Midwest

Great River Road: Natural Wonders Along or Nearby the Mississippi River

Kayak the waters, climb the bluffs, wander the trails, peek into history—these six national park sites along the Great River Road are must-sees in the Midwest.

I was sitting in the pub on the ground floor of the Water Street Inn when I realized it: This is the American Heartland everyone thinks is gone. Old-school towns that carved themselves into limestone bluffs and rivers that sweep by quiet forests—it’s all right here in “flyover country.” Most of us Midwesterners hate that particular moniker but certainly don’t mind having this all to ourselves.

On the other hand, certain national parks are being loved to death. Long lines, shuttle systems, and cramped campgrounds make them more akin to adult theme parks than vast nature reserves. But the six sites along the upper Mississippi—the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway bordering Minnesota and Wisconsin down to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in Missouri—have managed to go unnoticed, holding on tight to their serenity and their roots.

Instead of booking it to the nearest big-ticket national park, try exploring the Midwest, escaping the crowds, and having a new, unique experience at these six national park sites along or nearby the Great River Road.

Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, Minnesota and Wisconsin

This is one of the most accessible—yet most remote—rivers in the nation. Just an hour’s drive from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, the Saint Croix NSR is 255 miles of the most scenic and least developed country in the Upper Midwest. It technically comprises two rivers, the Saint Croix and the Namekagon, and both have clean, pristine waters that are good for kayaking, canoeing, paddling, tubing, and simply snapping a few photos. Expert paddlers will find challenges in its more remote settings while beginners can stick to its more serene stretches.

This area is large and naturally distinct. The Upper Riverway—the upper St. Croix and the entire Namekagon—is narrower than the Lower St. Croix. Stick to the Upper, and the paddling will be a closer, more intimate experience with nature and wildlife. The Lower’s appeal is the vast, wide open expanses, and large-scale vistas. Boating, obviously, is more popular (and more doable) in the larger Lower St. Croix.

Basaltic gorges and glacial potholes are highlights of the area’s geography, but as for the flora and fauna, the area is home to brilliant wildflower trails and sees over 240 species of birds. You should also know that two national trails intersect the Riverway: the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and the North Country National Scenic Trail. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area are both less than two hours away by car.

Where To Launch – Interstate Parks to Osceola Landing

This calm, easy stretch of the Lower St. Croix runs for 6.6 miles through two deep gorges of basaltic rock. There are good sandbars to stop for a picnic, wooded plains for some solitude, and sandstone bluffs rise around the Osceola Bridge. This afternoon outing can be completed in three to four hours.

Big Bend to Namekagon Visitor Center

Low-banked woods (good for swimming) fill your first views of this 7.7-mile stretch. The riverbanks eventually become steeper, islands braid through the waters, and occasional rock gardens will need navigating. That being said, this is still a good stretch for beginners with an adventurous streak, and it’s one of the more scenic, easier rides.

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Where To Stay

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The Saint Croix NSR spans hundreds of miles, so your best bet depends on your specific locale. A good hub, however, is Stillwater, Minnesota, about 20 minutes from the Twin Cities. It’s here you’ll find the Historic Water Street Inn, the only waterfront hotel in town, right on the St. Croix. Its Victorian roots still reign supreme; the building dates back to 1890, and its 41 rooms have a romantic, elegant, classic feel. Check out Charlie’s Irish Pub on the ground floor for live music and something a bit grittier.

Historic Water Street Inn

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Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Seventy-two miles of the United States’ greatest river are protected from the town of Ramsey, through the Twin Cities, and down to Hastings, Minnesota. The main visitor center is in St. Paul, but the recreation area spans the waters, nearby trails, grasslands, and streams that cover this monumental area.

Note that this area is hardly just water. Here are a few land-based activities you can take part in at the Mississippi NRRA:

Rent Kayaks and Bikes

The Paddle Share program allows you to rent kayaks for just a few hours. There are designated drop-in, drop-off stations. Nice Ride Minnesota also rents bikes here, and there are plenty of biking trails along the banks of the river (including back to where you originally got your kayak).

Hike to Coldwater Spring

This is the site of the first American settlement in Minnesota where soldiers lived as they were building Fort Snelling. The trail meanders through an oak savanna/prairie complex that’s great for wildlife viewing.

Visit the Waterfront Regional Parks

Indian Mounds Regional Park and Minnehaha Falls Regional Park stand out in particular. The first was a burial site for two native cultures situated on high bluffs that overlook the Mississippi. The second encompasses a small gorge that includes a beautiful 53-foot waterfall that eventually runs to the Big Muddy.

Tour Fort Snelling

Situated at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, Fort Snelling was an important base of trade in the 1800s and was only decommissioned in 1945. Tours are offered regularly, and re-enactors are available to answer any and all questions.

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Where To Stay

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With the visitor center right in St. Paul, it makes sense to base yourself in the Twin Cities. The InterContinental Hotel Saint Paul Riverfront is in the heart of downtown, right on the bluffs overlooking the water. Twenty minutes from the Mall of America, even shorter distances to world-class museums, dining, and theatre, this is the other side of the Mississippi experience. Cities flow around the water; not the other way around.

InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront

7.9 Good (1059 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 8.9 / 10
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Effigy Mounds National Monument

This is one of the most scenic sections of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and as such, some 20 or so American Indian tribes have once called this area home. Here, over 200 mounds—burial sites—are preserved. It’s difficult to tell from the ground, but from above it’s clear that these aren’t just rolling hills. Each is shaped like an animal.

