The Great River Road begins in Lake Itasca State Park and stair-steps along occasionally unpaved but well-graded backcountry roads through a mix of northern boreal forest, tree farms, and hayfields, all the while staying as close to its namesake as possible.
By Grand Rapids, only 130 road miles from its source, the Mississippi has been transformed from a grassy brook barely deep enough to canoe to an industry-sustaining river fed by a half dozen of the state’s 10,000 lakes.
Farther south, the red and white pines, paper birch, and big-tooth aspen give way to more farms while the route breaks from the surveyor’s section lines to curve with the river across the glacially flattened state.
By St. Cloud, the GRR enters an increasingly developed corridor that culminates in the hugely sprawling Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, south of which the road slips into rural Wisconsin.