Minnesota Scenic Drives: Great River Road

By: Melissa Arnold
The Great River Road is a popular scenic drive in Minnesota.

The Great River Road offers the best of Minnesota. The route encompasses the banks of the Mississippi River, 10,000 lakes, beautiful bluff lands, and a variety of outdoor recreation and wildlife. Brilliant wildflowers, evergreen forests, colored autumn leaves, rainbows, snowflakes, migrating birds, and waving fields of grain make this byway a photographer's paradise.

Recreational spots have taken over the land of the lumberjack, where Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, used to roam freely. State parks and lakeside resorts are all part of the fun that visitors will find on the Great River Road today.


And then there is the river itself. Minnesota is where the mighty Mississippi begins. Its meanderings make up a trail of cultural, historical, natural, recreational, and scenic sites. Whether camping in the forested areas of the north or relaxing in a Minneapolis hotel, you will find accommodations in the perfect setting.

The Great River Road is an adventure along myriad quaint towns and urban cities. The Twin Cities metropolitan area offers the hustle and bustle of a city that is rich in history, culture, and recreational opportunities. Deep wilderness surrounds the river towns of Minnesota and offers relaxation and privacy.

Next, learn about the culture of the Great River Road.


Cultural Qualities of the Great River Road

The Great River Road in Minnesota takes you along the southeast end of the state, providing a look at the culture that began and continued on the banks of the Mississippi. This is where you find the Great River and the source of the development of civilization in Minnesota.

It began with the American Indian nations of the Sioux and Chippewa, who lived in the area for many years before they began to interact with the Europeans in fur trade. When wildlife grew scarce, new settlers began an industry of logging, which forced native nations out of the area so that logging could proceed.


Although many people initially came to the area for jobs in the logging industry, tourism was blossoming as people traveled to see the beautiful Minnesota forests. In the 1930s, people began to restore the once-great forests of giant red and white pines. An appreciation of nature is still part of the byway culture today.

Cultures of the past have left traces of the past. Native American languages can still be found in names like Lake Winnibigoshish and Ah-Gwah-Ching (Leech Lake), while the heritage of the European settlers resounds in the names of communities all along the road. You will also find more recent pieces of American culture in Lindbergh State Park and the Lindbergh home, a memorial and a glimpse at the boyhood of the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh.

The Great River Road communities in Minnesota offer many festivals that celebrate the legends, products, immigrant culture, and art found along the byway. For example, as you travel from Itasca to Bemidji, you can experience the Annual Ozawindib Walk, the Annual International Snowsnake Games, and the Lake Itasca Region Pioneer Farmers Reunion and Show.

You can also enjoy the Annual Winter Bird Count, Art in the Park in July, and the People's Art Festival in November. Finally, you can visit the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues that were erected in 1937 for a winter carnival.

In the Minneapolis to St. Paul area of the byway, you can experience 1840s food, dining, and preparation. Special events include Children's Day, Historic Mendota Days, the Mill City Blues Festival, the Capital City Celebration, and a New Year's Eve party.


Historical Qualities of the Great River Road

Use this map of the Great River Road to guide you to some of Minnesota's most beautiful sights and most significant historical locations.

When Henry Rowe Schoolcraft identified the true source of the Mississippi as the crystal-clear waters that flow from Lake Itasca, the final boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase were set. The Mississippi River, however, was important to Native Americans centuries before the Europeans arrived. In fact, the name Mississippi was an Algonquin name that, when applied to rivers, meant Great River (hence the name Great River Road).

During the 1820s and 1830s, Fort Snelling and Grand Portage (on Lake Superior) were the focal points of Euro-American activity in the region. Strategically located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, Fort Snelling served as the first U.S. military outpost in the area.


The Great River Road traces the river through the Chippewa National Forest, created by Congress in 1902. Although originally only small areas of pines were preserved, now more than 600,000 acres of land are managed by the National Forest Service. In this forest is historic Sugar Point on Leech Lake, another of the Mississippi River reservoirs.

