Of course. the tourist potential of North America’s most famous river has been discovered a long time ago in America. Since 1938, the Great River Road has guided tourists along the banks of the Mississippi river. This road however is a series of interconnecting local and regional roads that form a route by means of consistent, uniform signage. That route is sticking close to the river banks all the way from Minnesota to Louisiana (or vice versa). Our route touches the Great River Road in some places, but it also drifts away from it from time to time to allow for discoveries of culture and everyday life in America’s heartland.
While the actual source of the Mississippi river, Lake Itasca, is located some 100 miles to the West, the river for the first few kilometers is so narrow and nondescript that one has a hard time believing that these waters grow to become a mighty stream. Thus, our journey begins in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The town got its name from the river’s rapids which in earlier times marked the northern end of the Mississippi’s navigable sections. In fact, the city with a population of almost 11,000 grew because of the river which was seen as the ideal transportation route for the wood produced here. From a tourist’s view, Grand Rapids is an interesting place: guests are lured here by the coloring of the leaves in fall, in June it’s a Blues festival and for the rest of the year, there is the Judy Garland Museum, located in the house the Hollywood star was born in (2727 Highway 169 South). For river tourists, a visit to the Forest History Center (on Highway US 169) is recommendable. There, a lumberjack’s village was reconstructed, representing the origin of today’s Grand Rapids. “Residents” in authentic costumes show visitors how life was around 1900 at and around the river. On the village’s perimeter, there are some hiking trails at the river bank.
Following Highway 169 and then routes 210 and 371, the traveler takes a shortcut as compared to the run of the river and arrives in Little Falls, Minnesota (photo) after about two hours. This town also owes its existence to the Mississippi in large parts, because the “little falls” that gave the town with some 8,300 residents its name have been used to generate electricity for more than 150 years. That made it possible for companies settling here which in turn fueled a modest growth. While the dam itself isn’t particularly interesting to see, the city does have another attraction, as it is the place where Charles Lindbergh spent a lot of time in his childhood. At the Lindbergh Historic Site (1620 Lindbergh Drive South), there is a reconstruction of the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis on display. At the State Park named after him, visitors can explore the Mississippi on hikes or by canoe.
Those taking a liking to the latter activity might want to take another stop only 50 kilometers farther south. Near the city of St. Cloud, which used to be a regular steamboat stop, the Mississippi river was turned into a dedicated recreation area on a length of two miles. Some 30 islands have formed in the river here, they are a popular excursion destination for canoeists. About 100 kilometers to the South from here, the Mississippi passes through the twin cities of Minneapolis - St. Paul. Here, the Great River Road divides into a western and an eastern route. For several miles, this is followed by a thinly populated area. If you don’t necessarily want to drive directly at the river banks, you can go a bit quicker for some distance by using Interstates 35 and 380. The alternative to that is taking smaller roads to Dubuque, Iowa, about 400 kilometers away.
Dubuque has a population of just above 57,000 and is located at the statelines between Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. The town has been awarded a number of times for its townscape and is popular with tourists. It was in large parts stamped by German immigrants. Also, the Mississippi river plays an important role for Dubuque. Right at the river’s bank, there is a modern, multifunctional event center that connects to a hotel and a waterpark. In the harbor area, there are two casinos that bring many visitors to town. Those coming to Dubuque because of the Mississippis however certainly are rather interested in the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (350 East Third Street), where several aquarium tanks convey a good impression of how many facets the river habitat has.
From Dubuque, it is about four hours by car to get to one of the must-see stops for river tourists: Hannibal, Missouri. The small town, today boasting a population of about 18,000, is the place where Mark Twain, probably the most famous chronicler of life at the Mississippi spent his childhood; the authir also used Hannibal as the backdrop of his stories about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The most popular attraction is, correspondingly, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum (206-208 Hill Street). Here, visitors can explore Twain’s home and see some of his personal assets as well as first editions of his books at the museum. In addition, there is an exhibition of paintings by Norman Rockwell.
Only about 200 kilometers farther, there is another interesting stop waiting: Alton, Illinois, only a few miles from St. Louis. Fans of the paranormal consider Alton to be America’s capital of spook. Rumor has it that several buildings here are haunted and there are guided ghost tours available. Near Alton, the Missouri River and the Illinois River flow into the Mississippi. The town was founded in 1818, when a ferry operator recognized the location as being beneficial for his business. Also because of that location however, the town suffered from floodings several times in history. In the great flooding of 1993, the water stayed in town for half a year. Famous for its picturesque cityscape and the many cobblestoned streets, Alton is a popular spot for marriage ceremonies.
