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22 Best Things to Do Along the Great River Road

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We recently trekked the Great River Road on the scenic byway of Minnesota and Wisconsin sides. This is what we learned about how to have an incredible journey on the iconic Mississippi River.

Our trip started from Minneapolis and started along the Wisconsin side so we could do a massive circle around the Mississippi River to get both perspectives of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.

We’ve documented all the best things to do and see on your Great River Road journey to help you make the most of your trip. We will start this article from north to south to help you find the best places to see and visit along this historic road.

We’ll cover some key spots in Minneapolis along the Mississippi River and Great River Road before heading into the more small towns and outdoorsy spots in Minnesota along with Wisconsin. Then, proceed further down south to round out this epic road trip.

What to Pack for a Great River Road Trip

Here is a packing checklist of key items on your trip to ensure you have all the travel essentials.

  • Pack your camera at the top of this list because you will want to document all the incredible views.
  • Food is necessary, so include snacks, lunch, and dinner in your packing plan. Remember that some river towns are more rural, with limited options for food or gas stations. Plan accordingly.
  • Bring sunscreen and sunglasses to keep you safe from the sun’s rays or driving glare when looking at your camera phone screen in front of your face for hours.
  • Be sure to pack water bottles, snacks, and a jacket because there is no telling how long you will explore nature on your Great River Road journey.

Great River Road Trip Map

If you are headed on this journey along the Mighty Mississippi River from Minneapolis and want to follow our path, we’ve mapped out our designated route for you to enjoy and follow along.

We wanted a combination of those Great River Road Minnesota & Wisconsin river towns, historic sites, and state parks.

Difference Between Driving Along the Mississippi River & the Great River Road National Scenic Byway

Okay, yes, this national scenic byway goes right along the Mississippi River. However, a lot of people don’t realize it. Even though the river starts in Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota, the scenic byway doesn’t start until the Twin Cities.

That doesn’t mean that Itasca State Park isn’t a great Mississippi River attraction or that the Northern Minnesota section isn’t a scenic drive. Let’s break down our top attractions along the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Great River Road History

Great River Road Wisconsin - Scenic River Drive Along the Mississippi River
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The Great River Road follows the path of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles from Minnesota’s headwaters on Lake Itasca to New Orleans.

This route inspires adventure and discovery on a historical journey that takes you through time as it winds alongside some of America’s most significant landscapes. With ghost towns, historic lighthouses, and unique architecture, this Great River Road trip is a must-do for any road trip.

About the Mighty Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in North America and starts at Lake Itasca at Itasca State Park, one of Minnesota’s best state parks.

The river winds and bends its way through the central part of the United States before exiting into the Gulf Coast. It’s an incredible and fascinating body of water.

How long is the Great River Road?

The Great River Road follows the course of the Mississippi River for nearly 700 miles, extending northward from its source in Lake Itasca near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to its outlet in Venice, Louisiana.

This scenic route passes through multiple states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, before ending in Louisiana.

Minnesota

One thing we particularly liked about Minnesota’s Great River Road was that there was no shortage of excellent small towns to stop at along the way.

1. Itasca State Park

Wetland, Trees, and Skyline

Minnesota’s Itasca State Park is the perfect place to start your Great River Road Trip. This park is home to the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy the park’s natural beauty. You can hike or bike the park’s trails, go fishing or camping, or take a canoe trip down the river.

There’s also a visitor center with exhibits on the park’s history and ecology and a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs. If you’re looking for a more scenic way to experience the park, consider taking a guided tour. The park offers guided hikes, bike rides, canoe, and bus tours.

2. Stone Arch Bridge

Bridge at Night with Lights

Stone Arch Bridge is one of the most iconic spots on the Great River Road, and it’s easy to see why. It gives you a great view upriver and is just a short walk from downtown Minneapolis in either direction, so it’s an easy stop for anyone visiting this side of town.

