great river road

If it’s the great outdoors you seek this fall, follow the Great River Road, Minnesota’s longest National Scenic Byway, as it meanders the Mississippi River to 12 state parks and the only national park dedicated to the Mississippi River.

If you’re a fan of the National Park Service’s parks and monuments, you’ll be pleased to find Minnesota has a parallel system of its own, with great outdoor experiences that include just as many recreational options, only in smaller land areas. Following the Great River Road from the headwaters to the bluffs provides a route to explore 12 of those state parks, plus the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

September is national “Drive the Great River Road” month. Traveling Minnesota’s Great River Road in fall offers an array of vistas and outdoor experiences unmatched in quantity by any other of the 10 Mississippi River states. Twelve of Minnesota’s state parks – plus a national park – call this route home and offer the traveler encounters with nature, history, wildlife and beautiful scenery.

Starting near the river’s headwaters, make your way along County Road 2, the Great River Road, to the Mississippi River’s pinnacle site – Itasca State Park, where the great American river starts its journey first north, then east, and then finally south to the Gulf of Mexico. This is one of the country’s iconic Mississippi River destinations and this Minnesota state park has enriched the tourist experience. Besides the proverbial walk-across-the-Mississippi attraction, there are kayaks, hiking and birding options all within a few steps of each other.

In the middle of the state and Minnesota’s Great River Road, take the Great River Road to the only national park dedicated to the Mississippi River. You’ll find it starting in Dayton at the north end or on U.S. Highway 61 in Hastings at the southern end. In between is everything from Historic Fort Snelling to paddle sharing and from bike trails to bird watching.

In the southeast, you’ll find one of the state’s most scenic state parks – Great River Bluffs State Park - in the Mississippi River’s Driftless Area. Time, weather and prehistoric glacial movement have left this area with a dramatic assortment of steep bluffs, rolling uplands and braided island backwaters. Numerous scenic overlooks provide photographers ample opportunity to take that perfect shot, and hiking trails are particularly inspiring with their fall foliage.

The 12 state parks and links to their directions are here, starting at the headwaters and following the River’s meander nearly all the way to Minnesota’s southern border:

Itasca State Park - Headwaters

Lake Bemidji State Park - Bemidji

Schoolcraft State Park  - west of Grand Rapids

Savanna Portage State Park - north of Aitkin

Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area - Ironton

Crow Wing State Park - south of Brainerd

Charles A. Lindbergh State Park - Little Falls

Lake Maria State Park - Monticello

Fort Snelling State Park – Minneapolis (currently closed to the public due to flood events)

Frontenac State Park - Frontenac

John A. Latsch State Park - north of Winona

Great River Bluffs State Park - south of Winona

Be sure to check out the state park websites for visitor updates on local conditions before you go. For details on the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area visit https://www.nps.gov/miss.

The Minnesota Great River Road’s online “Plan Your Trip” Map and Travel Guides are handy resources for trip planning and details on the driving route and can be accessed at www.mnmississippiriver.com.

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