Great River Road Trip Planner: A Complete Guide

Great River Road Trip Planner: A Complete Guide

If you are looking for an iconic journey that passes through some of America’s most historic sites, check out the Great River road trip. This classic American road trip follows the mighty Mississippi River from northern Minnesota through the midwest all the way down to Louisiana. 

This getaway takes you through over 10 states and countless river towns. Along the way, you’ll have access to landmarks like the National Scenic Byway, National Civil Rights Museum, Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area, Effigy Mounds National Monument, and many more.

The Great River road trip is the perfect way to experience the environment and culture of many different states’ riverfront areas. To help you plan your journey, we’ve assembled an itinerary that covers the entire length of the Great River. Feel free to add your own extra stops along the way as you head towards the Gulf of Mexico!

Visit Itasca State Park

Our first stop of this road trip is located on the upper Mississippi River in Itasca State Park. This landmark is located less than half an hour away from Park Rapids, Minnesota. 

Itasca is Minnesota's oldest state park, and it is a classic way to start the Great River road trip. Within the 32,000-acre park, you’ll find breathtaking vistas near the headwaters of the Mississippi. 

Lakes and Wildlife Everywhere

You can even book a boat tour of Lake Itasca, in which a local guide will point out wildlife and local plants while giving you the history of the area. You can also rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard to explore Lake Itasca on your own. 

There are over 49 miles of trails in the park, which will give you plenty of options. Their most popular hike is around the old fire tower. This hike will take you to the top of a lookout for a wonderful view of Itasca State Park. If you want to soak up the local landscape, take a hike on the Nicollet Trail to be immersed in local giant pine trees. 

Lastly, try to spot some local wildlife while you are hiking or spending time on the lake. It is most popular with bird watchers since you are likely to spot hummingbirds, bald eagles, woodpeckers, ducks, owls, finches, and many more. You also might be able to see deers, beavers, porcupines, bears, and wolves. 

Head to Minneapolis, MN

About a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Itasca State Park is our next stop: Minneapolis. One of the famed Twin Cities, Minneapolis is located just next to St. Paul, Minnesota’s most populated city. 

The Minneapolis Institute of Art

If you are looking for a museum to explore, head over to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This art museum is free of charge for admission and has over 80,000 pieces of art to admire. The displays span over 5,000 years and include a wide variety of styles.

Minnehaha Park and More

If you want to spend your time outside, check out Minneapolis’s Minnehaha Park. This is one of Minnesota’s most famous parks, known for its gorgeous waterfall and vast greenery. 

The park spans over 167 acres and has unique limestone bluffs, a wading pool, a hiking trail, and a bike path. The park even has a disc golf course! Plus, while you are exploring the greenery, you can also admire some life-size sculptures of Minnesota icons. 

If you are looking for an excellent dining experience, make a reservation at Manny’s Steakhouse. This restaurant has an iconic menu and is a mainstay in the Minneapolis food scene. 

Check Out Lake Pepin, WI

Only a little over an hour’s drive from Minneapolis is Lake Pepin, Wisconsin. Lake Pepin is a quaint little community located right on the river. 

One of the best ways to experience Lake Pepin is by bike! The Lake Pepin biking loop gives you a full tour of Lake Pepin, as well as a beautiful view of the Mississippi River. 

If you decide to complete the whole loop, you can choose a 77- or 69-mile route. However, feel free just to bike a section and turn around whenever you want.

The Pepin Yacht Club and Danzinger Vineyards

Want to go out on the water? Head over to the Pepin Yacht Club. Here, you’ll find activities like sunrise boat rides with complimentary coffee and sunset tours with happy hour drinks. You can also book a tour with Sail Pepin if you would prefer to experience the water on a sailboat. 

If you are a wine drinker, end your day with a tour of Danzinger Vineyards. These vineyards overlook the Mississippi River and have plenty of options for wine tours and tastings. 

Pay a Visit to Dubuque, IA

About 4 hours away from Lake Pepin is our next stop: Dubuque, Iowa.

Because this is the Great River road trip, make sure to check out the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. This museum offers a comprehensive view of life on the Mississippi River. Pay a visit to any of their 12 aquariums, which feature animals living in and on the Mississippi River. 

The Julien Dubuque Monument

If you want to take a scenic walk, visit the Julien Dubuque Monument. This monument honors the founder of the first Euro-American settlement in the area. Aside from the memorial, the area overlooks the Mississippi River and is beautifully nestled in greenery. 

Crystal Lake Cave

Lastly, if you want a unique experience, check out the Crystal Lake Cave. This cave was discovered in 1868 when miners discovered it by accident. There’s even a shallow lake and white crystal clusters hanging down from the cave ceiling. 

Next Stop: St. Louis, MO

After your five-hour drive, you will land at the next road trip stop: St. Louis, Missouri. 

The first (and most obvious) stop for your St. Louis visit is the Gateway Arch. The arch is visible from anywhere in the city, and it’s actually the highest man-made monument in the US. If you want to visit the top of the arch, all it takes is a four-minute ride in a tram. At the observation deck, you’ll get an incredible view of the entire city, as well as the Mississippi River. 

St. Louis EAT Tours

If you want to experience local spots in St. Louis is to take an EAT food tour. 

This tour lasts three hours and takes you through mom-and-pop shops, butcher shops, popular local restaurants, and more. You will get to have a taste at every stop and talk to the shop owners about the history of their restaurant. You’ll try some delicious local food and feel immersed in the city’s culture. 

