Great River Road – MN
- DesignationAll-American Road (2000/2021)
- Intrinsic QualitiesHistoric, Scenic
- LocationAR, IL, IA, KY, LA, MN, MS, MO, TN, WI
- Length565 of 3292.5 total miles
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.
Story of the Byway
Travel writer William Least Heat Moon's library contains over 2,000 travel books. Of those about rivers, most are all or partially about the Mississippi. He asks readers "consider all the reasons you can come up with" for why this is so, but concludes, "still you must face the inevitable: The Mississippi has an encompassing mystique no other American river exerts ..." It is this "encompassing mystique" that compels people from around the world to explore the Great River.
Nowhere along its 2,552-mile course does the Mississippi River's scenic landscape change more than in Minnesota. The Great River Road follows the river as it matures through seven distinct landscapes, each with a unique mystique and its only waterfall.
Walking across the headwaters at Lake Itasca is an international bucket-list item. It is a place like no other. Itasca State Park's interpretation and features engage travelers with hands-on history surrounded by stunning scenic views at the river's cradle.
The Mississippi seems reluctant to leave its birthplace among ancient pines and pristine lakes. After percolating from Lake Itasca, it follows a serpentine course to Brainerd, frequently twisting back on itself, leaving cut-off lands and oxbows. Contributing to the mystique is an ongoing blend of natural and human history. Humans have lived along the river here for nearly 10,000 years, and indigenous communities retain traditional lifestyles along it today. And as anyone who has canoed or kayaked this reach will tell you, every twist and turn creates a new scenic view.
The Mississippi's headwaters include thousands of lakes. The largest contributor to a reservoir system the Corps of Engineers created over 100 years ago. The river dams and reservoirs are historically significant as part of the first national reservoir system in the United States. The resulting Lakes and Reservoirs scenery generate lasting memories.
At Brainerd, the Mississippi straightens and becomes wider. More islands appear, but you see little floodplains and no large or backwater lakes. This is the Prairie River, where the prairie runs up to the river's banks, some rising 40 to 60 feet, providing views of a maturing river. Two national Great River Road Interpretive Centers showcase prairie-life history next to the Mississippi in this reach.
No place anchors the Mississippi River's significance in the Twin Cities like St. Anthony Falls or matches its national and international significance. Geologically, it is the Mississippi's only major waterfall. Historically, a who's who of natives, Europeans, and Americans explored it. Economically, it's the birthplace of saw and flour milling industries that became the dominant producers of their commodities in the world. Technologically, the falls generated the first commercial hydroelectric central plant in America. Scenically, it has drawn renowned painters capturing the fall's grandeur since before it was capped, and today remains a magnet for artists.
The Gorge is only 8.5 miles long, running from St. Anthony Falls to the mouth of the Minnesota River. Here, the Mississippi plunges 110 feet between bluffs one-quarter to one-third mile apart and 60 to 100 feet high. This is the only place where the river falls so quickly over such a short distance and through such a tight canyon. The three locks and dams of the Gorge are nationally significant, as is the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.
The Big River begins at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers extending 34 miles to Hastings. Fort Snelling, a National Historic Landmark, overlooks the confluence, known as B'dote to Dakota people, each a contrasting feature of this scenic setting. Here the broad valley and wide floodplain offer many side channels, backwater lakes, wetlands, and wooded islands with scenic vistas and intimate encounters with a seemingly primeval world.
During the last ice age, glaciers bulldozed the Midwest's landscape but left the Driftless Area alone. Water and wind have been eroding and incising the Driftless Area for far longer than the surrounding lands, creating a unique and nationally significant landscape. From early explorers to modern travel writers, many have tried to capture that landscape's scenic power. Locks and Dams 3 through 8 lie in this reach and are listed on the National Register as nationally significant. Historic river towns are worthy stops along the way.
The 565-mile Minnesota Great River Road National Scenic Byway/All-American Road is designated along a cornucopia of state and local roads. The route begins at Itasca State Park near the source of the Mississippi River and continues through six unique destination areas and eight scenic reaches to the Iowa border. Detailed mapping and driving directions are available at www.mnmississippiriver.com. Online mapping and navigation in the Plan Your Trip tool; print maps and downloadable driving directions on the order maps page. While on the road, follow the green and white Pilot's Wheel signs.
Points of Interest
The Mississippi River's birthplace, located within Minnesota's historic first state park
a twisting, snaking river full of up close experiences
Headwaters Lakes & Reservoirs
part of America's first reservoir system, providing a wide range of northwoods scenic views.
Fom Brainerd to St. Anthony Falls, the Mississippi becomes the Prairie River, as it straightens out and islands replace oxbows
Saint Anthony Falls
No place anchors the Mississippi’s significance in the Twin Cities like St. Anthony Falls - the river’s only major waterfall.
Below the falls, the Mississippi drops into the 8.5 mile Gorge, stepping down 110 feet through three locks and dams, running between bluffs one-quarter to one-third of a mile apart.
Where the Big River Begins
The Big River, the river of Mark Twain, begins at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. It is characterized by a broad valley and a wide floodplain, with many side channels, backwater lakes and wooded islands.
Below Hastings, the Mississippi enters the Driftless Area, with its distinctive limestone bluffs. During the last ice age, glaciers bypassed the Driftless Area, creating a unique and nationally significant landscape.
The Mississippi Headwaters
Start your journey in Itasca State Park, Minnesota’s oldest state park. Walk across the mighty Mississippi as it starts its winding journey 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Step back in time at Preacher's Grove, the Itasca Indian Cemetery, and Wegmann's Cabin, landmarks of centuries gone by. Explore Wilderness Drive past the 2,000-acre Wilderness Sanctuary, one of Minnesota's seven National Natural Landmarks. Take the time to walk across the headwaters, where it is only 18 feet wide and knee deep. Stop by the Mary Gibbs Interpretive Center and Douglas Lodge before you leave the park.
Continue to the city of Bemidji, the first city of the Mississippi River. It is the birthplace of legendary Paul Bunyan and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox. From pow wows to Sankta Lucia Festivals, Native American and Scandinavian cultures are woven together into a fine tapestry through Bemidji’s well told history and a flourishing art community. In addition to the Mississippi River, Bemidji is surrounded by forests, lakes and streams; a perfect place to bike, hike, ski, paddle and swim. And fashionistas love Bemidji as a perfect place to buy anything in red and black plaid. Before you turn in for the night, walk along Bemidji’s Sculpture Walk, which is on display year round.
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