Another 230 kilometers further to the south, in neighboring Missouri, there is Cape Girardeau, a college town with 38,000 residents. Heré, the municipal flood wall is worth seeing, which has been painted with 24 large-scale motives out of the region’s history. Behind that wall, there is Riverfront Park, where the famous riverboats make a stop on their route between St. Louis and New Orleans. An observation platform there provides a great vista of the Mississippi river below. Back on the other riverbank, Cairo, Illinois is worth a stop, where the Mississippi and the Ohio River flow together. Cairo is entirely surrounded by floodwalls. It had come to a notable level of prosperity around 1900 thanks to its function as a transportation hub. A number of splendid mansions in town are proof of this chapter in history. The next bridge one can use to cross the river after Cairo only comes up near the small town of Caruthersville, Missouri some 130 kilometers to the south.
Starting in Cairo, one can instead also choose to continue south on Interstate 55 and thus gets to the largest city in Tennessee about 2,5 hours later this way, Memphis. This city has a lot of attractions to offer, in particular those with a music background, as Memphis is a hotspot for music and the epitome of the South’s cultural diversity. Downtown is located on a hill right at the Mississippi and the river plays an important role in everyday life of the people residing here. It also forms a magnificent, ideal backdrop for the numerous festivals and cultural events that take place here in the summer. The city is still an important place for the transportation industry, even though not many goods are still being transported over the river. Memphis’ port nevertheless is one of the most important in the American inland. For river tourists, Memphis offers tours on paddle wheel steamers on the Mississippi as well as numerous hiking and biking trails along the riverbanks.
Continuing the journey south, one crosses through rather thinly populated areas next. A good option for a break stop comes up after some two hours of driving in the Great River Road State Park near Rosedale, Mississippi. From an observation tower, this State Park offers a nice view of the river and it’s located in beautiful scenery. The next larger place coming up is then Greenville, having a population of about 34,000. Greenville itself doesn’t have any noteworthy attractions. But this is the area that is known as the Mississippi Delta; an area full of paled beauty, where the Blues is at home. To be exact, Greenville is located on a lake that has formed from an old arm of the river. There are several of these crescent-shaped lakes in this region, including one a few miles farther south near the small town of Lake Providence, Louisiana.
From there, you follow Highway 65 towards Tallulah and there turn onto Interstate 20 East, from where you get to the other side of the river and to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The town, counting about 26,000 residents, was the location of a decisive battle in the American Civil War and afterwards developed into an important hub for both goods and passenger traffic on the river. Just like in Cape Girardeau, the town’s floodwall have been beautified with large-scale murals depicting scenes from regional history. The other attractions in the city are about history as well. These include a National Military Park which encompasses the former battlefield. Another 120 kilometers down the road, Natchez, Mississippi comes up, another must-do. The town is very popular with tourists. The city, which has been founded by Natives who had already been living in the area more than 1,000 years ago. Natchez had become a very affluent town in the mid- 19th century with numerous cotton plantations existing in and around town. Magnificent mansions in the characteristical architecture of the South were tokens of this wealth that can still be seen today. The best place to see those is Natchez National Historical Park, a place that is often used in Hollywood productions when scenes showing antebellum times are to be shot. The best view of the Mississippi river in Natchez can be had from Bluff Park (South Broadway).
Here, the river marks the stateline between Mississippi and Louisiana and continues to do so for a few more miles. From Natchez, it takes another 150 kilometers to get to Baton Rouge, using the shortest route which is a bit off the river’s course. Baton Rouge counts some 230,000 residents, which makes it the second-largest town in the state. After the town had developed and grown as a transportation hub on the Mississippi, it experienced a new boom time in the 1950s, being home to the petroleum industry. The area is among the nation’s fastest-growing. The Baton Rouge port is the port being the farthest inland that can still be reached by ocean vessels. It is thus an important element for the economic strength of Louisiana’s capital. There are a number of magnificent historic mansions from the 19th century to be seen here - a few former plantation buildings have been opened up for touring-, the State Capitol and a wide range of cultural highlights as well as a large number of museums.
After another drive of about 1.5 hours, you’ll get to New Orleans, the culture hub of this region. This city’s music is just as famous as its cuisine and after the big blow “The Big Easy” had suffered from Hurrican Katrina, the town has today grown to almost 390,000 residents again and it has also again become a popular tourist destination. The city’s downtown area stretches along both banks of the Mississippi and thus it’s only a few yards from the river to the famous French Quarter, where the historic buildings form the backdrop for the world-famous atmosphere of Bourbon Street. Magazine Street follows the river’s course for a while, there are many interesting small stores here, restaurants and boutiques. A number of companies are offering round trips on the river, partly using authentoc steamships. Around the city, there are several of the famous bayous one can discover, these are directly connected to the Mississippi. One example is Honey Island Swamp, a well-preserved wilderness area and nature preserve. Also worth an excursion is Audubon Park a bit outside of the central city area. The park has been founded in the late 19th century, is located directly at the river and is a famous birding preservation area.
Behind New Orleans, the Mississippi increasingly frays out into bayous, lakes and swamp areas. If you still didn’t get enough of the river, you may take Louisiana Route 23 down for about another 100 kilometer and visit Fort Jackson, which has been built in 1822 to protect New Orleans from the coast line. The fort, which has been in the focus of Civil War battles, was repeatedly damaged by severe storms, but it is open for sightseeing.