You can also visit Battleground State Forest, the site of the last recorded American Indian battle with the U.S. government, and Federal Dam, one of six dams constructed in the area between 1884 and 1912 to stabilize water levels on the Mississippi downstream. The legacies of the great pine forests along the Mississippi live in the majestic trees that remain.

In Bemidji, the most recognizable landmark is the 1937 colossal statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, located on the shore of Lake Bemidji. The legend of the giant lumberjack illustrates the importance of the lumber industry for many northern Minnesota towns.

Due to its closeness to the river, St. Paul became a transportation hub for opening up the upper Midwest. It also became Minnesota's state capital, and Minneapolis became the nation's main flour-milling district.

St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis and the locks and dams provide testimony to people's success at harnessing the power of the river to create a thriving urban center. Flour, beer, textiles, and lumber were produced and successfully transported to the nation and the world through the lock-and-dam system that begins here.

In the early 1900s through the 1930s, the Cuyuna Iron Range produced more than 100 million tons of ore that was used to build the U.S. military machines of the great world wars. In Crosby, travelers visit the Croft Mine Historical Park; this mine operated between 1916 and 1934 and produced the richest ore found on the Cuyuna Range, with a composition of 55 percent iron.

In Little Falls, the Great River Road follows Lindbergh Drive to the boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh, pilot of the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The evolution of the United States can be traced along the Great River Road on the Ox Cart Trail, still visible though Schoolcraft and Crow Wing State Parks.

Across the river from the Great River Road, Elk River's most noted resident, Oliver H. Kelley, founded the Patrons of Husbandry (popularly known as the Grange), a group that evolved into the Democratic Farmer Laborer, or DFL, party.


Natural Qualities of the Great River Road

One of the most naturally diverse sections of the Great River Road can be found in Minnesota. Travelers are beckoned to the Great River Road to enjoy a multitude of lakes, native wildlife, and rugged river bluffs.

If you seek outdoor beauty, you will find what remains of the once-abundant pine forests that have been drawing travelers to Minnesota for more than 100 years. Visitors never tire of seeing the lakes along the Great River Road in Minnesota, and there are plenty to see. Nearly every town has its own lake along the road, and when the lakes end, the vastness of the Mississippi River is just beginning. Natural wildlife abounds in the marshes and prairies along the road. Visitors will pass a major roosting site for bald eagles and wildlife habitats for deer, waterfowl, turkeys, and pheasants.


Recreational Qualities of the Great River Road

From the headwaters to the Iowa border, Minnesota's portion of the Great River Road allows visitors to partake in a vast variety of recreational opportunities along its route. No matter what the itinerary or expectation, there is something to suit every taste on the Great River Road. And the fun and adventure continues throughout all four of Minnesota's very distinct seasons.

The water itself creates a large amount of the recreational draw to the Great River Road. A taste of the recreational possibilities that are available on the water include swimming, sunning, fishing, boating, jet skiing, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, and waterskiing -- just to name a few.


Strung along the edge of the river are plenty of things to do as well -- particularly for outdoor enthusiasts. One of six state parks may be the perfect stop after a drive on the byway. At parks like Itasca State Park, visitors can enjoy hiking or biking the trails, picnicking, or even bird-watching. The northern part of the byway provides a haven for hunters and anglers. The wilderness in this area is home to a great deal of wildlife.

Winter weather is no excuse to stay indoors in Minnesota. Several places along the byway offer miles of cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Visitors also find places for downhill skiing.


Highlights of the Great River Road

The scenery along Minnesota's Great River Road will capture your imagination.

As you travel along Minnesota's Great River Road, you can look upon pristine lakes, virgin pine forests, quaint river towns, and a vibrant metropolis. You can see eagles, loons, and deer, as well as blazing hardwood forests and hillsides fluttering with apple blossoms.

