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The Great River Road
There are numerous advantages to taking a lazy trip down the Great River Road. For starters, the epic north-south (mostly) journey rarely takes you far from the Mighty Mississippi, the river the entire route was fashioned around in 1938. And you don't need to be a Mark Twain enthusiast to understand the symbolic importance of this great waterway, which still serves as not only an important shipping and supply route but is arguably the watery soul of the Midwest, the South, and possibly even America itself. The landscape along the Great River Road usually manages to engage and surprise with its sleepy rural farms, forests, swamps, and a few wonderful southern cities (St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans) for good measure. It won't take long into the trip, with the steady, muddy shores of the Mississippi out your window, to understand why the Great River Road is a preferred path over the faster interstates. A trip along this route is such a wonderful excuse to take things easy, and why the spirit of the great river and its namesake road is so infectious. Huck Finn would still be proud.
As the Mississippi River goes, so does this route, which is why we start our journey in Minnesota's unpretentious Lake Itasca State Park, just off Hwy. 2. Here, "Ole Mis" is but a trickle, taking its time on its run south to develop into the massive waterway it eventually becomes. This is a nice spot to ride bikes or, as is the custom throughout the state's 10,000 lakes, grab a boat and float the day away on the water. While the Great River Road is generally a southern route, travelers won't help but notice following the Mississippi here requires a slight northward slant up through the town of Bemidji, still on Highway 2.
While not quite the lumber capitol today, as it once was (providing usable hardwoods for much of this portion of the state) the working mills throughout town remind passersby of the town's past and industrious future. But for your information, it was in these forests where the legend of Paul Bunyan and his trusty blue ox, Babe, grew, with a statue in town commemorating the legend's logging prowess. (Warning: This won't be the last reference to the duo along the Minnesota portion of the Great River Road, mind you).
Continuing the woodsy theme, you won't even need to visit Chippewa National Forest along Highway 2 to gauge its sheer size. The forest is just huge, with more than 650,000 acres of lakes and dense foliage to intrigue travelers. If time won't permit a stop, continue on towards Grand Rapids to see just what trees mean - and have meant - to this part of the state. A tour of the Forest History Center does its best to bring to life the logging camps of old, complete with lumberjacks. The Great River Road does plenty of twisting and turning for the next hundred miles or so, joining Hwys. 210, and later 371, as it parallels the Mississippi's course. Most of the towns passed are tiny, but charming, with lots of stories to tell. However, we prefer to take the road all the way to our first really big stop, the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minnesota.
To the east sits St. Paul, to the west is Minneapolis, and in between is the Mississippi River that put both towns on the proverbial map. Though both linked by the river, the Twin City towns are hardly twins. For us, Minneapolis is the more obvious choice for a prolonged stop, with lots of interesting places to eat and a surprisingly long list of must-see venues. The arts scene is worth the visit all by itself, with the Children's Theatre Company and the venerable Guthrie Theatre. The nearby Walker Art Center and its scenic gardens host numerous dance, music, and theater productions each year. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is undergoing a serious renovation, which will nearly double the gallery space next year. The Mall of America is also worth a serious visit. It's almost too big to be believed, with some 520 shops, eight nightclubs, 14 movie theatres, a roller coaster, kiddie rides, and more than 50 eateries. Sports lovers will find both the Target Center (Timberwolves basketball) and the Metrodome (Vikings football and Twins baseball) compelling places to catch a game, depending on the season.
Highway 94 is the best way to depart the Twin Cities and resume the course along border-hugging Hwy. 35. The good news is that Hwy. 35 provides some of the river's best viewing. The little towns populating the roadside are relatively quiet and offer travelers an occasional recess from the natural scenery. Grab a bite to eat at the Trempealeau Hotel, Restaurant & Saloon in the namesake town. The 100+-year-old establishment also rents canoes for planned, or spontaneous, water trips. The town of LaCrosse (pop. 51,000), home of Old Style beer, is about as big a town as you'll likely find until you reach Dubuque, Iowa.
