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22 Best Things to do Along the Great River Road

22 Best Things to do Along the Great River Road

We recently trekked the Great River Road on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the scenic byway. This is what we learned about how to have a great 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 as well.

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 some key spots in Minneapolis along the Mississippi River and Great River Road before heading into the more small town and outdoorsy spots in Minnesota as well as in Wisconsin.

Then, proceed further down south to round out this epic 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.

Watch our YouTube video of the Great River Road Trip for a visual travel guide below.

Great River Road Trip Tour | Minnesota & Wisconsin [4K UHD]
Watch this video on YouTube.

What to Pack for a Great River Road Trip

Here is a packing checklist of key items to bring along 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 a must 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 on end.
  • Be sure to pack water bottles, snacks, and a jacket as well because there is no telling how long you will be out exploring 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 as well.

We knew we wanted a combination of those Great River Road Minnesota & Wisconsin river towns as well as 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 does right along the Mississippi River. However, a lot of people don’t realize it. Despite that 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

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 continues to inspire adventure and discovery on a historic journey that takes you through time as it winds alongside some of America’s most significant landscapes.

With ghost towns, historic lighthouses, and amazing architecture, this Great River Road trip is a must-do for any road tripper.

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.

Along this scenic route, it passes through several 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 is 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 trips, and even 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 one of the most beautiful places along the Great River Road with its limestone rock and eagles soaring high above.

Check out the Winchell Trail during fall to see some of the best fall colors you can get in the Twin Cities and potentially in the midwest as a whole.

See Related: Best 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 are probably gonna wanna be here during the winter, because it’s located right next to some of the best ski resorts in all of Minnesota.

The town is usually covered in a blanket of snow for most of the winter, and the locals really know how to make the most of it. 

5. Red Wing, MN

Brick Building and Skyline

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

Red Wing is a city that has been around for a long time. Many of the buildings in 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 also having a lot 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 take a tour of their factory and check out how they make shoes! Another fun activity in town is visiting the Mars Cheese Castle.

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

6. Frontenac State Park

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 to see in all of 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 is a great place to fish for walleye, northern pike, and channel catfish.

It’s a popular park with several things to see and do, including its walking trails, bike trails, and picturesque loop that goes through the numerous bluffs of the Mississippi River.

See Related: Best Parks in St. Paul, Minnesota

7. Lake City, MN

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. Some of my favorite activities include fishing, hiking, and exploring the local history.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, I recommend the Great River Inn. 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.

8. Wabasha, MN

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 a lot of fun here.

This town is a great place to visit because it has a lot of things to do. One of the best things is the National Eagle Center.

There are many observation decks where you can see bald eagles, and there is a museum too. If you visit with your kids or if you just love America, this is the place for you

But there’s more to this town than the National Eagle Center. There are many festivals in Wabasha every year. The Grumpy Old Men Festival is in the winter, the Watermelon Festival is after Labor Day, and the Riverboat Festival is at the end of the year.

There are also several top hotels here, so if you need a break during your road trip, this is the town to do so. 

9. Winona, MN

Winona is a picturesque town that you’ll definitely want to visit while traveling the Great River Road.

There, you can enjoy stunning views of the river, as well as plenty of charming shops and restaurants. Make sure to check out the iconic Winona Bridge while you’re in town.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Winona, I recommend the following hotels:

  • The Saint Charles Hotel is a beautiful historic hotel in the heart of downtown. It’s within walking distance of all the shops and restaurants, and it has a great breakfast buffet.
  • The Winona Inn is another great option. It’s also located in downtown Winona, and it features an indoor pool and free Wi-Fi.
  • If you’re looking for something a little more affordable, I recommend the Days Inn Winona. It’s just outside of downtown, and it has a free continental breakfast.

See Related: Best Honeymoon Destinations in Minnesota

10. Lake Pepin

Trees, Lake and Forest View
“Lake Pepin” by Rochelle Hartman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lake Pepin is a beautiful lake that stretches from Minnesota to Wisconsin.

It is well-known for its charming river towns, which have world-class dining options. The best views of the lake can be found on State Highway 35.

It’s particularly stunning for its dramatic cliff backdrop and heart-wrenching history and its sweeping view over Lake Pepin and its surrounding bluffs of the might 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 do a loop or circle around 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 as well. These are the two most well-known spots for the river crossing.

11. Prescott, WI

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. The Prescott Inn is a charming bed and breakfast that overlooks the river and offers beautiful views of the surrounding area.

The inn features six rooms, all with private baths, and a delicious breakfast is included in the price of your stay.

Another great option is the River Inn Resort, which offers cabin and lodge rentals right on the riverbank. The cabins are perfect for couples or small families and include all the amenities you need for a relaxing getaway.

12. Mount Horeb

This small town in Wisconsin on Highway 14 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.

