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Guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road

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This guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road is going to get your trip down the Mississippi off on the right foot. Just don’t fall into the headwaters when you get started! This guide will take you from where it all starts, along the Mississippi’s many lakes, through the city of Minneapolis, and past the great bluffs in southern Minnesota. Minnesota’s Great River Road is opening stretch of an iconic American road trip. Minnesota was one of my favorite portions of our entire Great River Road trip, so I’m sure you’ll love it as well!

When to Drive Minnesota’s Great River Road

This guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road is largely based on my trip down the road in May. However, that is by far the only time that you can make the trip. For each season, you’ll have different considerations to make.

If you’re looking to beat most of the crowds while still getting good weather, then May is your best bet. We started in early May, so most campgrounds were open even if some lacked services. They were also completely empty. The weather also never got too cold and most days was absolutely gorgeous. Once the Memorial Day holiday comes around, the crowds will too.

Along the Mississippi River on a clear blue day in May. Posted as part of my guide to Minnesota's Great River Road
Hard to beat views like this in Early May

Summer is the prime tourist season. With schools out and Minnesota being an chock full of outdoor activities, it also becomes a fantastic place to take a road trip. Much of Minnesota’s Great River Road provides access to lakes, rivers, or forests to explore. With this in mind, plan your trip for the workweek to minimize crowds. Alternatively, take some time to explore Minneapolis which won’t be overwhelmed with people like the state parks.

Though not as busy as summer, Fall is still immensely popular. The weather has cooled some, while the trees are taking on their amazing colors. Fortunately, school has returned to session meaning crowds have dispersed during the week mostly. Fall trips are best spent on either side of Minneapolis, to enjoy the changing of the trees.

Winter is still potentially an option for the brave. The Great River Road in Minnesota can be hazardous in the winter and could become closed due to snow. With that in mind, a trip in the winter needs to be perfectly timed or focus more the trip between towns and not actually driving on the road itself.

Northern Section: From the Headwaters to Brainerd

Any good guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road has got to start where it does. I mean, there is even a “begin” sign so where else could you start? Itasca State Park is a wonderful destination in it’s own right. Featuring a gorgeous lake perfect for swimming, boating, or kayaking, its also host to miles of trails, plenty of campsites, and even educational exhibits. You should definitely spend at least a day at the park before you get on the road.

No better place to begin than the headwaters for traveling Minnesota's Great River Road
Such an unassuming start to the Mighty Mississippi

How much time you choose to spend on the northern section of the road will depend on your goals. For the outdoor enthusiast you could spend your entire trip covering this portion. However, since this guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road is focused on the road trip aspect, I advise spending a day on this part. That’s in addition to the entire day spent at Lake Itasca.

Once you’ve gotten on the road from the headwaters, the first town you’ll come to is Bemidji. Bemidji is a cool lakefront town that proudly claims its status as the “First city on the Mississippi”. It’ll certainly be your first stop during the trip so you can visit Paul Bunyan and Babe! It is also a perfect place to grab brunch or lunch on the road. If you opted to not spend the night at Lake Itasca, it’ll also be the closest location with traditional hotels.

A couple standing next to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox which are must stops included on the guide to Minnesota's Great River Road
How could you not visit Paul Bunyan and Babe?

From Bemidji, you’ll need to keep a close eye on your road signs. The Great River Road in Minnesota spends quite a few miles winding through the forests up here on its way to Grand Rapids. It is well signed, but it can definitely be easy to get a bit lost. A good rule to remember here is that much of this early portion of the road doesn’t have direct views of the river. If its more about the journey and less about the directions, then feel free to cut portions out if necessary.

When you’ve reached the major city of Grand Rapids, you’ll find another fantastic place to explore. Home of Judy Garland, if you’re spending a few days up here it’s a great base of operations. However, you’ll most likely just be passing through the city. Once you’re south of Grand Rapids, you’ll come across one of my favorite portions of this trip. The Great River Road between here and Aitkin hugs the river closely. We found plenty of great views and moments to get close to the river. You’ll also likely find some solitude on this portion since it’s away from the main highway and only gets attention from those driving the road.

Beyond Aitkin, you’ll have two options which you can follow. If you’re pressed for time, hop on Voyageurs Highway (State Road 210) and you can cruise on down to Brainerd. Alternatively, you can follow the signs to stay on the north side of the river. Much like the previous portion, its going to wind right along the river. The northern portion of the trip ends in Brainerd because it is a great stopping point for day one. It also becomes the point where the Great River Road in Minnesota rejoins a major highway for its next stretch south.

Central Section: Brainerd to Minneapolis

For those who didn’t stay in Brainerd (or somewhere further north), you’ll likely finish your first day on the road somewhere on this portion. We were camping and elected to stay at Lindbergh State Park in Little Falls. Little Falls is a cute little town that you’ll cross through to return to the laid back part of the GRR. You’ll also pass right by the state park and Lindbergh House and Museum as well, which is a great place to be a tourist and enjoy some riverfront views.

