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Powered by water: Uncovering the fascinating story of America’s heartland

Take this tour of northern Mississippi River states to see how the mighty Mississipp’ has influenced life along its banks.

Jail Hill Inn, Galena, IL
Jail Hill Inn, Galena, Illinois (Credit: Jail Hill Inn/Illinois Office of Tourism)

When European settlers arrived, America was a vast wilderness, but this quickly changed. The mighty Mississippi became an important trade and transportation corridor that helped small settlements grow into major cities and small enterprises become major corporations. Rich natural resources fueled the growth. On this trip we’ll take in a few of the great American towns and cities that grew on the river and explore why, visiting some major centers of business and commerce, along with some important cultural centers. The Great River Road National Scenic Byway traces the river through this region. The 3,000-mile (4,800km) driving route will take you through some incredible scenery and lead you through the region. You’ll know you’re on the route when you see the pilot’s wheel road signs.

Our travels will give us a look at some extraordinary sights as well as paint a portrait of what life is like for so many Americans who live near the river. It’s a story about challenges and success, natural riches and a river that would change the world.

Day 1 – Minneapolis, Minnesota

We’ll start our river travels where it all starts, at the Mississippi Headwaters. The Mississippi River starts its long journey to the sea at Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota. This is a land of forests and iron—in fact, it’s referred to as the Iron Range. We’ll explore the park and then learn about the source of the mineral that fueled much of America’s industrial growth.

Morning: Arrive in Minneapolis. Travel to Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, Minnesota (209 miles/335km; 3 hours, 49 minutes)

Visit Mississippi Headwaters at Itasca State Park.

Afternoon: Travel to Chisholm, Minnesota (137 miles/220km; 2 hours, 34 minutes)

Tour the Minnesota Discovery Center. Learn about the Iron Range, an important source of taconite, an iron-rich ore, and discover the stories and cultures of the people who worked the mines.

Evening: Return to Minneapolis, Minnesota (208 miles/335km; 3 hours, 10 minutes)

After a day of exploring the Minnesota wilderness, we’ll enjoy a relaxing night in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minneapolis is adjacent to St. Paul, and this metropolitan area is known as the Twin Cities. It grew up as an industrial power in large part because of its riverfront location. For dinner, head to Matt’s Bar & Grill, a 1954 landmark known for its “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburger (the cheese is melted inside the meat).

Other options: Visit the Mall of America, catch a Minnesota Twins baseball game, tour the Walker Art Center or stroll Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Day 2 – Minneapolis, Minnesota

Let’s take a break from driving today to explore the Twin Cities.

Morning: Mill City Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tour the Mill City Museum, which chronicles the flour milling industry that dominated world flour production for roughly a half-century and fueled the growth of Minneapolis.

Afternoon: Drive to Brooklyn Park, Minnesota (11 miles/18km, 23 minutes)

Visit Eidem Homestead, a turn-of-the-20th-century living history farm with a Victorian farmhouse, barn and live animals. It illustrates what life was like for early rural settlers in the Mississippi River Valley.

Evening: Drive to Minneapolis (11 miles/18km, 23 minutes)

Spend a second night in Minneapolis. For dinner: an after-dark breakfast at Mickey’s Diner. This iconic dining car has been the setting of many movies and television programs and it is a big tourist draw. Late at night you’ll still see locals like cab drivers, police officers and evening revelers dining on steak and eggs.

Other options: Take a stroll around Lake Harriet, take in a show at the Guthrie Theater, visit the University of Minnesota campus or take a Segway tour around the city.

Day 3 – Red Wing, Minnesota, and Platteville, Wisconsin

We’ll head downriver and learn more about the Mississippi River’s fascinating industrial story in a drive along the Great River Road that will span three states. Then we’ll stop in charming Red Wing, Minnesota, a community with an interesting manufacturing story, before heading to the historic lead mining town of Platteville, Wisconsin. We’ll spend the night in Dubuque, Iowa.

