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Get active in Mississippi River Country

From Minnesota's thousands of lakes to the wild swamps of Louisiana, there are activities here to match any interest in Mississippi River Country.

Blanchard Springs Wild Cave Tour
Blanchard Springs Cavern Tour, Ozark Mountains, Arkansas (Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism)

The states of Mississippi River Country not only provide a unique sample of America’s amazingly varied culture and history, they are also home to countless opportunities to explore nature and the outdoors. From Minnesota’s thousands of lakes to the wild swamps of Louisiana, there are recreational activities here to match any interest. Here is a look at some of the best ways to get active in Mississippi River Country.


What to do: Fish, boat and paddle Minnesota’s lakes

Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” and there are almost endless ways to explore these scenic bodies of water. Boating, canoeing and kayaking are available on most lakes in the state, but more experienced paddlers can visit the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which allows non-motorized boats on only a handful of lakes. Visitors interested in fishing can charter a boat or hire a guide to fish the waters of Lake Superior or Lake of the Woods. Lake Itasca near Bemidji is the source of the Mississippi River and is a popular destination in the summer, as visitors are able to wade in the shallow waters or walk across the river via a series of stepping stones.

Getting there: Most international flights arrive at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, which is a 3 hour and 45-minute drive (230 miles/370km) from Bemidji, a 4-hour drive (250 miles/400km) from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and a 5-hour drive (325 miles/525km) from Lake of the Woods.


What to do: Explore the Wisconsin Great River Road

The Wisconsin Great River Road follows the Mississippi River for 400 kilometers through 33 river towns along Wisconsin’s western border. There are plenty of ways to explore the Mississippi River itself, including wildlife cruises with the Mississippi Explorer in Prairie du Chien or a ride on an authentic paddlewheeler with the La Crosse Queen. Kayak tours of the river are available through Wisconsin- and Minnesota-based tour outfitters like Broken Paddle Guiding. Visitors seeking scenic overlooks can find impressive views at Buena Vista in Alma and Grandad Bluff in La Crosse.

Getting there: Dane County Regional Airport in Madison is about a 2-hour drive (140 miles/225km) from La Crosse. Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport is a 2 hour, 30-minute drive (150 miles/240km) from La Crosse.


What to do: Explore Shawnee National Forest

Head to southern Illinois to find the 289,000-acre (117,000 hectare) Shawnee National Forest, a beautiful expanse of land that stretches between the Mississippi River to the west and the Ohio River to the east. The forest contains a wonderful mix of forests, wetlands, and geographically and ecologically unique regions, drawing more than 1 million visitors a year. Garden of the Gods Recreation Area near Herod is known for its massive sandstone rock formations and one of the most-photographed places in Illinois. Those interested in driving the route can travel along the Ohio River National Scenic Byway or the Great River Road.

Getting there: Shawnee National Forest is a 1-hour, 45-minute drive (90 miles/150km) from St. Louis Lambert International Airport in Missouri.


What to do: Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, is the most visited national park in the United States, drawing more than 11 million visitors every year. The park’s natural beauty is world-renowned (the name “smoky mountains” comes from the blue mist that hovers in the mountains’ peaks and valleys), but it’s also home to great recreational options like hiking, fishing and horseback riding. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an affordable destination, as well: it’s one of the few national parks that charges no admission fee.

Getting there: The closest major airports to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville Regional Airport in Asheville, North Carolina.


What to do: Explore the Ozark Mountains

Visitors will discover scenic beauty in the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas, as well as abundant opportunities for hiking, fishing, and boating. The Ozark National Forest covers nearly a half-million hectares and is home to great outdoor attractions like Mount Magazine (the tallest mountain in the state) and the breathtaking Blanchard Springs Caverns. The Buffalo National River travels through the Ozarks for more than 240 kilometers before joining up with the White River. The waterway is undammed, making for outstanding rafting, canoeing and kayaking. Paddlers will pass majestic limestone bluffs as they travel the river.

Getting there: The Ozark National Forest is about a 90-minute drive (95 miles/150km) from Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock, which is served by Clinton National Airport.


What to do: Discover recreational opportunities on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast

Sandy beaches, award-winning golf courses and world-class fishing: Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is home to lots of fun things to see and do. There are more than 95 kilometers of scenic Gulf of Mexico shoreline and beaches that can be accessed via cities like Gulfport and Biloxi, as well as offshore islands that are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Visitors interested in fishing can find inland waters filled with more than 200 species of fish or charter a boat for some deep-sea fishing on the Gulf. Golfers will discover fun, challenging courses designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Davis Love III. Other popular Gulf Coast activities include birdwatching, boating, camping and nature photography.

Getting there: Mississippi’s Gulf destinations are accessible via Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.


What to do: Explore the Missouri River Water Trail

The Missouri River is the Mississippi’s longest tributary and it’s a destination for nature lovers. The Missouri River Water Trail is a nearly 150-mile (240km) route for canoes and kayakers. Paddlers can camp on sandbars or stay in riverside lodging in a historic river town. The route allows paddlers to experience the region’s history and natural beauty, one dip of the paddle at a time.

Getting there: The closest major airport to the start of the water trail is the Kansas City International Airport.


What to do: Take a swamp tour in New Orleans

New Orleans is home to world-famous cuisine and outstanding music, but visitors don’t have to travel far outside the city to discover the abundant wildlife and boundless wilderness Louisiana’s swamps. New Orleans is home to several swamp tour operators, who offer tours via airboat, kayak and even ATV. New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours take boaters on wilderness tours through the Manchac and Honey Island swamps to see native wildlife. The company also offers a kayak tour of New Orleans plantations. Located 25 minutes from New Orleans in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours and Airboat Tours take visitors through this vast wilderness via pontoon boats and airboats.

Getting there: Visitors to New Orleans can fly into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.