The Great River Road: Tracing America’s First Super Highway

It’s no secret that we love a good road trip. There’s nothing like getting behind the wheel and heading out for Elsewhere. Proving that sometimes the journey really is the destination, there are several iconic drives in the USA: Route 66, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pacific Coast Highway, and The Road to Hana come quickly to mind. All are known for phenomenal scenery, rich history, a peek at local culture you just don’t get at 30,000 feet.

A hundred years ago, the Great American Road Trip looked very different, aside from the obvious lack of an interstate highway system…and cars, for that matter. Around the turn of the last century, adventurous travelers might have struck out to explore life along the equivalent of today’s freeways, the mighty Mississippi River. Moving up and down its length through the heartland of America, river boats and barges carried an international exchange of goods and culture, heavily influencing everything from farming in Minnesota and Iowa, to music in Memphis and St. Luis.

Great River Road MapToday, we can recreate that journey by car on the Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway comprised of state and local roads from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Starting from its headwaters at Itasca State Park in Minnesota, the Great River Road runs alongside the Mississippi through ten states to the delta in Louisiana. Along the way are cities big and small to explore, and historical sites like the childhood home of Mark Twain and the starting point of Lewis & Clark’s westward exploration of the United States. 70 museums and historic sites showcase and connect the history of the Mississippi River, from ancient times to the present, in Interpretive Centers. In fact, traveling the Great River Road in some ways is like traveling through time. Louisiana and Mississippi are rich in antebellum plantation life. Pioneer history is abundant in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. In Iowa and Wisconsin, you can learn about native cultures that lived thousands of years ago.

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75thanniversarylogo-colorSeptember is a great time to travel the Great River Road. You get to see the vibrant colors of fall along the Upper Mississippi, while farmers markets and fall festivals are in full swing the entire 3,000 mile course. That’s why September is Drive the Great River Road Month, promoted by the Mississippi River Parkway Commission which was established by an Act of Congress in 1938.

It’s an epic outing, connecting the French Quarter, Delta Blues, Tom Sawyer, Effigy Mounds, General Mills and more. Driving straight through would take about 36 hours, but you should plan four to ten days to meander the length of the Great River Road. There are many, many attractions you’ll want to visit, from parks and monuments, to working farms and wineries, historic downtowns to modern metropolises. It just may be the quintessential American journey.

Have you taken a road trip along the Great River Road, or travelled part of the way? We’d love to hear about your plans and experiences in the comments!

River, Rail and Road along the Great River Road in Wisconsin

River, Rail, Roadway: Three modes of transportation along the Mississippi River.

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