Paddle boat on the Mississippi River in St. Paul

Follow the Mighty Mississippi River on a Family Road Trip to Remember

Scroll to Read
Image Caption
All aboard for a paddle boat ride on the Mississippi River in St. Paul / Paul Vincent

Follow the Mighty Mississippi River on a Family Road Trip to Remember

By Berit Thorkelson, Courtesy of Cafemom

For some old-fashioned family bonding time this summer, we put together a classic Minnesota road trip itinerary packed with far-flung sights and unique roadside attractions that guarantee fun for the whole fam.

Amid shining lakes and towering pines in Northern Minnesota, the mighty Mississippi River begins flowing in amazingly gentle fashion. Visiting the source is a treat, to be sure, but taking in the length of the river’s 650-some Minnesota miles? That’s a true adventure the whole family can get into.

The Wilderness Drive in Itasca State Park

Take a scenic loop on Wilderness Drive around Itasca State Park

The river winds past charming small towns and world-class museums, through the metro Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the bluff-topped river valley, with abundant scenic trails and water-based fun to match any activity level.

Pick the parts that speak to you and yours most, or go the full length for a truly unique Minnesotan experience. Either way, this will be one summer vacay worth sharing with friends and family for years to come.

Family-Friendly Stops Along the Great River Road

  1. The Northwoods: The Mississippi Starts Here
    The sun setting over the Mississippi headwaters at Itasca State Park

    The sun setting over the Mississippi headwaters at Itasca State Park

    The Northwoods: The Mississippi Starts Here

    We’re starting all the way up north, setting out on Great River Road — a 565-mile National Scenic Byway — where nature is the star. In this area, you can soak in acre upon pine- and lake-filled acre. Here you’ll find Itasca State Park, Minnesota’s oldest state park, with 32,000 acres of pristine wilderness. Explore the park’s many campsites and camper cabins, miles of hiking trails, the Douglas Lodge (built in 1905) and more than a hundred lakes. Then circle back to the park’s namesake lake to find a neat row of stones designating its transition into the Mississippi River’s first slow-moving feet. Visitors inch carefully across the rocks and wade in the clear, quiet headwaters, snapping photos and soaking in the moment; a simple, exclusive thrill found nowhere but here.

    Bemidji is our next stop, with shops, restaurants and sculptures, including giant versions of legendary logger Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, on the shores of the city’s namesake lake. Near the headwaters, quintessential resort town Park Rapids’ cute little Main Street bustles during high season. And nearby Dorset is known as the Restaurant Capital of the World — mind you, at three restaurants and 22 residents, that’s a per capita claim. Hitting all three is a popular way to spend a summer evening.

  2. Brainerd Lakes Area: Fishing, Biking, and More
    Paul Bunyan and Blue Ox bike trail Bemidji

    The Paul Bunyan Trail is popular with hikers, bicyclists and in-line skaters

    Brainerd Lakes Area: Fishing, Biking, and More

    If anything can steal the scene from the Mighty Mississippi, it’s Minnesota’s 11,842 shining blue jewels (yes, that’s quite a bit more than the 10,000 you were promised). Lakes cover the state, but the aptly named Brainerd Lakes Area has an enviable concentration. The Area excels at providing ways to enjoy them, too — hundreds of resorts and cabins catering to anglersboaters and others, including those just looking for a peaceful waterside view (typically, with warbling loons).

    Resort towns often double as trail towns along the Paul Bunyan State Trail’s 115 paved miles, making it the longest continuously paved rails-to-trails project in the country. The state’s high concentration of golfers are reflected here, too, in quality courses including The Classic at Madden’s and The Legacy at Cragun’s.

    If you prefer your links pint-sized, check out Pirate’s Cove, a Lake Country mini-golf/go-kart standard. Speaking of standards: Complete your quintessential Minnesota snacking and grilling options with a trip to Morey’s for smoked whitefish, pickled herring and walleye filets.

  3. Twin Cities Metro: Food, Museums and Other Urban Draws
    Aerial shot of Downtown Minneapolis Skyline and Stone Arch Bridge

    Bike or walk across the Mississippi River on the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis / Paul Vincent

    Twin Cities Metro: Food, Museums and Other Urban Draws

    The Mississippi separates Minnesota’s two largest cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The spot where the railroad-turned-pedestrian Stone Arch Bridge crosses the river may well be its most picturesque backdrop. Sync up your visit to Mill City Market day, with plenty of entertainment and prepared locally-sourced foods for lunch or breakfast. Don’t forget to duck into the riverside Guthrie Theater for a famed photo op or two: Both the Cantilevered Bridge and the Amber Glass Box face the water.

    Bike or drive the five or so urban riverside miles from here to the state capital, Saint Paul, where Summit Avenue’s stretch of beautifully preserved Gilded Age mansions includes a home where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and wrote. Its similarly historic neighbor, Grand Avenue, is lined in shops and restaurants, many run out of century-old brick storefronts or commercially-zoned homes.

    A couple of don’t-misses before you leave the metro proper: Get your hands on a Juicy Lucy, basically an inside-out cheeseburger. It's on a handful of restaurant menus; the version at tiny Matt’s Bar is a fave. And hikers who tackle the four-mile Pike Island loop in Fort Snelling State Park are rewarded with a tiny, quiet beach at its midpoint, where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers merge.

  4. Winona-Wabasha-Red Wing: Small River Towns and Marquee Museums
    Frontenac State Park fall colors

    Frontenac State Park / Minnesota State Parks and Trails

    Winona-Wabasha-Red Wing: Small River Towns and Marquee Museums

    The 60-some miles of Great River Road between Winona and Red Wing in southern Minnesota strings together a series of enticing gems. Chief among them, on the riverbank outside the university town of Winona: The Minnesota Marine Art Museum, filled with works inspired by or depicting the river and other waterways, by artists local and global, including Picasso and Monet.

    Up the road on the outskirts of Kellogg sits the 20,000-square-foot LARK Toys, one of America’s largest independent specialty toy stores boasting attractions ranging from LARK-made wooden toys and a large book store and café to a hand-carved wooden carousel, miniature llamas, antique toy museum and an 18-hole outdoor mini-golf course. In Wabasha, just a few miles further up the Great River Road, get to know America’s avian icon through National Eagle Center programs, exhibits and resident eagles. There’s a riverside deck for spotting them in the wild, too. In Red Wing, the Flagship Red Wing Boot Store also houses a mini-museum and a very Instagram-able 20-foot boot. Pizza lovers, stop for Red Wing Brewery’s handcrafted deliciousness, specifically beer, root beer and pizzas, from classic (cheese) to adventurous (cheeseburger).

    Also along the way: Little Lake City is home base for Pearl of the Lake authentic paddlewheel tours, and Frontenac State Park is known for blufftop hikes spotlighting awesome river valley views.

    Talk about a picturesque backdrop for the end of an unforgettable road trip.