America’s largest and most legendary river claims its birthplace in Minnesota. Follow the Mississippi River’s 565-mile byway through the state, and you’ll have an adventure that encompasses everything from pine-scented northern wilds and 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. As you follow the mighty river’s path across Minnesota, there are a few hot spots to see 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 marks the beginning of the river’s journey. 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 Visitor Center, dine or stay overnight at the historic Douglas Lodge, or take a narrated nature cruise across Lake Itasca (available through early October).
The Mississippi feeds into Lake Bemidji, which anchors the college town of Bemidji 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. Lake Bemidji State Park’s boardwalk on the lake’s northern shore offers an intriguing glimpse of northern Minnesota’s bog country. For more to do in Bemidji, check out our Bemidji city guide.
Dedicated The Wizard of Oz fans know that Grand Rapids was home to a little girl who later 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. The Forest History Center offers guests the opportunity to discover the past, present, and future of Minnesota’s forests through guided tours of a 1900s-era logging camp. Grand Rapids is also the only paved portion of the Taconite State Trail, which is perfect for a day of hiking or biking. The town also sits on the cusp of Minnesota’s Iron Range, with its rich mix of industrial history and European ethnicity.
While it’s best known for hundreds of lakes and legendary resorts, the Brainerd Lakes Area is a cluster of towns that were formed in the late 1870s where the new railroad crossed the Mississippi and workers picked up logs for the lumber mills. Today, 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.
Minneapolis is known for its numerous theaters, sleek skyscrapers, trendy neighborhoods, and stellar dining. In neighboring St. Paul, take a walking tour of the stately Summit Avenue, board a fall sightseeing cruise with Padelford Riverboats, or rent a kayak from one of three Paddle Share locations.
The cannons of Historic Fort Snelling boom across the river as costumed soldiers perform their drills. The Mill City Museum explains how the river powered massive flour mills that made Minneapolis the world's bread basket in the late 1800s. The popular Flour Tower experience gives guests a first-hand look at the history of the mill and how flour was milled over the years. Be sure to visit the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a national park site that spans 72 miles, with visitor centers at St. Anthony Falls and the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul.
The southern cities of Winona, Wabasha, and Red Wing offer a scenic bluff backdrop over the river, and each has unique styles that make these towns can’t-miss destinations. In Winona, admire world-class paintings and craftsmanship at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, and while in Wabasha, stop at the National Eagle Center to visit with bald eagles in rehabilitation. Red Wing boasts a slice of classic Americana with Main Street right on the river, with local shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors.
No matter where your journey takes you, make the Mississippi River your guide to an unforgettable experience through Minnesota. For more info, contact Explore Minnesota Tourism’s Millie Philipp or go to exploreminnesota.com.
Top photo: Barn Bluff in Red Wing
Photo by Explore Minnesota Tourism