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Mississippi’s Great River Road
Traveling To The Source of the Mississippi
The Mississippi River. Along its 2,500+-mile route countless stories have been told, cities have risen, wars have been fought, goods have been shipped, and even sports have been invented (water skiing, for example).
Check out facts like these:
- The Mississippi River watershed drains about 40% of the contiguous United States, including all or part of 31 states and two provinces in Canada.
- The Mississippi served as an international boundary during the early years of this country and still serves as a border for a dozen states.
- It’s a popular “dividing line” for the U.S., as you’ll often hear phrases like “tallest building west of the Mississippi” or “highest point east of the Mississippi.”
- For TV and radio, it’s the border between stations whose call letters start with a “W” (east) or a “K” (west).
- 60% of all North American birds use the river basin as their migratory flyway.
- The Mississippi-Missouri River combination is the fourth longest river system in the world.
This mighty river has humble beginnings in Minnesota; yet, its journey through the state prepares the Ole Miss well for the rest of its journey. The river runs for about 1/6 of its total length in Minnesota and drops more than halfway to sea level from its original elevation of 1,475 feet just to the first lock and dam in Minneapolis. It can be miles wide or just 20 feet wide. The source of the Mississippi was long sought by Native Americans and European explorers and was finally determined to be in Lake Itasca, now home to Minnesota’s oldest state park. They had a rough go finding the source; we’re fortunate to have an easier, more enjoyable way to tour the river to the source and plenty of great places to stay along the way!
So let’s ride along the Great River Road, up the Mississippi through towns, big cities, and forest lands all the way up to its source.
Begin in La Crescent, Minnesota, just off I-90 along U.S. 14/61. Right across the Mississippi River at this point is La Crosse, Wisconsin, a city of 50,000 big on breweries, bluffs, and bridges (three cross the river here). It’s a fun city to check out, and the Best Western PLUS Riverfront Hotel is right by the I-90 bridge to help you start your journey into Minnesota.
I-90, U.S. 14, and U.S. 61 run together for about five miles north of La Crosse and La Crescent on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River. It’s one of the more beautiful stretches of interstate highway you’ll find, with towering bluffs to the west and the expanse of the Mississippi River and Lake Onalaska to the east. Follow the U.S. 14/61 branch off I-90 and head north.
This lovely drive is a fast one on this four-lane divided highway, winding between bluffs and riverfront for lovely views in every direction. A short detour to Pickwick via MN Highway 7 brings you to the Historic Pickwick Mill, a 160-year old gristmill perched on Big Trout Creek that produced flour for the Union Army during the Civil War and for much of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin for decades. You can tour the mill and watch it work. More history can be found further up along U.S 14/61 in Homer at the Bunnell House, built with Dakota Indian permission in the 1850s and consisting of northern white pine in a terrific example of Rural Gothic architecture. During summer, a local theater company performs throughout the house. Great River Bluffs State Park along the way features beautiful views of the river and surroundings from King’s and Queen’s Bluffs and the hiking trails leading up and around them. It’s also a birder’s paradise.
Just past the park you reach Winona, famous for Winona State University and being the naming inspiration for actress Winona Ryder. This city of 27,000 is also the “Stained Glass Capital of the United States,” with dozens of stained glass artists clustered in town, soldering irons in hand. Many of their works can be viewed on walking tours downtown, adding colorful designs to many of the already historic buildings, including the beautiful Winona County Courthouse, a Richardsonian Romanesque-style building from 1888. The city grew up around lumber and shipping, serving as a key port on the Mississippi River since the 19th century. Quarrying back then helped create Sugar Loaf Bluff, an exposed rock extending 85 feet above the rest of the bluff; hiking trails to top offer a terrific view of the town.
Downtown, the Winona County History Center chronicles the area’s history and development. Polish immigrants in particular had a major influence on Winona, and the Polish Cultural Institute & Museum illustrates this heritage in what’s called the “Kashubian Capital of America.” The first-ever “money back guarantee” came from a Winona company: the J.R. Watkins Company, the famous maker of health remedies, baking products, and household items that started back in 1868. The Watkins Heritage Museum explores the history of the company with plenty of interesting displays featuring old-time products, advertisements, and more. With a nod to Winona’s extensive river shipping history, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum features works saluting waterways from the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir, and more – with river views to boot.
Trivia: Winona’s weather station records the warmest climate in Minnesota, with an average annual temperature of 48.9F. So on a national scale, it’s still considered pretty cold.
Winona hosts a number of popular festivals including Steamboat Days, the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, the annual Dixieland Jazz Festival, the Boats & Bluegrass Festival, and the Frozen River Film Festival – for something to do in the winter, as the river does indeed freeze.
U.S. 14 heads west toward Rochester from Winona; for the Tour, we continue north on U.S. 61 along the Great River Road. The lovely views continue, even as the road heads away from the river at times to accommodate the wildlife management areas that abut the river. You go through tiny Minnesota City Weaver, and Kellogg on the way to Wabasha, the setting for the movies Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men – and don’t worry, signs remind you of that entering the town.
Wabasha has about 2,500 residents and a bridge to Wisconsin, one of the few crossings between La Crosse and the Twin Cities. The city is also home to the National Eagle Center, a top-notch interpretive center that’s home to five rescued eagles, including bald and golden eagles. Open all year, you can see and experience eagles up close and learn all about them through interactive exhibits; of course, the Mississippi River is a major migration path for eagles as part of the Mississippi Flyway.
