Plan the perfect Great River Road trip itinerary.

By Katy Spratte Joyce
August 29, 2020
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Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

The Great River Road, arguably the queen of American road trips, is a National Scenic Byway that follows the mighty Mississippi River through 10 states and for thousands of miles. It winds and stretches across the country, all the way from the gentle headwaters at glacial Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, just past lively New Orleans. Planning on tackling the nearly 3,000-mile route? Read on for nine can’t-miss stops along the Great River Road.

1. Headwaters, Minnesota

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The Mississippi River begins near Park Rapids, Minnesota, ensconced within Itasca State Park, the oldest state park in the state. There, visitors can view the headwaters of the river and glacial Lake Itasca, as well as stand in the softly flowing water as it begins its long journey. Embrace the stunning Northwoods surroundings and enjoy recreational activities like camping, hiking, fishing, and more. Be sure to snap a photo with the famous sign that reads: “Here, 1,475 feet above the ocean, the mighty Mississippi begins to flow on its winding way, 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.” It’s a classic way to begin your Great River Road trip. Pro tip: To avoid the crowds, consider a sunrise visit.

2. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota

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The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul form the largest metropolitan area on the Mississippi River. Check out the water views from the hill at Gold Medal Park, which celebrates the area’s past as a flour-producing behemoth. Another quintessential Minneapolis river moment can be found at the Stone Arch Bridge, which remains open to the public. Solid restaurants with water vistas include Aster Cafe, Wilde Cafe & Spirits, Hideaway Burger Bar, and Jefe, all of which come with large patios for safer outdoor dining.

The Mississippi River, and the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (the only national park dedicated exclusively to the Mississippi), run through the heart of Minneapolis. Park rangers offer Paddle With a Ranger events regularly throughout the area, but the most unique place to experience the river is above St. Anthony Falls, where you’ll see bald eagles soaring overhead and the Minneapolis skyline in front.

Stay on Nicollet Island, a natural island in the middle of the river that offers impressive skyline and dam views along with classic Victorian architecture. Part of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, the island is on the National Register of Historic Places. Rest your head at the quaint Nicollet Island Inn before continuing your Great River Road trip.

3. Lake Pepin, Wisconsin and Minnesota

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This stunning lake — the widest natural part of the Mississippi River — straddles the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s noteworthy for its cute river towns with world-class food, like Chef Shack in Bay City and Harbor View Cafe in Pepin (offering either a food truck setup or to-go options during this time). Plus, waterskiing was invented on the Minnesota side, in the accurately named Lake City. For the best vistas, drive Wisconsin State Highway 35 and stop at the numerous designated overlooks. The Maiden Rock option is especially stunning with its dramatic cliff backdrop, heartbreaking backstory, and sweeping views of Lake Pepin and the bluffs that embrace her. Tip: Consider exploring some of the stops along the Great River Road Wine Trail, many of which are clustered in this area.

4. Dubuque, Iowa

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Roughly a four-hour drive south of the Lake Pepin region lies Dubuque, Iowa. Situated on the shores of the Mississippi, this scenic town offers ideal views from Eagle Point Park, the Fenelon Place Elevator Company, and the Riverwalk. (There’s a Heritage Trail that leads from the Riverwalk to the nearby Field of Dreams for those seeking a baseball-focused side trip.) Winning area eateries include 7 Hills Brewing Company, L. May Eatery, and Stone Cliff Winery. For those with time to spare, don’t miss the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which will delight all ages with its interactive exhibits.

Spending the night? Stay at Hotel Julien, a pretty boutique property in the heart of the historic Old Main district. On your way out of town, check out one of the most show-stopping views on the river, in Mines of Spain Recreation Area, just south of Dubuque. Home to the stunning limestone Julien Dubuque Monument, this place overlooks the spot where the Mississippi meets Catfish Creek, and it’s all part of a National Historic Landmark area.

5. St. Louis, Missouri

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The Gateway City is a quintessential stop on any Great River Road tour. Visitors should make time for its remarkable Gateway Arch, with a newly redesigned museum. Other great spots include the quirky City Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Additionally, families will love the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station. St. Louis is also having a culinary moment, with tons of excellent eateries like Lona’s Lil Eats, iNDO, Balkan Treat Box, and Olive + Oak spread around the metro area.

Stay at the approachable yet luxurious Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, which is home to multiple on-site dining options as well as a spa haven. Or, opt for the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton property that offers a light show for happy hour each night in the well-appointed lobby.

6. Memphis, Tennessee

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With nicknames like Bluff City and the Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll, the city of Memphis is another ideal stop on any Great River Road itinerary. You can’t visit Memphis without moseying down famed Beale Street to hear some blues; Beale Street is conveniently located next to to the Riverbluff Walkway, which offers impressive views of the Mississippi. Also, be sure to spend some time wandering the South Main Arts District, home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which belongs on all Memphis bucket lists.

Overnighters should stay at The Peabody, or at the very least plan to see its famous duck residents in the lobby. And, in a city known for its barbecue, travelers can expect excellence at Central BBQ, and The Bar-B-Q Shop. For a taste of history, visit Memphis’ oldest restaurant, Coletta’s. It serves BBQ pizza, a longtime favored dish of the King himself, Elvis.

7. Marianna and Helena, Arkansas

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Just an hour from the Memphis metro, these charming Arkansas towns are situated near the banks of the Mississippi. One excellent spot to stop is the Mississippi River State Park, which offers kayaking, camping, fishing and hiking opportunities; it’s also the newest state park in Arkansas. Nearby, Delta-style BBQ can be enjoyed at the award-winning Jones Bar-B-Que Diner, which has been recognized as one of the oldest Black-owned restaurants in America and is a James Beard American Classic.

The old port town of Helena, roughly 20 miles from Marianna, is the only downtown area on the river from Memphis to Vicksburg. It offers stunning river views and a legendary annual Blues Festival. Wander the Helena River Park boardwalk to learn about the history of the area and stretch your legs after driving.

8. Natchez, Mississippi

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A longtime southern gem, Natchez contains examples of antebellum architecture and is actually the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. Explore Natchez National Historical Park, dine at The Camp or Cotton Alley Cafe, and stay at the 1888 Wensel House Bed & Breakfast. Road trip veterans may also want to consider driving part of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a historic trading route that ends in Middle Tennessee.

Fun fact: True Blood fans will recognize the popular octagonal mansion of Longwood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Consider Natchez Pilgrimage Tours to visit the site and more.

9. New Orleans, Louisiana

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Interestingly, the Big Easy is home to the naturally deepest spot on the Mississippi River, right off of Algiers Point. Great views of the French Quarter and river itself can be enjoyed from the neighborhood of the same name on the West Bank of the river; this area is best accessed via ferry. Another area highlight includes the vast City Park, home to a free outdoor sculpture garden, botanical garden, and the world’s oldest stand of mature live oaks. Look for the famous “Singing Oak” tree, an installation meant to showcase the idea that there’s always music in the air in New Orleans.

New Orleans also happens to be one of America’s best food cities, with endless culinary possibilities. Make time for Commander’s Palace, Herbsaint, and Shaya. First-time visitors to the city should also consider the touristy but iconic Cafe du Monde for chicory coffee and beignets. For those wanting to venture into the suburbs, take the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway to the area’s best brewery, the Abita Brewing Company in Covington. The Purple Haze and Big Easy IPA are two well-liked offerings.

By late 2020, the brand-new Four Seasons New Orleans will open its doors right on Canal Street. Consider this luxurious stay or a night at the historic and gorgeous Roosevelt Hotel.