Civil War and Mississippian Era culture. The Carnegie Library Museum is strategically located as a southern portal visitor center for travelers coming from Missouri and the Tennessee’s Great River Road National Scenic Byway.

Itinerary

  • Kentucky's Great River Road History

    Begin your journey in Wickliffe, KY. Wickliffe is full of history from premodern times to the present. Those wishing to learn about Kentucky’s pre-colonization history should make a stop at the Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site. This was once the site of a Native American village from 1100 to 1350 A.D. Visitors can see archaeological features of Mississippian culture, view historic artifacts, walk on archaeological trails, and learn about Native American art and culture.

    Following a visit to the Wickliffe Mounds, climb up the bluff to the Fort Jefferson Historic Site and Memorial Cross of Kentucky Confluence. Although the original fort no longer remains, there is a great paved walkway to enjoy sites of the river.

    Following the byway south for 19 miles, you will soon reach the Columbus-Belmont State Park. This state park is great for Civil War history lovers. The site where the park is located was considered by both North and South to be strategically significant in gaining and keeping control of the Mississippi and of a Confederate fortification built during the Civil War. Ultimately, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would win the Battle of Belmont on November 7, 1861. Be sure to stop in Columbus for lunch at one of the many local restaurants and diners that are within easy access of the byway.

    Continue south along the byway for 34 miles until you reach Hickman. In Hickman, explore the Carnegie Library to learn more about the history of transportation, the Civil War, and Mississippian Era culture with great views of the Mississippii. Take a ferry across the Mississippi River or continue south along the byway into Tennessee.

 Update this byway information today!