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Scenic discoveries on America’s greatest drive

Discover photo-worthy overlooks, wonderful river views, charming small towns and more along the northern part of the Great River Road.

Galena street scene
Historic downtown Galena, Illinois (Credit: Illinois Office of Tourism)

You’ll find some of the best scenery in the country along the northern stretch of the Mississippi River through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. The Great River Road National Scenic Byway is a driving route that follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,760 kilometers from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The scenic route passes through 10 states and hundreds of river towns. Many travelers break the route into segments—this one will take you through the northern states of the route.

Start at the river’s headwaters in far northern Minnesota and follow the river as it traverses through locks and dams and winds around limestone bluffs. End your trip at one of the biggest cities along the Mississippi River where you can find an unmatched view from the top of one of America’s most recognizable landmarks.

Day 1 – Minneapolis/Saint Paul to northern Minnesota

Morning: Arrive at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and drive to Park Rapids, Minnesota (3 hours, 45 minutes, 365 kilometers)

Afternoon: Explore Itasca State Park

Take a short drive from Bemidji to Itasca State Park in Park Rapids to visit the start of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. This is where the Mississippi River starts its 3,760-kilometer journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Spend the afternoon exploring the beautiful scenery and recreational opportunities Itasca State Park has to offer. You can use stepping stones to cross the river at its narrowest and shallowest point.

Evening: Dine and stay overnight in Bemidji, Minnesota (40 minutes, 50 kilometers)

Choose from one of Bemidji’s attractive dining options, such as Sparkling Waters, which sits between Lake Bemidji and Lake Irving. Return to your hotel to rest up for the remainder of your trip.

Other options: Explore Bemidji’s arts scene—the city is named the “First City of Arts,” after all.

Day 2 – Bemidji to Minneapolis/Saint Paul to Red Wing, Minnesota

Morning: Drive to Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota (4 hours, 375 kilometers)

Before you leave Bemidji, be sure to stop by the Bemidji Visitor Center to snap a photo of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, two significant figures in American folklore.

Afternoon: Explore Minneapolis/Saint Paul

Take in some of the most scenic sites in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, including Minnehaha Falls and the trails along the Mississippi River. For outstanding panoramic opportunities, take the elevator to the top of the Mill City Museum or visit the Endless Bridge at the Guthrie Theater.

Evening: Travel to Red Wing (1 hour, 87 kilometers)

Explore the quaint downtown of this Mississippi River town before checking into the historic St. James Hotel.

Other options: See the World’s Largest Boot at the flagship Red Wing Shoe Store. Look for bald eagles along the Mississippi River. Take in a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River from Memorial Park in Red Wing.

Day 3 – Red Wing to Alma, Wisconsin, to La Crosse, Wisconsin

Morning: Explore Red Wing, Minnesota

Continue along the Great River Road to explore the shops and attractions in Red Wing, or stop off for a tour and tasting (try one of their wood-fired pizzas) at Falconer Vineyards & Winery. Make your way across the Mississippi River to explore the charming river towns on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.

Afternoon: Visit Buena Vista State Park in Alma, Wisconsin (1 hour, 72 kilometers)

Buena Vista Park offers one of the best overlooks of the Mississippi River anywhere along its 3,760-kilometer course. Hike the trails at the park and be sure to snap pictures at the overlook.

Evening: Travel to La Crosse, Wisconsin (1 hour, 20 minutes; 101 kilometers)

Another amazing view of the Mississippi River can be found at Grandad Bluff in La Crosse. The 180-meter bluff overlooks La Crosse, and you can see three states from the overlook. Take a trip on the La Crosse Queen to explore the Mississippi River by paddleboat.

Other options: Visit the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota, and learn about America’s national bird. Visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Little House Wayside in Pepin.

Day 4 – La Crosse to Marquette-McGregor, Iowa ,to Dubuque, Iowa

Morning: Explore La Crosse and the surrounding area

Afternoon: Travel to McGregor, Iowa (1 hour, 20 minutes; 103 kilometers)

You’ll find another beautiful view of the Mississippi River just off the Great River Road at Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor. You’ll also find great hiking trails and picnic areas at the park, as well as a butterfly garden.

