1970 Avion C11 truck camper parked next to a house sized fish in front of a fisherman's super club called The Big Fish off Minnesota’s Great River Road.

Flowing as a major artery through the heart of America, the Mississippi River is more than a geographical landmark; it’s a symbol of the nation’s history, culture, economy, and ecology. In Minnesota, the river doesn’t merely shape the landscape; it intertwines with the life and identity of the state. The Great River Road, Minnesota’s scenic byway that follows the course of the Mississippi, offers travelers a unique way to explore this relationship, connecting some of the state’s most notable destinations that dot the shoreline.

Woman paddling in a yellow raft at sunset.
Paddling down a calm river.
Keep an ear out for the haunting call of Minnesota’s state bird, the loon.
Avion C11 truck camper driving down a dirt road in an aspen forest.
Don’t hesitate to enjoy a little detour down a dirt road.

The Mississippi and Minnesota

In most depictions of the Mississippi, it is an expansive chocolate waterway, wide enough to rival a lake with a slow and inevitable flow to the Gulf of Mexico. But like all things, it’s beginnings are far more humble: in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. It is the Land of 10,000 lakes that nurses the Mississippi from a veritable creek to a mature river. And, in return, the river has shaped this region, serving as as a pathway for explorers, a gateway to the West, and a conduit for the lumber and grain that fueled the nation’s growth.

In Minnesota, the river’s historical role is particularly evident, shaping the early industries, trade routes, and communities that arose along its banks. From its earliest days as a transportation route for fur traders to its modern role in shipping agricultural products and goods, the river continues to be a hub of commercial activity. Its waters support the fishing industry, tourism, and recreation, further strengthening Minnesota’s economic fabric.

It’s no surprise that Minnesota’s population is concentrated along the banks of the Mississippi. Cities flourished as trade hubs and transition points for inland commodities to be loaded onto barges and sent down the Mississippi for sale. The Mississippi flows through the heart of the state’s twin cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Along with trade, grew the culture of these communities, similarly centered around the river.

The Mississippi River has inspired songs, literature, and art, becoming a cultural icon in its own right. Its winding path through Minnesota has nurtured a rich cultural heritage, from the vibrant artistic community in Minneapolis to the ethnic traditions preserved in riverside towns. It’s a living tapestry of the diverse influences that make up the state’s identity. Many of these are now preserved in museums and parks along the Great River Road.

Woman sitting on a rock next to a lake in a forest.
Lexi sitting at the headwaters of the Mississippi.
1970 Avion C11 truck camper driving down the winding paved road of Wilderness Drive in Itasca State Park.
While the trail is paved and trees well trimmed, it is still a narrow and winding road with small and limited opportunities to pull over and park.

A Journey Along the Great River Road

Following the Mississippi, the Great River Road provides a panoramic view of everything the river represents. From its headwaters at Itasca State Park to its meandering path through the Twin Cities, it’s a road trip that connects us with the essence of Minnesota.

Of course, while there are certain high-priority stops along the way, the Great River Road is a route as meandering as the river itself. Some of the greatest gems aren’t the sprawling parks or massive museums but the surprises along the way. This is a route to savor. And rather than an itinerary, it is an invitation to come and see what we can find. While we are happy to share some of the stops that particularly spoke to us, we also want to encourage those who may follow in our footsteps to wander to those destinations that inspire them.

Great River Road Highlights

  • Itasca State Park: Walk across the headwaters of the Mississippi and explore Minnesota’s oldest state park.
  • St. Cloud: Visit the beautiful Munsinger Gardens and Clemens Gardens, and explore the rich history of granite mining.
  • Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul: Discover a blend of urban sophistication, cultural landmarks, and riverside parks.
  • Red Wing: Known for its pottery, leather goods, and stunning bluff views.
  • Winona: A hub of art and culture, home to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and beautiful Victorian architecture.

Did we hit all these stops? No. Many guides would consider a stop in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to be central. We’d feel remise if we didn’t highlight it. The Mississippi carves out a public greenspace through the heart of the cities, complete with hiking paths, bike routes, museums, gardens, and opportunities to paddle the river. While we have explored parts of the park in the past, on this visit, we skirt the city. As welcoming as the metropolis may be to outdoor recreation, it can be tough for recreational vehicles. So, rather than struggling to find a parking spot for our truck camper, we move on to explore destinations further downriver.

Overhead view of the pitcher plants.
Pitcher plants thrive in the boggy environment.
Man on a mountain bike peddling on red dirt single track in a forest.
Riding rollers.

The Mississippi Wilderness: Minnesota’s Parks

Fortunately, there’s a lot more space to be found in Minnesota’s park system and much of it can be found along the banks of the great river. The Mississippi River’s health is synonymous with the environmental well-being of the region, and conservation efforts in Minnesota aim to preserve this vital natural resource. Fortunately, we can see the thriving wildlife along the river in Minnesota’s many state parks. Itasca, Lake Bemidji, and Great River Bluffs are only a few of the many green spaces that preserve the Mississippi shoreline and open it to the public for recreation.

Two ducks taking wing, whipping up the lake surface.
Most of the time, birds taking off mean that I missed out on a picture attempt. Today was a rare exception.

The Journey Continues

The Great River Road is not exclusive to Minnesota. The route continues with the river. While we continue on after the Minnesota leg, we know we will be back to continue the route in future. How can we not, after all we have already expereinced?

The Great River Road is more than a scenic drive; it’s a journey through the very soul of Minnesota. From the historical echoes of the lumbering giants to the modern bustling cities, from the artistic enclaves to the serene natural landscapes, the road and the river weave a story that resonates with every traveler. Whether we’re a history buff, an outdoor enthusiast, or simply looking to explore the heart of Minnesota, the Great River Road offers a captivating experience that will leave us enriched and inspired.

Woman standing on the hood of a 1970 Avion C11 truck camper parked in a Minnesota forest.
Ready for the adventures to begin!
Large statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox greet visitors to Bemidji, Minnesota
Man on a mountain bike peddling on red dirt single track in a forest.
Gotta love that red dirt single track.

Lexi lives in a truck camper down by the river.

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