The Great River Road

By Explore Minnesota

A Journey along the Mighty Mississippi

The story of the "Father of Waters" is steeped in American history. From the headwaters' discovery by early explorers with Indian guides, to its background as a transportation route, this history is as varied as the scenery it touches. The views are stunning any time of year, but this is an especially beautiful route in the fall.

Day One: The Headwaters

Bemidji (220 miles - 354 km)

Photo by Carey Ayn (@careyayn22)

Travel northwest from Minneapolis to Itasca State Park, a showcase of virgin pine forest. Here, the Mississippi River begins as a rippling stream that flows from quiet Lake Itasca. Itasca State Park has interpretive centers and gift shops, as well as historic Douglas Lodge, which was built in 1905 with giant white pine. The lodge rents rooms, but day visitors can dine on Minnesota specialties in the restaurant. Take a naturalist-guided excursion on Lake Itasca aboard the Chester Charles cruise boat to view bald eagles, loons, great blue herons, songbirds, white-tailed deer and spectacular scenery visible only by boat. Then drive along the 11-mile (18 km) Wilderness Drive through the park to view the actual source of the Mississippi. Walk across the famous stepping stones at the river's source where the Mississippi begins its 2,552-mile (4,100 km) journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Continue on to Bemidji for a tour of the Woolen Mills factory and store, home of the famous lumberjack-style black-and-red plaid wool jackets and blankets. In the evening, enjoy a performance at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse (summer only).

Overnight in Bemidji.

Day Two: Iron Mining and Lumberjacks

Grand Rapids (70 miles - 112 km)

Forest History CenterTravel to Grand Rapids. En route, stop at the Hill Annex Mine, once one of the largest open pit mines in the U.S. Now a state park, informative guides share the story of iron ore mining in the early part of the last century.

Paul Bunyan, the legendary giant lumberjack, is said to have formed the hundreds of area lakes when he and Babe, his pet ox, stepped in the stream of a leaking water wagon. Learn more about lumberjacks at the Forest History Center, where lumberjack history comes alive as costumed guides interpret camp life of the early 1900s, complete with blacksmiths, cooks and "jacks."

Then it's on to learn about another local legend--famous American entertainer, Judy Garland. Judy was born in Grand Rapids as Frances Gumm in 1922. Her father owned the vaudeville theater in town so it was natural that she and her sisters performed as the Gumm Sisters for many years. Her childhood home has been restored to look as it did when the Gumm family lived there. After a visit to her home, stop at the Historic Central School. Once the only high school in northern Minnesota, the building has been restored and houses the Itasca County Museum, the Judy Garland Collection, and several charming shops.

Overnight in Grand Rapids.

Day Three: Twin Cities

Minneapolis-St. Paul (175 miles - 282 km)

Depart for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, stopping at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum on the shore of Lake Mille Lacs. This state historic site displays the history of the Ojibwe Indian culture as it was before white settlement, and how it has changed to meet modern times.

Minneapolis skyline at night; photo by Wayne Moran 400 x 600
Photo by Wayne Moran

The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul grew up on the shores of the Mississippi River. St. Paul is the state capital, home to many private universities, historic sites and reflecting traditional East Coast-style buildings. Just 10 miles upriver is the bigger, flashier sister city of Minneapolis, with its own historic riverfront area and St. Anthony Falls, the only waterfall on the entire length of the river. A sightseeing tour of the Twin Cities includes beautiful park and trail systems, grand mansions, world-class museums and arts venues, nightlife, professional sports, shopping and great dining.

Overnight in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Day Four: Mall of America


Shop at the largest enclosed shopping and entertainment complex in the USA--Mall of America in Bloomington, with 520 stores, 50+ restaurants and many other attractions. Minnesota is a shopper's paradise with no sales tax on clothing or shoes! If you need a break from shopping, catch a thrill on a roller coaster ride in Nickelodeon Universe, touch sharks at Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, or sip a cocktail in one of MOA's many restaurants.

Overnight in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Day Five: Mississippi River Valley

Red Wing, Winona (110 miles - 165 km)

Red Wing BootStart the morning with a drive to the Victorian river town of Red Wing. This charming city will conjure up stories of riverboats and gamblers, elegant Victorian ladies strolling down the Main Street, and sipping lemonade on the veranda overlooking the river. Take time to shop in one of the many antique and specialty shops in town, including Red Wing Shoes and Red Wing Pottery.

Continue driving south along the Mississippi, enjoying the breathtaking views of sandstone cliffs. Lake City, on the shores of Lake Pepin (a widening of the Mississippi), was the birthplace of water skiing in 1922. In Kellogg, stop at Lark Toys, a grownup's childhood dream come true. Take a ride on the hand-carved carousel, browse wistfully at the displays of antique toys, or search the gift shops where some modern reproductions of these toys are available for purchase. Just across the highway is Wabasha, which was one of the busiest steamboat landings in the 1800s. The National Eagle Center is open year-round to educate and protect the American bald eagle; the observation decks overlooking the Mississippi are perfect for viewing these magnificent birds.

A short drive brings you to Winona for dinner and overnight.

Overnight in Winona.

Day Six: Mississippi Bluff Country

Winona/La Crescent/Lanesboro (134 miles - 201 km)

Winona OverlookOnce home to wealthy lumber barons, Winona today still showcases the stately homes and grand buildings of a past era. The city showcases several attractions of historic and cultural value, including the Polish Museum, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church and its stained glass windows, the J.R. Watkins Museum and Store, and Garvin Heights Park and Vineyards. A true hidden gem is the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, located directly on the Mississippi.

Wrap up your journey by continuing your drive through La Crescent, the apple capital of Minnesota, for a breathtaking view of the Mississippi along the Hiawatha Apple Blossom Drive. You'll leave the Mississippi River Valley to drive through Spring Grove, Harmony and Lanesboro, featuring antiques, Amish settlements, and the lovely rolling hills of the Root River Valley, before heading back to Minneapolis-St. Paul to end your journey.