The mighty Mississippi River, a behemoth that meanders through 10 states over the course of 2,320 miles, is one of the most impressive sights in the United States. Of course, such a sprawling river affords all kinds of unique, dynamic views as it flows through various geographic regions. From its starting point in Minnesota to its drainage in the Gulf of Mexico via Louisiana, the fourth-longest river in the world affords a colorful cross-section of the American Midwest and South. To best drink it in, here are some of the best things to do on or along the Mississippi River in every state it touches.
One of the most spectacular ways to get up close and personal with the river in its state of origin is with a kayak trip with Above the Falls Sports. The outfitter, based in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood, does all the hard work for you, transporting you, equipping you and guiding you on kayak trips up and down the river, all with the Minneapolis skyline as an illustrious backdrop. Sights to expect include islands packed with herons, riverside tiki bars and enormous bridges. If you’re lucky, you may even get to kayak into a 100-year old tunnel system that runs under downtown Minneapolis, with nothing but a flashlight from your guide to light the way.
The Great River Road Wine Trail actually runs through Minnesota and Iowa as well, but most can be found in Wisconsin, along with the best views of the river in between wineries. Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery, Villa Bellezza Winery (pictured), Danzinger Vineyards, Seven Hawks Vineyards and Elmaro Vineyard can all be found in Wisconsin, each one producing its own wines made with Northern grapes. If you’re feeling especially saucy, pick up a Wine Trail Passport from one of the trail wineries and get it stamped at each location. Once you’ve received a stamp from each winery, you’ll get a gratis wine glass and the chance to win a whole case of wine.
In addition to affording some pretty unparalleled views of the Mississippi River from vantage points like Pike’s Peak State Park, Iowa provides a closer glimpse at the river’s history at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. Unlike anything else in the country, this Dubuque destination is a fascinating foray into America’s mightiest waterway, with historical collections, exhibits, activities like paddlefish-feeding and a 4D theater that enhances the viewing experiences with smells, wind and seats that move.
From eagle-spotting to antiquing, Galena is a quaint river town with a lot going on. Easily the most popular destination in Western Illinois, Galena feels like a place preserved in time, filled with historic buildings, boutiques, storied restaurants and timeworn museums. The best way to take it all in, though, is with a hot air balloon ride. Flights run about an hour and can accommodate up to 14 people. Marveling at the Mississippi River at sunset from up in the sky is a pretty unforgettable experience.
The birthplace of Mark Twain, an author with a particular penchant for waxing poetic along the Mississippi, Missouri is about as synonymous with the river as the namesake state itself. In addition to iconic vistas like the St. Louis Arch, overlooking the river and forming the symbolic gateway to the West, the waterside town of Hannibal is well worth a visit. This is where Twain was raised, and seeing as the man was so connected to the river via characters like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, it’s a town rich with lore. Here you’ll find the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, a Mark Twain cave tour and the Mark Twain Riverboat, the latter of which makes for an idyllic two-hour dinner cruise on an old-timey steamboat.
Although only a sliver of Kentucky abuts the Mississippi, the state represents one of the most important in the river’s history. Some of the oldest and earliest Native American sites in the country were situated along the banks of the river in what is now Kentucky, providing a deeper sense of American history for visitors. Among the most iconic locales is Wickliffe Mounds State Park, a region inhabited by people as far back as 1100 A.D. Nowadays, visitors can check out museum exhibits and a welcome center before hoofing it on a walking trail that offers striking river views from the park’s Ceremonial Mound.
As landscape continues to shift and climate warms, with Memphis on the horizon and cypress trees lining the shores, Tennessee represents a palpable turning point for the Mississippi, as it begins to enter the deep South. One of the most unique aspects of the Tennessee riverfront is something distinct to Memphis: music. At Mud Island River Park, a popular destination for museums, picnicking, biking and paddleboat rides, music is also key. The island features its namesake amphitheater, which routinely features big musical acts like Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones and Alabama Shakes.
Carving further and further into the South, the natural beauty of Arkansas (aptly nicknamed the Natural State) is among the most beautiful areas for interacting with the river. The American Delta forms much of the state’s Eastern border, where the river runs, lining the waterway with countless state parks, national forest, lakes, wetlands and more. Thanks to its fertile landscape and waters, this is among the best areas for fishing. September and early fall is best, as fish in the region populate the Mississippi and its adjoining river channels and tributaries, like the White River, Arkansas River and St. Francis River.
As evidenced by historic riverside cities like Natchez, you’re now in the deep American South. The river’s namesake state has no shortage of vantage points and recreational activities, but it’s the lore of places like Natchez that make the region so special. Dating back to 1716, when the town was first colonized by the French thanks to tis rich soils and mild climate that endeared it so well to farming, the city preserved much of its age-old past through antebellum architecture, churches and sites, making it a paradise for history-lovers. For outdoor enthusiasts, the city also features kayaking on the river and the 444-mile long Natchez Trace, a bike-friendly path that runs all the way to Nashville.
Of all the states that touch the Mississippi River, this is the most colorful and the most iconic. It’s a fact made abundantly clear by vibrant cities like New Orleans, one of the oldest and most dynamic cultural Meccas in the U.S. Whether you’re scarfing beignets by a levee or journeying into the past at one of the city’s museums, there are lots of ways that Louisiana stands out and celebrates its regional heritage. One of the best ways to experience it all is with a voyage on the Creole Queen, a luxurious paddlewheel boat that offers dinner cruises, jazz cruises and history cruises along the shores of New Orleans.
Written by Matt Kirouac
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