When an Iowa conference aligned with my niece’s Louisiana graduation, I drove the Great River Road. I had 4.5 days to go from the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota, to the End of the Road in Venice, Lousiana. The result? The road trip of a lifetime.
Early May was a perfect time to drive the Great River Road. I’d like to explore the route again during the fall when the fall colors are rampant.
1. Saying Hel-Oh-Ho-Ho To Minnesota’s Jolly Green Giant
The Jolly Green Giant’s feet. He stands 55.5 feet tall atop an 8-foot high pedestal, perfect for selfies. He wears a 4-foot wide smile and size 78 shoes.
The Green Giant company began in the Minnesota River Valley, and the local radio station owner, Paul Hedberg, believed the giant should stand next to Interstate 90. Instead, he stands in Green Giant Statue Park.
2. Mourning The Day The Music Died In Clear Lake, Iowa
After a concert on February 2, 1959, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson joined pilot Roger Peterson in a small plane. The plane crashed only 6 miles from the Mason City airport. All onboard died.
Each year, the Surf Ballroom holds a memorial Winter Dance Party weekend. But the Surf is worth visiting at any time. Take a pilgrimage to the Buddy Holly Memorial Site. Look for Holly’s glasses perched on poles. A cluster of memorials is inside on private land. Please be respectful.
3. Experiencing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Legacy In Mason City
J.E.E. Markley chose Frank Lloyd Wright to design a bank and hotel in Mason City because Wright had designed his daughters’ school. The bank and hotel are now the Historic Park Inn Hotel, where you should stay. Wright’s acolytes continued designing homes in the Rock Crest-Rock Glen area.
4. Swinging In The Rain In Columbus Junction
Light rain was falling when I visited the beautiful Lovers Leap Bridge in Columbus Junction. The 262-foot bridge spans Lovers Leap Ravine 100 feet below.
5. Taming Snake Alley in Burlington
In one block, Snake Alley has five half-curves and two quarter-curves on a 21 percent grade. It’s open to one-way auto traffic between March and November. Large vehicles should not attempt the drive. Pedestrians and cyclists are welcome all year.
6. Imagining Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri
Hannibal is stuffed with Mark Twain-themed attractions. If you have little time, as I did, visit the Hannibal History Museum, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, and Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. Soak in the views from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse and at Riverview Park. The 465-acre park features trails and an excellent overlook. Grab a picnic lunch from Mississippi Marketplace first.
7. Exploring Ste. Geneviéve National Historical Park
At least 16 years before the Declaration of Independence, habitants settled in Ste. Geneviéve, named for Paris’s patron saint. They built their homes in French colonial styles, and many of the original homes remain.
8. Meeting Popeye in Chester, Illinois
Leaving St. Geneviéve, I crossed the river via the French Connection ferry to Modoc, Illinois, and picnicked at Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site, one of our Southern Illinois places to savor French history.
The Popeye cartoon strip creator E.C. Segar grew up in Chester. Start Chester’s Popeye & Friends Character Trail with Popeye at the Chester Welcome Center. You’ll find Olive Oyl, Wimpy, Bluto, and the rest in the city. Chester annually unveils a new character during September’s Popeye Picnic.
9. Walking On Freedom’s Southern Point In Cairo
The confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Fort Defiance State Park made Cairo (pronounced CARE-oh) a strategic point. The Corps of Discovery camped there for 6 days. During the Civil War, the Union built Fort Defiance at Cairo Point.
Pro Tip: The two rivers’ currents remain distinct for a mile past their joining. Climb the overlook tower for better views. The bridge on the park’s north crosses into Kentucky. The bridge on the west enters Missouri.
10. Moving And Shaking In New Madrid, Missouri
From December 1811 to March 1812, three earthquakes rocked New Madrid, pronounced MAD-rid. People felt the quakes in Quebec. Locally, the Mississippi River ran uphill for a time. A room in the New Madrid Historical Museum explains the quakes. Exhibits also discuss the Civil War Battle of Island No. 10. I bought a souvenir shot glass proclaiming, “It’s Our Fault!”
11. Walking 10 Feet Off Of Beale In Memphis, Tennessee
When I stopped at the visitors center in Memphis’s Tom Lee Park, the sun’s rays were kissing the river. Instead of heading to my hotel, I explored the park’s trails for 2 glorious hours.
Pro Tip: Look for the Tom Lee Memorial, a sculpture that shows Lee pulling one of 32 people from the river.
The next morning, I went to my dream destination, Memphis Music on Beale Street. Every format and every genre of music is for sale. Even the creaking wooden floors play music. Strange Cargo is down the street, stuffed with kitschy souvenirs. Also check out Blues City General Store.
All too soon, the road called me away. But first, I had to enjoy a malt at A. Schwab’s soda fountain.
12. Grooving on the Blues Highway in Mississippi
Mississippi Blues Trail markers dot Highway 61, the Blues Highway. Enjoy an overview of blues culture at the Gateway to the Blues Museum and Visitors Center in Tunica. The free visitors center is in the front with a paid museum behind.
Legend says bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for guitar skill. A large guitar sign marks the crossroads at Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale. After you visit the marker, eat at Abe’s B-B-Q across the street.
Some say the notorious crossroads was at Dockery Farms. The Dockerys’ plantation near Cleveland sold lumber, cotton, and other crops, but its lasting impact came from the blues musicians who lived there. Their fame and influence spread, and Dockery gained the title (PDF) “Birthplace of the Blues.”
13. Calling Baton Rouge
Louisiana has two capitol buildings. The original capitol looks like a fairy-tale Gothic castle. The current one is the nation’s tallest. Then-Governor Huey Long wanted to show that Louisiana was on the rise. The easy mile walk between them follows the Mississippi River.
The old capitol is now a political history museum and Long is one of its stars. At the time of his assassination, Long threatened President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s control of the Democratic Party. However, the castle’s stained glass and Gothic details outshine the politicians.
In 1935, Long was supervising the Legislature’s special session when Dr. Carl Weiss shot him in a corridor. Long’s bodyguards killed Weiss, but Long died two days later. Over 200,000 mourners attended Long’s funeral, and his body rests beneath his statute. The capitol displays assassination-related items in the corridor.
A pencil embedded in the Senate chamber’s ceiling is a remnant of a 1970 bombing.
Before you go, ride to the building’s observation deck for fantastic views.
Pro Tip: Eat a crawfish po’boy with boudin balls at Poor Boy Lloyd’s. Stay at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center and ask for a room facing the river. For more on Baton Rouge, read our weekend guide.
14. Coming To The End Of The Road
South of New Orleans, Highway 23’s 1.5-hour route looks like a lacy frog leg with a three-toed foot. The frog’s ankle is the End of the Road. Don’t expect to see expansive water views. The levees and the vegetation hide it. To see water, stop at Fort Jackson south of Buras. The Confederacy built it to protect New Orleans.
However, if you have time to fish, Plaquemines (pronounced PLAK-er-minz) Parish bills itself as the Catching Capital.
The highway ends at an inlet in Venice. To reach the End of the Road, turn right onto Jump Basin Road to Tide Water Road. Continue on Tide Water until the road runs out. A sign marks Louisiana’s Southernmost Point. What a journey!
Pro Tip: On your return, remain on Jump Basin until it becomes Levee Road. Eat mini crawfish pies and an oyster platter at the Black Velvet Oyster Bar & Grill in Buras. Stay at one of our five unique New Orleans hotels.