When it comes to the Great River Road, it’s hard to know what exactly the “great” in the name describes.

There is, of course, the Mississippi. It is among the largest watersheds on Earth, right up there with the Amazon and the Nile, and stretches more than 2,300 miles. It passes through or borders 10 states, widening on its way from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. So, it’s hard to argue that the word defines anything more than the river.

But the road is pretty great, too.

The Great River Road — a designated route of interstates, state highways and county and city roads — hugs the Mississippi on its long route, passing through beautiful bucolic landscapes and river towns along the way. The idea for it was born in the 1930s, an early acknowledgment of the psychic pull the mighty Mississippi holds on the American public.

The stretch in Minnesota is part of a National Scenic Highway. It winds across the state from Itasca State Park to the Iowa border on a route that hits many iconic destinations, from Bemidji and Grand Rapids to Brainerd and Red Wing.

Like many Minnesotans, I’ve driven on the road without knowing it — until I saw its signature green-and-white sign of a steamboat inside a pilotwheel.

September seems like a good time to purposefully hit the road. It is, after all, “Drive the Great River Road Month.”

Another reason? The road will soon be lined with fall colors.

I suggest heading south in mid-October, driving the Hwy. 61 portion of the road. Stop at Frontenac State Park, the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, the historic downtown of Winona.

Then keep driving south until you arrive at Great River Bluffs State Park. Take a hike along the bluffs. From there, you can overlook the great river — and the great road that got you there.


Send your questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.