Road Tripping on the Great River Road

Is a road trip down the Great River Road on your bucket list? If not, it should be. There isn't a better way to see the Mississippi River Valley.Read More

Travel along the mighty Mississippi (Source: Shutterstock / John Brueske)

Is a road trip down the Great River Road (aka “GRR,” actually a collection of roads) on your bucket list? If not, it should be. There isn’t a better way to experience the culture and history of the Mississippi River Valley than to drive this collection of famed roads and see it up close. The mighty Mississippi is the largest river in North America, and its adjacent watersheds have been the sites of native civilizations, momentous Civil War battles, farming empires, and the birth of the blues.

Why not pack the car and see it for yourself? Whether you have three days or three weeks, we can help you make it a trip to remember. Just take a look at our recommended attractions below and let’s get this show on the road!

Overview

As mentioned above, the Great River Road is not a single road, but a collection of state and local roads (on both sides of the river) that trace the path of the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Louisiana Delta. It covers about 3,000 miles, but we’ll discuss the southern portion only – the 600-700 miles from the top of Kentucky to the tip of Louisiana.

There is a lot to see and do and trying to fit it all in one trip can be unwieldy. Instead, decide how long you have and what you want to see. Remember, you can always do another portion next year.

Kentucky

Kentucky’s state park system includes important historical attractions in beautiful settings, and at very reasonable prices. Two of the best are Columbus Belmont State Park and Wickliffe Mounds State Park, both overlooking the river.

Fancy a little Civil war history? This is the site of the Battle of Belmont, an important, albeit indecisive, conflict in 1861. Confederate soldiers deployed various tactics to defend the strategically important city of Columbus, Kentucky including digging trenches (still there) and stretching an iron chain across the Mississippi to block the passage of Union gunboats. The onsite museum includes links from the chain (each 20 pounds), a massive anchor, a seacoast cannon, and other battle artifacts. Also, don’t miss the onsite house used to treat the war wounded. Operating hours are 9am-5pm daily in May and weekends through September. Admission is $4.

A chain and anchor that once stretched across the River (Source: Kentucky State Parks)
A chain and anchor that once stretched across the River (Source: Kentucky State Parks)

Wickliffe Mounds State Park (Ballard County). Here you can check out the excavation site of a native American settlement that dates from 1100 to 1350 CE. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and includes earthen mounds surrounding a central plaza overlooking the river. The mounds cover a ceremonial site, burial ground, and chief’s home. Many of the artifacts found (pottery, tools, artifacts, and artwork) have been left undisturbed and are viewed in situ — structures have been built around the dig sites. There is also a small museum that includes hands-on exhibits and other displays on the area’s history, a welcome center, gift shop, and walking trail. Operating hours are 9am-5pm, April through November, and admission is $5.

Tennessee

The Volunteer State has something for everybody – a multitude of attractions that include Civil War historic sites, breathtaking scenery, and one of the country’s funkiest cities.

For spectacular views across the Mississippi, check out the Chickasaw Bluffs (Lauderdale County). Rising high above the flood plain and spanning about 70 miles along the river, the four river cliffs were used by the Chickasaw tribes to disrupt French river traffic during the French and Indian War in the 18th century.

Not surprisingly, the strategic importance of the bluffs was not lost on the Confederate Army some 100 years later. Fort Pillow State Historic Park is perched adjacent to Chickasaw Bluff Number One and was used for similar purposes in the fight against the Union forces. The site includes Fort Pillow, a military redoubt; well-preserved breastworks (earthen fortifications built to breast height); a reconstructed inner fort; and a museum chock full of memorabilia. Admission to the park is free and hours run 8am-4pm daily.

Visit Memphis, Tennessee (Source: Shutterstock / Sean Pavone)
Visit Memphis, Tennessee (Source: Shutterstock / Sean Pavone)

For a complete change of pace, stop off in Memphis, the largest city on the Mississippi. A thriving commercial center of the Antebellum South, Memphis grew from the cotton, lumber, and American slave trades. In later years, the city emerged as a multi-cultural center known for its civil rights history and rich musical heritage. A visit here should include Elvis Presley’s Graceland, as well as Beale Street, the pedestrian mall known for its honky-tonks and famous Memphis barbeque. Finally, take the Skybridge across the river to Mud Island River Park, a small island opposite the city which features a scale replica of the lower Mississippi River. Extending about five city blocks, the model covers six states and is wadable if you feel the urge.

