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Great River Road scenic byway/ river towns, Minnesota

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Did You Know … ?

  • Sixty percent of all U.S. grain exports are shipped on the Mississippi River.
  • Actress and singer Judy Garland (“The Wizard of Oz”) was born in Grand Rapids, Minn.
  • Waterskiing was invented at Lake Pepin in 1922 by a teenager who was sometimes towed by an airplane.
  • Charles Lindbergh designed the Spirit of St. Louis, then flew it across the U.S. eight days before his Atlantic crossing.
  • St. Anthony Falls is the only waterfall on the Mississippi.

From the Mississippi’s headwaters

The Great River Road, a national scenic byway, is a route that roughly follows the Mississippi River for nearly 3,000 miles from Itasca State Park in north central Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The idea of designating roads in 10 states as part of a themed drive was conceived in 1938 to highlight and preserve the river’s historic and scenic treasures. The longest leg of the drive, 575 miles, is in Minnesota.

Active vacationers don’t have to drive. One alternative is the Mississippi River Bicycle Trail. In addition, Minnesota has declared that state’s portion of the river a Water Trail, making it practical for visitors to follow the Mississippi by floating on it.

The river provides a window on Minnesota’s forests (logging country), numerous lakes (in a state with thousands) and resorts, farm country, cities and, finally, stereotypical Mississippi river towns and bluff country.

Throughout the route, opportunities abound for bird-watching, canoeing or kayaking, cycling, fishing, golfing, river cruises and, in autumn, admiring the colors.

In the cities and towns, visitors find diversions in theaters, museums, festivals, historic homes, manmade vistas and hospitality with a midwestern flavor.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul (the river passes through both), the wonders of the mighty Mississippi meet urban sophistication.

From Hastings, southeast of the Twin Cities, the byway has another 140 miles to the Iowa border. This stretch is the place where Mississippi bluffs and river towns of the traveler’s imagination come to life. Several towns boast fine collections of 19th century architecture; more than 50 buildings in Wabasha’s downtown appear on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition:

  • Red Wing has numerous antiques and specialty shops and a full schedule of entertainment at the 1904 Sheldon Theatre.
  • Lake City, on the shore of Lake Pepin (a wide section of the river), offers a river walk and paddleboat cruises.
  • Wabasha is a top spot for viewing bald eagles — and home to the Grumpy Old Men Festival.
  • Winona has a lakeside rose garden and hosts the Great River Shakespeare Festival.
  • La Crescent, near Great River Bluffs State Park, is in apple country and hosts an apple festival.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Attend the Minnesota Homegrown Kickoff, a three-day outdoor music and camping event with performances and workshops, in late spring at St. Cloud.
  • Follow the entire Great River Road in Minnesota, but by bike on the Mississippi River Bicycle Trail. Or, combine cycling with travel on the river itself, by canoe or kayak (while an outfitter ships your bike to an agreed pick-up point).
  • If driving the Great River Road in winter, stop for some cross-country skiing. One of several opportunities is the Buena Vista Ski Area in the Bemidji area, where choices include snowboarding and downhill skiing, as well.
  • Come in early autumn for the Headwaters 100 Bike Ride (Park Rapids, for a ride of 45, 75 or 100 miles) later for the Winterfest (Bemidji, including a polar plunge, curling team event and entertainment tent on the lake’s ice).
  • Scuba dive in one of the ponds, created from old quarries, in Quarry Park outside of St. Cloud. Or scuba in water-filled former mine pits in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
  • Take on Minnesota in February — attend Wabasha’s Grumpy Old Men Festival, which remembers the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau “Grumpy Old Men” films, set in Wabasha. Participate in appropriately comic events. Enter the ice fishing contest.

Things to do for Centrics

  • In logging country, visit a reconstructed 1900 logging camp peopled with costumed hosts in the Forest History Center near Grand Rapids. Then, tour Blandin Paper in town to learn more about logging as well as papermaking. The town of Cass Lake has a reconstructed logging camp, too.
  • Walk across the Mississippi at its source in Itasca State Park.
  • Fish for bass, northern pike, perch and walleye on Lake Winnibigoshish. Or, in winter, try ice fishing in the Brainerd Lakes area.
  • Stop by at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, between Elk River and St. Cloud, for some impromptu bird-watching. Do the same in Red Wing, on the Great River Birding Trail, and look for tundra swans and bald eagles.
  • In autumn, combine a hike with a colorful foliage tour in the Savanna Portage State Park. Or, see foliage by cycling the 20-mile Cannon Valley Bike Trail that starts in Red Wing.
  • View the resident bald eagles at Wabasha’s National Eagle Center, learn more about this national symbol, then look for the wild eagles along the river. March is the best time to see the birds in the wild, and the center offers special Soar With the Eagles programs on March weekends.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Look for and photograph the best of this trip’s 19th century architecture in Red Wing, Wabasha and Winona. Stay in a historic inn, as well.
  • Visit Judy Garland’s childhood home, now a museum, in Grand Rapids. If traveling with kids, take them to the adjacent Children’s Discovery Museum. Recall another local by visiting a Charles Lindbergh boyhood home in the small river town of Little Falls. (Check opening hours in advance.)
  • Play golf. There are numerous courses along the Great River Road route, but one is the evocatively named Headwaters Golf Club.
  • In Bemidji, visit the Bemidji Woolen Mill Factory for outlet shopping. Also, attend summer theater at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse.
  • At La Crescent, in spring, take a side trip by following the 19-mile Apple Blossom Drive. Or, in September, attend the La Crescent Apple Festival.
  • At Lake City, board the Pearl of the Lake paddleboat to cruise Lake Pepin. Or, at Red Wing, take a river cruise.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Explore Minnesota Tourism at www.exploreminnesota.com