Morning: Drive to Red Wing, Minnesota (55 miles/89km, 1 hour)

Tour the Red Wing Marine Museum, which displays a large collection of engines manufactured here. Tour the Pottery Museum of Red Wing and learn about how these special pots put Red Wing on the map and why they are so sought after by collectors today.

Afternoon: Travel to Platteville, Wisconsin (200 miles/322km, 3 hours, 45 minutes)

We’ll stop in Platteville, a historic lead mining town. The town is sprinkled with historic crooked streets–they were built around long-defunct lead mines. We’ll learn about the town’s mining past at The Mining Museum, go for a ride in a mining car and take an underground tour of the 1845 Bevans Lead Mine.

Evening: Spend the night in Platteville.

Other options: Stroll historic Trempealeau, Wisconsin, take a hike in Perrot State Park and enjoy a walnut burger at the Trempealeau Hotel. Visit the Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse.

Day 4 – Potosi, Wisconsin and Dubuque, Iowa

Today, we’ll visit two national museums, starting in quaint Potosi to learn about the impact of Brewing on the United States, and later traveling to the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque.

Morning: Drive to National Brewery Museum, Potosi, Wisconsin (16 miles/28km, 25 minutes)

Tour the National Brewery Museum in Potosi. Enjoy a tasty American-style meal in the adjacent restaurant and sip some delicious Potosi beer. Later, take a hike up the bluff and see the ruins of old miner encampments.

Afternoon: Travel to the National Mississippi River Museum, Dubuque, Iowa (22 miles/35km, 30 minutes)

Tour the National Mississippi River Museum and learn about the fish and animals of the Mississippi region—a resource that helped feed a new nation.

Evening: Dinner at Boaz BBQ in Dubuque

This restaurant is a northern outpost of the slow-cooked food culture that’s ingrained in the Mississippi River region. Later, spend the night in a Dubuque hotel.

Other options: Take a river cruise, visit the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens or visit the Mines of Spain Recreation Area.

Day 5 – Galena, Illinois

We’ll travel to beautiful Galena, Illinois, and take in the community’s historic charm. By Midwestern American standards, Galena is an old town. It became a prominent settlement because of nearby lead mines and its access to Mississippi River shipping, via the Galena River.

Morning: Travel to Galena (16 miles/28km, 23 minutes)

Stroll historic Galena and take a self-guided sightseeing tour. Visit The Old Blacksmith Shop.

Afternoon: Continue hanging out in Galena

Tour some businesses finding success in tasty new enterprises. Visit the Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. and the Galena Cellar Vineyard.

Evening: Dinner at Log Cabin Steakhouse

Dine at this old-fashioned family-run steakhouse that draws a big local crowd. Overnight in a Galena bed and breakfast and experience what life was like for early Galena residents.

Other options: Enjoy a hot air balloon ride, take a bicycle ride in the Galena countryside, schedule a haunted Galena tour, visit historic Council Hill Station.

Day 6 – Quad Cities, Iowa

This road trip ends in the Quad Cities—a metropolitan area on the Mississippi comprising Rock Island and Moline in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. This area rose to prominence as an industrial power because of the river.

Morning: Travel to Moline, Illinois (90 miles/145km; 1 hour, 30 minutes)

Visit the Deere & Company World Headquarters. This company makes the iconic green tractors that helped produce crops that in turn fed much of the world. See free displays of vintage and current equipment and historical information.

Afternoon: Head to Walcott, Iowa (22 miles/35km, 25 minutes)

Here you’ll find the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, which showcases the vehicles that delivered—and grew—American commerce.

Evening: Drive to Rock Island, Illinois (20 miles/32km, 25 minutes)

Stroll the riverfront in downtown Rock Island. Celebrate the last night on the river American-style—with a slice of pepperoni pizza from Harris Pizza. Many say it’s the best pizza in town. In any case, you’ll see lots of families enjoying the pies. Later, stay in a Rock Island hotel.

Other options: Visit Figge Art Museum, take a riverboat tour or stroll the Quad City Botanical Center.

Day 7 – Depart for home

Fly home from the Quad City International Airport in Moline, Illinois, full of memories from the Mississippi River and the country it helped create.