The Great River Road

The Great River Road

Ah, the mighty Mississippi—the great river of the United States. With the Mississippi’s legendary significance to our nation, it only makes sense that the road that follows its meanders bears a name worthy of its traveling companion.

The Great River Road is certainly an appropriate moniker.

For 2,000 to 3,000 miles, the Great River Road follows Mississippi’s meanders across 10 states, spanning practically the entirety of the U.S. on a north-south axis. The road’s actual length is a bit of a mystery as it depends on how you calculate it, and even the Federal Highway Administration says it’s both 2,069 and 3,000 miles long in the same breath. The main point is clear, though—the road is long.

The grandeur and historical significance of the Great River Road is officially recognized. Eight out of its 10 sections (one per state) are designated as All-American Roads, while a five-state stretch at the northern end of the route boasts a National Scenic Byway title.

The first plans for a parkway spanning the length of the Mississippi in the late 1930s received support, but the outbreak of World War II put a halt on the project. After the war, it was decided that the route wouldn’t be managed by the National Park Service (as, say, the Blue Ridge Parkway is) but by a separate entity in each state collaborating through the Mississippi River Parkway Commission.

In 1976, the development of the Great River Road could finally begin. Today, the route provides an unmatched look at the diversity of local cultures and gorgeous natural riverside environments in America.

Instead of asking what you can see on this road, you should ask what can’t you see. The Great River Road passes through hundreds of small and larger river towns, brimming with excellent local eateries, lodging options, and unique sights and attractions.

It would be impossible for me to list everything you can find along those 3,000 or so miles. Then again, riding the Great River Road is less about seeing individual places and more about how the Mississippi ties them all together.

You can’t understate the enormous impact the Mississippi has had on America, both economically and culturally. Although the various states and regions along this road are all different, the river unites and connects them.

Traveling along the Mississippi on the Great River Road lets you appreciate its enormous role in making this thing called the U.S. work. And, of course, it’s just a plain great ride.

Points of Interest

Historic Fort Snelling

Fort Snelling, near St. Paul in Minnesota, was constructed in 1819. However, the history of this site stretches much, much further in history than that.

The Dakota people call this confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers Bdote. Native Americans have been present in the region for 10,000 years, highlighting the significance of these waterways to human life long before the U.S. existed.

At Historic Fort Snelling, you get to explore this entire 10,000-year story—from the earliest archeological finds to the fort’s decommissioning in 1946—through detailed exhibits and displays, reenactments, and guided tours. Take a break from the saddle at Fort Snelling for an unparalleled deep dive into how history of how life along the Mississippi has developed.

The Sawmill Museum

Before proper roads were built across America, Mississippi was a vital transport route taking lumber from the northern logging areas to the west and south. The Sawmill Museum in Clinton, IA, is dedicated to preserving the history of America’s sawmill and forestry industries.

Clinton is a suitable place for the museum, considering the town was once called the world’s lumber capital. The Mississippi flowing by the town supplied the mills and lumberyards in the area, while also taking their products to their destination.

The Sawmill Museum’s permanent exhibit features authentic equipment from the Struve Mill, which operated in Hauntown, IA, from the 1860s to the 1980s. You can also see a more recent, working 20th-century sawmill at the site.

Reelfoot Lake State Park

The Reelfoot Lake State Park by the Missouri/Kentucky/Tennessee border may be separate from the Mississippi, but it’s intricately linked to the river. After all, Reelfoot Lake was born from an unprecedented natural cataclysm.

In 1811-1812, a violent series of earthquakes forced the Mississippi to flow backward for a period of time. The unusual phenomenon flooded the area’s cypress forests, creating Reelfoot Lake State Park’s unique environment.

The park is an excellent spot to stretch your legs while riding the Great River Road, offering a wide variety of outdoor activities from walking and hiking trails to fishing, birdwatching, boating, and more. With cabins and campgrounds, Reelfoot Lake State Park is well worth spending the night.

Memphis Pyramid

Riding the Great River Road doesn’t have to be just about ancient history—there are plenty of modern sights to see as well. The Memphis Pyramid is one of my favorite oddities along this route.

This 320-foot-tall glass-and-steel pyramid was opened in 1991. It originally served as a sports arena, but the venue fell on hard times in the early 2000s and was briefly shut down.

Out of all possible uses for the unique building, it re-opened in 2015 as a Bass Pro Shops fishing equipment megastore. In addition to the retail space, the Pyramid houses a hotel, 600,000 gallons’ worth of water features, archery and shooting ranges, and other entertainment options.

On the top, you’ll find an observation deck from which you can gaze at the Mississippi and the surrounding city of Memphis, TN. The Memphis Pyramid is worth visiting just for the mind-boggling concept of a fishing store housed in a modern-day pyramid.

Southernmost Point of Louisiana

After riding down from the north, motor past New Orleans and continue south on SR 22. Once you reach the town of Venice, take Tide Water Rd and ride down to the southernmost point of Louisiana reachable by a motor vehicle.

To be frank with you, there’s not really much there. But this is the ultimate end point of the Great River Road—the final place you can reach along the Mississippi without getting on a boat.

It’s a good spot for stopping and reflecting on the journey you’ve just finished. Then, turn your bike around and ride the road back to the north!

Facts & Info

Due to the immense length of the Great River Road, I can’t obviously recommend one hotel that’ll serve you for the entire ride. That said, here are a couple of options for cozy lodging on your trip.

The Irish Cottage Inn & Suites in Galena, IL, is a modern hotel with a touch of the Emerald Isle. The hotel has plenty of parking near the entrances, and you can wash your gear at the on-site laundry facilities. If you’re exhausted from your ride, you won’t have to go far for food, thanks to the adjoining Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub and Grill.

If you’re a fan of classic rock ‘n’ roll, the Guest House at Graceland in Memphis, TN, is a must-stop. Located mere minutes from Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion, you can turn your stay into a musical detour from the Great River Road. Even the biggest cruiser can maneuver easily in the huge parking lot, and the hotel boasts two on-site restaurants.

Best Time to Travel

Fall is generally the best time of the year to head on the Great River Road. The trees are changing colors, the weather is mild but still warm, and every September is also Drive the Great River Road Month, so you can meet other motorists on the road.

You can tackle the road virtually at any time of the year, though. Just keep in mind that due to its length, weather conditions and temperatures can vary wildly between different sections. The north gets cold in the winter, after all!