Overview & History
The Mighty Mississippi is the centerpiece of the second largest watershed in the world, covering over 1.2 million square miles, and including tributary rivers from 33 states and two Canadian provinces. It begins as a tiny brook in Minnesota's northwoods, and 2,350 miles downstream empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of people each year use the Mississippi River for recreation, but the Mississippi is, and always has been a working river. An average of 175 million tons of freight are shipped each year on the Upper Mississippi. The 29 lock and dams on the Upper Mississippi make that shipping possible, allowing for navigation from St. Louis, Missouri, to Saint Paul, Minnesota, a total distance of 854 miles.
The Ojibway Indians of northern Minnesota called it "Messipi" or "Big River," and it was also known as the "Mee-zee-see-bee" or the "Father of Waters." European explorers who mapped all the river's channels and backwater areas called it a "gathering of waters." The Native Americans of different tribes who originally lived near the Mississippi and used it for canoe transportation, hunting and fishing often viewed the great river as the center of the universe.
The Mississippi river basin was formed by glaciers, moving and melting millions of years ago, which left in their wake sometimes miles-wide floodplains, that still fill up occasionally, covering towns, roads, farms, and everything else that might stand in the way of its mighty waters.
The Great River Road... The concept of a parkway along the Mississippi River was conceived in 1938 by the governors of the 10 river states (from N-S: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana). Franklin Roosevelt was president. First envisioned as a continuous byway, the economic realities of the time dictated differently. With no funding available to develop and sign one extended roadway from the headwaters to the Gulf, a series — or network — of existing roads were mapped to form what was to become today's Great River Road. Winding with the river through quaint river towns, dense woods, majestic bluffs, big cities, rich farmland and the vast delta, the Great River Road stops only in reverence to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. It's a land journey that offers a taste of culture and history, natural beauty, musical tradition, cuisine and hospitality. It's an experience that helps you to touch the deep roots of history and better understand the story that is still being written today.
Minnesota is the Mississippi Headwaters State and it offers the longest stretch of Great River Road than any other state — some 575 miles from Lake Itasca State Park to the Iowa border. As you navigate the Great River Road, look for signs with the green pilot's wheel logo with the steamboat in the center to help guide your way. You'll see both "National Route" and "State Alternate Route" signs along the byway. The National Route takes you on the officially designated Federal Highway Administration journey. The State Route is an alternate route along the opposite side of the river that will also take you to places of interest... sometimes a bit off the beaten path. Use the information and resources throughout this site to create a variety of experiences, throughout all seasons. Touch and be touched by the Mississippi — the gatherer of waters, the great story teller, the sustaining source of life and commerce.