Details

  • 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
Byway Visitor Information
Mississippi River Parkway Commission
Statewide Byway Partners
Tennessee Department of Transportation
Downloadable Tennessee Byways Guide & Map
Tiptonville Lake/Reelfoot Lake in the moonlight.
Tennessee Byways 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

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.

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.

Driving Directions

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

    Reelfoot Lake State Park, located in the northwestern corner of Tennessee, is a natural wonder steeped in history and rich in biodiversity. The park's centerpiece, Reelfoot Lake, is a unique and picturesque reservoir that was formed by a series of powerful earthquakes in the early 19th century. Today, it stands as one of the only naturally occurring lakes in the state and is celebrated for its scenic beauty and ecological significance. The park covers over 25,000 acres, making it a prime destination for outdoor enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and those seeking a tranquil escape into nature.

    Visitors to Reelfoot Lake State Park can explore a wide range of activities. Birdwatchers flock to the park to observe the diverse bird species that call the lake home, including bald eagles, ospreys, and great blue herons. The lake itself is a haven for anglers, offering excellent opportunities for fishing, particularly for crappie and catfish. The park features a visitor center where guests can learn about the lake's history, geology, and wildlife, as well as pick up trail maps and wildlife guides. Additionally, there are hiking trails, picnic areas, and camping facilities for those looking to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of this unique Tennessee treasure.

  • Alex Haley State Historic Site

    Alex Haley State Historic Site, located in Henning, Tennessee, is a place of historical significance that honors the life and legacy of the acclaimed author Alex Haley. The site is dedicated to preserving the memory of this influential writer, best known for his novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family." It was in Henning that Alex Haley spent much of his youth, and it was here that he heard the stories that would later inspire his groundbreaking work, tracing his family's history from Africa to America through generations of enslavement and emancipation. The historic site offers a glimpse into Haley's life, his literary contributions, and the broader African American experience.

    Visitors to the Alex Haley State Historic Site can explore the childhood home of Alex Haley, which has been restored to its 1920s appearance. The site includes exhibits that provide insight into his upbringing and the cultural context of the time. There's also a striking bronze statue of Haley, capturing the spirit of his storytelling and the impact of "Roots." The site hosts educational programs and events, including lectures and presentations about Haley's life and work, making it not only a tribute to a literary icon but also a place of reflection and learning about the African American heritage and the struggle for civil rights in America.

  • Fort Pillow State Historic Park

    Fort Pillow State Historic Park, situated along the banks of the Mississippi River in Tennessee, is a site of historical significance that preserves the memory of a critical Civil War battle that took place here in 1864. The park is named after Fort Pillow, a Confederate fortification that was captured by Union forces during the Civil War. The site serves as a memorial to the soldiers who fought and died on both sides of the conflict and as a reminder of the complex and often tragic history of the war. Visitors to Fort Pillow State Historic Park can explore the well-preserved earthworks of the fort, view interpretive exhibits, and gain insights into the events of the past.

    In addition to its historical significance, the park offers a variety of outdoor recreational activities for modern-day visitors. Picnic areas, hiking trails, and a campground provide opportunities for relaxation and enjoyment of the natural surroundings. The park's location along the Mississippi River offers beautiful views of the water and opportunities for fishing and birdwatching. With its blend of history and natural beauty, Fort Pillow State Historic Park provides a unique and educational experience for those interested in the Civil War and the heritage of the region.

  • Mud Island River Park & Museum

    Mud Island River Park & Museum, located in Memphis, Tennessee, is a captivating cultural and recreational destination that celebrates the rich history and significance of the Mississippi River in the American South. Situated on a picturesque peninsula in the Mississippi River, the park offers visitors a diverse range of experiences. One of the park's highlights is the Riverwalk Model, a stunning scale model of the Lower Mississippi River, complete with flowing water, miniature cities, and historical markers that educate visitors about the river's geography and the communities it touches. The Riverwalk provides a unique opportunity to explore the river's winding path and learn about its impact on the region's history, commerce, and culture.

    In addition to the Riverwalk, Mud Island River Park features the Mississippi River Museum, which delves deeper into the river's history and significance. The museum's exhibits include artifacts, interactive displays, and multimedia presentations that offer a comprehensive look at the river's role in shaping the American South. The park also hosts a variety of events and concerts at its outdoor amphitheater, where visitors can enjoy live music with the river as a backdrop. With its blend of educational experiences, scenic beauty, and cultural offerings, Mud Island River Park & Museum is a must-visit destination for those seeking to connect with the unique heritage of the Mississippi River and its impact on the region.

  • South Main Arts District

    The South Main Arts District in Memphis, Tennessee, is a vibrant and eclectic neighborhood that has emerged as a cultural hub in the city. Situated just south of downtown Memphis, this district has undergone a remarkable transformation over the years, evolving from an industrial area into a thriving arts and entertainment community. It's a place where history and creativity converge, offering a unique blend of art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and live music venues.

    One of the district's main draws is its thriving arts scene. Visitors can explore a variety of galleries showcasing local and contemporary art, providing an opportunity to engage with the vibrant Memphis art community. The neighborhood's historic architecture adds to its charm, with beautifully restored buildings housing boutiques, antique shops, and cafes. South Main is also known for its lively events, including the monthly Trolley Night, where galleries open their doors to the public, and the Memphis Farmers Market, offering fresh produce and artisanal goods. Whether you're strolling along the cobbled streets, indulging in local cuisine, or immersing yourself in the arts, the South Main Arts District is a dynamic and creative destination that reflects the spirit and energy of Memphis.

  • National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

    The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, located in Memphis, Tennessee, is a poignant and powerful testament to the American civil rights movement. Housed within the preserved and meticulously restored Lorraine Motel, this museum is a place of deep historical significance. It was at the Lorraine Motel that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968, making it a symbol of the struggle for racial equality in the United States.

    Visitors to the National Civil Rights Museum are taken on a journey through the history of the civil rights movement, from its beginnings to the significant milestones and key figures who shaped the movement. The museum's exhibits use multimedia presentations, interactive displays, and an extensive collection of artifacts to provide a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by African Americans and the broader social and political context of the time. Walking through the museum is a moving and educational experience, culminating in the room where Dr. King spent his final moments. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel serves as both a memorial to the sacrifices made in the fight for civil rights and a call to continue the struggle for justice and equality for all.

  • Memphis Music Locations

    Beale Street, located in the heart of downtown Memphis, Tennessee, is an iconic cultural and entertainment thoroughfare that is steeped in history and synonymous with the city's vibrant musical heritage. Often referred to as the "Home of the Blues," Beale Street is a legendary destination that has played a pivotal role in the development of American music. It was on these storied streets that musical legends like B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, and W.C. Handy made their mark, shaping the sound of blues, jazz, and soul. Today, Beale Street continues to be a lively and bustling district that celebrates this rich musical legacy.

    The historic Beale Street is lined with a colorful array of clubs, bars, restaurants, and shops, offering visitors a taste of Memphis' unique culture and cuisine. It's a place where live music spills out onto the sidewalks, creating an electrifying atmosphere that pulses with the rhythms of blues, rock 'n' roll, and soul. The street is also home to several music-related landmarks, including the Beale Street Walk of Fame, honoring legendary musicians, and the historic A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, a century-old emporium that is a living relic of the past. Whether you're savoring some mouthwatering barbecue, dancing to live music, or simply strolling down the historic street, Beale Street is an essential stop for anyone looking to immerse themselves in the soulful and musical heart of Memphis.

Itinerary

  • 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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