Evening: Travel to Dubuque, Iowa (1 hour, 15 minutes, 90 kilometers)

Check into the historic Hotel Julien Dubuque as you arrive in this attractive river town. Explore the quaint downtown shops and restaurants.

Other options: See the home of Wisconsin’s first millionaire at Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Explore the backwaters of the Mississippi River aboard the Mississippi Explorer Cruises in Prairie du Chien or Lansing, Iowa.

Day 5 – Dubuque to Galena, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa

Morning: Explore Dubuque, Iowa

For a truly unique experience leading to a truly unique view of the Mississippi River, step on board the Fenelon Place Elevator, which takes visitors up 58 kilometers from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place, where you’ll encounter a wonderful view of downtown Dubuque, the Mississippi River and the surrounding three states.

Afternoon: Travel to and explore Galena, Illinois (25 minutes, 30 kilometers)

Head across the river to explore the historic city of Galena, Illinois, where you’ll find charming shops, delectable restaurants and more. If you’re hungry, grab a bite at Vinny Vanucchi’s, home to made-from-scratch Italian dishes. For a post-meal drink, stop by the Blaum Brothers Distilling Company, which opened in 2013.

Evening: Overnight in Davenport, Iowa (1 hours, 40 minutes; 150 kilometers)

Head to Davenport this evening to get a head start on Day 6 exploring the Quad Cities.

Other options: Learn about the science of the Mississippi River at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque. Take a tour of historic Galena with a Galena Trolley Tour. Go to a minor-league baseball game of the Quad Cities River Bandits at one of the most scenic baseball stadiums in the country.

Day 6 – Davenport to Hannibal, Missouri

Morning: Explore the Quad Cities

Explore the “Quad Cities” of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, to get a true taste of Midwestern Charm. Visit the John Deere Pavilion in Moline for a hands-on look at the history and innovations made by the farm equipment manufacturer over the last century and a half. Learn how the river acts as a major shipping channel at the Mississippi River Visitor Center and Lock & Dam #15 on Rock Island.

Afternoon: Explore Nauvoo and Quincy, Illinois

As you head south on the Great River Road toward St. Louis, stop by for a history lesson in the river town of Nauvoo, Illinois, which was founded in 1839 by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A little further south along the river in Quincy, Illinois, you’ll find Villa Kathrine, a unique, Mediterranean-style villa built on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in 1900.

Evening: Arrive in Hannibal, Missouri

Explore the quaint Hannibal, Missouri, where you can walk the historic downtown. Grab a bite to eat at LaBinnah Bistro for a taste of Mediterranean or stop off for a brew at the Mark Twain Brewing Company.

Other options: Visit Burlington, Iowa, to see Snake Alley, “the crookedest street in the world,” which is home to an annual bike race and an annual art fair. Head to Keokuk, Iowa, to see several river attractions, including locks and dams and the George M. Verity River Museum.

Day 7 – Hannibal to St. Louis, Missouri

Morning: Explore Hannibal, Missouri

Explore Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of America’s most famous author, Mark Twain. Learn about Twain’s early life and what life was like on the Mississippi River at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum or take a tour of the Mark Twain Cave, the basis for one of the scenes in Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For a spectacular view of Hannibal and the Mississippi River, head to Lover’s Leap, a 2-hectare park that overlooks the river.

Afternoon: Drive from Hannibal to St. Louis, Missouri (2 hours, 188 kilometers)

Evening: Explore St. Louis

Visit the bustling Soulard neighborhood, home to more than 30 restaurants, taverns and music clubs,  or find more music downtown at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups or the Broadway Oyster Bar . Explore the unique Central West End neighborhood, home to dozens of restaurants, bars and shops.

Other options: Take in a game at Busch Stadium, home of Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals.

Day 8 – St. Louis

Morning: Explore St. Louis

For one of the most unique views of the Mississippi River, climb inside the tram at the Gateway Arch and see the river (as well as downtown St. Louis and Illinois across the river) from the top of the 180-meter structure.

Other options: Head to Forest Park in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis, home to free attractions including the Saint Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum. Visit the famous Anheuser-Busch Brewery in the Soulard neighborhood. Marvel at the beautiful landscapes at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Afternoon: Depart St. Louis from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport