The Midwest doesn’t get a whole lot of love from many of the travel guides out there, so we wanted to point Coach-Net members towards a do-not-miss road trip route in our first guest blog. The Great River Road stretches the length of the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to New Orleans. It’s full of beauty, wildlife, good food, and charm. You could do the whole route, which is quite a bit of travel. As the road actually goes up both sides of the sometimes-mile-wide river, some even make it a loop trip. If you don’t have time to do the whole thing, just pick a place and jump on! We highly recommend the northern half, from St. Louis up for the most interesting destinations. Because the Mississippi has several dams, you can find great Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds all along the route.
The following are some things to do at some of our favorite stops along that portion of the trip:
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is a wonderful place to visit, especially for all the free stuff to do. Of course there’s the Arch and the nearby Old Courthouse where the historic Dred Scott case was tried. The whole area has been under massive construction for years, which is due to finish this summer as it is re-christened Gateway Arch National Park. The St. Louis Science Center and St. Louis Zoo are both free and excellent, but for a more adventurous experience, check out the City Museum, which has been named the #1 family attraction in the world. The 600,000 square-foot former shoe factory is like a combination of a funhouse, a playground, and an art installation.
Outside of downtown a bit is our favorite St. Louis destination, Grant’s Farm. This 281-acre ancestral home of the Busch family (of Anheuser-Busch fame) is named for President Ulysses S. Grant who originally worked a portion of the land. When you arrive at this free attraction ($13 parking fee), you hop aboard a tram that takes you on a journey through a preserve where animals such as bison, antelope, and zebras roam free. The tram drops you off in a bavarian-style courtyard, where you can see a historic collection of carriages and other small zoo exhibits. The best part – some of the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales call this their home, along with the beer carriage they pull in the commercials. We like to camp at Pere Marquette State Park, just across the river in Illinois. When in downtown, you can park RVs for a fee at the big lot near Busch Stadium.
About 100 miles north of St. Louis is the boyhood home of Mark Twain, and the setting for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The downtown riverfront area is simply charming, with soda fountains, restaurants, craft shops, galleries and more to visit.
Quad Cities(Iowa and Illinois)
On the border of Iowa and Illinois sits a metropolitan area composed of four (some say five) towns that all offer something different. The first railroad bridge built across the Mississippi River connected Davenport and Rock Island in 1856. Just weeks after its completion a steamboat purposefully crashed into it in protest (railroads were seen as a threat). The Rock Island Railroad Company selected a young Abraham Lincoln as their lawyer and won after he took the case to the US Supreme Court. You can still cross the 1896 incarnation of that bridge as part of the Rock Island Arsenal, an operating military base and historic Civil War prison site. For some other great things to do in the Quad Cities area, check out our “top ten” blog post on the area. Do not miss Quad Cities-style pizza at restaurants like Harris Pizza. The chewy malt-flavored crust is unbeatable.
In Dubuque – a quintessential river town – you must visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. This expansive complex is perhaps the best museum focused on a specific topic that we have ever been to. The main building has some history of the river, fish tanks, and a water play area for kids, but the best part is a free stingray petting experience. We’ve seen these at other zoos and aquariums, but it’s usually an additional charge. It’s easy to think that it’s over after the main building, but outside lies a massive campus that includes a small boat crafting shop, a history of riverboats, some Mark Twain artifacts, and two large real riverboats for exploration. Stay at the Grant River Army Corps of Engineers campground across the river in Potosi, Wisconsin. It’s a renowned fishing destination, and the sunsets are stellar.
As you head north from Dubuque, the landscape continues to get more and more beautiful. The bluffs that overlook it get bigger and bigger, but the road stays mostly flat, following the riverbed. Atop some of those bluffs in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, is the Effigy Mounds National Monument. These Native American mounds, mostly in the shapes of animals, are so old that nobody remembers who built them or why. A 2.5 mile round-trip hike up a steep bluff to view the mounds ends at the Fire Point overlook where you behold the mile-wide Mississippi in all its glory. This is one of those views that just takes your breath away. From here on out, the landscape up the river will have you struggling to keep your eyes on the road.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Historic La Crosse is a fun college town to visit for a night or two. There are riverboat rides, beautiful parks, and some great food. You can also check out the world’s largest six-pack while you’re their, an homage to the town and the state’s history of beer craftsmanship. It’s Wisconsin, so dairy is on the menu. Fill yourself up on some cheese curds, available at nearly every restaurant, and take a walk along the beautiful riverfront.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
Our journey ends in the major metropolis of the twin cities. Here, the river is protected by the National Park Service as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. The visitor’s center is located in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota, another great place to visit. Kayaking and canoe trips are a lot of fun on the river in this area, and we really enjoy the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, which takes you on a loop tour of the city, hitting some cool neighborhoods and architecture, some Mississippi sites, and one of our favorite places, the Minnehaha Falls. Of course, you can also visit the Mall of America for some good old-fashioned commercialism, complete with an entire amusement park indoors. We really enjoyed staying at the first-come-first-served Hoffman Park Campground in nearby River Falls, Wisconsin. It’s about the cheapest campground with electricity you’ll find nearby such a big city, but it fills up fast. Shhhh! Don’t give away the secret.
From here, you could continue on to the headwaters of the Mississippi at Minnesota’s, Itasca State Park, where you can stand with your feet on either side of the river that will eventually become so wide you can lay two empire state buildings across it.
We hope you’ll take the time to journey up the Mississippi! There’s so much more to see and do than the few spots we listed here. You can pick up a Great River Road map at nearly any tourism flyer rack along the route, or you can download the Drive the Great River Road smartphone app. You can also check out our Great River Road episode of the RV Miles Podcast.
About the Authors
Jason Epperson and Abigail Trabue are the hosts of the RV Miles Podcast, as well as the America’s National Parks Podcast. You can find both shows on Apple Podcasts or any smartphone podcast app. You can follow their personal journey as they travel the country in a converted school bus at ourwanderingfamily.com.
Edward W. ~ “They were very very helpful on the phone and the tow truck driver spent a lot of time setting up our motorhome to tow making sure everything was right.”