3. Mississippi River Gorge in Minneapolis

Visit the Mississippi River Gorge Park in Minneapolis right along West River Parkway, which eventually becomes West River Road. This gorge is among the most beautiful places along the Great River Road, with its limestone rock and eagles soaring above. Check out the Winchell Trail during fall to see some of the best fall colors in the Twin Cities and the Midwest.

See Related: Minneapolis Murals You Need to Visit

4. Hastings, MN

Lake, Trees Silhouette, and Sunset

Hastings is one of the larger towns on our list, but it’s still pretty small, with only around 22,000 people living here. Hastings is an amazing place to visit at any time of the year.

However, ski and snowboard enthusiasts will probably want to be here during the winter because it’s located right next to some of the best ski resorts in Minnesota. The town is usually covered in snow for most of the winter, and the locals know how to make the most of it. 

See Related: Things to Do in Minneapolis

5. Red Wing, MN

Brick Building and Skyline

Red Wing is a town of 16,000 people and has a long-standing history. It is one of the coolest towns in the state because of its impressive architecture and enviable natural environment.

Many of the buildings on the main street were built in the 1850s. You can still see them today. The city is a great place to get those small-town vibes while having much to do. There are lots of small, family-owned restaurants and shops.

Red Wing is also home to the famous Red Wing Shoes, which has been around since 1905 and is one of the best footwear brands in the world. You can even tour their factory and check out how they make shoes! Another fun activity in town is visiting the Mars Cheese Castle.

Outside in Red Wing, there are many fun things to do, like cycling, golfing, fishing, birdwatching, and skiing. Red Wing is also close to Wabasha, so you can visit both towns on the same trip. We recommend spending time in both cities.

6. Frontenac State Park

Lake Pepin from Frontenac State Park
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Since 1912, Frontenac State Park has been attracting Great River Road tourists. The best time to visit this place is probably in the fall because the leaves turn red.

But it’s still a sight in the other seasons, too. This is a paradise for campers, although camping here isn’t free, and you’ll need to book in advance. There are 58 designated camping sites.

Frontenac State Park overlooks Lake Pepin. It’s a great place to fish for walleye, northern pike, and channel catfish. This popular park features several things to see and do, including its walking trails, bike trails, and a scenic loop that goes through the numerous bluffs of the Mississippi River.

See Related: Best Parks in St. Paul, Minnesota

7. Lake City, MN

Main Street of Lake City, Minnesota
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Lake City is a beautiful small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s a great place to visit if you’re looking for a quiet getaway, and there are plenty of things to do in the area. My favorite activities include fishing, hiking, and exploring the local history.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, I recommend the AmericInn by Wyndham Lake City. They have a variety of room options, and the staff is friendly and helpful.

And be sure to check out the local restaurants – there are some great places to eat in Lake City for classic Minnesota comfort food.

8. Wabasha, MN

Downtown Wabasha, Minnesota
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Wabasha is a small town that most people have never heard of. There are only around 2,000 people who live here. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have much fun here. This town is a great place to visit because of its various activities. One of the best things is the National Eagle Center.

The exhibition center has numerous observation decks where you can see bald eagles and learn about their habitat. If you visit with your kids or if you love America, this is the place for you.

But there’s more to this town than the National Eagle Center. The city is filled with festivals, including The Grumpy Old Men Festival in the winter, the Watermelon Festival after Labor Day, and the Riverboat Festival at the end of the year.

There are also multiple top hotels here, so if you need a break during your road trip, this is the town to do so. Check prices on Booking.com for the best possible rate. 

See Related: Best Rental Cars You Can Take Out of State

9. Winona, MN

Aerial view of Downtown Winona, Minnesota
Randy Runtsch / Adobe Stock

Winona is a picturesque town you’ll certainly want to visit while traveling the Great River Road. You can enjoy gorgeous river vistas and charming shops and restaurants there. Check out the iconic Winona Bridge while you’re in town.

If you’re searching for a place to stay in Winona, I recommend the following hotels: The Great River Road Inn, a beautiful historic hotel centrally located near downtown. It’s within walking distance of all the shops and restaurants and has a great breakfast buffet.

AmericInn by Wyndham Winona is another excellent choice. It’s also downtown Winona and features an indoor pool and free Wi-Fi. If you’re searching for an affordable option, I recommend the Days Inn Winona. It’s just outside downtown and has a complimentary continental breakfast.

See Related: Best Honeymoon Destinations in Minnesota

10. Lake Pepin

Lake Pepin from Frontenac State Park
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Lake Pepin is a beautiful lake that stretches from Minnesota to Wisconsin. It is well-known for its charming river towns with world-class dining options. The best views of the lake can be found on State Highway 35.

It’s stunning for its dramatic cliff backdrop, heart-wrenching history, sweeping view over Lake Pepin, and surrounding bluffs of the mighty Mississippi River.

See Related: How to Go on a Road Trip With Kids

Wisconsin

Technically, you can’t see all of both the Minnesota (west side of Great River Road) and Wisconsin (east side of Great River Road) sides of the Great River Road if you were planning on only heading south. But, frequently, people loop or circle both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of this scenic road.

You can cross the Minnesota state line at Hastings to see a part of both sides, or you can do it at Wabasha. These are the two most well-known spots for the river crossing.

11. Prescott, WI

Great River Road Visitor Center sign and entrance at Freedom Park in Prescott, Wisconsin
Rob Schultz – stock.adobe.com

Prescott is located across the river from Hastings and is a quaint town with several historic places to visit. It’s also home to the Prescott Cheese Factory, which produces some of the best cheeses in the US.

There are a few great places to stay in Prescott, such as the King Suites, Upscale Boutique Hotel, which offers a boutique hotel experience on the riverbank.

The hotel is perfect for couples or small families and includes all the amenities you need for a relaxing getaway. Check Booking.com for the best possible hotel rates and vacation rentals in the Prescott and Hastings area along the Great River Road.

12. Mount Horeb

Panoramic view of Mount Horeb in Wisconsin
kitsuko / TripAdvisor

This small town on Highway 14 in Wisconsin has been called “The Garden Spot of Southern Wisconsin” for its lush scenery, beautiful gardens, and vineyards throughout Mt. Horeb.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Mount Horeb, we recommend the Best Western Plus InnTowner. This hotel is conveniently located near the downtown area and offers a variety of amenities, including a free breakfast buffet and free Wi-Fi.

See Related: Things to Do in St. Paul

13. Maiden Rock State Natural Area

Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area overlooking Lake Pepin
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The Maiden Rock Bluffs is one of Wisconsin’s most well-known rock formations. The bluff is a state natural area, the Maiden Rock State Natural Area, and the meat within it protects it—one of the state’s most distinctive limestone cliffs.

Overlooking Lake Pepin, the rock faces a bluff high above the river. The bluff continues for almost a mile and is 400 feet tall. The region is renowned for various birds and species, especially Falcons and Hawks, which you can view from the clifftop. In addition, because you may observe from the bluff, it is incredibly scenic.

This All-American Road runs alongside the bluff, so you can get a truly fantastic perspective of this beautiful road and understand why it’s a national scenic byway—this magnificent mosaic of cornfields, forested bluffs, and then rocky vistas. Then, if you walk the route, you’ll be treated to a fantastic perspective of the beautiful river road and Lake Pepin.

It’s a unique place with an engaging environment for a fantastic stop. If you’re doing a Wisconsin Great River Road tour, don’t forget to stop here. If you are coming from Stockholm, Wisconsin, the south end of the town will be on your right. You must get off Highway 20 and down a small dirt road. After a while, you will see the entrance to Maiden Rock Bluff.

14. La Crosse, WI

Aerial view of a village in La Crosse, Wisconsin
Wirestock / Adobe Stock

This riverside town, La Crosse, has a population of over 8,500 people and is the county seat of Lafayette County. The city is located on the northern bank of the Great River, which separates it from Minnesota.

