The Mississippi River stretches 2,320 miles between Minnesota’s Itasca State Park and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it winds through America’s soul. Indeed, the history and culture of the United States are inextricably linked to this body of water. If you’re planning to see the Mississippi for yourself, realize that there are countless points of interest along the way. The following five locales represent some of the most beautiful.
The Mississippi River Gorge
Believe it or not, Minnesota’s Mississippi River Gorge is the only real gorge on the entire Mississippi. It was formed as the forces of erosion cut through the region’s limestone and sandstone. The national park surrounding the gorge includes wild forests where more than 150 bird species dwell. The park also contains trails for walking and cycling, including the impressive Winchell Trail. The Winchell Trail, named after a prominent geologist named Newton Horace Winchell, is a mostly-unpaved hiking route 2.5 miles in length. It will take you past the western bluff of the river.
The Wisconsin Great River Road
The Wisconsin Great River Road is the only National Scenic Byway in the state of Wisconsin, and it offers one of the best road trips in the American Midwest. The River Road runs roughly parallel to the Mississippi for 250 miles. Its northernmost point is in Prescott, its southernmost in Kieler, and in between lie 33 additional towns. You can stop at many points along the way and find hiking paths, biking trails, fishing holes, wineries, farms, orchards, modest historical museums, and spots for birdwatching; some of those birdwatching spots will grant you a fair chance of spotting bald eagles.
The Gateway Arch
Since it opened in 1967, the stainless-steel-covered Gateway Arch has been the world’s tallest arch, America’s tallest monument, and St. Louis’s most recognizable landmark. It’s a fun building to photograph and an even more fun building to scale. You don’t need to climb stairs to reach the summit either. Instead, you can ride in comfort aboard a tram, and listen along the way to a recorded spiel about the Arch’s history – it was built to honor the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who commenced their expedition in St. Louis in 1804. It takes about four minutes to reach the top, and trams depart every ten minutes.
Inside this monument, you can take in a movie or two. The documentary “Monument to the Dream” probes the construction of the Arch, and “Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West” offers a cinematic recreation of the historic voyage. Likewise located inside the Arch are gift shops and the small but engrossing Museum of Westward Expansion.
Just outside the Gateway Arch you may board one of two grand nineteenth-century paddle-wheelers: the “Tom Sawyer” or the “Becky Thatcher.” These excursions around the Port of St. Louis are narrated, and various versions are available. For example, you can take the basic one-hour cruise, a dinner cruise, a Sunday brunch cruise or, on Thursday nights during the summer, a trip with a live blues band.
Mud Island River Park in Memphis, Tennessee, features the Riverwalk, an innovative scale model of the Lower Mississippi. It’s a water-filled concrete model five blocks in length, and it includes bridges and a representation of the Gulf of Mexico measuring an acre in area. Nearby is a 5,000-seat amphitheater for concerts, a monorail encircling the park, and the Mississippi River Museum. Inside this museum, guests can take in an exhibition on the earliest Memphis settlements, a theatrical presentation recalling local natural disasters, and numerous other presentations.
The French Quarter
Finally, it’s hard to imagine the Mississippi River without Vieux Carré, better known as the French Quarter. It’s the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans – it dates back to 1718 – and it’s probably still the most famous. Here you can picnic by the river, take a ferry tour, dance the night away on Bourbon Street, explore art galleries on Royal Street, stroll through the Garden at Jackson Square, or eat beignets at Café du Monde. Visiting the French Quarter makes for an especially magical conclusion to a trip down the Mississippi, a river where magical sites and sights are certainly in plentiful supply.
As you can see if you are going to visit the Mississippi River there are plenty of things to keep you occupied and happy. This is truly a great place to visit and vacation.