BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The month of September is Drive the Great River Road Month, but did you know that the national scenic byway is one of Minnesota’s most mesmerizing treasures?

A “scenic outdoor tapestry” is how the Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission describes it; and along the Great River Road, you’ll find urban centers, college towns, working river ports and iconic mill towns, along with a colorful collection of Minnesota communities.

But what makes the stretch of road so intriguing is that it follows the Mississippi River through the state, highlighting eight geographic and geologic river reaches -- each one with its own mystique.

Along the Great River Road, you’ll find urban centers, college towns, working river ports and iconic mill towns, a colorful collection of Minnesota communities. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Along the Great River Road, you’ll find urban centers, college towns, working river ports and iconic mill towns, a colorful collection of Minnesota communities. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“A drive on any of the eight is revealing, but a journey along all eight gives the traveler insight into the great river’s source before it plunges southward,” a release from the MMRPC said.

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The first stop on the Great River Road is Lake Itasca, where ancient pines and pristine lakes dominate the Mississippi Headwaters area. And by the time it reaches Brainerd, the Mississippi River has become the Prairie River.

Once in the Twin Cities, St. Anthony Falls -- the river’s only major waterfall -- tells the tale of its influence in drawing Native peoples, European explorers and American industrialists to the area. It also offers the Mississippi’s scenic gorge.

At the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota, two of the state’s great rivers, the Mississippi becomes the mighty river of classic lore. The Minnesota Mississippi River journey is completed in the scenic Bluffs and Driftless Area, where Locks and Dams three through eight lie and are listed on the National Register.

In all, the Mississippi River travels through 43 towns, 20 counties and three tribal nations as it makes its way to the Iowa border.

The first stop on the Great River Road is Lake Itasca, where ancient pines and pristine lakes dominate the headwaters area. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
The first stop on the Great River Road is Lake Itasca, where ancient pines and pristine lakes dominate the headwaters area. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“September is one of Minnesota’s prettiest months, when the dimming light of summer shows off the colors of the landscape. And, the car – or the bike or canoe – can be your safe passage to the vistas,” the release said.

In all, the Mississippi River travels through 43 towns, 20 counties and three tribes as it makes its way to the Iowa border. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
In all, the Mississippi River travels through 43 towns, 20 counties and three tribes as it makes its way to the Iowa border. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Interested in traveling along Minnesota’s Great River Road? These are its eight scenic reaches that shouldn’t be missed:

  • Lake Itasca: The journey of this world-renown river begins at Lake Itasca. But there is more here than the point where the Mississippi spills out. The lake lies within the 32,000-acre Itasca State Park, the second oldest state park in America.
  • Serpentine River: After percolating from Lake Itasca, the infant river follows a serpentine course to Brainerd, frequently twisting back on itself, leaving cut off lands and oxbows.
  • Headwaters Lakes and Reservoirs: The headwaters region includes thousands of lakes. The largest contribution to America’s first reservoir system. Created by the Corps of Engineers over 100 years ago, the reservoirs provide a wide range of scenic views.

  • Prairie River: From Brainerd to St. Anthony Falls, the Mississippi becomes the Prairie River, as it straightens out and islands replace oxbows. Here, the prairie runs up to the river’s banks, not bluffs.
  • St. Anthony Falls: No place anchors the Mississippi’s significance in the Twin Cities like St. Anthony Falls - the river’s only major waterfall. Its physical power gave rise to Minneapolis, but its scenic power has drawn nationally known artists since the 1800s and still attracts modern day painters and photographers.
  • The Gorge: Below the falls, the Mississippi drops into the 8.5-mile gorge, stepping down 110 feet through three locks and dams, running between bluffs one-quarter to one-third of a mile apart. Nowhere does the river fall so quickly over such a short distance.
  • The Big River: The Big River -- the river of Mark Twain -- begins at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. It is characterized by a broad valley and a wide floodplain, with many side channels, backwater lakes and wooded islands.
  • Driftless Area: Below Hastings, the Mississippi enters the Driftless Area, with its distinctive limestone bluffs. During the last ice age, glaciers bypassed the Driftless Area, creating a unique and nationally significant landscape.

Use the Plan Your Trip online mapping at www.mnmississippiriver.com for Great River Road route details and information on more than 700 things to see and do.