The La Crosse Bridge, a vertical-lift bridge crossing the river, links La Crosse to Minnesota. There are a few great places to stay on this all-American road trip.

The Radisson Hotel La Crosse is a great option if you’re looking for a place to stay near the action. If you’d like your accommodation to be a bit more rural along the scenic drive, the Gunderson Hotel & Suites is a great place to stay.

See Related: Things to Do in Marinette, Wisconsin

Things to Do on the Iowa Great River Road

15. Dubuque, IA

Empty Street Interspersed with Buildings

Dubuque is a city in and the county seat of Dubuque County, Iowa, United States. Located along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, it is the largest city in the tri-state region of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Dubuque has been one of the Upper Midwest’s most important economic and cultural centers since the early nineteenth century. The city is best known for its rich architectural heritage and as a tourist destination. The area, now known as Dubuque, was first settled by Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian fur trader, in 1785.

In 1788, he obtained a large tract of land on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where he built a stone house and purchased the surrounding land from the Native Americans.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in the heart of the action, The Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark is a great option. This luxurious resort offers everything from a relaxing spa to a thrilling waterpark, making it the perfect place for families or groups.

See Related: Day Trips from Des Moines, Iowa

16. Davenport, IA

Aerial view of Davenport, Iowa
Jacob / Adobe Stock

Davenport, Iowa, is located on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River and is one of the Quad Cities, which also includes Bettendorf, Iowa; Rock Island, Illinois; and Moline, Illinois.

The Quad Cities is a great place to visit if you’re interested in spending time on the Great River Road. There are plenty of things to do in Davenport, including museums, parks, and restaurants. One of the most popular museums in Davenport is the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science due to its history, science, and art exhibits.

Another popular museum in Davenport is the Figge Art Museum. This museum features many art pieces, including Modern Art, American art, European painting and sculpture, African art, Asian pieces, and more. There are plenty of options if you’re looking for a place to stay in Davenport, Iowa. Here are some of our favorites:

  • The Hotel Blackhawk is a historic hotel that offers guests a range of amenities, including a fitness center, an indoor pool, and a spa.
  • The Radisson Quad City Plaza is an excellent choice if you desire affordability. This hotel features an on-site restaurant, bar, indoor pool, and fitness center.
  • The Hancock House Bed & Breakfast Inn is a bed and breakfast offering guests a room with river views. This inn also features an on-site restaurant.

See Related: Best Family Vacations in Iowa

Other Things to Do Along Great River Road

17. St. Louis, Missouri

The Gateway Arch St. Louis, Missouri Sunset Sceney
Kovcs / Adobe Stock

Gateway City is one of the most popular Great River Road trip stops. Visitors can see the magnificent Gateway Arch and other exciting sites like the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the quirky City Museum. Families will also enjoy the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station.

St. Louis has a number of great restaurants, including Lona Lil Eats, the International NDO Balkan Treat Box, and Olive + Oak, spread throughout the city. The city also offers a variety of hotel options, from approachable to luxurious.

There are a variety of places to stay in St. Louis, Missouri, including the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, The Ritz-Carlton, Saint Louis, and The Westin St. Louis. These hotels offer luxurious accommodations coupled with a range of amenities and services.

See Related: Things to Do in St. Charles, Missouri

18. Memphis, Tennessee

Cityscape and Cloudy Sky

Known as the birthplace of rock and roll, Memphis is a must-see destination for music lovers of all types. Beale Street is where to experience the best Memphis music, from blues to gospel and soul.

In addition to great music, Memphis is also home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which tells the story of the American civil rights movement. Peabody Hotel is a great place to stay in Memphis if you want to see the famous ducks in the lobby.

See Related: Best Raod Trips in the USA

19. Marianna and Helena, Arkansas

Scenic lake at Marianna, in Arkansas
travelagentchristy / TripAdvisor

Marianna and Helena, Arkansas, are charming towns near the Mississippi River. These towns offer kayaking, camping, fishing, and walking opportunities at the state park. You can also find Delta barbecue at Marianna’s award-winning Jones Bar & Cheddar Diner.