The sign of Lindburgh State Park taken while compiling a guide to Minnesota's Great River Road
Lindbergh State Park was a great stop for a night of camping

Another fantastic spot to enjoy time next to the river is in St. Cloud. Just across the river (and a short detour off the road) is Munsinger Gardens. Take the opportunity to stretch your legs a bit in a spot that so many others will likely pass right on by. South of St. Cloud the road will continue to stretch along the river through the towns of Monticello, Elk River, and Champlin. Be on the lookout for great overlooks or river views, like the ones you’ll find at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park.

No guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road would be complete without talking about the Great River Road in Minneapolis. It would easy to spend an entire weekend in Minneapolis (or more), but you also likely started your trip from here just like we did. The Great River Road in Minneapolis properly begins just off where Broadway and I-94 meet. The tree lined route sweeps past the river, as well as beautiful parks along the way. The Mississippi River sweeps past downtown Minneapolis, making it easy to hop off the Great River Road to visit. I highly recommend a stop at the Mill City Museum for its history and amazing rooftop view.

A view of St. Anthony Falls from the Mill City Museum roof taken during a weekend in Minneapolis
The view of St. Anthony falls from the top of Mill City Museum was awesome

Downriver of downtown, the road will also take you past two excellent parks. The first is Mississippi Gorge Regional Park. If you’re here in the fall, the tree colors are nearly unmatched with the added bonus of plenty of hiking available (and inside the city no less). Beyond that you’ll have to stop at Minnehaha Regional Park. Here you’ll get to enjoy Minnehaha Falls, the Longfellow Gardens, and plenty of room for a wonderful picnic on a summer day. After your visit to the falls, the Great River Road in Minneapolis passes over Ford Bridge and through downtown St. Paul onward to the southern section of the route.

Southern Section: Minneapolis to the Iowa Border

I highly recommend staying in Minneapolis for at least one night during your trip. That’s doubly true if you’ve driven the entire Northern and Central sections in one go. From here you do have the option to follow the Great River Road into Wisconsin, or continue on the Minnesota side. We actually alternated between the two sides because each offers beautiful views.

Knudsen's Caramels was included on this guide to Minnesota's Great River Road because it's a great part of history along the road
Call ahead if you are stopping by to pickup caramels. They will also ship them to you!

The Great River Road in Minnesota follows US 61 for most of the length to the Iowa border. It is dotted with a bunch of small towns which are all definitely worth a quick stop or visit. Red Wing is famous for the boots, but you can also make a stop at Knudsen’s Caramels for a delicious snack as well. In Lake City you can rent a boat or go for a swim in the waters of Lake Pepin. When you get to Wabasha, consider stopping into the National Eagle Center to learn about these fascinating animals. Winona has a great city park and lake that is a great spot to enjoy lunch or dinner from the Lakeview Drive Inn. La Crescent is the last major town on the Great River Road in Minnesota and your final opportunity to cross into Wisconsin from Minnesota.

There aren’t just small towns along the road here though. Fontenac State Park sits along the shores of Lake Pepin and provides fabulous views over the lake and into Wisconsin. You can also head down to Florence Township Beach for a swim too. However, my favorite park on this stretch is Great River Bluffs State Park. It features a secluded campground with bathrooms and showers. There are also numerous trails which provide unbeatable overlooks of the river far below. This guide to Minnesota’s Great River Road wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention this park is the best for catching sunrise or sunset along the route. We camped here overnight and I hiked the short trail for the sunrise overlook. You’ll want to do it too, I promise you won’t regret it!

Other Tips for Minnesota’s Great River Road

No matter when you choose to follow the Great River Road in Minnesota, you’ll have a good time. While it is possible to stay in hotels along the way, I don’t recommend that. There are way to many great parks and campgrounds which you should try. We spent each night of our trip camping in the back of our rental SUV! It is a really fun, exciting, and easy way to see the road on a budget.

There is also the matter of how long to spend driving the road? If you don’t plan on making it into a multistate journey, then I’d say four days is perfect. That will give ample time to explore the different parts of the trip. It’ll also allow you the chance to stay at least one night in Minneapolis as well. It is possible to take a shorter trip, especially if you’re making this part of a lengthier road trip. Speaking of a lengthier road trip, you can read my guides to all ten states of the Great River Road now!

Finally, don’t be afraid to get off the road a bit. There are plenty of times where its easier to jump on the highway or head off track to find something cool to do. A big part of any road trip is what you find on the journey, not necessarily sticking to the set path. Enjoy the experience and you’ll be telling your story for years to come. If you need some more tips on planning a road trip, I’ve got you covered too!

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