Scenic Byway – The Great River Road

The river moves, but it follows a path. When it tires of one journey, it rubs through some rock to forge a new way. Hard work, but that’s its nature.

Kekla Magoon
Photo by: Terrance Raper on Unsplash

This is a really cool scenic road. In fact, September is officially “Drive the Great River Road” month. Part of this road runs directly next to my office on Front street in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. (This is a great place to stop and try some world renowned BBQ). The Great River Road is over 3,000 miles long and skirts the Mighty Mississippi River nearly the entire way. This “road” is made up of several scenic highways that were strategically chosen to follow the path of the river and to give drivers the best samples of local culture, music and good eats!

Here is a map of the entire route (Map Provided by Google Earth)

Look for the signs – the paddlewheel signs to be exact!

The Great River Road is very well marked with its iconic “Paddlewheel” Logo. You will see this on every sign. The drive itself is nearly 36 hours if you drive it non-stop. We don’t recommend this. Take some time and make a week-long trip out of it. In fact, we didn’t travel the entire length of the route. We wanted to stop and to enjoy some of the sites along the way. Here are some of the great things that we saw on our trip!

Must See Views:

Illinois:

  • Old Chain of Rocks Bridge – Madison –  Chain of Rocks Bridge is one of the more interesting bridges in America.  It’s hard to forget a 30-degree turn midway across a mile-long bridge more than 60 feet above the mighty Mississippi.  For more than three decades, the bridge was a significant landmark for travelers driving Route 66. 
  • Sunset Park – Rock Island – Sunset Park sits on 250 acres of wooded parkland featuring Lake Potter, a 50-acre protected lake, with an outlet to the Mississippi. Sunset Park is the starting point for the 65 mile Quad Cities’ bike path on the Riverway Trails system. View a detailed map of the park.
  • Mississippi River Welcome Center – Rock Island – is located on the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois at Locks & Dam 15, overlooking the Upper Mississippi River. Since the early 1800s, the Corps of Engineers has been instrumental in making the river navigable for both commercial and recreational vessels. From January to March each year visitors come from all around to see the many Bald Eagles that flock to the locks and dams on the Mississippi during the winter months to feed. In early spring the river opens to commercial navigation. From April through mid-December visitors from around the world come to watch boats pass through the locks.
Mississippi River Photo by Justin Wilkens on Unsplash

Iowa:

  • Pikes Peak State Park – McGregor – is a state park of Iowa, US, featuring a 500-foot bluff overlooking the Upper Mississippi River opposite the confluence of the Wisconsin River. It covers nearly a thousand acres. The nearest city is McGregor, Iowa.  No, this isn’t a view of THE Pikes Peak in Colorado. The park gets its name from the Iowa incarnation of Pikes Peak, a particularly high point overlooking the gorge of the Upper Mississippi, and like Pikes Peak in Colorado, is also named for Zebulon Pike.

Minnesota:

  • Great River Bluffs State Park – Winona – High on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, scenic overlooks are easily reached by walking trails and offer a chance to getaway in the quiet bluff country. Oak-hickory woods, pine plantations, and goat prairies provide excellent birding, scenery, hiking on over 6 miles of trails and 9 miles of mostly intermediate level cross-country ski trails. A quiet park ideal for bird watching, hiking, and camping.
  • Garvin Heights City Park – Winona – If you have a hankering for a snack while taking in the sights and sounds of Winona from the best seat in the house, stop up at Garvin Heights for an unforgettable picnic. Picnic tables and trash bins are available to help keep the heights in pristine condition, and hiking trails lead to sky-high perches along the ledges of the bluff.
  • John A. Latsch State Park – Minneiska – This 450-acre day-use park offers a picnic area, vault toilet, hand pump water, and a scenic overlook 500 feet above the Mississippi River. Adjacent to Whitman Dam, John A. Latsch State Park features a half-mile trail of 592 steps leading to the top of Mt. Charity. (Open Seasonally from March – December)
  • Summit Avenue – St. Paul – Summit Avenue is home to the longest stretch of Victorian-era homes in the United States? Learn more about the origin and preservation of this iconic Saint Paul street. Here, you’ll find an astounding 373 of the street’s original 440 homes. The historic area’s mansions represent a variety of architectural styles, including the longest preserved stretch of Victorian-era homes in the nation.
  • The MNI CAN Barn Bluff – Red Wing – He Mni Can-Barn Bluff is one of the best-known natural features along the upper Mississippi River. It is significant for its geology and its association with prehistoric and native peoples, as well as the exploration of the upper Mississippi region of the early nineteenth century.  From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, it has been a location for travel, industry, tourism, and recreation. A many-layered interpretation of the feature is evident in local legend, as well as in published historical and scientific accounts, works of art, and photography.

