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Great American Road Trip #7: Great River Road

Written by  Tuesday, 18 November 2014 00:00

Great River RoadImage from Ron Reiring

From Native Americans and early European settlers – right through to today's inhabitants – the Mississippi River's impact upon shaping local life has been significant. Not only that, but as the US's second longest river and arguably its most famous, the Mississippi River has played an integral part in shaping the nation's history too.

The Great River Road follows the course of the Mississippi river for over 2,000 miles, through ten states and numerous riverside towns and cities. Although spectacular all year long, fall is arguably the best time to drive along the Great River Road – when the surrounding trees turn from green to red and the river plays host to a number of festivals that celebrate the area's heritage.


Where To start

You can of course choose to embark upon a journey that takes in the length of the Great River Road. To conquer the entire road by car would take roughly 36 hours – and that's without stopping for breaks to experience any of the road's sights or attractions.

As such, this guide focuses on a smaller section of the road. Starting in Minneapolis and ending in Davenport, the suggested route cuts through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, for what is one of the most scenic and culturally richest sections of the Great River Road.



Before you set foot in your car however, you should consider sampling some of the delights that Minneapolis has to offer.

The Walker Art Center, for example, is one of the nation's 'big five' museums for modern art. As such, it houses space for some of the best modern art exhibitions, installations and screenings in the country. If you're visiting with your kids, be sure to check the official website for any upcoming family events the museum regularly holds.


The 'endless bridge' – situated at the Guthrie Theatre – is a cantilevered 200 foot walkway that extends from the theatre over the Mississippi River. Here you can experience one of the most spectacular views of the mighty river, as it cascades over the St. Anthony Falls.



To take the Great River Road from Minneapolis, you will need to jump onto Highway 61 and head south towards Winona. If you so choose, you can punctuate the near two hour drive with a number of pit stops. For example, The Andersen Center in Red Ring is home to a collection of paintings by such luminaries as Warhol, Man Ray and Matisse.


Once you arrive in Winona, you can choose from a number of things to see and do. In downtown Winona, there's the main museum of the Winona County Historical Society that chronicles the human history of the County.


If you've had enough expanding your cultural horizons and wish to take in more of the region’s astounding natural beauty, you should consider paying a visit to Great River Bluffs State Park. Here you will find a diverse woodland environment populated by oak-hickory and maple-basswood forests, wildlife and expansive trails that offer breath-taking views of the Mississippi river valley.


Effigy Mounds Monument And The National Mississippi River Museum

Upon leaving Winona, take Highway 61 through the small towns of Dakota and La Crescent, before taking Highway 26 south.


From here, a roughly 90-minute drive will take you to the Effigy Mounds Monument – a location where you will find more than 200 prehistoric mounds built by the Native Americans. In among the mounds you'll find numerous effigies shaped like bears, birds and many other animals that still exist some 4,000 years after they were created.


Jump back into the car and continue south, hugging the road along the Mississippi River. When you approach Dubuque, Iowa, you should consider following the signs to The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.


The Museum and Aquarium blends the past and the present to deliver a high-tech experience housed in an old shipbuilding factory. Features include giant tanks that hold catfish, turtles, alligators and more, plus a brand new attraction – the Diamond Jo National River Center.


Within this recently built section of the museum you will find the RiverWays gallery and a Large Format 3D/4D Immersion Theater. The latter is a special effects extravaganza recreating a boat trip down the famous river, whilst the former is an exhibition dedicated to the mysterious world of river caves.


Galena To Davenport

From the museum, take Highway 20 across the river and drive for around twenty minutes until you reach Galena. Built around the turn of the Twentieth Century, the town of Galena boasts some beautiful period architecture and is considered a premier holiday hotspot.


From Galena, hop onto Route 84 and head south to Davenport. En route you can choose to stop at the Mississippi Palisades State Park. The park, which approximately covers 2,500 acres, boasts a range of family-suited activities such as hiking trails, fishing and boating.


The final destination of Davenport, like so many Great River Road destinations, provides a varied range of attractions to consider visiting. Among the best are Vander Veer Botanical Park and Figge Art Museum.


Vander Veer Botanical Park is a beautiful 33-acre park that features gardens, floral displays aplenty and a trademark 100-year-old conservatory. Figge Art Museum however is arguably the finest of all the world-class museums that lie near the banks of the Great River.


Finally, before you embark upon your road trip, you should also consider checking this events calendar to see if your planned journey coincides with any festivals that pique you interest.


Providing peace of mind

If you have an accident behind the wheel of your rental car you may be liable for the full cost of damage. Depending on the extent of the damage, this could be thousands of dollars.


You will need to ensure you have CDW/LDW in place. CDW/LDW works by providing cover for the entire cost of damage to a rental car (minus a deductible) in the event of an accident. As such, your rental company will try and sell you CDW/LDW cover over the counter as you pick up your vehicle.


However, buying a CDW/LDW from your rental company is usually a lot more expensive than purchasing similar cover from a standalone provider before you set out on vacation. For more information on buying CDW cover for prices that are up to 70% cheaper than those offered by the rental car company, click here.


If you have been inspired to take a road trip along the Great River Road, please take the time to share this blog on your favorite social media.