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Travelling the Great River Road in Missouri

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The Great River Road in Missouri is one of the more interesting parts of the entire ten state journey. It features one of the world’s greatest river confluences, a city at the heart of the American experience, and a transition from the bluffs of the north to the delta of the south. It is also one of the least defined portions of the trip. This gives any traveler of the Great River Road in Missouri freedom to explore the Mississippi River in their own way. To help you use all that freedom, I’ve compiled this comprehensive post that will help you traverse the mighty Mississippi River along the Great River Road in Missouri.

From the State Line to the Confluence

While the “official” portion of the Great River Road in Missouri starts near Hannibal, you can just continue the route along US 136 as you leave the Great River Road in Iowa behind. Crossing the border into Missouri, you’ll merge onto US 61. This will be one of the main arteries you’ll follow on the “unofficial” portion of the trip through the state. From the Iowa/Missouri border, it’ll be a pretty leisurely trip until your first must-see stop.

Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home in Hannibal

The Great River Road features a number of literary legends, and the state of Missouri has its own as well. Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, spent his youthful formative years in the town of Hannibal. This bustling town on the banks of the Mississippi River served as the setting for many of his works. The town of Hannibal is quite proud of its famous son as well.

One of the best parts about visiting Hannibal is seeing the places that Mark Twain brought to life for so many of us as children. There is a museum on the grounds which does a wonderful job of telling the remarkable story of the man himself. For one of America’s greatest literary figures, and one who never portrayed himself as anything other than human, the museum does a wonderful job of humanizing him. I always find it remarkable to visit places such as this. Seeing the humble beginnings of a figure that seems larger than life is a moment of connection for us all.

Mark Twain's home is along the Great River Road in Missouri
Mark Twain’s Boyhood home inspired countless stories

All of the buildings on-site and in the surrounding downtown are well preserved and cared for, allowing you to take a step back in time. Twain’s home in particular is the best part of the visit. It helps to tell the story of his life, through the rooms of the homes themselves. When you exit the home, you can even see the white picket fence that Tom Sawyer convinced others to paint for him. Other buildings surrounding his home tell the story as well. If you’re a fan in any way of his works, then the town of Hannibal is a must visit.

Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

Just north of St. Louis you’ll find one of the world greatest confluences. It is a place which has drawn visitors for thousands of years. To reach the confluence, you’ll have to take US 67 towards Illinois before turning off on Riverlands Way. While the road itself isn’t paved, it’s also well graded for it’s entire length meaning most vehicles will have little trouble reaching the confluence.

Just a couple cool kids along the Great River Road in Missouri
This was as close as we could get to the confluence!

To visit the point where these mighty rivers meet, you’ll take a hike in Ted and Pat Jones Confluence State Park. The hike is just over 3/10ths of a mile and is paved most of the way. This makes it great for everyone in your group. Upon reaching the confluence, depending on recent weather, you might be able to reach the water’s edge where the two rivers meet. On our journey, the water levels were a bit low meaning it was deep mud and the exact edge wasn’t reachable. No matter what, it’s still an amazing sight to visit knowing you’re standing at the meeting of two great rivers of the world.

St. Louis and the Great River Road

St. Louis is the natural midpoint of any road trip along the Great River Road. As the second of the three major cities you’ll visit, I definitely think it’s worth taking a couple of days here at minimum. During my trip, we spent a whole three day weekend in town. If you’ve got that kind of time, then fantastic! If not, spending at least one whole day here is the very least you can do. Check out a few of the places below to make the most of your time in the city.

Major Tourist Sights on the Great River Road in St. Louis

When you’re travelling the Great River Road in Missouri, it’ll give you a chance to see some major tourist spots in St. Louis. The most obvious of these is the awe-inspiring St. Louis Arch. No trip down the Great River Road, or to St. Louis, is complete with a visit to the Arch. It’s one of the greatest feats of modern engineering, and you can also go all the way to the top. Let me tell you, the views from the top are truly spectacular!

Don't bypass the views from the top of the Arch on your trip down the Great River Road in Missouri
Amazing views from the top of the Arch!

The St. Louis Zoo is a world-class zoo that is fully free to the public. The Zoo features hundreds of different animals and is a leader in conservation efforts. They also feature something not seen in many zoos across America: a chilled enclosure making it possible for them to have cold weather penguins. The Zoo is a fantastic place to visit for the entire family. It’s also part of a larger park, so there are plenty of ways to stretch your legs on your road trip. 

Entertainment and Experiences

St. Louis is a town jam-packed with different experiences and nightly entertainment. I highly recommend checking out some of the riverboat cruises. We took one on our Great River Road trip that was a fabulous drag show! There is a riverboat cruise for basically everyone, and the night time views of the Arch by the water aren’t bad either. There are also plenty of other drag and burlesque shows throughout town.

