février 23, 2022
Road Trip Along the Great River Road
By Dawn S.
The best way to see America is by loading up your friends, family, or Fido and hitting the road. Escape Campervans makes road-tripping easy and affordable. The campervans come equipped with a comfortable bed, stove, sink, and fridge. So you have your transportation, meals, and lodging taken care of in one convenient, well-appointed, mobile package.
We recently took a road trip along the Great River Road National Scenic Byway by campervan.
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway
Sunset on the river during our road trip along the Great River Road.
To experience America’s small towns, farmland, railroad and shipping industries firsthand, take a road trip along the mighty Mississippi River. The Great River Road is the nation’s oldest and longest scenic byway. At 3,000 miles, it meanders along the Mississippi River through ten states. If you were a drop of rain, it would take you 90 days to travel from the headwaters in Minnesota through Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.
I recommend spending at least four days to get a small taste, or several weeks to drive the entire route and really savor the culture, food, music, and history. You can easily add a section of the Great River Road to your cross-country road trip itinerary, or pick up your campervan in New York and drop it off in Orlando. You can even do a one-way rental, returning to your pickup location via a different route.
We traveled sections of The Great River Road from Minnesota to St Louis, Missouri, following the bright green Pilot’s Wheel National Scenic Byway signs. Here are a few highlights from our trip to inspire your adventurous Tom Sawyer side.
Itasca State Park – Park Rapids, Minnesota
On the footbridge where the Mississippi River flows out of Lake Itasca.
This is where it all begins. We walked right across the headwaters of the Mississippi River on a small wooden footbridge where it began to flow out of frozen Lake Itasca. They offer year-round camping and have sites with electric hookups during cold weather months. So get Escape’s electric kit and you can stay toasty warm by using the space heater.
WORTH A VISIT – Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge (about an hour east of the Mississippi headwaters). This is a great birding stop if you are coming from, or heading to, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It was mid-April, and we saw muskrats, geese, swans, eagles, and ducks on the frozen lakes.
Traveling Through Illinois
Our trip through Wisconsin into Illinois brought us past many small lakes and Paul Bunyan inspired resort towns, pretty dairy farms with decorative barns, and rolling farmland. We picked up some locally made cheeses at Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet in DeForest Wisconsin (we find that cubed, or pre-sliced cheese is easier to use in the van).
There were many dairy farms in Wisconsin and we even picked up some cheese.
As fans of the TV show American Pickers, we had to pay a visit to Frank Fritz’s Finds in Savannah, Illinois, and Antique Archeology in Le Clair, Iowa.
We camped right beside the Mississippi River at Illiniwek Forest Preserve campground in Hamden, Illinois. They offer seasonal camping, hot showers and flush toilets. We walked to the Locks and Dam No. 14 to watch white pelicans play in the surf. Even though we were close to the interstate and some larger cities, watching the orange sunset, and the dock lights come on, was very peaceful.
Pelicans playing in the surf of a dam along the Mississippi River.
The next day we stumbled across the JOHN DEERE PAVILLION, in Moline Illinois. This is an agri-tourism must see. You can climb right into the cab and explore some of the biggest John Deere machines and even take them for a simulated test drive. We also visited the Rock Island Arsenal Museum as we followed the Mississippi River south through Iowa and Illinois. A local man struck up a conversation about our van and kayaks, and directed us to the Saulsbury Bridge Recreation Area in Muscatine, Iowa, for paddling and camping.
The John Deere Pavillion in Moline, IL.
As we drove further south each day, we saw more green, and even the dogwoods were starting to bloom. Deep Lakes Park was a great place to paddle and picnic. There were beautiful Victorian homes along the river in Keokuk, Iowa, a small river town that should not be missed.
We spotted tons of black and white ducks, cormorants, and white pelicans on the Mississippi River and surrounding wetlands. Did you know that 40% of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds use the Mississippi flyway as their migration route? We camped at Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois, did their scenic drive, and hiked the Hickory Trail to McAdams Overlook. A fun stop as we headed south was the Knotty By Nature Hardwood carving shop in Grafton, Illinois.
The Gateway Arch – St Louis, Missouri
Gateway arch in springtime.
To take away a nostalgic memory of the river, and for great views of the St Louis waterfront and the Gateway Arch, take a one hour cruise on a riverboat.
Take a riverboats cruise on the Mississippi River while you're in St. Louis.
Next, take a tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch for an aerial view of the city, and don’t miss the documentary movie that shows what it took to build. Even though the black waters of the Mississippi kept flowing south, St Louis was the end of our ride on The Great River Road, and enabled us to check off all the remaining states in the lower 48 that we had not yet been to. We turned east and headed through Nashville on our way back towards Atlanta.
Sidetrips Along the Great River Road
The Superior Circle Tour is worthy of its own multi-day road trip, but if you find yourself in the northern great lakes region, try to check out at least a small portion of the Lake Superior Shoreline. For spectacular lake views and lakeside camping, take the scenic coastal drive between Duluth, Minnesota and Goosebury Falls State Park.
The nearby Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and The Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness are a paddler’s dream in the summertime.
If you are a fan of American literature, don’t miss the Mark Twain historic sites in Hannibal, Missouri. In addition to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, you will find many other Laura Ingles Wilder historic sites and tours across the Midwest. Another worthy side trip is to visit the covered bridges of Madison County in Iowa.
Take a Campervan Along the Great River Road
Escape Campervans are fun and easy to drive. No matter how you usually travel, you are going to love your road trip in this campervan, trust me! Don’t delay. Reserve your campervan and take a road trip down The Great River Road today!