Minnesota Scenic Drives: Great River Road

Highlights of the Great River Road

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