From dusty folk songs to traditional fables, the Mississippi River has a storied place in the American national consciousness. Named after the Ojibwe tribe’s word for “˜Great River,’ its churning waters stretch for over 3,700 miles, from Lake Itasca in Minnesota all the way down through Louisiana and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, the Mississippi is no less impressive to travellers than it was centuries ago, and for those who want to get close to the river’s roaring rapids, there’s no better way to explore than the Great River Road.
Celebrating its 76th anniversary this year, the Great River Road is a collection of highways and scenic byways that follow the river as it wends its way southwards. Cutting through small towns that capture the essence of traditional Americana, the Great River Road, which clocks in at over 3,000 miles long, also runs through some of the most gorgeous natural scenery to be found in the continental United States, from limestone cliffs to cypress groves. Whether you’re after culture, active explorations, or just a really good road trip, the Great River Road is one of America’s most memorable journeys.
For travellers who are flying into Chicago, the Great River Road is roughly a 165-mile drive away: one of the easiest ways to get started is to join the 1-90 and head northeast. The perfect place to begin your explorations is Galena, Illinois, a town with over 100 years of history, pretty Victorian houses aplenty, and a burgeoning gallery scene. Once the home of American Civil War general and former President Ulysses S. Grant, downtown Galena is also a national historic district, with plenty of B&Bs, antique shops, and even a local vineyard. Those looking for a leisurely trip can plan a stopover here.
From Galena, visiting nature lovers can motor across state lines to Dubuque, Iowa, one of the oldest European settlements east of the river (its roots go back to the 17th century).
After those cultural stops, it’s time to take in some of the gorgeous scenery that the Great River Road affords. Located 25 miles down Route 52 is Bellevue State Park, which offers some truly breathtaking views of the sprawling river and its verdant banks. The quaint town of Bellevue is also the perfect place to spend the night: one of the oldest cities in Iowa, it has also been described as having some of the best Mississippi riverfront vistas.
Once you’ve recuperated and refreshed, head out bright and early and continue south along the river’s edge. Next on the Iowa agenda: the city of Davenport. What counts for a bustling city in this neck of the woods, Davenport’s popular tourist offerings include the River Music Experience, which aims to highlight the traditional folk music of the Mississippi region. The Figge Art Museum is another must-see, with a gorgeous glass exterior that stands like a sentinel along the banks of the river.
From Davenport, it’s time to make your way to Illinois. Just over the Centennial Bridge, Rock Island, Illinois is home to the Black Hawk State Historic Site, which honours the area’s Native American heritage. In addition to a nature centre and a museum of Native American life, the 208-acre piece of land has a scenic walking loop – perfect for stretching your legs after a long drive.
Next, follow the road downriver for more cultural discoveries. One of the quirkiest sights you’re likely to see on this portion of the Great River Road can be found in Quincy, Illinois. Villa Kathrine, a Moroccan-style villa, was built in 1900. Offering its own incredible Mississippi view, the distinctive structure is also available for tours.
No trip along the Mississippi would be complete without paying your respects to Mark Twain, one of America’s most famous authors and the man who helped popularise the region in works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, a memoir recounting his days as a steamboat pilot. Twain’s boyhood home, which houses the Mark Twain Museum, can be found just 21 miles south of Quincy in Hannibal, Missouri. Open year-round, the facilities provide a fascinating glimpse into Twain’s life and works.
Before reaching your journey’s end in St. Louis, though, there are still a few more chances to explore the region’s rich natural offerings. The stretch of riverside landscape from Quincy down through Alton, Illinois is among the most beautiful in the country: limestone bluffs hug the wide river, and forests carpet the rolling land. Falling just north of St. Louis, Pere Marquette State Park is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Visitors in the autumn can take in the colourful foliage, while nature spotters can sometimes see bald eagles circling above the churning waters. From boating to fishing to hiking, outdoor activities abound.
Once you’ve left Pere Marquette State Park, you’re but a short distance from St. Louis. While the city may more commonly be known as The Gateway to the West (think of its famous, shimmering arch), for those travelling the Great River Road it might as well be called The Gateway to the South: beyond, the Mississippi trails further into the deep, bucolic landscapes of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Whether you’re looking to plan an epic road trip or are after a shorter commune with nature, the Great River Road captures the true spirit of the Mississippi region.
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Have you ever driven along the Great River Road? What are your favourite Mississippi sights? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Written by Claire Bullen