Great River Road Trip Planner: Six Highlights to Consider

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Are you looking for a Great River Road itinerary? This iconic American road trip can be driven in one fell swoop, or divided into multiple road trips to stretch out your travel pleasure.

Thanks to Betsy Wuebker, from Passing Thru, our readers have a Great River Road trip planner to help begin sorting out the many things to do along the Great River Road. This amazing journey parallels the mighty Mississippi River, one of the longest rivers in North America, for the ultimate U.S. road trip journey.

Great River Road trip planner for boomer travelers

The Great River Road is a 3,000 mile long National Scenic Byway and Federal Highway Administration All-American Road (website here). The road travels along the spine of the United States, from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota to the river’s delta and mouth in New Orleans. Its combination routes run along both sides of the river through ten different states.

You can download a Great River Road Trip Planner at this helpful site, which has extensive itineraries and a map of the Great River Road. The itineraries are based on a variety of interests, ranging from history, music and culture, and food, to mini-trips. If you’re interested in a shorter trip, click on the Great River Road map by individual state to pull up ideas and begin planning.

The best things to do along the Great River Road

a barge traveling down the Mississippi River with green trees on both banks
You’ll find plenty of interesting scenes along the Great River Road. Photo by Betsy Wuebker.

On a recent Great River Road trip, my husband and I filled in the gaps and can now boast that we’ve traveled the famous road’s length from Minnesota to New Orleans! Consider these highlights when planning your own Great River Road trip.

While there are an extensive number of attractions, historic sites and points of interest along the Great River Road, in this article I will focus on half a dozen highlights along its length to pique your interest.

Great River Road Minnesota: The headwaters of the Mississippi

Rare is the person who can say they’ve walked across the great Mississippi River, but at its headwaters at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, you can do just that!

In Minnesota, Great River Road enthusiasts make their way to Lake Itasca with one specific purpose in mind: to slow-walk across the stepping stones that mark the origin of the USA’s mightiest waterway. This rite of passage is super popular with young and old alike, and as safe as you’ll get with only a few inches of water to fall into should you lose your balance.

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Located within the 32,000 protected acres of Itasca State Park – Minnesota’s oldest, dating from 1891 – the headwaters are only one of many attractions for visitors to enjoy. The Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary dates from 1939, established to protect typical wilderness as it was before European settlement and logging changed the typical Great Lakes pine forest landscape.

If you’re not interested in camping at one of 200 sites, you can book a stay at the historic Douglas Lodge, rent a smaller cabin, or a ten-room house that will accommodate the entire family.

Great River Road Iowa: River bluff country

Dotted with 19th century storybook towns, the Iowa Great River Road route often travels high above the water line.

History buffs will want to check out the Effigy Mounds National Monument, a sacred space comprised of 200 earthen mounds constructed in the late Woodland period (1400-750 BP) in the shapes of animals and spirits. This cultural phenomenon is unique to the region.

Visitors to Dubuque shouldn’t miss the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and the Mathias Ham Historical Site. Both properties are the result of visionaries from the Dubuque Historical Society, and affiliated with the Smithsonian. The Ham Historical Site is comprised of several vintage buildings, including the oldest building in Iowa, the Arriandeaux cabin.

Just north of the Missouri border, charming little Keokuk is home to the George M. Verity Riverboat Museum, dedicated to the 19th century steamboat traffic that created an economic powerhouse.

Great River Road Missouri: Gateway to exploration

Wooden building with sign saying "Lewis & Clark Boat House and Museum"
Learn about the Lewis & Clark expedition. Photo by Betsy Wuebker.

Just north of St Louis and its famous Gateway Arch, the 18th century community of St Charles is a must-see. This is the rendezvous point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the explorers who set off from what was a bustling river town filled with the promise of a new America.

Boomer Travel Tip

Read more about the Lewis and Clark expedition in Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose.

St. Charles was the original capital of Missouri, and boasts itself as the home of iconic frontiersman and patriot, Daniel Boone. Its historic Main Street is a modern-day shopping and dining mecca. Don’t miss Frenchtown, to Main Street’s north, home to a variety of creative artisans and antique collections.

The new Lewis and Clark Boathouse and Museum is a multi-dimensional presentation of the historic expedition, told via interactive exhibits, replica boats, re-enactments, and cultural activities. See the National Geographic film about the journey on site, and enjoy the nature trail and spectacular river views.

Great River Road Tennessee: Musical icons in memphis

Memphis, Tennesee is the civic gateway to two quintessentially American musical genres: blues and rock and roll. The musical epicenter of Memphis is Beale Street – a 2-mile stretch dating from 1841 traveling east of the Mississippi.