Arkansas

The GRR crosses into the Mississippi Delta region in Arkansas, often referred to as “The Most Southern Place on Earth” thanks to its unique cultural and economic history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area’s distinctive rich black soil attracted farmers and spurred a vast plantation economy supported by the labor of a huge population of black slaves. Even today, the area remains a vast farming mainstay with vast sections of soybeans, rice, and cotton visible for miles.

If you’re a birdwatcher or birder (you are one if you know the difference), or just enjoy watching birds, stop off at the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most important areas for wintering waterfowl in the U.S. Established in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the refuge spans over 600 square miles of hardwood forests encompassing various oak species and bald cypress, interlaced with over three hundred lakes, streams, and sloughs.

Start at the outstanding visitor’s center with its interactive exhibits and gather information about getting around the refuge (this is done via path and boardwalk). Contact the refuge directly for annual bird migratory cycles. Admission is free.

Birding on the Mississippi (Source: Experience Mississippi River)
Birding on the Mississippi (Source: Experience Mississippi River)

The Delta Cultural Center in historic downtown Helena is a museum and interpretive center that tells the story of the unique Delta region. Educational programs, exhibits, and events cover topics like the earliest inhabitants of the area, the great floods of 1927, slavery, the Civil War, and the ongoing legacy of the Delta blues sound. Be sure and catch the celebrated “King Biscuit Time” Delta blues radio program broadcast each weekday at 12:15pm from the KFFA studio at the center. Host Sonny Payne may invite you into the radio booth to chat and listen to great blues music from the region. Self-guided and docent-guided tours are available during opening hours, Tuesday-Saturday, 9am-5pm. Admission is free.

Mississippi

Natchez, Mississippi enjoys one of the swankiest collections of Antebellum mansions in the South. Thanks to the area’s thriving 18th– and 19th-century cotton trade and important port status, Natchez attracted wealthy speculators and farmers – and their lavish manor homes and grounds are still with us to prove it.

Make sure Stanton Hall, home to cotton grower Frederick Stanton, is on your list. With its finely restored interior and original antique furnishings, it is not to be missed. (In the quirky factoid category, the design of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is based on the estate — it did look familiar, right?) While there are many others , we like Magnolia Hall, Landsdowne Plantation, and Longwood with its Byzantine influences and octagonal design. See Natchez Pilgrimage for details on these and other amazing historic Natchez properties.

Stanton Hall, Natchez (Source: iStock / StevenGaertner)
Stanton Hall, Natchez (Source: iStock / StevenGaertner)

If you still want more Civil War, stop by Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s boyhood home in Woodville. Vicksburg, nearby, is also well worth a look-see as the site of one of the most important battles of the War. For more on this key Civil War destination, see our article on Vicksburg.

Louisiana

Louisiana is a culturally rich region with a deep and complex history. Influenced by native Americans, European colonists, Caribbean settlers, and African enslaved peoples, the state offers a lifetime’s worth of attractions. While there are several historic sites, plantations, and museums to see, we recommend that you spend your time in Baton Rouge and New Orleans this time around. Each has its own spin on the unique traditions, culture, and heritage of the area.

While there is much more to the Big Easy than Mardi Gras madness, the “Laissez les bon temps rouler” spirit makes up the fabric of New Orleans daily life, its music, and zesty cuisine. Wander through the Garden District with its plantation-like mansions and the French Quarter for jaw-droppingly exquisite architecture, theaters, top restaurants, and jazz clubs. ( for more on the French Quarter’s elegant Saenger Theater.) For something completely different, spend a few hours at the National WWII Museum. Considered one of the best of its type, the museum features immersive exhibits, multimedia experiences, oral histories, and field trips.

French Quarter, New Orleans (Source: Shutterstock / GTS Productions)
French Quarter, New Orleans (Source: Shutterstock / GTS Productions)

Baton Rouge is first and foremost historic Governor Huey P. Long’s city. Many of the city’s architectural attractions, including two state capitols and the governor’s mansion, reflect his colorful personality and legacy. Baton Rouge is also home to college sport-powerhouse Louisiana State University, which infuses the city with competitive spirit and pride. The Rural Life Museum is also a must-see attraction that brings to life the complex cultural structures and mores of a working Louisiana plantation. See our recent article for more on Baton Rouge.

With the wealth of attractions and wonders to experience on the Great River Road, we can only scratch the surface here. For additional information on what to see, where to stay, and eat, check out Experience Mississippi River.

Also, be sure to drop us a line at editor@wideworldoftravel.com and let us know how it went!