The city of St. Louis is also a big time sports town. Depending on the time of year you make your trip on the Great River Road in Missouri, you’ll have plenty of options. In the heart of downtown stands Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. If you’ve got the time, I definitely recommend checking out a game at the historic stadium. Winter visitors can check out the St. Louis Blues NHL team, for some hard hitting hockey action.

You’ll also find smaller experiences all across town. If you’re wanting to spend more time outside, check out the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park. St. Louis Aquarium is a great companion experience to the St. Louis Zoo. Animal lovers have so many options in town! There’s also a huge number of museums in town, with some highlights being the Museum of Westward Expansion, the Contemporary Art Museum, and St. Louis Art Museum.

The Best Food Along the Great River Road in Missouri

Some of the best eats along the entire Great River Road happen in St. Louis. Whatever you happen to be in the mood for, St. Louis has got you covered. For St. Louis-style pizza, you’ll have to check out Imo’s where it’s said to have been invented. Another St. Louis favorite, BBQ, is deliciously served up at Bogart’s Smokehouse off Lafayette Ave.

Beyond the city’s staples, St. Louis is full of great food. One of my favorite locations during our trip was The Fountain on Locust. The food is fantastic, but the drinks are even better! It’s the home of the Ice Cream Martini, which is a wonderful treat. The aesthetic of the restaurant is beautiful, making it a whole experience from start to finish.

The best drinks on the Great River Road in Missouri are at The Fountain
Not to mention their sulfate sodas are amazing too!

McGurk’s Irish Pub and Garden is another great experience in the city. It’s more than simply another Irish pub. McGurk’s serves up authentic Irish food, music, spirits, and vibes throughout its sprawling grounds. As the name implies, those grounds aren’t just the dark and cozy confines of a friendly pub but an expansive and beautiful garden patio as well!

The last highlight on this list is BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups. The menus is no-frills, but the experience is next level. Featuring live music every night of the week, it’s hands down the best place to eat and be entertained at the same time. You’ll get your fill of authentic blues, jazz, soul, and R&B while also filling up on some southern favorites. What more could you ask for!

Exploring Southern Missouri Along the River

Once you’ve decided it’s time to leave St. Louis, you’ll have a quick trip the rest of the way. This final portion is about seeing some of the really unique places in Missouri. You probably won’t be able to see them all in one day, so split this portion over two days. It’s also not a bad idea to spend some time on the Illinois side of the Great River Road on this part of the trip, especially to see the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

Crystal City Underground

For the adventurous among you, consider taking a stop at Crystal City Underground. One of the many caves found all throughout Missouri, it’s a totally different way to experience the Great River Road in Missouri. That’s because you won’t just be spelunking through this cave but actually kayaking in it! Find out everything you need to know about Crystal City Underground from my friends at We’re Not In Kansas Anymore.

Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park

This national historical park along the Great River Road in Missouri preserves the earliest European settlement on the Mississippi. The park preserves many of the building constructed here. You can partake in ranger-led tours of historic homes and even the oldest building in the area, the Green Tree Tavern. There is also a rose garden at the visitor center which has been tended for over 200 years. History buffs will love a stop here on their trip.

Check out this rose garden on the Great River Road in Missouri
The beautiful historic rose garden

Trail of Tears State Park

Along Missouri 177, you’ll come to Trail of Tears State Park. It was at this location that the Cherokee were forced to cross the Mississippi River in the winter of 1838/39. The park does an excellent job telling the story of this dark chapter in American history. You can explore the preserved wilderness around the visitor center on hikes throughout the grounds. There is a scenic overlook in the northern part of the park that’s a moderate 1.5 mile round trip hike.

New Madrid Historical Museum

One of the more interesting parts of Mississippi River history happened at New Madrid. This site is home to a series of earthquakes that rocked the area in 1811 and 1812. The site is an interesting point of research for geologists due to being in the center of a continent. Stories from the time of the quakes even say it caused the Mississippi River to run backwards. For those with an interest in the strange parts of Earth, a visit to New Madrid is definitely worth your time.

Final Considerations When Driving the Great River Road in Missouri

The biggest consideration when travelling down the Great River Road in Missouri is the route you take. The officially signed portion is the shortest part of the entire trip, despite the entire eastern border of the state being on the Mississippi River. With this in mind, the route you choose is pretty flexible. My advice is to keep it simple along the way. Missouri 79 will take you all the way from Hannibal to St. Louis. South from St. Louis, you’ll have a quick option of staying on I-55 or a leisurely option down US 61. Neither stays super close to the river, but this part of the trip has far less spectacular river views compared to up north.

Another consideration, that goes along with the above, is that the trip becomes more about destinations. The route itself is less filled with spectacular views. With this in mind, make sure to give yourself time to cover these long distance drives. If you short change yourself with drive time, you won’t have time to spend at the final destinations. The Great River Road in Missouri is a wonderful portion of the 10-state trip. I hope you’ll enjoy it, as much as I did!

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