From Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, nowhere does the Mississippi River exhibit more diversity of scenic landscapes than in Minnesota. Eight distinct reaches characterize the river as it flows through Minnesota, each with historic towns and cities reflecting its unique settings. An excursion on the 565-mile Great River Road National Scenic Byway allows you to experience those landscapes and communities, and it reveals how the Great River has shaped and influenced the North Star State.
A Quick Look at the Scenic Reaches
Lake Itasca: The journey of this world-renown river begins at Lake Itasca. But there is more here than the point where the Mississippi River begins. The lake lies within the 32,000-acre Itasca State Park, the second oldest state park in the U.S.
Serpentine River: After percolating from Lake Itasca, the infant river follows a serpentine course to Brainerd, frequently twisting back on itself, leaving cut off lands and oxbows.
Headwaters Lakes & Reservoirs: The headwaters region includes thousands of lakes. The largest contribute to the United States’ first reservoir system. Created by the Corps of Engineers over 100 years ago, the reservoirs provide a wide range of scenic views.
The Prairie River Region: From Brainerd to St. Anthony Falls, the Mississippi becomes the Prairie River as it straightens out and islands replace oxbows. Here, the prairie runs up to the river’s banks, not bluffs.
St. Anthony Falls: No place anchors the Mississippi’s significance in the Twin Cities like St. Anthony Falls, the river’s only major waterfall. Its physical power gave rise to Minneapolis, but its scenic power has drawn nationally known artists since the 1800s and still attracts modern day painters and photographers.
The Gorge: Below the falls, the Mississippi drops into the 8.5-mile gorge, stepping down 110 feet through three locks and dams, running between bluffs one-quarter to one-third of a mile apart. Nowhere does the river fall so quickly over such a short distance.
The Big River: The Big River—the river of Mark Twain—begins at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. It is characterized by a broad valley and a wide floodplain with many side channels, backwater lakes, and wooded islands.
The Driftless Area: After Hastings, the Mississippi enters into the Driftless Area, with its distinctive limestone bluffs. During the last ice age, glaciers bypassed the Driftless Area, creating a unique and nationally significant landscape.
Drive the Great River Road Month
September is Drive the Great River Road Month, which is perfect since the warm glow of fall shows off the colors and foliage of the landscape.
Whether you choose car, bike, or canoe, you’ll appreciate the views, adventures, and new experiences provided to you via the Great River Road and the Mississippi River. Along the river you’ll find urban centers, working river ports, and iconic mill towns. In all, the Minnesota Great River Road spans 43 communities, 20 counties, and the reservations of three Native American tribes. Details and online mapping are available at mnmississippiriver.com.