The Mississippi River is an international treasure, one that’s easy to take for granted. The Mississippi River has a subtle, understated beauty that doesn’t lend itself to boasting, which makes it the perfect natural treasure for the Midwest. While the Rockies may inspire people to climb great heights, the Mississippi River invites us to slow down, to relax and look closely at the world around us.
One thing that isn’t subtle about the Mississippi is its size: it’s one hell of a big river, one of the longest in the world. The Mississippi drains the world’s third largest watershed, collecting water from 31 US states and two Canadian provinces and carrying it to the Gulf of Mexico. Some 40% of all North American waterfowl, hundreds of species, use the Mississippi River valley as their primary migratory route. In spite of dramatic human-induced changes in river ecology in the past century, the Mississippi supports hundreds of species of birds and fish.
Humans have lived along the river for at least 11,000 years. The river is central to the culture of many Native American communities who lived nearby and remains so today for many of their descendants, from the Ojibwe and Dakota of Minnesota to the Houmas, Chitimachas, and Choctows in Louisiana.
Thousands of European immigrants migrated upriver to settle in communities along the river. Swedes founded Stockholm, Wisconsin; Dutch immigrants helped build Fulton, Illinois; French influences linger in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri; Cajuns adapted to life in the swamps and rural landscape of Louisiana. No matter where you go along the river valley, you’ll run into communities shaped at least in part by immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Along much of the Mississippi River, the descendants of enslaved Africans have left a remarkable cultural legacy that is strong in communities where you’d expect it, like in the Mississippi Delta, as well as unexpected places, like Keokuk, Iowa.
Travelers visiting the Mississippi River will find much to explore and appreciate: scenic beauty; wildlife spotting, especially for birds; boating and paddling; charming small towns; cultured big cities; historic sites that span the fascinating history of human habitation along the river; riverside dining; elegant accommodations and wilderness camping; easy strolls along the river and challenging hikes to the tops of bluffs; quiet roads for biking; and friendly people eager to talk to you about life along the river.
This guide focuses on communities along the Mississippi River and the Great River Road. For each community, you’ll find a description of how it began and what it’s like today, along with a few recommendations about things to do and see, especially if they relate to the river. As of May 2015, I have entries for all of the river communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, plus some in Illinois. I’ll keep adding new entries until I reach the end of the river at the Gulf of Mexico.
So what are you waiting for? Pack your hiking boots; fire up your Harley; put the kayak on your SUV; and let’s hit the road. The Mississippi Valley awaits you.
If you like the information on this site, please consider buying a Mississippi Valley Traveler Guide Book. They are available in print or as PDF downloads. You can also show your support by making a one-time contribution or by subscribing through Patreon. Every dollar you send makes it possible for me to continue sharing stories about America’s Greatest River!
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2015