Follow the Great River Road to These Historic Mississippi River Towns
By Lisa Meyers McClintick
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America’s largest and most legendary river claims both its birthplace and its most wild and scenic stretches in Minnesota. Follow the Mississippi’s 565-mile byway across the state, and you’ll have a road trip that encompasses everything from pine-scented northern wilds to majestic southern bluffs to the state's tallest skylines.
Driving the Great River Road, recognized as an All-American Road and National Scenic Byway, is truly one of Minnesota's most incredible experiences (and an essential item on your Minnesota bucket list).
As you follow the mighty river's path across Minnesota, here are a few historic river towns to visit along the way. Plan carefully, and you can also catch the fall color progression as it makes its way from north to south.
At Itasca State Park in northwest Minnesota, hopping from rock to rock across the headwaters of the Mississippi River is another bucket-list activity. While there, learn how pioneering spirits like Mary Gibbs fought fiercely to protect this land from logging companies, climb the fire tower for a bird's-eye view, explore hands-on exhibits at the Jacob Brower Center, dine or stay overnight at the historic Douglas Lodge, or take a narrated nature cruise across Lake Itasca (available through early October).
Head 30 minutes south to the town of Park Rapids, where the charming downtown entices visitors with ice cream, homemade candies, cabin decor and other souvenirs to remind you of your trip after returning home.
The Mississippi feeds into Lake Bemidji, which anchors this college town like a big blue jewel. Along its southwest shore, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox stand proudly for photo ops. Cross the street to explore downtown's sculptures, shop for Ojibwe crafts, warm up with locally produced wool blankets and jackets, catch a show at the art deco theater or rent a bike for a spin along the lakeshore.
Dedicated "Wizard of Oz" fans know Grand Rapids was home to a little girl who became Hollywood's darling when she sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and danced down the yellow brick road in ruby red slippers. The Judy Garland Museum tells her story year-round, while the adjacent Children's Discovery Museum features a dinosaur dig, water table and other hands-on exhibits.
A trio of golf courses makes Grand Rapids a destination for teeing off, and the only paved portion of the Taconite State Trail is a draw for day hikers. The town also sits on the cusp of Minnesota's Iron Range, with its rich mix of industrial history and European ethnicity.
Brainerd Lakes Area
While it's best known for hundreds of lakes and legendary resorts, this cluster of towns was born in the late 1870s where the new railroad crossed the Mississippi and picked up logs for the lumber mills. Visitors can sample gourmet chocolates at The Chocolate Ox in Nisswa or Fancy Pants Chocolates in Brainerd, or bike or geocache along the Paul Bunyan State Trail, which follows a former railroad line past lakes, resorts and charming downtowns.
Known for its granite quarries, this central Minnesota town offers one of the state's prettiest places to admire the Mississippi. Follow shady, lush paths through the historic Munsinger Gardens or hike uphill to admire the vibrant Clemens Gardens and toss a coin in the three-tiered fountain. Rent kayaks or canoes to float among the Beaver Islands on the way to Clearwater.
Today, Minneapolis is known for its sports teams, sleek skyscrapers, trendy neighborhoods and stellar dining, theater and nightlife. In neighboring St. Paul, take a walking tour of the stately Summit Avenue (offered by the James J. Hill House through September), board a fall sightseeing cruise with Padelford Riverboats, or rent a kayak from one of three Paddle Share locations.
Art lovers thrive in this southernmost city, tucked around a lake and along the river with bluffs as a backdrop. Admire world-class paintings and craftsmanship at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum; take a historic architecture and stained glass tour through the Victorian-era downtown; enjoy Polish music, treats and cultural exhibits on Smaczne Jablka (Apple Day) in early October; and celebrate harvest season at Garvin Heights Vineyard. If you're visiting in summer, be sure to check out one of Winona's many arts festivals.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.
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