Mound-building cultures were sprinkled all over the Midwest, but the detail, size, and precision of the shapes at Effigy Mounds is unparalleled. Great Bear Mound, for example, is 137 feet long and well over four feet tall. Fourteen miles of trails (and not a single road) meander between and along these sites, traversing particularly picturesque bluffs along the Mississippi. Unless you’re from the area, you’ll be surprised at the elevation.

To fully understand the significance of this site, be sure to stop into the visitor center. Learning about the mound builders and their practices will help you decipher clues along the trail. Staff might also direct you to other nearby outdoor spots to hit up, like the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge, the Yellow River State Forest, and Pikes Peak State Park. Each of these spots is antithetical to the common man’s conception of the Midwest, a maze of bluffs, cliffs, water, high views, and beauty.

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Where To Stay

Photo courtesy of Travel Iowa

McGregor, Iowa, is a small, turn-of-the-century historic town that’s a short drive outside of Effigy Mounds National Monument. McGregor’s Landing Bed & Bath is less than a block off the river, and a popular guest pastime is simply sitting on the wrap-around porch, imagining steamboats roll by. The decor inside matches the feel of the town: antique, simple, and serene.

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McGregor's Landing Bed and Bath

8.3 Very good (167 reviews)
Excellent Location 8.6 / 10
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Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Though the man went down in history as a disgrace, the truth is far more complex—and far more kind. Herbert Hoover, the nation’s 31st president, was a man of perseverance, daring, industriousness, and ingenuity. Once he was told he was “too young for a job,” so he bought a suit, grew a mustache, and got it—a mining wage gig that involved riding camels across the Australian Outback. He would go on to become one of the youngest, richest people in the country and an admired humanitarian. By WWI, he was head of the U.S. Food Administration where he designed programs that fed millions daily.

Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa, now home to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. The museum is the main stop — a maze of artifacts and exhibitions detailing the many stages of the man’s life, in addition to an exhibit on all former U.S. presidents. But don’t miss his home. It’s on a small, quiet street next to the museum that’s designed to reflect life in the 1870s, as little Herbie would’ve seen it, complete with blacksmith shop, Quaker meeting-place, and a one-room schoolhouse. Even the dimensions of the road and the sidewalk are period-accurate.

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Where To Stay

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Nearby Iowa City—home to the University of Iowa, a Big Ten school—might as well be a mini Midwestern Portland. It’s a literary city buzzing with coffee shops, bookstores, vegan restaurants, bars, pubs, and gritty music venues. The ultra-mod Hotel Vetro, right in downtown, is the place to stay. Hit up the rooftop terrace for excellent views onto Iowa’s former capital, or scope out the adjacent “Ped Mall” for a slice of student life at places like the Englert Theatre and The Java House.

Hotel Vetro

8.2 Very good (887 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.1 / 10
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Gateway Arch National Park

In 2018, Gateway Arch National Park became the 60th national park, formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The obvious thing to do here is to take a tram ride to the top of the Arch (tickets are available inside the west entrance, though in summer you should book in advance), but don’t skip out on the other activities that may help you understand why this site recently achieved coveted national park status.

Stop into the new museum at the bottom of the Arch

The monument is a symbol of something much larger—the U.S. moving westward. Jefferson had a grand vision, and this museum is a testament to what would become the future of the nation. While here, be sure to watch the documentary.

Visit the Old Courthouse

This is where the famous Dred Scott Case took place in 1850, when the Supreme Court confirmed that a white man’s property rights were more important than human freedom.

Take a boat or helicopter ride

Seeing the Arch from a bird’s perspective or from the water that made St. Louis what it is today is just as fitting, if not more unique. Tickets are available here.

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Where To Stay

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The Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch—as the name states—is quite literally at The Arch. The view is nothing short of up close and personal, and with 910 rooms, it’s a safe bet they’ll have every amenity you could ever need. You’re right on the Mississippi River and right in downtown, in walking distance to St. Louis’ top attractions, including Busch Stadium.

Hotel Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch

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Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Before Grant was president, he didn’t have enough money to move his family out West. His wife’s family had a bit of wealth, however, and for most of the 1850s, they lived at her parent’s plantation, White Haven — now the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

The nearly 10-acre site is southwest of downtown St. Louis, and five historic structures are still standing. The most surprising bit? That the man who decried slavery spent years benefitting from and tolerating their situation. He owned one himself. That being said, scholars think it’s possible that his time at White Haven informed — and possibly created — his abolitionist views.

While here, start at the Main House. Tours are offered once or twice an hour, from roughly 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A film is also shown in the Visitor Center theatre. Then move outside, wandering the grounds and smaller buildings, like the ice house, chicken house, and summer kitchen. The interpretative museum is located inside the old stable, showing both American life in the 19th century and the impact Grant had on the country.

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Where To Stay

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Stay outside of St. Louis at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac. It’s located right next to the Plaza Frontenac — a hub of shopping, dining, and things to do — so you won’t feel the sacrifice of staying outside the city. You’re also a stone’s throw from the world-famous St. Louis Zoo.

Hilton St Louis Frontenac

8.4 Very good (1466 reviews)
Excellent Location 9 / 10
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Feature photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota