Great River Road – TN
- DesignationAll-American Road (2009/2021)
- Intrinsic QualitiesHistoric, Cultural
- LocationAR, IL, iA, KY, LA, MN, MS, MO, TN, WI
- Length185.5 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
The Mississippi River in West Tennessee is home to the ebb and flow of American history across hundreds of years and cultural pillars that continue to influence and inspire its modern-day visitors. This section of America has a mythical quality that springs from its one-of-a-kind historical, cultural, and natural attributes. Not simply a body of water, the Mississippi River in Tennessee churns with robust stories and legends known and beloved throughout the world. Thoughts of this windy, rugged section of the Mississippi conjure images of barefoot boys floating downriver on rafts, riverboats full of hopeful settlers looking for a new home in a New World, the haunting notes of Blues musicians, distant reverberations of Civil War cannon, paddle-wheelers and barges transporting goods to a nation, and an ongoing struggle for freedom and human rights. These experiences are the lifeblood of our river's unique charm, and the legendary waters are part of America's national story – the story of the Great River Road.
The Great River Road in Tennessee is a 185.5-mile collection of roads that meanders south, between the Mississippi River immediately west and the Chickasaw Bluffs to the east. When entering Tennessee from Kentucky, the byway cuts through a lush rural landscape in northwest Tennessee, an area complete with multiple tributary rivers and thousands of acres of cotton fields. Travelers on this byway are joined by 40% of all North American birds migrating through the corridor twice a year – a testament to the region's natural abundance. As byway-goers move south through sloping, cycling-friendly terrain, they arrive in the City of Memphis, a destination rich with sites and traditions of the past and the vibrant tastes and sounds of today. Travelers continue their Great River Road experience as they enter Mississippi on Tennessee's southern border.
The Great River Road in Tennessee is a byway of unparalleled historical and cultural abundance. The distinctive features found along the route speak to the significance of the Great River Road and its place in the country's history. One feature is the location of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The site has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, a powerful place of reflection and remembrance from that traumatic day. Another feature is a collection of well-preserved sites like Sun Studios, Graceland Mansion, and Stax Records. These sites are closely tied to names that continue to influence generations of music and musicians today. Names like Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and more. A third feature is Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee. This area was forever changed when shifting waters from the Mississippi River flooded forestland thanks to the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811, the country's first great natural disaster. Today, Reelfoot Lake is a visitor-friendly natural area with significant ecological diversity and quite a story to tell. All 14 route features in the application relate to either the Civil War and its aftermath, the nation's struggle for Civil Rights, or how residents of centuries past and present life and experience the river.
The story of the Great River Road in Tennessee is undoubtedly tied to that of the country. The waters in this section of the Mississippi River reflect the challenges and events being seen elsewhere in America, from human struggle in the Civil War and Civil Rights movement to musical innovation and many bold cultural advances.
The Great River Road in Tennessee encompasses the entire western coast from the Kentucky border at Reelfoot Lake in the north, to Memphis connecting with Mississippi in the south. The route is 185.5 miles long and is bordered by the Mississippi River on the west and the Chickasaw bluffs landform or county boundary lines on the east. The Great River Road passes through five counties in west Tennessee: Lake, Dyer, Lauderdale, Tipton and Shelby. Adjacent Obion County is a major gateway and provides hospital services and other major attractions to support travel in northwest Tennessee.
Points of Interest
Reelfoot Lake State Park
30,000 acre lake of flooded forest from the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-1812.
Alex Haley State Historic Site
Boyhood home of "Roots" author Alex Haley
Fort Pillow State Historic Park
Riverfront Civil War fort, battlefield and interpretive center
Mud Island River Park & Museum
52 acre riverfront park and interpretive center in downtown Memphis
South Main St. Arts District
Historic neighborhood with walkable shopping, dining and nightlife
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
Museum at the site of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Memphis Music Locations
Famous locations such as Graceland, Sun Records, Stax Records, Beale Street
From Tiptonville to Memphis: The Great River Road
Begin your day at the Reelfoot Lake State Park in Tiptonville. The park is noted for its fishing, boating and wildlife viewing. The 15,000 acre lake was created by a series of violent earthquakes in 1811-1812 that caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for a short period of time, creating Reelfoot Lake. Find opportunities for hiking, camping, and guided trips and festivals.
From Tiptonville head south to Dyersburg. Catch Tennessee Route 181 to travel further on the byway. Although many towns in the area date back to the railroad era, Dyersburg predates the Civil War, established by some of west Tennessee’s first white settlers. History enthusiasts will find a number of museums and historic sites as well as many memorials to soldiers of wars from all eras.
Follow Tennessee Route 88 to Interstate 156 to Ripley. Visitors might enjoy the Alex Haley House Museum or a tour about the town’s African roots.
End your journey on the byway in Memphis, the heart of Tennessee. Memphis is an important center for music and culture in the South. Memphis’s Graceland, Beale Street, and Sun Studio are considered to be mandatory stops on any music-lover’s journey through the region. Mud Island River Park in Memphis features an exact model of the Lower Mississippi, providing travelers with a clear view of the river’s might.
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