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Traveling the northern Mississippi River

The Mississippi River's northern states offer an abundance of natural beauty, as well as great options for recreation, culture and entertainment.

Paul Bunyan and Babe
Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox, Bemidji (Credit: Weston Holland/Explore Minnesota)

The northernmost states in the Mississippi River region offer an abundance of natural beauty, as well as great options for recreation, culture and entertainment. We will start our voyage at the same place that the Mississippi River begins in far northern Minnesota, before exploring the active Twin Cities and some of the charming river towns along the Mississippi. Then, we’ll take a trip on the Wisconsin side of the river, spending some time visiting historic sites before eventually traveling to the bustling capital city of Madison. We’ll end our trip in Milwaukee, the historic home of Harley-Davidson and great beer.

Day 1 – Minneapolis to Bemidji, Minnesota

Morning: Arrive at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

Drive to Itasca State Park (360km, 4 hours)

Afternoon: Explore Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park is home to Lake Itasca, where the Mississippi River begins its 3,760-kilometer journey to the Gulf of Mexico. While the river stretches to more than 16 kilometers wide at some segments, at Lake Itasca, it’s only about 3 meters wide and shallow enough for visitors to walk across with the help of some stepping stones. Itasca State Park also offers great camping and lodging, hiking, birdwatching and more.

Evening: Travel to Bemidji, Minnesota (55km, 45 minutes)

Known as “the first city on the Mississippi,” Bemidji actually sits north of Lake Itasca (the Mississippi River briefly flows north before starting its long journey south to the Gulf of Mexico). A popular family vacation destination, Bemidji offers outdoor recreation options like fishing and camping as well as historical and cultural attractions.

Other options: There are several interesting small towns to stop in on the Minnesota Great River Road between Minneapolis and Lake Itasca. Grand Rapids, just a short drive from Bemidji, has countless lakes and forest trails for wilderness lovers to explore. Golfers will find more than 30 premier courses in the Brainerd Lakes Area, and the beautiful Munsinger and Clemens Gardens are a notable attraction in St. Cloud.

Day 2 – Bemidji to the Twin Cities

Morning: Drive to Minneapolis, Minnesota (350km, 4 hours)

Afternoon: Explore Minneapolis

Minnesota’s Twin Cities are a destination of rich culture, history and nightlife, and Minneapolis offers countless attractions to meet any traveler’s interests. Explore Nicollet in the heart of downtown Minneapolis for great shopping (shop away: there is no sales tax on clothing or shoes in Minnesota!). Take in some culture at the Walker Art Center or the Guthrie Theater. Sample food at delicious restaurants throughout the city.

Evening: Explore St. Paul

Visitors to St. Paul will find a similar abundance of amenities in Minnesota’s capital city, situated just to the east of Minneapolis. Tour historic buildings like the Minnesota State Capitol or the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Explore America’s longest river at the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River & Recreation Area.

Other options: Shoppers will enjoy the more than 500 stores—not to mention restaurants and family attractions including an aquarium and several theme parks—at the Mall of America in Bloomington. Baseball fans can take in a game by the MLB’s Minnesota Twins or the St. Paul Saints, an independent professional team.

Day 3 – Twin Cities to La Crosse, Wisconsin

Morning: Explore the river towns along Highway 61 in Minnesota

The city of Red Wing, located southeast of the Twin Cities, is home to a charming historic downtown and scenic views of the Mississippi River. Stop by the flagship Red Wing Shoe Store & Museum.

In the nearby city of Wabasha, take in impressive views of the Mississippi River while learning about the national bird of the United States at the National Eagle Center. There, you’ll be able to observe captive eagles up close, as well as watch wild eagles soar above the Mississippi River outside the building.

Afternoon: Cross the Mississippi River into Wisconsin

Learn about America’s famed children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder (known for the “Little House on the Prairie” series of books) at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and the Big Woods Cabin, a recreation of Wilder’s home, in Pepin, Wisconsin.

If you’re looking for a great view of the Mississippi River, head to Alma, where you’ll find Buena Vista Park. This park is located on a bluff 150 meters above Alma and provides an impressive view of the Mississippi River region and its backwaters.

Evening: Travel to La Crosse, Wisconsin

The largest city on Wisconsin’s western border, La Crosse offers great recreational activities like fishing and biking, lots of festivals and local events, and tasty restaurants.

Other options: While traveling the Wisconsin Great River Road, stop by for a photo opportunity with Sunny the Sunfish in Onalaska, the “Sunfish Capital of the World.” In nearby Trempealeau, pay a visit to the historic Trempealeau Hotel & Restaurant or take in the scenery at Perrot State Park.

Day 4 – La Crosse to Madison, Wisconsin

Morning: Explore river towns along the Wisconsin Great River Road

There are many charming small towns in Wisconsin along the banks of the Mississippi River. Among the attractions in Prairie du Chien is Villa Louis, the historic home of Wisconsin’s first millionaire. Further south, visitors will find Stonefield Historic Site and Wyalusing State Park, an expansive park with a mix of hiking trails and views of the Mississippi. Finally, in Potosi—located just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border—travelers can relax with a beer and a bite to eat at the historic Potosi Brewing Company, which first opened in 1852.

Afternoon: Travel to Madison, Wisconsin (140km, 1 hour, 30 minutes)

Evening: Explore Madison

Wisconsin’s capital city, Madison is home to a world-class university, many award-winning restaurants and an extensive network of parks and trails. The city’s biking trails are especially nice and you can easily pick up a bike at one of the city’s many BCycle stations. Visit the specialty shops and businesses on Monroe Street or Williamson (a.k.a. “Willy”) Street or explore the University of Wisconsin campus.

Other options: While traveling on the Great River Road through southern Wisconsin, cross the Mississippi River and take a short drive through northeastern Iowa, where you’ll find friendly communities and great views of the river in cities like Lansing, Marquette, and Harpers Ferry, home to Effigy Mounds National Monument. Or, get on the river itself on a boat tour with Maiden Voyage Tours.

Day 5 – Madison to Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Morning: Explore State Street and the Wisconsin State Capitol

State Street, a pedestrian mall that connects the University of Wisconsin campus with the Wisconsin State Capitol, houses dozens of shops and restaurants. Stroll down to the Capitol building—a beautiful domed building constructed in the 1850s—for a tour.

Afternoon: Travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin (125km, 1 hour, 30 minutes)

Milwaukee is home to iconic motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson, and the city’s Harley-Davidson Museum shares the company’s story in an expansive, interactive museum.

Evening: Explore Milwaukee’s East Side

This trendy section of Wisconsin’s largest city is home to abundant shops, restaurants and bars bustling with activity. Don’t miss iconic locations like the Oriental Theater, The Jazz Estate, Landmark Lanes or Ma Fischer’s.

Other options: The Milwaukee Art Museum is one of the largest art museums in the country, boasting more than 30,000 works. Milwaukee is a great beer town, so take a tour of the historic Miller Brewing Company and get a free sample of some of their products.

Day 6 – Milwaukee

Morning: Depart from Gen. Mitchell International Airport