From the Headwaters south to Minnesota's Bluff Country
The story of the "Father of Waters" is steeped in American history. From the headwater's discovery by early explorers with Indian guides, to its background as a transportation route, this history is as varied as the scenery it touches. There are stunning views any time of year, but this is an especially beautiful route in the autumn.
Travel in the morning to Itasca State Park in Northwestern Minnesota. At 1,475 feet above sea level, the park is a showcase of virgin pine forest. Here, the Mississippi River begins as a rippling stream that flows into quiet Lake Itasca. Walk across a stepping stone path at the river's source where the Mississippi begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The park's Jacob Bower Visitor Center has book and gift shops. Douglas Lodge, where lunch and dinner are served in addition to accommodations, was built in 1905 with giant white pine. Take a naturalist-guided excursion on Lake Itasca aboard the "Chester Charles" cruise boat to see bald eagles, loons, great blue herons, songbirds, white tailed deer and spectacular views seen only by boat. Cruise along the 11-mile wilderness drive throughout the park.
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 summer performance at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Overnight in Bemidji.
Travel to the extensive lakes region of Grand Rapids. En route, stop at the Hill Annex Mine, once one of the largest open pit mines in the U.S. Now made in to a state park, informative guides share the story of iron ore mining in the early part of the last century. Paul Bunyan, legendary giant lumberjack, is said to have formed the hundreds of area lakes when he and his giant 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." Overnight in Grand Rapids.
Today learn about the area's other legend, American entertainer, Judy Garland. Judy was raised in Grand Rapids, and her father owned the vaudeville theater in town. Here she and her sisters performed as the Gumm Sisters, and her childhood home has been restored. After a visit to her home, stop at Historic Central School. Once the only high school in northern Minnesota, the building has now been restored and houses the Itasca County Museum, the Judy Garland Collection, and several charming shops.
Depart for the Twin Cities, stopping at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum. The museum displays the history of the Ojibwa culture as it was before white settlement, and how it has changed to meet modern times.
The cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul grew up on the shores of the Mississippi River. Saint Paul is the state capital, home to many private universities and reflects traditional east coast cityscapes. It also has 29 miles of riverfront, more than any other city on the Mississippi. Just 10 miles upriver is the more urban, flashy sister city of Minneapolis, with its own historic waterfront area and the only waterfall the entire length of the river. The combined Twin Cities offer beautifully restored area of parks, parkways and walkways, grand mansions, world-class museums and arts venues, nightlife, professional sports, shopping, and great dining. Overnight in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area.
Start the day by shopping at the largest enclosed entertainment-retail complex in the USA-Mall of America in Bloomington. With special discounts available only to international guests and no tax on clothing, you will find bargains galore. And when you get tired of shopping, take a roller-coaster ride Nickelodeon Universe, pretend to race stock cars on a visual reality track at NASCAR Motor Speedway, view marine life from all angles at Underwater Adventures Aquarium, or dine in one of the exotic restaurants like Rainforest Cafe.
This afternoon, having watched the river go by, you can travel on it aboard an old-fashioned paddle wheel boat. Travel through Lock & Dam # 1, a series of 29 locks that were built from Minneapolis southwards to make boat transportation easier and a more economical way for shipping. This evening, choose from among many performing arts theaters in the Twin Cities. Dine in a restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River. Overnight in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area.
Start the morning with a drive to the Victorian river town of Red Wing. This iconic river town will conjure up stories of riverboats and gamblers, elegant Victorian ladies strolling down the Main Street, sipping lemonade on the veranda overlooking the river. Take time to shop in one of the many antique and specialty shops in town. Continue south along the Mississippi, enjoying the breathtaking views of sandstone cliffs. Lake City, on the shores of Lake Pepin, was the birthplace of water-skiing in 1922.
After lunch in one of the charming restaurants along the river, stop at L.A.R.K. Toys, a grown-up'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, one of the busiest steamboat landings in the 1800s. The new National Eagle Center is available year around to teach more about these the American Bald Eagle, or use their observation decks for perfect viewing of these magnificent birds. Overnight in Wabasha.
Winona is your next stop in the state's Mississippi Bluff Country. Once home to many lumber barons, their existence remains evident with stately homes and grand buildings in this river city. Winona is home many great attractions of historic and cultural value, including the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, Watkins Headquarters, Polish Museum, stained glass studio tours, grand bank buildings, Garvin Heights Park and Vineyards, and numerous arts festivals. Overnight in Winona.
Wrap up your journey by continuing to Lanesboro and the surrounding area for cave tours, B&Bs, arts and collectibles, great dining, and other activities that help you take notice of the hilly landscape of the Root River Valley.