If you are ready to spend some more time outside, head over to the Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park. This park spans over 2,145 acres and has activities for everyone. You can take a paddleboard, kayak, or canoe out into the water, as well as hike on the 3.8-mile loop that surrounds the lake. There are also plenty of playgrounds if you have young kids on your trip.

Also, be sure to check out the schedules for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Onward to Memphis, TN

A little over four hours away from St. Louis is Memphis, Tennessee. 

Because Memphis has a robust musical background, check out the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. 

This museum was established by the Smithsonian institution and will give you the history of rock and soul. Along the way, you’ll read about important musicians who built part of their careers in Memphis. 

There is a wonderful audio tour you can take through the museum that can last five hours and includes the history of more than 100 songs. You will also be able to see iconic costumes, instruments, and other important artifacts. 

If you want to spend time outside, head over to Shelby Farms Park. This beautiful park spreads over 4,500 acres with many ponds and lakes. The lakes invite visitors to go fishing and boating, and the surrounding area has plenty of biking and hiking trails.

Lastly, to end the night, head over to Beale Street. This is an iconic street in Memphis that stretches over two miles and has countless restaurants and blues clubs. This street has been an important part of history for many different blues and jazz musicians. 

Even if you usually don’t listen to blues or jazz music, check out some of the music clubs to get a true taste of Memphis’s history. 

Arriving in Marianna and Helena, AK

Just under an hour’s drive from Memphis is our next stop, Marianna and Helena, Arkansas. These towns are only 30 minutes apart, so you can experience the best of both places in the same day. 

Mississippi River State Park

First, you should check out the Mississippi River State Park. 

This park, located on the Mississippi River, has countless things to do. Just like many of the other parks we have mentioned, this park has plenty of hiking trails, opportunities to rent a canoe or kayak, and open waters to swim. 

However, at this park, you can also go golfing, mountain biking, horseback riding, climbing, snorkeling, and so much more. You should also check out their events schedule since they often host concerts. 

Helena hosts an annual Blues Festival every October, so, if you can, try to plan this stop of your trip to align with this event! However, if that’s not doable, head over to the Helena River Park boardwalk, which will give you the space to take a walk and learn about the history of the area. 

For food, definitely check out Jones Bar-B-Que. This restaurant is one of the oldest Black-owned spots in the country. It’s a classic restaurant that is loved by tourists and locals alike and is an excellent opportunity to try a traditional barbeque meal. 

Heading to Natchez, MS

A little under 5 hours away from Marianna and Helena is Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez is known for its beautiful riverside scenery and its historic houses. 

First, check out the Auburn Museum & Historic Home. This mansion was built in 1812, and visitors are welcome to book a tour of the entire mansion. This house will give a great insight into the classic architecture of this time and area. 

If you want to tour another historic mansion, check out Magnolia Hall. This is a well-maintained Greek estate filled with mid-19th-century antiques. 

Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture

Next, head over to the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. 

This museum will give you the history of African Americans in the southern United States. It covers important moments in the enslavement period, the Civil War, the Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Era. This is an important step to understanding the history of the place you are traveling through and the cultural context of Natchez. 

Biscuits and Blues

Lastly, if you want a one-stop shop for southern food, head over to Biscuits & Blues. The food here includes options like crab-stuffed biscuits, po’boys, ribs, oysters, and so much more. This restaurant also hosts live music performances every night, usually by blues musicians.

Finishing Up in New Orleans, LA

Only a three-hour drive away from Natchez is the last stop on the Great River road trip: New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Don’t Miss the French Quarter

During the day, you will definitely want to check out the French Quarter. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city and is full of history. This quarter is home to historic jazz clubs, cathedrals, and other iconic New Orleans buildings. This area also overlooks the Mississippi River, giving it a beautiful view. 

New Orleans Bike Tours

To get a taste of everything New Orleans has to offer, take a tour with FreeWheelin’ Bike Tours. You can take a private or group tour, in which a local guide will take you through City Park, the Garden District, and the French Quarter. New Orleans is a beautiful city, and a bike tour is a great way to be immersed in the city. 

Mardi Gras World Tour

Even if your trip does not line up with the timing of Mardi Gras, you can still get the quintessential New Orleans experience with a Mardi Gras World Tour. 

This one-day tour will walk you through Blaine Ken Studios. Here, you will see how the iconic Mardi Gras floats are built. Also, the experts will fill you in on the history of Mardis Gras and a rundown on how the holiday is pulled off. 

Bourbon Street

Lastly, end your night with a celebration on Bourbon Street. This street is filled with neon lights, Jazz music, nightclubs, and bars. This street always feels like a party and is a great place to grab a drink and cheer to the end of your Great River road trip. 

Listen While You Drive

The Great River road trip is a long stretch, and you want to make sure you’re entertained and engaged while driving to avoid sleepiness and make the most of your trip. 

Autio is a location-based audio platform that shares stories about the people, places, and history of the states you visit. Not does Autio allow you to learn about the history of the Mississippi River, but you will also learn about the states and cities that you drive through along the way. 

The innovative app connects generations by bringing the landscape to life and sharing stories that surprise, inform, and delight the listener. Sign up to gain access to thousands of bite-sized, location-based audio clips through your account

Sources:

Mississippi River | American Rivers 

New Orleans - History | Britannica

History of French Quarter | FQMD.org

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