Florida Man on the Run

Your Guide to the Best Camping Along the Great River Road

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There is so much excellent camping along the Great River Road that it’s sometimes hard to pick where you’re going to stay. I found this to be one of the problems I ran into when planning my trip. Like most camping road trips we take, each place was going to be stayed in for only one night. To help me choose where we were going to be doing our Great River Road camping, I came up with a few guidelines. Each campground needed to be inexpensive, close to the Great River Road, friendly to car camping, and finally have some scenic value. While we didn’t camp every single night on our amazing Great River Road trip, I had campgrounds selected for the entire trip.

So, if you’re looking for the best camping along the Great River Road then you’ve come to the right place! Each of these campgrounds on the Great River Road were selected based on my criteria. While we didn’t stay at any of these in the south, that was more due to the heat wave on our trip than those places not being good enough to stay a night. The campgrounds are listed from North to South, as that the way we made the trip and is how the river flows. Camping along the Great River Road is a fantastic way to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Mississippi River without breaking the bank!

Tips for Camping Along the Great River Road

As someone who camped along the Great River Road for a fairly significant portion of my own trip, I’ve got a few tips to make your trip great. These are a couple things I learned before leaving, as well as a piece of knowledge I wish I’d have had before I left!

The first tip for doing some Great River Road camping is to check the water status of the parks before visiting. This is especially important if you’re starting in the North early in the season, or ending your trip there late in the season. Not every park will have the same “turn-on” date for water. This means you might not have showers, or bathrooms available, even if the park has them on site. I had planned ahead when booking at Itasca State Park, but incorrectly assumed our next stop at Lindbergh State Park would be the same. So, don’t make the same mistake as me and double check!

My second piece of advice is all about the weather. A long North-South road trip can be tricky to plan for, especially if you’re camping the whole way. Start too late and before you’re in Iowa it’ll be HOT. Too early, and you’ll be freezing (and waterless) in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Flipping the trip presents the reverse situation. You’ll be racing the clock to make it north before they shut the pipes. Our trip was at the beginning of May, which should have been the perfect time but we got hit with a heat wave. So be prepared for all kinds of weather.

A setup in the back of an SUV for car camping along the Great River Road at Itasca State Park
Camping in the car is a great way to have an easy setup every night!

The last tip I have for camping along the Great River Road is to pack light. Our preferred mode of camping is out of the back of a SUV, like our Subaru Forester. This means we aren’t taking a lot of luggage or other supplies. That allows us to setup quickly, take down even quicker, and spend more time on the road. You can still opt for a tent as well on this trip. That can even be the better option if you have a lot of time or multiple days in one location. We spent a max of one night at each location, so mobility was key for us.

Itasca State Park: Headwaters of the Mississippi

If you choose only one of these campgrounds on the Great River Road, then make it Itasca State Park. This park is where you’ll find the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. Honestly, that’s what this whole journey is about. Any road trip down the Great River Road will begin (or end) right here. Alternatives to camping here will involve a more expensive stay in a cabin outside the park or hotel in Bemidji.

Image of Florida Man on the Run standing at the headwaters of the Mississippi River during a Great River Road camping trip
It’s super easy to visit the headwaters, even on a cold, blustery day in May!

There is a huge number of spaces available for reservation. However, you really need to get a spot in the Bear Paw Campground. This campground sits directly on Lake Itasca. If you’re lucky (like us), you can snag a spot directly on or across the loop road from the water. It’s an absolutely fantastic spot to watch a sunset over the lake and simply enjoy this peaceful slice of nature.

You can walk across the headwaters and stay dry, if you don’t fall in!

Of course, once you’re getting ready to hit the road the following morning, you can head straight to the headwaters. Dip your feet in the water, cross the rocks or logs over the river at it’s narrowest point, and celebrate the beginning of an amazing adventure. The headwaters also has a small interpretive center as well. I always love a good place to learn while out traveling, so make some time for it. Itasca State Park also features some neat hikes and historical features. If you can spare an extra day, take that time to explore all this great park has to offer visitors!

Frontenac State Park: For All the Bird Watchers

There are so many great options for campgrounds along the Mississippi River, that it’s hard to stay at them all in one long trip. Frontenac was one that we didn’t have time to make a stop at during our trip. However, if you’re just driving the Great River Road in Minnesota, then I highly suggest staying here for you trip.

View of Lake Pepin from the main overlook near one of the best campgrounds along the Mississippi River
The Main Overlook in the park offers amazing views of Lake Pepin. Image courtesy of Frontenac State Park.

Frontenac sits along the shore of Lake Pepin, which is one of the largest lakes along the Mississippi River. Because it’s situated on such a large body of water and is along the migration flyway, Frontenac attracts numerous different bird species each year. So many, in fact, that the park provides a handy bird checklist, which you can use to document the birds you see on your visit!

The Upper Bluffside Trail is a wonderful hike for fall camping along the Great River Road. Image courtesy of Frontenac State Park.

One very neat thing that I discovered when originally researching Frontenac, is that the entire campground is on Google Street View. Which means you can scout out your site in pretty great detail ahead of time! Almost all of the sites are nicely wooded with level gravel areas for your car, camper, or tent. It would make for fantastic fall Great River Road camping as you’d be surrounded by the wonderful colors. The campground is also connected to the Upper Bluffside Trail, where you can grab some spectacular views of Lake Pepin!

Great River Bluffs State Park: Best Mississippi Sunrise

Reaching Great River Bluffs State Park was an adventure in itself! You’ll leave the highway and travel to the top of a bluff overlooking the river via some winding gravel roads. However, you’ll be pleased to know that despite the rougher than usual roads, the campground features the same comforts as others on this list.

A hazy sunrise over the Mississippi River taken at Great River Bluffs State Park while camping along the Great River Road.
If you get better weather than me, hopefully you’ll have an amazing sunrise over the Mississippi River.

One of my main reasons for choosing this as one of our campgrounds on the Great River Road was the overlook trail. Leading away from the campground, the overlook trail is a relatively short hike. The trail was well marked, but very muddy on my visit. Yet, in the end it’ll be totally worth it! That’s because you’ll be treated to one of the best places to watch the sunrise over the Mississippi River. Unfortunately for me, I ran into a supremely hazy morning. That meant it wasn’t nearly as spectacular in photos as it was in reality.

I think that this is a great spot to make a stop when camping along the Great River Road thanks to the very remoteness of the park. It’s fairly easy to access, but enough out of the way to feel secluded. RVs or other campers will be limited as well making it perfect for tents or car camping. It’s also less likely to get crowded because beyond the great overlooks, the park doesn’t have any other impressive features. Put it all together and you’ll more likely than not find yourself among the few who make a stay at this hidden gem.

Wyalusing State Park: Camping Above the Wisconsin River

Wyalusing State Park was another victim of simply not being in the right place at the right time on our road trip. It was too far south to drive all the way from Little Falls in a day, but too far north to stay at the following night. Hopefully, you’ll have more time than I did to make the entire trip and can spend a night high above the Wisconsin River. Alternatively, you can make it a stop on your tour of the Great River Road in Wisconsin!

Picture of the Wisconsin River taken during the summer near one of the best campgrounds on the Great River Road
Summer is a gorgeous time for visiting Wyalusing State Park. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR.

Of the two campgrounds at Wyalusing, you’ll want to try and get a site in the Wisconsin Ridge campground. It features 20 sites (not all electric) which abut the bluff overlooking the Wisconsin River. This makes for a breathtaking campsite which may very well be the best camping along the Great River Road if you can grab one. This campground is also a short walk to Treasure Cave, an old limestone cavern which is inhabited by bats for part of the year!

The views from the bluffs are spectacular! Image courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR.

Wyalusing State Park’s main attractions may be on top of the bluffs, but you can enjoy the water as well. The park has canoe rentals and a marked canoe trail which can be followed in the adjacent Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. This can be a really fun way to spend a day exploring nature and taking a break from being on the road. It also means that this is a great stop for those paddling the Mississippi River instead of driving the Great River Road!

Miller Riverview Park: Camping Right on the River

When it came to finding campgrounds on the Great River Road, I was most shocked when I came across Miller Riverview Park. The park is on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. However, it also borders a casino and former dog track with a Hilton Garden Inn next door. You’ve got extremely quick access to the city amenities of Dubuque. Yet, you literally can’t camp any closer to the Mississippi River.

View of sunrise over the Mississippi River taken at Miller Riverview Park during a camping trip on the Great River Road
Just wake up with the sunrise over the river

Due to the heat wave, this ended up being the final park we camped at on our journey down the Great River Road. Despite the heat, I’m so glad we did stay here. I was able to get up early and catch a wonderful sunrise over the river. While I’m sure the park can get crowded during the year, it was barely half full when we arrived. That combo made it a great place to stay that I highly recommend to everyone.

You really can’t get closer at any of the other campgrounds along the Mississippi River

I will say that there are a couple items to consider when staying. The first is that almost everyone there was in an RV or camper of some sort. The park is intended for those using RVs, so we fit in by camping in the back of the Subaru but a tent might not feel as comfy. Miller Riverview Park does feature a bathhouse, but it was definitely not high quality. We were able to shower without any issue, but you’re not going to be cozy. Despite these two factors, I’d definitely camp here again on my next trip down the Great River Road in Iowa.

Mississippi Palisades State Park: Best Mississippi Sunset Camping

I’ll admit that I missed this state park when planning my vacation along the Mississippi River. Which is a shame, because I would have loved to seen a sunset over the Mississippi River from Mississippi Palisades State Park. It’s certainly one of the best campgrounds on the Great River Road. Illinois boasts one of the longest stretches of this amazing scenic byway, so you can make a whole trip out of that section and stay here at the same time!

The overlooks are the perfect place for watching sunset! Image courtesy of the Illinois DNR.

One of the highlights of staying here on your trip are the hiking trails. The park features a number of great wooded trails, many of which pass by or through interesting rock features. This makes it unique among the parks chosen for this like of campgrounds along the Mississippi River. Even if you aren’t interested in hiking, you can still catch a wonderful sunset over the river. The park’s overlooks are all situated facing west, providing accessible and clear views over the Mississippi.

The trails throughout the park are certainly a highlight! Image courtesy of the Illinois DNR.

The campground has a huge number of sites that you can reserve online well in advance. About half of these sites have access to electric, and all have easy access to showers and bathroom facilities. The campground also connects directly into the northern trail system of the park. These are the “easier” trails inside Mississippi Palisades State Park. They can be a great way to stretch your legs after a long day on the road and before settling in for the night!

Mark Twain Cave and Campground: Enjoy a Slice of History

Our final planned Great River Road camping spot was supposed to be this private campground. However, we couldn’t stand the heat and made a last minute decision to get a hotel in Illinois instead. Which is unfortunate, because it also meant we skipped out on exploring the Mark Twain Cave which is located on site. Just because we ultimately couldn’t stay here, doesn’t mean that you can’t though!

The owners of the site run a number of different tours which you’ll get a discount on by staying in the campground. This includes guided tours of Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave, an adventure (or spelunking) tour of Cameron Cave, and the Hannibal Tour Truck. If you’ll be spending a full day or more near Hannibal, MO while driving on the Great River Road in Missouri, then you should take advantage of these tours.

The campground itself is definitely more geared towards those who are camping with RVs or other campers. Every site has hookups and electric, which is great for everyone. However, the sites are very close together which means tent campers might feel like there isn’t much privacy. If you are using a tent, try to get one of the sites located along Fall Creek which will make sure no one is behind you while you’re camping.

Pere Marquette State Park: Welcome to Natural Illinois

While planning our trip down the Great River Road, we often had to choose which side of the river we would be driving down. Ultimately on our trip, we passed on staying at Pere Marquette because we added an extra night in St. Louis to see family. Which meant we also stayed on the Missouri side of the river after visiting Hannibal, MO and never stopped at this natural gem in Illinois.

Bikers can take advantage of nice paved trails in the park. Image courtesy of the Illinois DNR.

Pere Marquette is one of the last parks that features high overlooks of the landscape below. The first river you’ll see is actually the Illinois River. However, further in the distance on a clear day you’ll also be able to make out the Mississippi River as well. These two meet just a few miles down the road. The park also features its own scenic drive as well. If you’re travelling in the fall, it’s highly recommend to stay here and enjoy the vibrant fall colors.

Hiking along the rock formations is a great way to stretch your legs after a long day in the car. Image courtesy of the Illinois DNR.

The campground at Pere Marquette is fairly standard state park fare. You’ll have nice level gravel sites, with plenty of room to setup camp and move about. They have electric, but lack water hookups. For water, you’ll need to hit up the nearby bath house. However, if you’ve camped your whole way down the river, then you might be interested in the lodge on site. This impressive lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It remains one of the most impressive structures built by the CCC during the Great Depression, and is a wonderful place to spend a night while travelling the Great River Road.

Reelfoot Lake State Park: One of Tennessee’s Best Parks

Some late changes to the itinerary of our trip meant that I ultimately had to cut this park from our list of Great River Road campgrounds. However, now that I’ve moved to Tennessee, I definitely plan on making a trip out to the wildly interesting geological feature which also happens to be one of the state’s best parks. The lake was formed during the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes which famously caused the Mississippi River to flow “backwards”.

The state park features two separate campgrounds. The North “Airpark” campground is the one located closest to the Great River Road in Tennessee, State Highway 78. However, I’d recommend staying in the South Campground since it is the one with a few select campsites which backup to the lake and has far more sites available than the North Campground. All of the sites are level and paved, with easy access to one of the three bathhouses. There is even a laundry on site!

Reelfoot Lake really is one of the natural wonders along the Great River Road. Credit Anthony Heflin/Shutterstock.com

The lake is definitely one of the natural wonders of Tennessee. Golden and Bald Eagles are known to nest at sites all around the lake, making it the best place in the south to see these majestic birds. All across the lake, you’ll find huge cypress trees rising from the water. Reelfoot Lake is wonderful throughout the year, though if you happen to be driving the Great River Road in January or February, you’ll have the best shot to see eagles. However, throughout the year the park offers boat tours of the lake, so definitely check those out if you have time!

SPECIAL NOTE: The South Campground was announced to be closing for renovations on May 1st, 2024. The North Campground remains open. Reelfoot Lake State Park is also like many other Tennessee State Parks and offers a number of cabins for rental. There are also a number of other lodges around the park as well.

Lake Chicot State Park: Camping on an Oxbow Lake

There are a number of small state parks which are situated against the oxbow lakes of the lower Mississippi River. Lake Chicot happens to be the largest oxbow lake in North America, and largest natural lake in Arkansas. For camping along the Great River Road in either Arkansas, or Mississippi, then Lake Chicot State Park would be my recommendation.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some bald eagles on your trip to Lake Chicot! Image courtesy of Tourism Arkansas.

Like many of the large bodies of water just off of the Mississippi River, Lake Chicot is a great place for birds to make a rest stop during migration. Much like Fontenac in the North, Lake Chicot should be an ideal place for birders to stay while driving the Great River Road in Arkansas. As an added bonus though, it is also a fantastic location to see butterflies as well! There is even a handy butterfly checklist which you can use for spotting these beautiful creatures on your trip.

Spending time on the water is a must at Lake Chicot. Image courtesy of Tourism Arkansas.

The camping sites are spread across the park into smaller groupings. If you want to be nearest to the water, then try and get a spot in Group F. Many of these sites back up directly to the water, which I think is a big draw. They are also close to the boat dock as well, making it easy to setup camp and then potentially rent a boat, kayak, or paddleboard for some time on the water after your time on the road!

Lake Bruin State Park: Great For a Day on the Water

Lake Bruin State Park is the final location I’ll be including for my list of best camping along the Great River Road. Another oxbow lake park, which are extremely common in the Mississippi Delta region, Lake Bruin would be a fantastic place to camp on your trip. It’s an even better option if you’re only driving the Great River Road in Louisiana, since you can spend a couple days here.

Make sure you enjoy the scenic beauty of Lake Bruin.

Much like Lake Chicot, Reelfoot Lake, and Miller Riverview Park, it’s possible to camp right on the water at Lake Bruin. That would make for a pretty great way to do some Great River Road camping! Almost all of the sites at Lake Bruin are paved, and many feature a slightly raised wood or flat dirt pad for setting up your tent on. Many sites are shaded, but getting one on the water can get you under some of the beautiful cypress trees at the lake’s edge.

How could you not enjoy waking up like this on a spring morning!

I had considered Lake Bruin as one of our option for camping along the Great River Road as an alternative to staying in Vicksburg. This would be a great option if you’re planning to visit Vicksburg National Military Park on your trip; but want to keep your trip more focused on the natural aspects of your journey down the Great River Road. The park is also about half-way between Vicksburg and Natchez, so while you might not be camping in Mississippi, it’s the best campground for visiting these to cities on a Great River Road trip through Mississippi.

Why I Loved Camping Along the Great River Road

There is a sense of adventure that can only be found on a road trip. Even if you’re a pretty meticulous planner like I am, you never really know what to expect on the road each day. That’s one of the reasons why I loved camping along the Great River Road so much. It allowed me to join the adventure of the open road, with a journey down one of America’s greatest scenic byways.

In many ways, our adventures in Great River Road camping were an outgrowth of a previous trip. Camping along the Blue Ridge Parkway was our first real taste of this kind of trip. As epic as the Blue Ridge Parkway is, even combined with Skyline Drive, its just over 600 miles. The length of the Great River Road dwarfed that many times over. I learned a lot driving the Blue Ridge, and even more cruising past the mighty Mississippi River.

Even at the beginning of May, the trees hadn’t gotten their leaves back yet in Minnesota.

When I look back on our trip, the #1 thing I would change is when it happened. I wish we would have gone in the Fall. The weather could have been cooler, leaves changing colors, and more nights at campgrounds on the Great River Road. Every minute we spent camping, I felt ever more enjoyment of that trip. I loved camping on that road trip because it was a freeing experience. One that ended a bit too soon, but ultimately that’s how life is sometimes.

Final Thoughts on Great River Road Camping

By now you’ve probably already starting making plans for your Great River Road camping trip. The best part of that? You can break the trip into even smaller chunks! There is no need to complete the entire length in one go if you don’t have the time, money, or energy to do that. Ultimately, that means you have an opportunity to spend more time at each of these wonderful campgrounds on the Great River Road. There is plenty to explore at each of these stops; or even well beyond them! You’ve just got to find the adventure you’re looking for and get after it!

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