Experience the awesome power of locks and dams, imagine life on a barge as other barges glide past, recall Mark Twain's time on paddle wheelers, feel the wind that pushes the sailboats, and watch water-skiers relive the sport's Mississippi birth.


Travelers along the Great River Road are witnesses to a river that is constantly changing. It first evolves from a clear, shallow stream into a meandering, serpentine watercourse. It then changes into vast marshes and later becomes a canoe route.

After this, the waterway becomes a rolling river that powers dams and mills as it squeezes its way past the only gorge on the river. It then passes over large waterfalls, through the first locks, past tall sandstone bluffs, and finally into a mile-wide river that is surrounded by a vast and fruitful valley.

The following must-see tour of the Great River Road's northern section gives you a sample itinerary to follow, if you so choose.

Itasca State Park: Covering about 32,000 acres, Itasca State Park embraces the headwaters of the Mississippi River and 157 lakes, the foremost of which is Lake Itasca, the source of the great river. Site of the University Biological Station, the park has stands of virgin Norway pine and specimens of nearly every kind of wild animal, tree, and plant native to the state. Camping and hiking, as well as historic sites, are abundant here. Itasca Indian Cemetery and Wegmann's Cabin are important landmarks in the area.

Lake Bemidji State Park: Leaving Itasca State Park, the Great River Road heads northeast toward the Chippewa National Forest and Lake Bemidji State Park. Just 31 miles north of Itasca State Park along Highway 371, the Bemidji area is rich in diverse activities. Stopping at Lake Bemidji State Park provides a lot of fun, including the two-mile Bog Walk, a self-guided nature trail. A small fee per car (per day) applies when visiting Lake Bemidji State Park.

Carnegie Library Building: Outside the park, along the shores of Lake Bemidji, lie several historic sites, including the famous statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and of Chief Bemidji. The Carnegie Library Building, on the National Register of Historic Places, is also located here. You'll find many campgrounds and resorts in the area for staying the night.

Cass Lake: Cass Lake is the next stop along the tour of the Great River Road. It's a popular stop for fishing and camping. This lake is unique, though: Star Island, in Cass Lake, is an attractive recreation area because it contains an entire lake within itself. Other fabulous lakes in the area are worth visiting as well.

Grand Rapids: Enjoy the scenery of northern Minnesota as you follow the signs into the city of Grand Rapids. The city offers many activities, including the Forest History Center, a logging camp that highlights the logging culture of Minnesota.

Savanna Portage State Park: Heading south out of Grand Rapids, follow the signs toward Brainerd. On the way to Brainerd, be sure to stop at Savanna Portage State Park, with its 15,818 acres of hills, lakes, and bogs. The Continental Divide marks the great division of water -- where water to the west flows into the Mississippi River and water to the east runs into Lake Superior. Be sure to walk along the Savanna Portage Trail, too, a historic trail traveled by fur traders, Dakota and Chippewa Indians, and explorers more than 200 years ago. A small fee per car (per day) aplies when visiting the park.

Brainerd: The town of Brainerd is a great place to stop for lunch. Many lake resorts nearby offer camping, hiking, and fishing. After Brainerd and south of Little Falls, just off of Highway 371, is Lindbergh State Park. Look for bald eagles here when visiting in the spring or fall. During your visit, stop in at the historic boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator. The home is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society and is adjacent to the park. A small fee per car (per day) applies when visiting.

Munsinger and Clemens Gardens: Once in the city of St. Cloud, the Munsinger and Clemens Gardens offer a relaxing end to this portion of the Great River Road. The nationally known gardens are located near Riverside Drive and Michigan Avenue, right in town. One of the treats of the gardens is the antique horse troughs filled with unique flowers. The gardens are popular but spacious so they're hardly ever noticeably crowded. The southern tour continues from this point all the way through Minneapolis and St. Paul and along the Mississippi River and Wisconsin border, down to the border of Minnesota and Iowa.

Travel along the Mississippi while you take in some amazing historic sights and natural wonders -- you'll find all this and more along the Great River Road.