The historic port town of Helena is approximately 10 miles north of Marianna and is the only township along the Great River between Memphis and Vicksburg. There are spectacular riverfront views as well as legendary annual blues festivals in Helena.

There are a few decent places to stay in Marianna, Arkansas. Some of the best places include the Hampton Inn and Suites, the Comfort Inn, and the Holiday Inn Express.

These hotels offer great amenities like free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and outdoor pools. They’re also conveniently located close to the best attractions in town.

20. Natchez, Mississippi

Bridge in Natchez over the Mississippi river
Rob Tilley/Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock

Natchez is a beautiful town that is known for its antebellum architecture that is ever so famous in Mississippi. There are many historic sights to see in Natchez. It is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about American history.

There are also some great restaurants and hotels in Natchez, and the people who live there are amicable and welcoming. When visiting Natchez, there are a few great places to stay. The Natchez Grand Hotel is a great option, as is the Hampton Inn and Suites Natchez. These hotels offer comfortable rooms and excellent service within walking distance of the town’s main attractions.

21. Baton Rouge, LA

Building Parking Space with Trees and Skyline

You can’t miss a stop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when traveling the Great River Road. This historic city is located at the mouth of the Great River. It has amazing sights and attractions, such as the USS Kidd Museum, a naval museum dedicated to telling the story of the USS Kidd.

This World War II destroyer saw action in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The exhibition center features interactive exhibits, audio-visual presentations, and over 20 restored naval vessels.

Also, the Capitol Building is a great landmark to visit. This beautiful Beaux-Arts building is home to the Louisiana state government and features stunning architecture and artwork. Guided tours are available and include stops in the House and Senate chambers and the Governor’s ceremonial office.

When traveling the Great River Road, one of the best things you can do is stay in some fantastic towns and cities that dot the route. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is an excellent example of a town with plenty to offer travelers. Here are our picks for the best places to stay in Baton Rouge:

  • The Hampton Inn & Suites Baton Rouge Downtown: This centrally-located hotel is perfect for anyone close to all the action in Baton Rouge. The Hampton Inn offers free WiFi, complimentary breakfast, and a pool and fitness center for guests to enjoy.
  • L’Auberge Casino & Hotel: This luxurious casino and hotel is located on the banks of the river and offers the finest in Louisiana hospitality. The hotel features rooms with river views, free WiFi, and access to the casino’s non-stop action.
  • Hotel Indigo Baton Rouge: This eco-friendly boutique hotel offers affordable accommodations for travelers looking to explore what Baton Rouge has to offer. The Hotel Indigo has a rooftop deck, pool, and fitness center.

22. New Orleans, LA

Balcony with Plants and Skyline

What’s the completion of a river road trip along the Mississippi River if you don’t finish at the endpoint? The Crescent City is one of the most popular destinations in the United States, and for good reason.

From the French Quarter to Jackson Square to the French Quarter, New Orleans is oozing with culture. There are plenty of options for finding a place to stay in New Orleans.

If you’re looking for a luxurious experience, the Windsor Court is a superb option. This hotel is in the Central Business District and offers guests rooms with fantastic city panoramas.

If you’re looking for something a little more historic, the Hotel Monteleone is a great choice. This hotel is located in the French Quarter and has operated since 1886. It features winding staircases, wrought-iron balconies, and marble floors.

See Related: Do You Need a Rental Car in New Orleans

FAQ

Where does the Great River Road begin and end?

The Great River Road starts in northern Minnesota at Lake Itasca and ends on the Gulf Coast of Venice, Louisiana.

Is there a road that follows the Mississippi River?

Yes, it’s called the Great River Road, and it follows the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles across ten state highways.

Where does the Great River Road start?

Lake Itasca in Minnesota is the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

What states does the Great River Road pass through?

The road goes from northern Minnesota to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. Currently, the Great River Road is designated as a National Scenic Byway. This road crosses Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

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