A little bit northwest of Wabasha along U.S. 61, the Mississippi River widens into Lake Pepin, the largest lake along the navigable portion of the river and its widest natural point. It’s where water skiing was invented, as Lake City, Minnesota resident Ralph Samuelson first demonstrated the sport on the lake in 1922. Lake City, the largest town along Lake Pepin, celebrates with Waterski Days during the last weekend in June every year. Lake City also has two marinas and the only working lighthouse along the Mississippi; it’s also an incredibly popular spot for fishing and swimming. Laura Ingalls Wilder, who hailed from nearby Pepin, Wisconsin noted Lake Pepin in the “Going to Town” chapter of Little House in the Big Woods. They crossed a frozen Lake Pepin in a covered wagon; during winter months, you can do the same with your car as “ice roads” are occasionally open.
For a nice view of Lake Pepin, head to nearby Frontenac State Park, which features a 430-foot high limestone bluff that extends for three miles. The bluff includes a natural arch. Similar to Great River Bluffs State Park, this is also a birder’s paradise: over 260 species have been sighted here, including eagles, warblers, and sanderlings. Several hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobile trails wind through the park. Frontenac can be accessed via U.S. 61/63 (U.S. 63 joins us at Lake City) about five miles north of Lake City itself.
A little further northwest just past Wacouta you’ll find Mississippi National Golf Links, a 36-hole course nestled in the rolling hills and forest abutting the Mississippi River. While the origins of this golf course go back a long way, a reopening of the course in 2014 after several years shuttered ushered in a new era. Golf enthusiasts would do well to make some time for a round or two here.
Just past Mississippi National, you enter Red Wing, a charming city of 16,000 located along a sharp elbow of the Mississippi River. U.S. 61 winds into downtown while U.S. 63 heads over the river on a bridge to Wisconsin. We continue on U.S. 61, which becomes Main Street through a beautiful mix of brick buildings and other historic structures filled with shops and small town businesses that frequently draw visitors from the Twin Cities for the day or the weekend. Barn Bluff towers above downtown, helping to frame the city nicely and offer a nice view for those who choose to make the climb.
Several well-known items are crafted here; at least two name themselves after the city. Red Wing Stoneware & Pottery started here in 1877, creating a variety of ceramic products from the area’s rich clay. Their original building serves as the Pottery Store and sits on Old West Main Street; the Stoneware Store is a larger, active production facility on the north side of town along U.S. 61. “Pottery Place” is a shopping area located in a former factory; a visit to any of these can yield some great ceramic finds.
So who wouldn’t want to see the World’s Largest Boot? Red Wing is famously home to Red Wing Shoes, which started here in 1905. Red Wing quickly grew and became famous for outfitting soldiers and heavy-duty workers with shoes that could withstand the rigors of their difficult activities. Work boots are still the core of their business, but they have since diversified. The fun part is checking out the flagship Red Wing Shoe Store & Museum on Main Street (US. 61) which not only offers three floors of shoe-shopping pleasure with over 30,000 pairs to peruse, but a museum showcasing advertisements and the history of Red Wing Shoes through the ages. The topper is a size 638 ½ boot that towers over 20 feet in the front of the store. You can walk around it, touch it, and check it out from multiple levels. But no, they won’t let you try it on.
Red Wing is the seat of Goodhue County, and the Goodhue County Historical Museum features plenty of exhibits on the town, its extensive history and the products produced here. One of the newer products comes from the Red Wing Brewery, which opened its doors on Old West Main and offers a variety of local craft beers. On the outskirts of town, Falconer Vineyards grows cold weather-hardy grapes to make a series of wines on 6.5 acres of rolling hills. Their Tasting Room is open Wednesday-Sunday and they fire up their pizza oven from May-October. You can cap off a tour of Red Wing from the river by checking out a cruise from Rusty’s Red Wing River Rides (612-859-6655), which offers rides and excursions from Red Wing up and down the Mississippi.
The Best Western Rivertown Inn & Suites is a great place to bed down after taking in this part of the “Mississippi to the Source” Tour. There’s plenty of action ahead, with the Twin Cities lurking.
From Red Wing, continue north on U.S. 61. We veer away from the river for a while and use MN 316 as a “cutoff” on the Great River Road to eventually meet up with U.S. 61 again in Hastings, shortly after the Mississippi comes fully into Minnesota (the St. Croix River branches off northward, taking with it the Minnesota-Wisconsin border). This marks the only time the Mississippi River is fully within one state other than Louisiana – not counting a few technicalities downriver caused by meandering changes over the years.
Hastings (pop. 22,000) is the seat of Dakota County, and its former courthouse (built in 1871, the second oldest courthouse in Minnesota) is now City Hall. The city is known for its architecture, from a wide assortment of Victorians to the Fasbender Clinic (801 Pine, just off MN 55 in town), a 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright structure prized for its copper roof extending down almost to the ground in some areas. The Vermillion River runs through Hastings to the Mississippi and heads over Vermillion Falls shortly before ending; Vermillion Falls Park is a nice stop to check it the falls and an old train trestle that now serves as a bike trail. Nearby is Ramsey Mill, a four-story former gristmill built in 1857 that actively ground grain into flour for 37 years before a fire in 1894 forced it to close; its remains can be explored.
In Hastings, just north of downtown, the west branch of the Minnesota Great River Road turns west onto County 42/Nininger Road for a view of Lock & Dam No. 2, one of the first on the river. It was built in 1907, runs 722 feet wide, and has 19 tainter gates. The dam produces about 4.4 megawatts of hydroelectric power.
We’ll follow the east branch of the Great River Road, continuing on U.S. 61 from Hastings over the Mississippi River itself. U.S. 10 joins in from Wisconsin shortly thereafter and the two become an expressway heading into the Twin Cities, cutting past Cottage Grove and Newport and a junction with I-494, the south and west Twin Cities bypass.
Via U.S. 10/61 our Tour arrives in St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota and the east “twin” of the Twin Cities, with just under 300,000 of the metro area’s 3.5 million residents. The Mississippi River runs through St. Paul in a sort of crescent shape, entering the southwest side of the city, running northeast to downtown, and then curving back southeast. At the apex lies downtown St. Paul, packed with office towers, a thriving arts district, museums, and funky neighborhoods.
From U.S. 10/61, the Great River Road veers into downtown St. Paul on Warner Road. Jump a few hundred feet further north first and turn on Mounds Rad into Indian Mounds Park, which offers a look at six Native American burial mounds (the only survivors from what was originally believed to be at least 39) thought to be over one thousand years old – all perched on 450 million year-old limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. The park offers not only a great look at Native American history, but beautiful views of the river and a spectacular view of downtown St. Paul from places like Carver’s Cave Overlook and Beacon on the Bluff, which features a towering 100-foot beacon erected for 1920s air travel; it still shines light on the hill and bluff every night. Most days, the skyline of Minneapolis can be seen behind St. Paul – about 10 miles away.
Hop back to Warner Road and head along the riverbank into downtown St. Paul, where you can follow the trailblazer signs for the Great River Road or just amble around, knowing eventually you’ll want to follow Shepard Road southwest of the downtown to continue. Entering downtown from the east includes a neighborhood called Lowertown, where the new CHS Field is hosting the famous Saint Paul Saints baseball team starting with the 2015 season. In St. Paul’s downtown, you can check out pro hockey from the Minnesota Wild or a variety of concerts and other events at the Xcel Energy Center on 7th Street near Kellogg. For kids, the Minnesota Children’s Museum on 7th Street at Wabasha has galleries and exhibits on everything from creativity and problem solving to communities, landscapes, and the natural world. Just down the street, you may notice Mickey’s Dining Car, a classic diner in a real railroad car that has been open 24/7/365 since 1939.
Closer to the river accessible via Kellogg or Warner Road/Shepard Road along the riverbank, the Science Museum of Minnesota is perched above the river and offers not only 370,000 square feet of interactive science exhibits including the “Museum of Questionable Medical Devices,” but the Mississippi National River & Recreation Visitor Center in the lobby, which makes it a must-stop along this Tour!
The view from outside, complemented with outdoor information plaques, offers a nice look at this curve of the Mississippi through downtown St. Paul.
The Minnesota State Capitol sits just north of downtown, across from the busy I-94/I-35E interchange (locally known as “spaghetti junction” and you’ll see why). It’s perched on a hill and surrounded by monuments; it also offers a beautiful look at the St. Paul skyline. Modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (and featuring the second largest unsupported marble dome in the world, after the Basilica itself), the Minnesota State Capitol opened in 1905 and continues to dazzle visitors. Gilded statues, stately portraits and art, flags from Civil War battles, and more add to the architectural wonder and busy government activities taking place within. Perched on the dome level facing downtown St. Paul, check out the quadriga – four gilded horses representing earth, wind, and fire (the natural powers, not the band), and water. They were added to the Capitol in 1906.
Tours of the Capitol are available by calling 651-296-2881. From the Capitol, Cedar Street beelines southeast into the heat of downtown. John Ireland Boulevard beelines southwest to the Cathedral of Saint Paul, which sits atop the appropriately-named Cathedral Hill, the highest point in the city. Open to the public, this impressive cathedral also offers tours Monday-Friday at 1pm. Summit Avenue and Grand run southwest and then westerly through St. Paul in a line of Victorian mansions that runs for several miles.
Check out Summit Overlook Park, which features a beautiful eagle statue and overview of the Mississippi River valley just south of downtown. Right by the capital, the Best Western PLUS Capitol Ridge offers great views of the city, and to the west the Best Western PLUS Bandana Square offers great accommodations in a unique setting: a former train repair shop!
Elsewhere in St. Paul, the Como Park Zoo is one of the last free zoos in a major city in the United States; it also features an historic carousel with a small amusement park next door as well as the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. Just north of downtown, the Jackson Street Round House Museum features vintage trains and steam engines and a fully working roundhouse turntable – a rare sight nowadays. They also feature classic buses that once took passengers around the Twin Cities. Nearby and also north of downtown, the Flat Earth Brewing Company is a popular microbrewery operating out of the former Hamm’s Brewery, the “beer refreshing” that was long famous in St. Paul and much of the Midwest. They offer tours, tastings, and brews like the Northwest Passage IPA, saluting all the explorers who ended up in Minnesota looking for Asia back in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Cygnus X-1 Porter, named for a black hole somewhere in the universe.
From downtown St. Paul, head southwest on Shepard Road (I-35E nearby can be an alternate) to be closest to the river, or 7th Street/MN Highway 5 to head through busier neighborhoods. From 7th Street, you can connect to the Highland National Golf Course, which features a championship course and hosts events like the National Senior Games. In a nod to native son and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, the 15th hole features a “Snoopy”-shaped bunker.
Whether on MN 5 already or arriving on it via Shepard, cross the Mississippi River right near where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi. We’re entering an interesting area filled with historic sites and beautiful parks focused on the rivers. Look for signs to the Sibley House Historic Site, home of fur trader extraordinaire and first governor of Minnesota Henry Hastings Sibley. The four limestone buildings that make up the complex was the first Euro-American settlement in Minnesota and was the state’s first designated historic site. Tours are available at you can get the latest information at 651-452-1596.
Historic Fort Snelling dates back to the 1820s. Lying near the borders of both Minneapolis and St. Paul (and above a highway that was dug underneath it in the 1950s), Fort Snelling is a National Historic Landmark and offers up an extensive look at military history in Minnesota along with rebuilt and some original structures that you can check out up close. The fort served from 1820 until 1858, then became privately held, and then was used again during the Civil War for training and an internment camp for some Native Americans and captured Confederate soldiers. Fort Snelling was decommissioned in 1946 but for 48 years after continued to serve as headquarters for the U.S. Army Reserve 205th Infantry Brigade.
Trivia: The surgeon posted at Fort Snelling began recording weather observations in 1820, when it was first named Fort St. Anthony. Weather conditions are still recorded at Fort Snelling, making it one of the longest near continuous weather reporting stations in the country.
Fort Snelling can be toured, and the skylines of both St. Paul and Minneapolis can be viewed from the grounds on a clear day. The Fort grounds are so close to the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport that one of Delta Airlines’ office buildings are technically located on what had been the fort.
This all part of Fort Snelling State Park, which also features a Visitor Center, 18 miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails, bike trails, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and connections to regional trail systems that extend into the cities and suburbs of the Twin Cities metro. The Interpretive Center was the first year-round center of its kind in Minnesota, and it remains of the state’s most-visited state parks.
Right in this area you’ll also find (and hear) the incredibly busy Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which is an interesting juxtaposition from the serenity of the park surrounding Fort Snelling. Just a few minutes away via Hwy 5 and I-494 is Bloomington and the Mall of America, one of the world’s largest shopping experiences with over 400 stores, an amusement park, events center, restaurants, and attractions including the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, Nickelodeon Universe, and more. The Best Western PLUS Bloomington Hotel is right at the southwest corner of the Mall at MN Hwy 77 and Killebrew Drive for convenient access.
To continue on the Tour, connect to MN Hwy 55/Hiawatha Avenue north from Fort Snelling. Just off Hiawatha Avenue you can connect to Minnehaha Park, a beautiful, popular city park with 53-foot Minnehaha Falls as its crown jewel.
Minnehaha Creek is a tributary of the Mississippi River, coming from Lake Minnetonka to the west (fans of the movie Purple Rain might be familiar with that lake) and falling over Minnehaha Falls – except for winter months, when the falls is a tall juggernaut of ice. Minnehaha Park also features a charming former train depot (called the “Princess Depot” by many but officially called the Minnehaha Depot) that served as railroad and streetcar station from 1875 until the early 1960s. The restored depot is open to explore on Sunday afternoons.
The John Harrington Stevens House in the park was originally built in what is now downtown Minneapolis in 1850 and was moved here in 1896 – with the help of 10,000 school children pulling it! It lays claim to being the first wood dwelling home west of the Mississippi – by a few hundred yards – and it was in this house that the name “Minneapolis” was suggested for the settlement that at the time was just sprouting up. A statue of Stevens is in the park, as well as statues of Hiawatha and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
From the north end of Minnehaha Park, you can check out the northernmost lock on the river, Lock & Dam No. 1. Head east on 46th Street a few blocks and cross the Mississippi on the Intercity Bridge. On the other side, which is back in St. Paul, it becomes Ford Parkway and you hit the site of the former Ford Motor Company Twin Cities Assembly Plant. The Plant produced everything from Model T’s to the Ford Ranger pickup during its long tenure from 1925 until 2011. Henry Ford located the plant in St. Paul for cheap hydropower the dam offered, and after upgrades to the original 1917 dam that included more power generation by 1929 and locks built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by 1932, it became known as “Ford’s Dam.” Along the east side of the river you’ll find an area filled with facts and figures about the dam and the assembly plant across the street; an access path allows you to check out the lock’s action from the Observation Deck, which is open daily from 7am to 8pm.
Head back west across the bridge – which is quite a beautiful concrete arch marvel in itself – and then turn north on River Parkway for the official Great River Route, or Hiawatha Avenue/MN 55 a little to the west if you prefer a more urban route. Either way, we’re firmly in the city limits of Minneapolis, the state’s largest, with 400,000 residents. The name can be translated into “water city”, combining the Dakota word for water (“mni”) and the Greek word for city (“polis”), with a few vowels added for easier pronunciation.
Considered a global city, Minneapolis has the fifth highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the nation and is one of the few cities in the country to span the Mississippi River (New Orleans is another). Inside the city proper are 20 lakes and enough widely-used parks and recreation trails to give the city – and the entire metro area – consistently high rankings for quality of life and the health of the population despite winters that are the coldest in the nation of any major U.S. metro. The city was once the flour milling capital of the world, thanks to heavy hydropower from the Mississippi River. Today it rates high as a tech center, with art, transportation, finance, and health care being dominant industries.
Minneapolis’ arts and cultural institutions, especially when coupled with those in St. Paul, make the metro area a top destination. The Guthrie Theater is considered one of the top performing theaters in the U.S. The Walker Art Center just southwest of downtown is a modern art museum among the five largest in the U.S. and is home to the famous Spoonbridge & Cherry sculpture in the 11-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The largest art museum in the city, however, is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which dates back to 1915. That’s located on the south side, just west of I-35W off 24th Street. On the other side of the freeway along 26th Street, you’ll find the American Swedish Institute, a vibrant museum and cultural center inside a former mansion complex that showcases the Scandinavian culture that remains very prevalent in Minneapolis to this day.
Downtown Minneapolis is a vibrant mix of business, entertainment, nightlife, and recreation filled with city residents, commuters, and visitors from all over. You can feel the energy and excitement Mary Tyler Moore’s character must have felt in the iconic opening of her show. The spot where she threw her hat into the air is commemorated by a statue (located “kitty-corner” from the actual shot location) that has become one of the most photographed spots in the city. You’ll find it along Nicollet Mall, a pedestrian-only street in the heart of downtown filled with shops, office buildings, and restaurants with outdoor cafés – at least for part of the year. The long, cold winters in Minneapolis encouraged the city to develop the largest pedestrian skywalk system in the world, connecting many major buildings. A similar system is in St. Paul.
The 447-foot Art Deco-style Foshay Tower was the tallest building in Minneapolis from its completion in 1927 until 1971; the building’s 30th floor is now the Foshay Museum, offering an interesting historical look at the building and a nice view of downtown Minneapolis and beyond. The Foshay once towered above the Minneapolis Skyline; today more than 15 buildings are taller. The tallest building in the city – less than two blocks away from the Foshay – is the 57-story IDS Tower, which was completed in 1973, stands 792 feet tall, and features the tallest glass curtain wall in the United States. The IDS Tower is along Nicollet Mall at 8th Street. The 775-foot/56-story Capella Tower and 774-foot/57-story Wells Fargo Tower are right nearby in terms of location, and less than 20 feet shorter each in terms of height. Apparently, nobody wants to build beyond 800 feet in Minneapolis.
Along the river bank downtown, you’ll find a beautiful area to explore. From the impressive suspension-style Hennepin Avenue Bridge to the Third Street Bridge, take walk or ride down the paths and check out St. Anthony’s Falls, the only true waterfall on the Mississippi River and pretty much the reason Minneapolis grew into a major city (milling operations gave this area an advantage over surrounding areas and gave rise to giants like Pillsbury and General Mills). The famous and beautiful Stone Arch Bridge runs a series of 23 arches to span the river – while curving, no less.
Built in 1883, it’s the only arched bridge made of stone along the river, and the second oldest surviving bridge across the river after the Eads Bridge in St. Louis. The Stone Arch Bridge carried trains across the river from 1883 until 1965; today, it serves as a very popular pedestrian and bicycling bridge, offering a nice view of St. Anthony’s Falls, Lock & Dam No. 1, the Mill City Museum complex, and downtown Minneapolis. It’s all part of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, which also includes the Mill City Museum and Mill Ruins Park, built into what was the world’s largest flour mill.
On May 2, 1878, a spark ignited airborne flour particles inside the Washburn “A” Mill, largest in the world at the time. It turns out flour dust can be extremely flammable, and the resulting explosion hurled debris hundreds of feet into the air, killing 18 workers and injuring scores more in the resulting fires. The mill was rebuilt in 1880 and continued operating until 1965. Portions of the remains make up the Museum, which features extensive exhibits on the history of Minneapolis, the flour milling industry and its contribution to the city’s growth, while the Park is traces the roots (and in some cases, the actual foundations) of flour mills, sawmills, railroad tracks and roundhouses, and more, all in an interpretive environment.
On the east side of downtown you’ll find the former site of the Metrodome and current site of the New Minnesota Stadium, scheduled to be ready for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings for the 2016 season. The Vikings currently play in the home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, TCF Bank Stadium. Opened in 2009, TCF Bank Stadium marked a return to outdoor home football for the Gophers and – temporarily – for the Vikings for the first time since 1982. The stadium is designed with a traditional collegiate “horseshoe” style and provides a view of downtown Minneapolis resulting from its unique east-west configuration; it can accommodate nearly 53,000 spectators for games.
Of course, hockey is practically a religion in Minnesota and the Gophers men’s hockey team has 10,000-seat Mariucci Arena dedicated for their games. Across the street (though connected via tunnel for easy ice maintenance equipment sharing), Ridder Arena is where the Gophers women’s hockey team plays, the first-ever arena built specifically for a women’s collegiate hockey team. Meanwhile, Williams Arena, frequently called “The Barn,” holds the Gophers men’s and women’s basketball teams and has since it opened back in 1928.
This whole complex of playing venues is part of Stadium Village, which also features plenty of bars and restaurants and other points of interest for college students and sports fans alike. The hip shopping and student area next to it is called Dinkytown, which features the historic Varsity Theater and quaint businesses like Al’s Breakfast, which at ten feet wide is probably the narrowest restaurant in the Twin Cities, if not one of the narrowest in the country.
All of this accommodates the University of Minnesota one of the top ten universities in the nation by enrollment with nearly 50,000 students. Its extensive campus spans the Mississippi River, with opposing sides known as “West Bank” and “East Bank.” Connections across the river like the Washington Avenue Bridge help unify the two sides.
For pro sports other than football, venues are on the western edge of downtown Minneapolis: the Target Center on First Avenue opened in 1990 and hosts the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx along with plenty of concerts and other events. Across the street, Target Field (can you tell that retail giant Target is headquartered in Minneapolis?) opened for major league baseball’s Minnesota Twins in 2010. It brought baseball back outside for the first time since 1981 and in its first year of operation was voted ESPN The Magazine’s “#1 baseball stadium experience in North America.” It’s the only ballpark in the majors with a bonfire, which you’ll find in the Budweiser “Roof Deck” in left field. And check out the terrific view of downtown Minneapolis from the center and left seats!
Also of note: right near the Target Center on 1st Avenue at 7th Street is the iconic First Avenue nightclub, a famous music venue that began as a Greyhound bus depot in 1937. Its Art Deco design was popular for buses back then and appealed to music lovers and performers; it opened as The Depot in 1970 just in time for a Joe Cocker performance and went through several names before becoming First Avenue in 1981.
Local favorite Prince helped popularize the club, using it for performances, experimenting with new material, and using it frequently for a set in the movie Purple Rain. First Avenue holds 1,500 for performances and a side venue – in the same building – known as 7th Street Entry holds 250 for smaller shows. The building is adorned with over 530 stars on the outside saluting the wide variety of acts who have played there.
Heading Out of the Twin Cities
From downtown Minneapolis, you can follow Marshall Street NE to River Road on the East Bank or I-94 on the West Bank (it’s less scenic, but faster) to the north suburbs. River Road enters Fridley and I-94 goes into Brooklyn Center. When you reach I-694, continue north on MN Hwy 252. From there, you can connect to the Great River Road on the west side of the river via County 12/West River Road, or jump over the river on MN Hwy 610 into Coon Rapids and then follow U.S. 10 north, which is a freeway alternative.
Three hotels are available right in this area, too: the Best Western PLUS Minneapolis-Northwest is in Brooklyn Center just off I-94/694 near MN 252, the Best Western PLUS Coon Rapids Metro North Hotel is across the river in Coon Rapids off U.S. 10, and to the west along I-494 just south of I-94 in Plymouth.
Whether taking the west or east river route, in both cases you’re heading northwesterly, working your way outside the heart of the Twin Cities metro. The west river route is more common one to follow, which uses County 12 and then County 42 into Otsego and then County 39 westerly into Monticello.
Tip: I-94 itself can also serve as a west alternate to the Great River Road if time is a factor; it serves as the faster road to Monticello.
Monticello is the next town up along the Mississippi River. A pleasant town of 13,000, the city was named after an Italian-derived phrase for “little mountain” when it was founded in 1856. Along the Mississippi sits a nuclear generating plant, and the resulting warm river water – when the rest of the river is often frozen over – has proved popular with over 1,300 trumpeter swans, who have made Montello their winter destination.
The swans usually show up shortly before Thanksgiving and stay through early March before moving on, as swans do. But they show up every year, and can best be viewed from a city park on Mississippi Drive during the mid- and late-morning hours. Any time of year at 505 Walnut Street in town, you can check out stainless steel sculptures of trumpeter swans done by a local artist… and these swans are even bigger than the real ones.
Monticello hosts a series of celebrations that draw people from around the state, including Riverfest, their Montello Lions Beer Festival, Home for the Holidays, and a series of arts and crafts shows and exhibits. Lake Maria State Park preserves a beautiful area of wilderness just west of town, complete with the maple, oak, and basswood forest that once covered this whole area of the state. The park is popular for hiking and horseback riding, as well as fishing in Maria Lake. In winter, the 14 miles of trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, with additional snowshoeing trails and even an ice rink. The Best Western Chelsea Inn & Suites is easily found right off I-94.
From Monticello, follow I-94 or U.S. 10; they run parallel on either side of the Mississippi River northwest toward Clearwater, a little city of 1,800 that features an octagon house (a popular style in the late 1800s). Continuing northwest, we have into the largest city in central Minnesota.
That would be St. Cloud, a city of 66,000 that’s actually the third largest city in Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities area (Rochester and Duluth are the other two).
Downtown St. Cloud is along the west bank of the Mississippi adjacent to MN Hwy 23, which runs east/west between downtown and the SCSU campus and right past the Best Western PLUS Kelly Inn. The St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center connected to it is a hubbub of activity fairly often, with concerts, conventions, and more taking place frequently. The entertainment district lies just to the west, with the 1921-era Paramount Theater, Visual Arts Center & Gallery featuring many shows and exhibits. The Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum is part of the convention center and explores baseball history and greats from the state. The museum is free, but their website notes you’ll have to bring your own peanuts and Cracker Jacks (it’s a nice museum, though eventually you’ll care if you ever get back). The St. Cloud Rox play collegiate summer baseball in the Northwoods League inside Joe Farber Field, a 2,000-seat venue that also hosts St. Cloud State’s baseball team.
