The Great River Road Trip
Od Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy: By any name, the mighty Mississippi River cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape. Who hasn’t read Mark Twain or listened to Showboat and not dreamed of a trip down the Mississippi? If you’re tired of waiting for somebody to buy you passage aboard the Delta Queen or to help you paddle among the 1,500-ton barges, then do what Huck Finn would have done if he’d had a driver’s license: Tag alongside the Mississippi on the Great River Road.
Created in 1938 from a network of federal, state, and local roads, the Great River Road—also known as the River Road, and commonly abbreviated to “GRR”—forms a single route along the Mississippi from head to toe. Designed to show off the 10 states bordering the Mississippi from its headwaters to its mouth, the GRR is nothing if not scenic, and anyone who equates the Midwest with the flat Kansas prairie will be pleasantly surprised. Sure, farms line the road, but so do upland meadows, cypress swamps, thick forests, limestone cliffs, and dozens of parks and wildlife refuges.
Of course it isn’t all pretty. There’s enough industry along the Mississippi for you to navigate the river by the flashing marker lights on smokestacks, and a half-dozen major cities compete with their bigger cousins on the coasts for widest suburban sprawl and ugliest roadside clutter. A pandemic of tacky strip malls has infected the region, too, but apart from the astounding growth in casinos (you’ll never be more than 100 mi (161 km) from a slot machine from one end of the Mississippi to the other), the GRR resists the developers’ bulldozers because its meanders were shunned by a century drawn to the straight, fast, and four-lane.
A full 50 percent longer than the comparable route along the interstates, the GRR changes direction often, crosses the river whenever it can, dallies in towns every other road has forgotten, and altogether offers a perfect analog to floating downstream. If the road itself isn’t your destination, don’t take it. For those who do travel it, the GRR spares you the fleets of hurtling 40-ton trucks and that interstate parade of franchised familiarity, and rewards you with twice the local color, flavor, and wildlife found along any alternative route. Lest these tangibles be taken too much for granted, every so often the GRR will skip over to a freeway for a stretch to help you sort your preferences. Savor, and enjoy.
Navigating the Great River Road
The Great River Road is identified on signs by a green pilot’s wheel with a steamboat pictured in the middle. The quality and quantity of route markers varies considerably from state to state; some states, like Minnesota and Illinois, are well marked, with advance warning of junctions and confirmation after turns, while other states, like Louisiana and Mississippi, seem committed to hiding GRR signs miles from where they would serve any conceivable good. Adding to the confusion are the many variations—signposted as “Alternate” or “State Route”—and spurs, denoted by a brown pilot’s wheel, which lead off the GRR to various points of interest.
Though most people will be able to find their way along the riverside without too many dead-ends, trying to travel the length of the GRR just by following the signs is not recommended for perfectionists; part of the fun is getting slightly lost and making your own way. To ease your journey, get a detailed map of the entire GRR, along with a guide to local happenings in each of the states along the route, from the Mississippi River Parkway Commission.
Highlights along the Great River Road
- Lake Itasca State Park, MN: Hike, bike and boat surrounded by old growth pine forest
- Maiden Rock, WI: See the longest Main Street in the nation
- Marquette, IA: See more than 200 distinct burial mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument
- St. Louis, MO: Home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Gateway Arch National Park
- Memphis, TN: Must-sees include Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, and Graceland
- The Natchez Trace Parkway: Drive this relaxed, scenic route between the Gulf Coast and the upper Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys
- New Orleans, LA: Visit the famed French Quarter for Dixieland jazz, Cajun or Creole food, and historical sites