The Great River Road

Navigational headwaters of the Mississippi River, Grand Rapids (pop. 11,222) is a small Frank Capra-esque kind of place, known for its four, large in-town lakes (there are more than 1,000 in this part of the state) and a great bridge over the river. The town—which is proud of its recent rating as the 32nd Best City to Live in America—can be a bit confusing in its layout, but its compact size makes sightseeing manageable.

The city sits along the western edge of the famed Mesabi Iron Range and includes viewing sites at a handful of open-pit mines. The iron mines are a thing of the past, but Grand Rapids is still a major lumber town. The impossible-to-miss UPM Blandin Paper Mill (218/327-6200, 10am-2pm Wed.-Fri., free, tours during summer only) stands along the river and US-169. One of the world’s largest paper producers, Blandin owns most of the surrounding forests and turns the trees into the stock onto which magazines are printed.

Well signed along the Great River Road and equidistant via US-169 or US-2, 5 mi (8 km) southwest of Grand Rapids, the fine Forest History Center (218/327-4482, Tues.-Sat. summer, Sat. only fall-spring, $10) is a living-history replica of a 20th-century logging camp, complete with nature trails through the surrounding woods and energetic lumberjacks rolling logs and telling tall tales.

Grand Rapids’s real draw is the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Collection of Judy Garland Memorabilia,” she of ruby-slipper fame having been born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids on June 10, 1922. Truly a cradle-to-grave biographical assembly, the collection displays everything from her first crib to photos of her early performances as part of the Gumm Sisters, a family vaudeville group, to a final shot of her tomb in Hartsdale, New York. There are posters from most of her movies and a copy of her costume from The Wizard of Oz (although the ruby slippers were stolen years ago). All of these artifacts are on display, alongside the house where she was born, at the Judy Garland Museum (2727 S. US-169/S. Pokegama Ave., 218/327-9276, $10).

Map of the Great River Road through Northern Minnesota.
Map of the Great River Road through Northern Minnesota.

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