Plan the perfect Great River Road trip with these tips.
As far as fantastic American road trips go, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway deserves a spot near the very top of the list. And it’s high time you got to know it better.
The Great River Road runs the length of the U.S. from north to south (or south to north if you’d prefer), touching 10 states along the way, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Ready to put the pedal to the metal on this one? Here’s how to plan a Great River Road trip, including can't-miss stops and places to stay.
What to Know Before You Go
The Great River Road is an official National Scenic Byway that follows the same path as the Mississippi River. The route is about 3,000 miles long and can technically be driven in about 36 hours straight. But if you did that, you’d miss all its beauty; consider planning a road trip that lasts four to 10 days so you have plenty of time to stop and explore along the way. The best time of year to drive the Great River Road depends on your travel preferences, but fall can be a great time to take advantage of beautiful foliage views.
Related: The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List
Best Stops Along the Great River Road
While you can turn off just about anywhere along the road and find something fantastic, we suggest earmarking these seven destinations.
Mississippi River Headwaters, Minnesota
Begin your trip in a natural spot — the originating point of the Mississippi River, found at Itasca State Park, the oldest state park in Minnesota. Come dip your toes in the river, go for a hike, or cast a line to see if you can snag a fish or two.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul form the largest metropolitan area on the Mississippi River. Check out the water views from the hill at Gold Medal Park, which celebrates the area’s flour-producing past. In Minneapolis, travelers can also explore parts of the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, where park rangers offer events throughout the year.
Roughly a four-hour drive south of the Mississippi's Lake Pepin region lies Dubuque, Iowa. Situated on the shores of the river, this scenic town offers ideal views from Eagle Point Park, the Fenelon Place Elevator Company, and the Riverwalk. (There’s a Heritage Trail that leads from the Riverwalk to the nearby Field of Dreams for those seeking a baseball-focused side trip.) Don’t miss the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which will delight all ages with its interactive exhibits.
St. Louis, Missouri
The Gateway City is a quintessential stop on any Great River Road tour. Visitors should make time for its remarkable Gateway Arch, with a newly redesigned museum. Other great spots include the quirky City Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Additionally, families will love the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station.
Called the "Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Home of the Blues," the city of Memphis is another ideal stop on any Great River Road itinerary. You can’t visit Memphis without moseying down famed Beale Street to hear some blues. Then stroll to the nearby Riverbluff Walkway, which offers impressive views of the Mississippi. Also, be sure to spend some time wandering the South Main Arts District, home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which belongs on all Memphis itineraries.
Natchez contains examples of antebellum architecture and is among the oldest cities on the Mississippi River. Explore Natchez National Historical Park, dine at The Camp, and consider driving part of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a historic route that ends in Middle Tennessee. Fun fact: True Blood fans will recognize the popular octagonal mansion of Longwood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Big Easy is home to the naturally deepest spot on the Mississippi River, right off of Algiers Point. Great views of the French Quarter and the river can be enjoyed from the neighborhood of the same name on the West Bank of the river, which is best accessed via ferry. Another area highlight includes the vast City Park, home to a free outdoor sculpture garden, botanical garden, and old live oak trees. Look for the famous “Singing Oak” tree, an installation meant to showcase the idea that there’s always music in the air in New Orleans.
Related: 23 Best Road Trips in the U.S.
Places to Stay
Need a place to snooze on your multi-day road trip? Here’s where to stop and rest your head.
Camp at Itasca State Park
Begin the journey with an overnight camping trip at Itasca State Park. The park offers 223 drive-in spots, so you can easily car camp, or you can park your car and hike to one of its 11 designated backpack camping sites, all within a five-mile hike.
Nicollet Island Inn
Once you get to Minneapolis, make your way to Nicollet Island, a natural islet in the middle of the river. Part of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, the island is on the National Register of Historic Places. Here, you can book an overnight stay at the Nicollet Island Inn, a charming hotel inside a building constructed in 1893, which provides spectacular views of the city skyline.
Get off the highway in Dubuque, Iowa for a night at Hotel Julien, a boutique property in the heart of the historic Old Main district. The 133 rooms are all styled in a rich, dark brown color palette, making it ultra-cozy in every corner. Want to make the stay extra special? Book its Al Capone-inspired suite, just to say you did. On your way out of town, check out one of the most show-stopping views of the river in the Mines of Spain Recreation Area, just south of Dubuque.
Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis
In St. Louis, book a luxurious stay at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, which is home to multiple on-site dining options. The hotel also sports a fantastic spa offering head-to-toe body treatments, making it a prime destination for a road trip stop to rest and let your body recover.
Once you make your way to Memphis, pop into The Peabody for a spell. The hotel is loved for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its famous ducks, which trot through the lobby once a day on their parade to the fountain. Say hello, then go parade yourself right to bed to rest up for another exciting day on the road.
Hotel Saint Vincent
End your trip in New Orleans in style with a few nights at Hotel Saint Vincent, named the best hotel in New Orleans by Travel + Leisure readers in the 2023 World’s Best Awards. The 75-room hotel sits in a building dating back to 1861 but went through a total refurbishment in 2021 that perfectly married New Orleans’ old-school charm with new amenities. The rooms come with bright pops of color (which make for excellent Instagram backdrops), but don’t miss the common spaces, including the pool, courtyard, and its signature San Lorenzo & Paradise Lounge.
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