Beale Street became a musical destination in the early 1900s, when trumpeter W. C. Handy was recommended by Booker T. Washington as a teacher for the Memphis mayor’s local Knights of Pythias band. Handy went on to write classics such as “Beale Street Blues and “Memphis Blues.” Performers such as brothers B.B. King, Albert King, Louis Armstrong, and Muddy Waters played the street from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Memphis became the crossroads of blues and rock’nroll when a young performer named Elvis Presley recorded here with Sun Records in 1954. Don’t miss Graceland, the surprisingly modest mansion Tupelo-born Elvis built about halfway between downtown Memphis and the Mississippi state border.

Great River Road Mississippi: Blues and bayous

In Mississippi, the Great River Road melds Civil War and antebellum history with flavorful Delta Blues, a combination of experiences with something for just about everyone in the mix.

bridge over a wide river with an orange sunset
A beautiful Natchez sunset. Photo by Betsy Wuebker.

Civil War era attractions and historical sites in Vicksburg and Natchez tell the story of pivotal battles and an era that would draw to a close. In Vicksburg, the National Military Park and the USS Cairo Museum and Gunboat are must-stops for an understanding of the city’s strategic importance and the catastrophic siege.

The French established Natchez in the 18th century. Ceded to the British by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, it’s one of the oldest settlements in the Lower Mississippi region, and served as territorial and state capital until 1822. A principal location for agricultural exports, Natchez is home to a number of architecturally significant plantation mansions.

The Mississippi Blues Trail offers a network of marked, historical sites throughout the state that are important in the world of blues music. Sites range from musicians’ birthplaces to bayou and backwoods juke joints and dance halls.

In the Delta region, the trail will bring you to places frequented by musical greats such as Charley Parker, Robert Johnson, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cooke. We downloaded a handy smartphone app to create our own itinerary and keep track of the sites we visited.

Great River Road Louisiana: The Crescent City – New Orleans

Turquoise painted house surrounded by green trees
When your Great River Road trip ends at the Gulf of Mexico, spend time exploring New Orleans. Photo by Betsy Wuebker

The culmination of our Great River Road trip was a stay in New Orleans ( read my tips for how to spend 2 days in New Orleans). Here, the Mississippi River provides personality and acts as a hub for commerce and tourism. New Orleans and its sister Port of South Louisiana is the 4th largest port system in the United States.

The New Orleans Riverfront is a gathering place, featuring community events and festivals, as well as an annual 4th of July fireworks display. Sculpture installations – Allesandrini’s “Monument to the Immigrant,” Schoen’s “Old Man River,” and the Holocaust Memorial – add important emphasis.

Riverfront streetcar and rail traffic happens along the French Quarter corridor, with pedestrian and cyclist friendly Crescent Park’s 20 acres linking the French Market district to the waterfront. Follow barge and shipping traffic along the dramatic riverbend where the French Quarter of the Crescent City is situated and gave it its name.

I hope these highlights of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway will tempt you into a plan. You can experience this crown jewel of American road trips in its 3000 mile entirety, or in smaller, regional doses, as my husband and I did. Either way, we’re sure you’ll agree that it’s an experience not to be missed!

Thanks to Betsy for some great tips. To continue your planning consider these suggestions for more things to do, where to stay and RV campgrounds along the Great River Road.

Add these fun things to do to your itinerary

  • Bald Eagle Bluff and the National Eagle Center in Minnesota are exceptional places to learn more about our national symbol.
  • St. Feriole Island in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin celebrates the early settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley with historic reenactments and a beautifully restored Victorian estate.
  • Hannibal, Missouri will delight you with its ghost tours, Mark Twain historical sites and riverboat cruises.
  • Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee is also a major waterfowl sanctuary. Birding enthusiasts and wildlife photography buffs will especially love this stop along the Great River Road.
  • Memphis Riverboat Cruises are the perfect way to experience the power of the Mississippi River. Learn more about the history, culture and wildlife of the Mississippi.
  • The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi gives visitors a big dose of the music that grew up along this mighty river.
  • LSU Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge is a fantastic place for families. This well-planned outdoor museum details life on a Louisiana plantation, complete with farm animals!
  • Vidalia, Louisiana will take your breath away with its river views, riverboats and charming southern hospitality.

Where to stay on a Great River Road trip

This itinerary takes you through Americana at its best. While national hotel chains are easy and convenient, this trip calls for the more authentic accommodations that you’ll find in historic hotels, inns or bed and breakfasts. Start your search here.

The best campgrounds for RV travelers

Here’s a quick guide to exceptional RV camping along the Great River Road:

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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