Cross the bridge along Hwy. 52 into Iowa to visit our third state along the Great River Road. Your first stop should be the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Marquette, home to more than 200 animal-shaped burial mounds; presumably built by pre-historic settlers. Additionally, we think a trip to Dubuque is in order, home to lots of quirky architecture, riverboat casinos, the Mississippi River Museum. You'll likely enjoy a visit to the Fenelon Place Elevator, a short and steep cable car ride that's a bit of a hoot.
The Great River Road jumps back and forth between Illinois, Iowa, and eventually, Missouri. We recommend driving along Hwy. 84 south through Illinois for a very scenic look at Mississippi Palisades State Park outside Savannah. Next, come the quad cities of Bettendorf, Davenport, Moline, and Rock Island that, together, are more than the sum of their parts. If you haven't yet visited one of the Maid-Rite Cafes that you'll regularly see along the way, it's probably time to belly up to the bar for a hamburger at this nostalgic restaurant chain, established in 1926. South of the quad cities Hwy. 92 gives way to Hwy. 96, along which it seems the small towns line right up after another. Our favorite burg of the bunch is Quincy, a major skydiving center and home to the World Free Fall event every August. Take Hwy. 57 out of town until you pick up US Hwy. 36 which will take you to one of American literature's most famous destinations, Hannibal, Missouri.
Shame, shame on you if you don't know who lived in Hannibal, Missouri. As the state's number one native son, Mark Twain's name and likeness are simply ubiquitous throughout this part of the state. Obviously, his hometown of Hannibal embraces his legacy the most, with many places named after him. A trip to his boyhood homes and museum are recommended to get a true sense of his roots and how they impacted his various masterworks. If you haven't been studying your old copy of Huckleberry Finn as you parallel "Big Muddy," now's a great time to immerse yourself in the world of Mark Twain.
Hwy. 79 continues along our Mississippi River heading, speeding through the Mississippi Valley. Eventually, it's Hwy. 70 that directs visitors into St. Louis. Tourists generally flock to such institutions as the Gateway Arch, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, Busch Stadium (Cardinals baseball), and a couple of decent-sized museums. Interstate 55 leads you out of town, faithfully following the Mississippi River to the east, until you reach Hwy. 3 where it takes you back into Illinois.
The town of Chester is a good example of what a little clever marketing can do. As the birthplace of Popeye the Sailor Man - the cartoon created by resident Elzie Segar in 1929 - Chester does its best to put itself on the sightseeing map with an annual Popeye festival and a fair amount of character nostalgia. It all makes this otherwise ordinary town a bit more interesting. Metropolis, Illinois, is another such example, at the end of a 30-odd mile detour along the Ohio River, which celebrates all things Superman, all the time.
Kentucky and Tennessee
The Kentucky portion of the trip is scenic and void of many of the trappings of established thoroughfares (e.g.-strip malls and fast food outlets). This is the low country along the Great River Road, a floodplain that residents are all too aware of, having felt the river's flood-prone fury more than once. The route is also somewhat convoluted here, with quick road changes from dependable Hwy. 3, to short stints on Hwy. 123, Hwy. 239, and Hwy. 94, before Hwy. 78 stabilizes your route through Dyersburg, Tennessee. Hwy. 51 leads into Memphis, one of our all-time favorite places for good cookin' and terrific music. The latter are evident by the numerous local venues for live music of almost every persuasion. The city's heart remains a somewhat "tourist-ified" Beale Street with its many shops, eateries, and clubs. We also highly recommend seeing the newly appointed National Civil Rights Museum and Mississippi River Museum while you're in town. You're also not too far from Graceland, the home of the town's most famous resident and rock n' roll icon, Elvis Presley. And before pulling out of Memphis, grab yourself some memorable and tasty BBQ at any number of well-known places.
