The Great River Road
A Journey Along the Mighty Mississippi
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. The views are stunning any time of year, but this is an especially beautiful route in the autumn.
Day One — The Headwaters
Bemidji (220 miles - 354 km)
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 images seen only by boat. Then drive along the 11-mile 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)
Travel to the Grand Rapids 1,000 Grand Lakes Region. En route, stop at the Hill Annex Mine, once one of the largest open pit mines in the U.S. Now made into a state park, informative guides share the story of iron ore mining in the early part of the last century. Arrive in Grand Rapids, a town famous for lumberjacks and legends.
Paul Bunyan, legendary giant lumberjack, is said to have formed the hundreds of area lakes when he and Babe, 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."
Then it's on to learn about the other 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 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.
Overnight in Grand Rapids.
Day Three — Twin Cities on the Mississippi
Minneapolis/Saint Paul/Bloomington (175 miles - 282 km)
Depart for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, stopping at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum on the shore of Lake Mille Lacs. This state historic site displays the history of the Ojibwa Indian 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, historic sites, and reflects traditional east coast style buildings. Just ten miles upriver is the more contemporary, flashy sister city of Minneapolis, with its own historic riverfront area and Saint Anthony Falls, the only waterfall 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/Saint Paul/Bloomington 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, thrill to a roller-coaster ride in Nickelodeon Universe, race stock cars on a virtual reality track at NASCAR Motor Speedway, touch sharks at SEA Life Aquarium, or sip a cocktail in one of the MOA restaurants like the Rainforest Café.
This afternoon, board an authentic paddle wheel boat for a sightseeing excursion of the Mississippi River. Relax at dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Mississippi, and then choose from one of the many performing arts theaters in the area, where you can enjoy live musical acts, classical drama, comedy clubs or Broadway musicals.
Overnight in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul/Bloomington area.
Day Five — Mississippi River Valley
Red Wing, Winona (110 miles - 165 km)
Start 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.
Then 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 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, 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
La Crescent/St. Paul (134 miles - 201 km)
Once home to wealthy lumber barons, Winona today till 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, Watkins Headquarters and Garvin Heights Park and Vineyards. A newer gem is the Minnesota Marine Art Museum located directly on the Mississippi.
Wrap up your journey by continuing your drive through LaCrescent, apple capitol of Minnesota, for a breathtaking view of the Mississippi along the Hiawatha Apple Blossom Drive. Then you'll leave the Mississippi Valley to drive through Spring Grove, Harmony and Lanesboro, featuring antiques, Amish settlements, and the lovely rolling hills of the Root River Valley. Then continue your drive to return to the Minneapolis/Saint Paul/Bloomington area.