Missouri:

  • Old Mississippi River Bridge Scenic Outlook – Cape Girardeau – When the bridge was completed, in the summer of 1928, it was hailed as “The Gateway to the Ozarks.” It provided an invaluable and vital link between Missouri and Illinois. A small, restored portal of the old bridge is all that remains. At the overlook, there is a viewing scope that provides a commanding view of the Mississippi River. There is access to the River Campus Trail, which provides a leisurely walkway along these historic grounds, bordering the river. Interpretive signage is located along the trail. A new bridge, The Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, opened in December, 2003 to replace the bridge of 1928.
  • Trail of Tears State Park – Jackson – Gain a better understanding of one of the saddest chapters in American history at Trail of Tears State Park, where nine of the 13 Cherokee Indian groups being relocated to Oklahoma crossed the Mississippi River during harsh winter conditions in 1838 and 1839. The park’s visitor center tells the tale of the thousands who died on the forced march. This is a great place to watch migratory fowl!

Wisconsin:

Special Note – Park passes are required but are not being sold on-site. Please contact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Customer Service Center to purchase passes. 1-888-305-0398 – 7:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. daily.

  • Nelson Dewey State Park – Cassville Nelson Dewey State Park overlooks the Mississippi River from a 500-foot bluff. At this park combine your interest in history with your enjoyment of the outdoors. Camp, hike or picnic high above the Mighty Mississippi. Named for Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey, the park offers a rich history, featuring the Dewey home and the nearby Stonefield Historic site.
  • Wyalusing State Park – Bagley – 2,700-acre state park overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. One of Wisconsin’s oldest parks. Indian burial mounds, canoe trail, bird watching, camping, canoe rental. Wyalusing has more than 14 miles of hiking trails, Bluff, Mississippi Ridge, Old Wagon Road, Sand Cave, Sentinel Ridge, Sugar Maple Nature, Turkey Hollow, Walnut Springs and Whitetail Meadows Trail. Trails may vary in difficulty. Steep climbs or descents and stairways may be encountered. Pets are welcome in Wisconsin State Parks but must be on a leash and under control at all times. Certain areas may be off limits to pets.
  • Larson Bluff – Lynxville – Larson Bluff, just south of Lynxville, is the perfect place to view Pool #9’s pristine backwaters and maze of islands and sloughs. This is one of the wildest and most beautiful stretches of the Mississippi River. During the fall and spring, in the large pool you can see millions of waterfowl. For birdwatchers and hunters, it is one of the best places on earth to observe diving ducks of all types.
  • Grandad Bluff – La Crosse – Grandad Park opened in 1912. Grandad Bluff is the largest bluff in the La Crosse area and is well-known for its scenic overlook of La Crosse. You will see the view of Minnesota to the west and Iowa to the south. In addition to enjoying the breath-taking view, you can explore several bluffside hiking trails. Since the top of Grandad Bluff can be seen from most points in the city, it’s home to the New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration.
  • Sunny the Sunfish – Onalaska – Onalaska is known as “The Sunfish Capital of the World.” Standing at 15 feet and 25 feet long, Sunny is the fish ambassador of Onalaska. Stop by and take a picture with friendly fish! A quick drive north of downtown on Hwy 35, takes you to the Sunny the Sunfish sculpture and a scenic overlook.
  • Perrot State Park – Trempealeau – Perrot (Pear-oh) has the best view of the Mississippi anywhere, but you’ll have to work to get to it. The river is narrow here, only a half-mile wide and smack up against the bluffs. Yes, bluffs. To cover the long loop you’ll have to climb more than 250 feet several times. For an easy roll take the Wilber loop. Nearby are the Great River State Trail, a rail bed route, and the interesting village of Trempealeau. Has adaptive equipment available for people with mobility impairment including specialized kayaks. Pets are welcome in Wisconsin State Parks but must be on a leash and under control at all times. Certain areas may be off limits to pets.

Win $500 for your next Great River Road adventure!

September is Drive the Great River Road Month—a perfect time to explore the outstanding fall colors and wonderful outdoor recreation options on the National Scenic Byway that follows the Mississippi River from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, we’re giving you a chance to win $500 to spend on your next Great River Road adventure, whenever you choose to travel.

Enter today, and start planning your next Great River Road trip! Check here for details.

**DiscoveringRoadtrips.com is not affiliated with this contest.

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