The bright lights of Memphis give way to another interesting set of landscapes in the Mississippi Delta. The plain is most pronounced entering Mississippi, highlighted by Hwy. 61. The rampant casino business and tourist-oriented development along the highway have unfortunately eroded some of the area's backwoods flavor, but it survives nonetheless. The first and arguably most important stop in the state is in the small town of Clarksdale, credited as the "Home of the Blues." A long list of performers who launched America's most distinctly original form of music started here. Take it all in at the Delta Blues Museum, which chronicles the history of the Blues. Those looking for a live demonstration should take in a show at the Ground Zero Blues Club, followed by a visit to legendary Abe's, who's been working his barbecue magic in the heart of downtown Clarksdale for more than 80 years.
Take Hwy. 1 west out of town to reconnect with the river and the Great River Road. The town of Greenville is another one of the state's gambling destinations, with riverboat casinos lining the shores of this port town. Otherwise, beat a path through Hwy. 14 and ultimately back to Hwy. 61, past the town of Vicksburg, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought (as re-created in the 1,800-acre National Military Park).
The last and probably most splendid stop in the state is in the fabulously historic town of Natchez, with the largest population of wondrous antebellum homes in the region. Natchez was once the zip code for southern millionaires, with unbelievably sculpted homes to match. Today, many of these homes are still standing and some are even open for tours. The downtown Museum of Afro-American History and Culture is an educational visit. Better still is a visit to maybe the most unusual restaurant anywhere, Mammy's; its small building fashioned in the shape of a large woman. The skirt itself serves as the dining room.
The scenic and storied Natchez Trace Parkway, running from Hwy. 61 south of the town of Port Gibson to Nashville, Tennessee, honors the route first forged by natives and eventually transformed into a major trade conduit throughout the region.
The final leg of our trip creates the sensation that one might actually be swallowed by the river and eventually the Gulf of Mexico itself. This is the part of the country that best typifies sea level, with terrains in southern Louisiana so low that people must be buried above ground in New Orleans to prevent from washing away. But don't let that morbid fact bother you - there's just too much to see and do through here to worry about sinking. With the Great River Road bypassing much of the state, Hwy. 61 leads all-comers into Baton Rogue, an industrial city that occasionally sheds its blue-collar image with such engaging sites as the 34-story Capitol, Rural Life Museum (rural life is in abundance throughout the state, especially in the northern parishes), and Louisiana State University (LSU) campus.
Continue your southern quest on Hwy. 30 for what the locals boast as "Plantation Alley," a 100-mile parade of small towns and their head turning, Old-South mansions. The Houmas House, built on an astounding 20,000 acres in the town of Burnside, is arguably the best of the bunch. Reconnect with Hwy. 1 for some true fun, New Orleans-style. You've no doubt heard of the city's bawdy reputation, so now it's time to experience them if you're ready for anything-goes Mardi Gras. Otherwise, we might recommend the more sedate Jazz Fest (April/May) for good times without the screaming Spring Break crowd. Much of New Orleans contains a beautiful, old-world setting that's just endured too many parades and spilled beer to keep its true good looks. The French Quarter and its epicenter Bourbon Street capture what's great and, well, shocking about the city. It has wonderful vintage architecture and fabulous eateries (Creole cuisine and Bananas Foster, anyone?) on one hand, and 24/7 bars and not-for-the-faint-heart-clubs on the other. And if you want to toss down a good, stiff drink with a name to match, try a Hurricane at Pat O'Brien's - just don't make any serious plans for the rest of the night.
We're guessing you didn't come this far not to reach the end of the line, where the Mississippi River dumps into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 23 leads you out of town for an additional 75 miles or so to the town of Venice. This is about as close as you can get to the end of the river, which ends just shy of Delta National Wildlife Refuge, but you've essentially done it all. You've driven along the mighty Mississippi and probably learned a thing or two about the river's even mightier influence on the lands it divides.