13. Maiden Rock State Natural Area

The Maiden Rock Bluffs is one of the most well-known rock formations in all of Wisconsin.

The bluff is, in fact, 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 on a bluff high above the river. The bluff continues for almost a mile and is 400 feet tall. And 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 extremely scenic.

This All-American Road runs alongside the bluff, so you can get a truly amazing 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 an amazing perspective of the beautiful river road and Lake Pepin.

It’s a quite distinct place with a fascinating environment that makes for a fantastic stop. If you’re doing a tour of the Wisconsin Great River Road, don’t forget to make a stop here.

If you are coming from Stockholm, Wisconsin, the south end of the town will be on your right. You will need to get off of Highway 20 and go down a small dirt road. After a while, you will see the entrance to Maiden Rock bluff.

14. La Crosse, WI

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 when you are on this all-American road trip. If you’re looking for a place to stay near the action, The Radisson is a great option.

If you’re looking for something a little more rural, the Inn at Cedar Crossing is a great place to stay.

See Related: Best 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.

In 2010, its population was 58,253. Dubuque has been one of the most important economic and cultural centers in the Upper Midwest 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 to stay for families or groups.

If you’re looking for something a little more rural, the Inn at Cedar Crossing is a great place to stay. This charming bed and breakfast offers beautiful views of the river and plenty of opportunities for relaxation.

See Related: Best Day Trips from Des Moines, Iowa

16. Davenport, IA

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 some 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. This museum has something for everyone, with exhibits on history, science, and art.

Another popular museum in Davenport is the Figge Art Museum. This museum features a wide range of art pieces, including Modern Art, American art, European painting and sculpture, African works of art, Asian pieces, and more.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Davenport, Iowa, there are plenty of options to choose from. Here are some of our favorites:

  • The Hotel Blackhawk is a historic hotel that offers guests a variety of amenities, including a fitness center, an indoor pool, and a spa.
  • The Radisson Quad City Plaza is a great option if you’re looking for something affordable. This hotel features an on-site restaurant and bar, as well as an indoor pool and a fitness center.
  • The River House Inn is a bed and breakfast that offers guests rooms with river views. This inn also features an on-site restaurant.

See Related: Best Iowa Family Vacations to Take This Year

Other Things to do Along Great River Road

17. St. Louis, Missouri

Huge Arch and Cityscape

“Gateway Arch – St. Louis – Missouri” by Arch_Sam is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Gateway City is one of the most popular stops on a Great River Road trip.

Visitors can see the magnificent Gateway Arch, as well as other interesting sites like 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. Some of the best places to stay include the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, The Ritz-Carlton, Saint Louis, and The Westin St. Louis.

These hotels offer luxurious accommodations, as well as a variety of amenities and services.

See Related: Fun & Best 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. From blues to gospel and soul, Beale Street is the place to go to experience the best of Memphis music.

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 who reside in the hotel’s lobby.

See Related: Best Raod Trips in the USA

19. Marianna and Helena, Arkansas

Empty Road Surrounded by Buildings
“File:Marianna AR 028.jpg” by Thomas R Machnitzki (thomas@machnitzki.com) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

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 several great 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 such as free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and outdoor pools. They’re also conveniently located close to the best attractions in town.

20. Natchez, Mississippi

Natchez is a beautiful town that is known for its antebellum architecture. There are many historic sights to see in Natchez, and 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 very friendly 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, and they are both within walking distance of the town’s main attractions.

21. Baton Rouge, LA

Building Parking Space with Trees and Skyline

When traveling the Great River Road, you can’t miss a stop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This historic city is located at the mouth of the Great River and is filled with amazing sights and attractions.

Here are some of our favorites:

  • The USS Kidd Museum: This naval museum is dedicated to telling the story of the USS Kidd, a World War II destroyer that saw action in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The museum features interactive exhibits, audio-visual presentations, and more than 20 restored naval vessels on display.
  • The Capitol Building: 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 ceremonial office of the Governor.
  • Creative Crafts Inc: This shop is a wonderful place to find authentic Mexican ceramics, art, and gifts, making it a great stop for anyone looking to bring home an unforgettable souvenir from Baton Rouge.

When traveling the Great River Road, one of the best things you can do is stay in some of the amazing towns and cities that dot the route. Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a great example of a city 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 looking to be close to all of the action in Baton Rouge. The Hampton Inn offers free WiFi, free 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 a city that is oozing with culture.

When it comes to finding a place to stay in New Orleans, there are plenty of options to choose from.

If you’re looking for a luxurious experience, the Windsor Court is a great option. This hotel is located in the Central Business District and offers guests rooms with stunning views of the city.

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 been in operation since 1886. It features winding staircases, wrought-iron balconies, and marble floors.

No matter what your budget or needs are, New Orleans has a hotel that will fit your needs.

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 in 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 10 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 through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

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