Speaking of, St. Cloud State University is the second-largest public university in Minnesota, with just over 15,000 students. Pretty much all of them are crazy about hockey, hence sold-out games for St. Cloud Huskies action at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in front of one of the most ravenous, raucous crowds in collegiate hockey. The campus lies just south of downtown and sits along the Mississippi River on a “wild and scenic river”-designated area complete with over 30 islands, making it hugely popular for canoeing and kayaking. On campus, the Kiehle Visual Arts Center serves as the school’s art museum; across the river, the Munsinger Gardens and Clemens Gardens offer a beautiful setting for winding walking paths amidst colorful flowers, gardens, and trees right along the riverbank. Small concerts and art fairs regularly take place.
Granite quarries near St. Cloud gave rise to the nickname “The Granite City”, and Quarry Park Nature Preserve on the west side of town off MN Hwy 23 is a great stop. The park preserved 20 granite quarries you can explore, complete with exhibits and plaques showcasing the granite industry history of the region. It’s hugely popular for outdoor activities, with granite reflecting pools, a swimming hole 112 feet deep, mountain bike paths that cross billion-year-old bedrock, and a whole series of hiking and cross-country skiing trails beckoning. Nearby is the Stearns History Museum, which chronicles the granite industry in the area, the natural world surrounding the St. Cloud region, how electricity changed life on the prairie, and the short but colorful history of the Pan Motor Company, which made St. Cloud an automobile manufacturing town from 1917 until 1920.
Speaking of, let’s take our automobiles (or motorcycles or RVs or whatever) back out onto the road to continue our trek to the source of the Mississippi.
From St. Cloud, follow the west bank side by going north on County 1, which serves as the Great River Road on this stretch in Stearns County; then it becomes County 25 and 52 in Morrison County, which you follow to Little Falls, the next town along the river. A faster but less scenic alternate is east of the river via four-lane U.S. Highway 10. Either way, it’s about 35 miles to Little Falls.
Little Falls is a charming town of 8,300 that sprouted up around a – you guessed it – little waterfall along the Mississippi River. It’s one of the oldest cities in Minnesota, established in 1848. Sitting close to the geographic center of Minnesota, Little Falls is famously the boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh, whose father was a U.S. Congressman living on a farm on the edge of town.
Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1927 brought him instant fame and advanced aviation tremendously; the Charles A. Lindbergh State Park and Historic Site is located on the farm where he lived. It features exhibits showcasing Lindbergh’s life, flight, and experiences in Little Falls. The home is available for tours, complete with original family furnishings and possessions. The Visitor Center includes a full-scale replica of the Spirit of St. Louis cockpit along with plenty of photographs and artifacts.
Just down the street and along the river is the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Museum (the name “Charles A.” apparently led to good things around here). Weyerhaeuser has incredibly influential on the area’s lumber history and the Morrison County Historical Society showcases his work, the lumber industry, and the area’s history with exhibits and grounds incorporating a natural prairie garden and a Victorian-style fountain, all overlooking the river. Speaking of the river, the Minnesota Fishing Museum is also in Little Falls on Broadway, including extensive displays of lures and tackle, historic Minnesota boats and motors including the first electrified boat motor.
Downtown Little Falls features murals including frescoes that depict everything from Lindbergh to the logging era and paper manufacturing as part Little Falls’ history. On the west side, the Pine Grove Zoo, home to a variety of exotic, native and domestic animals like cougars, tigers, timber wolves (Minnesota’s NBA mascot), and bison along with a petting stable, walking trails, playground areas, and more. At nearby Camp Ripley, the Minnesota Military Museum is considered one of Minnesota's most unusual history museums, vividly capturing and interpreting for the public the stories of Minnesotans serving in all branches of the military through the years with a mix of indoor and outdoor exhibits.
Little Falls hosts a series of festivals including the Little Falls Dam Festival, Little Falls Arts & Crafts Fair, Little Falls Antiques & Collectibles Fair, and the Greater Minnesota Two-Cylinder Club Annual Field Days.
U.S. 10 makes its crossing over the Mississippi at Little Falls and heads into northwestern Minnesota; we bid it farewell and instead hit MN Highway 371 which follows the river north and northeast from Little Falls through Fort Ripley to Brainerd, a city of 13,000 that serves as a focal point for this popular vacation area. The city originally grew up around timber and the railroad, but its destination for recreational getaways – owing largely to the 460 lakes within a 25-mile radius – have allowed it to grow when many other towns “up north” grew stagnant.
The variety is here: Northland Arboretum offers beautiful nature and winter holiday lights while the Brainerd International Raceway hosts racing action from motorcycles to NHRA Nationals to NASCAR races to driving schools that let you pour on the speed, all on a 3.1 mile track (runners will note that’s also a “5K”). Paul Bunyan Land is an amusement and family fun park in Brainerd, which fits because the Paul Bunyan Trail begins in Brainerd, running 120 miles up to Bemidji, a city we’ll visit shortly. Meanwhile, we’ll follow the Great River Road.
From Brainerd, you can follow the specific Great River Road routes of County Roads 3, 19 and 11 or follow MN Highway 210 east to Crosby and Aitken. From there, follow County Roads 1, 21, and 10 through Palisade and the Savannah State Forest. County 10 becomes County 3 after crossing into Itasca County, and that become the Great River Road into Grand Rapids. The express route, which is faster but not along the Mississippi River, is U.S. 169 from Aitken to Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids itself is a city of 11,000 located at the junction of U.S. 169 (which connects south to Minneapolis), U.S. 2 (which connects to Duluth and Grand Forks, North Dakota), and the Mississippi River. Grand Rapids was originally named after a 3.5 mile long rapids on the river that formed the northernmost practical limit of steamboat travel back in the day; a dam has since obscured the rapids beneath. Logging and iron mining powers the economy here, as the Mesabi Range – filled with iron ore – has been mined for centuries now.
Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids as Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922. The Judy Garland Museum is located in her restored birthplace, a home originally built in 1892. Featuring a Yellow Brick Road you can follow-follow-follow, the grounds holds a Guinness World Record for the Most Costumed Wizard of Oz Characters in One Place (1,093). A Wizard of Oz Festival takes place every year in June. Meanwhile, the Forest History Center offers a glimpse of the past, present, and future of Minnesota’s forests through exhibits and guided tours of a real early 1900s logging camp. A 100-foot fire tower can also be climbed for a beautiful view of the North Woods.
From Grand Rapids, it’s time to turn west. You can follow U.S. 2 directly from Grand Rapids to Bemidji, or zigzag on the Great River Road, which runs a series of county roads from the south side of Grand Rapids: County 63, 64, and 65 to Schoolcraft State Park, County Roads 74 and 3 back to U.S. 2 and then north of U.S. 2 via County Roads 39 and 9 by Ball Club Lake and near Winnibigoshish Lake (the names can get more complicated up here) before re-joining U.S. 2 near Bena. This portion takes you through the Chippewa National Forest. You can continue via U.S. 2 for the direct, faster route or meander on the Great River Road sections of County Roads 91, 54, and 39 into Pennington and then County Roads 12, 33, and 8 into Bemidji.
Bemidji is the “first city on the Mississippi.” With about 14,000 residents, Bemidji is the largest city between Duluth and Grand Forks, ND along U.S. 2 and the largest commercial center in northwestern Minnesota, hosting an area that with surrounding towns and Indian reservations has a population closer to 130,000 – though spread over a pretty wide area. It’s also known as the “Curling Capital of the United States,” with the Bemidji Curling Club having represented the U.S. in world championships and individual members competing regularly in the Winter Olympic Games.
Bemidji State University has 5,400 students, making this city a college town. As you might expect, a lot of shops, cafes, bars, and other facets of college and creative life are in Bemidji including a series of sculptures throughout the campus and downtown areas known as the “Sculpture Walk.” The sculptures depict a variety of cultural aspects about the area from Native American traditions to animals to unique features of the town. A famous statue is that of Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox, which stands along the shores of Lake Bemidji – which is also part of the Mississippi River. It’s certainly a notable statue; Kodak once claimed it was the second-most photographed statue in the U.S., behind Mount Rushmore. Paul stands 18 feet tall and Babe is 10 feet tall and 23 feet from nose to tail – quite a sizable feat for an ox.
Just a few blocks away, the Headwaters Science Center features many hands-on exhibits for kids and adults alike, exploring the Mississippi River, ecosystems, and science in general all in a former J.C. Penney building downtown. Of course, the city embraces winter (what choice do you have this far north?) and along with curling, hockey, and other wintertime activities, Buena Vista Ski Resort just north of town features downhill skiing, snow tubing, and more. Nearby, Lake Bemidji State Park offers hiking, biking, swimming, boating, fishing, birdwatching, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and year-round naturalist-led activities; the tamarack bog in the park is often of particular interest.
The Best Western Bemidji Inn is on the west side of town, with easy access to downtown, the river drive, U.S. 2, and U.S.71. It’s a great stop before heading to the true headwaters of the Mississippi.
From Bemidji, it’s time to hit the source of the Mississippi River. Follow U.S. 71 south from town; MN Highway 200 joins in for a while and then as it breaks off, follow Highway 200 a little over one mile to the entrance of Itasca State Park. Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest state park, established back in 1891. Over 100 lakes are in the park, but of course the most famous is Lake Itasca, the main source of the Mississippi River.
Once in the park, stop in the Jacob Browner Visitor Center for great exhibits and supplies, if you need them. Plenty of signs will lead you along and around Lake Itasca to the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, an excellent interpretive center detailing every about the river and region from outdoor displays to indoor exhibits; there’s even a café so you can fuel up for your walk down the trails to the headwaters.
It’s not even that long of a walk; about 800 feet down the trail (and over the Mississippi River itself, which is but a mere creek at this point) you arrive at the top of Lake Itasca, a series of rocks that mark the boundary of the lake vs. the river, and an obelisk that notes the geographic significance of your location: standing at 1,475 feet above sea level, the Mississippi River begins at this point and runs 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. And yes, most days it’s an easy step across a series of rocks to cross the river right at its origin. It’s truly a remarkable place to see the start of a mighty river that has so much influence on the land, on people, and the country.
The Mississippi River actually flows northward out of the park toward Bemidji, and a few roads within the park as well as MN Highway 200 just north of the park allow you to cross the river on some seriously short bridges; it’s a far cry from what it requires to span the river in places like St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.
So there you have it: nearly 500 miles, from southeastern Minnesota winding through the Twin Cities and river towns upstream like St. Cloud, Little Falls, Grand Rapids, and Bemidji, all to find the source of the Mississippi River. It’s a beautiful drive with so much to do along the way. From there, check out more of Bemidji, head southwest to Detroit Lakes, east to Duluth, or back downriver to explore more of Minnesota. Enjoy!