Summer is almost over, so there’s no better time to hit the road and, according to proponents, no better road than the Minnesota Great River Road.
September is Drive the Great River Road Month. The Great River Road extends more than 2,500 miles from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico and offers the most diverse views of the Mississippi River along the scenic byway in Minnesota.
“September is annually Drive the Great River Road Month in all 10 Mississippi River states, so it's an annual promotion that we do because it's a great time to get out and travel the road,” said Chris Miller, director of the Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission in St. Cloud.
The Minnesota portion of the Great River Road was named earlier this year an “All-American Road,” the highest of byway designations by the Federal Highway Administration. The Minnesota Great River Road runs through downtown Brainerd.
“There are lots of great places in your area of Brainerd, places like Crow Wing State Park, Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, really popular stops,” Miller said.
A road must possess nationally significant qualities and have one-of-a-kind features that exist nowhere else — making the byway a “destination unto itself” — to receive the U.S. Department of Transportation division’s “All-American Road” status.
“These are the routes nationwide that are considered to be the best of the best that are destinations unto themselves and have attractions of national and international significance,” Miller said Thursday, Sept. 2, during a phone interview.
The 565-mile Minnesota Great River Road is designated along a variety of state and local roads from the iconic Lake Itasca headwaters to the Iowa border. It provides up-close river experiences in a variety of settings with 40-plus cities along the way hosting river exploration.
The National Mississippi River Parkway Commission was organized in 1938 to celebrate the Mississippi River by developing the Great River Road Scenic Byway and includes Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
“We especially are hearing an interest in outdoor kinds of activities … and we're hearing that at the state and the national level,” Miller said of the pent-up demand by people wanting to travel after working from home or staying close to home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The commission’s stated mission is to “preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River, to foster economic growth in the corridor and to develop the national, scenic and historic byway known as the Great River Road.”
Urban centers, college towns, river ports, iconic mill towns and more can be found along the historic Great River Road. The Mississippi River in Minnesota travels through 43 towns, 20 counties and the lands of three tribes as it makes its way to the Iowa border.
“The National Mississippi River Parkway Commission has reported strong interest in map requests from their website — they've received a lot of those — and we've actually been sending out more to our distribution partners as well,” Miller said.
“Itasca State Park received a supply of Great River Road maps from us in May and weren't sure how many to order, how many they would go through. And they were back to me by early July for more than they got the first time.”
Lake Itasca is a quintessential bucket-list destination, according to Miller, where ancient pines and pristine lakes dominate the headwaters area and the river meanders lazily. Large lakes and reservoirs provide supreme views and recreational opportunities.
“The Great River Road offers so much opportunity. You can go out for a few hours or a few days or a bucket list trip, and choose what you're comfortable with,” Miller said of the attractions along the route.
St. Anthony Falls, the river’s only major waterfall, marks the Twin Cities’ reach where it played a crucial factor in drawing Native Americans, European explorers and American industrialists, all of whom left their mark on the landscape and the economy, according to Miller.
“They're also kind of less-traveled portions of the Great River Road in places like Aitkin County, where you're right up close to the river,” Miller said. “You're not really around a lot of large towns, and you get really up close and personal with the river.”
Residents and tourists are invited to experience more than 700 Mississippi River historical, scenic, recreational, cultural, natural and archaeological features; and 12 specially designated Great River Road Interpretive Centers.
“We encourage people to get out and enjoy the byway and choose their favorites and also find out about us as an ‘All-American Road’ on our website. And if people do have their own favorite places to submit we'd love to have them,” Miller said.
For more details about Minnesota’s Great River Road, and to plan a trip with online mapping and information on more than 700 things to see and do, visit mnmississippiriver.com and experiencemississippiriver.com.
Minnesota Great River Road attractions
Lake Itasca: The journey of this world-renowned river begins at Lake Itasca. But there is more here than the point where the Mississippi spills out. The lake lies within the 32,000-acre Itasca State Park, the second oldest state park in the U.S.
Serpentine river: After percolating from Lake Itasca, the infant river follows a serpentine course to Brainerd, frequently twisting back on itself, leaving cut off lands and oxbows.
Headwaters lakes and reservoirs: The headwaters region includes thousands of lakes and is the largest contributor to America’s first reservoir system. Created by the Corps of Engineers over 100 years ago, the reservoirs provide a wide range of scenic views.
Prairie river: From Brainerd to St. Anthony Falls, the Mississippi becomes a prairie river as it straightens out and islands replace oxbows. Here, the prairie runs up to the river’s banks, not bluffs.
St. Anthony Falls: No place anchors the Mississippi’s significance in the Twin Cities like St. Anthony Falls — the river’s only major waterfall. Its physical power gave rise to Minneapolis, but its scenic power has drawn nationally known artists since the 1800s and still attracts modern-day painters and photographers.
The gorge: Below the falls, the Mississippi drops into the 8.5-mile gorge, stepping down 110 feet through three locks and dams, running between bluffs one-quarter to one-third of a mile apart. Nowhere does the river fall so quickly over such a short distance.
The Big River: The Big River – the river of Mark Twain — begins at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. It is characterized by a broad valley and a wide floodplain, with many side channels, backwater lakes and wooded islands.
Driftless Area: Below Hastings, the Mississippi enters the Driftless Area, with its distinctive limestone bluffs. During the last ice age, glaciers bypassed the Driftless Area, creating a unique and nationally significant landscape.
Source: Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission.