10 Glimpses of America via the Great River Road

By Explore Minnesota

Great River Road near Winona
Great River Road near Winona

This year, think beyond the traditional fall color trip and consider using the Mississippi River as your guide. By following the Great River Road, the network of roadways and trails adjacent to the Mississippi River, you not only get to some of the state’s out-of-the-way places, you gain a perspective on Minnesota’s role in the development of the nation. Plus, September is Drive the Great River Road month, a 10-state promotion to bring Americans closer to their great river.

Here are 10 Minnesota places where you can glimpse America without leaving the state. They’re not the usual tourist destinations, but they tell important stories of our country and state from the Mississippi River bank.

  1. Federal Dam (Federal Dam): Did you know that as early as 1866, the Army Corps of Engineers was trying to manage the flow of the Mississippi River to protect shipping and milling interests in Minneapolis and St. Paul? Routinely faced with diminishing flow in the river after July, the millers at St. Anthony Falls and navigation interests turned to Congress and the Corps to build the Headwaters Reservoirs. Federal Dam, just off the Great River Road and beside Lake Winnibigoshish, gets its name from this mammoth engineering feat shortly after the civil war.Forest History Center
  2. Forest History Center (Grand Rapids): This Minnesota Historical Society site and Great River Road Interpretive Center is devoted to telling the story of Minnesota’s forests and their role building America from right after the Civil War up through the early 20th century. Now, its exhibits also tell of modern forestry practices and products that help drive today’s economy.
  3. Savanna Portage State Park (McGregor): Savanna Portage was a canoe portage used by Native Americans for centuries before being used by European explorers, fur traders, Voyageurs and missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries to link the Mississippi River waterways of the west with the Great Lakes to the east. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places for having state-level significance in the themes of commerce, exploration/settlement and transportation.
  4. Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site (Little Falls) Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight to Paris from New York launched the American aviation revolution. But his boyhood on the Mississippi River was his first launching pad. A National Historic Landmark, the original Lindbergh home and visitor center chronicles his life and his impact on America.
  5. Mill City MuseumMill City Museum (Minneapolis): This Minnesota Historical Society site and Great River Road Interpretive Center beside the Mississippi River commemorates the state’s milling history where the world’s largest flour mill once resided. You can see how the fortunes of Minnesota’s agriculture and the Mississippi River were intertwined to build today’s American food industry.
  6. Weisman Art Museum University of Minnesota - “Silver River” Exhibit (Frederick R. Weisman Museum, Minneapolis): Works by a dozen artists chronicle the Mississippi’s role in industrialization of the state and the nation.
  7. Historic Fort Snelling (St. Paul): Another Minnesota Historical Society site and Great River Road Interpretive Center, it’s breathtaking in fall as well as historic. Home to exhibits on early North American exploration, relations with First Nations People, U.S. and Minnesota military history, this National Historic Landmark gets its significance from its promontory atop the intersection of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in the early days of the state.
  8. Mississippi National River Recreation Area (St. Paul): The only National Park devoted to the Mississippi River, this 72-mile park incorporates urban and parkland settings along with on-the-water experiences and history and science. Start at the newly remodeled Visitor Center in the Science Museum of Minnesota.
  9. National Eagle Center National Eagle Center (Wabasha): If you’re a birder or just an admirer of America’s emblematic bird, this is the place for all-things-eagle. Great naturalist explanations and eagle learning programs with an eye to the role of the Mississippi River Valley Flyway.
  10. Great Dakota Gathering, Homecoming and Powwow (Winona): This year’s theme, Nurturing Sacred Earth and Water, frames the September 10-11 annual event sponsored by the Winona Dakota Unity Alliance and aimed at both learning and celebrating the heritage of the peoples of the area.

September is Drive the Great River Road Month in all 10 of the Mississippi River states from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Minnesota’s Great River Road stretches 565 miles and includes federal interstates, state and county roads and like the Mississippi River meanders through the whole state. It features 10 Interpretive Centers, 20 counties, and 43 communities, each with a story of their own to tell.

For more information, visit mnmississippiriver.com and experiencemississippiriver.com.