In the summer of 2012, we took a little road trip from the top to the bottom of America, using the Mississippi River as a rough route guide.
From the headwaters in Lake Itasca, MN to where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, LA (well, almost) - all 2000-odd miles (and a little bit more) of the 4th largest river in the world.
It was a lot of fun, and there were a lot of things squeezed into those 3 weeks that I'm bound to forget.. so in an effort to keep my memory fresh, I thought I'd make this.
Jump down the river using the nav on the left.
Each area has a bit of info displayed in a box which also lists some of my highlights from that area if you click on the icon. There are also a few photos from each location too, but there are plenty more on my flickr page. Don't forget to hide the info boxes if you want to admire my illustrative skills.
Can't be bothered to read or scroll? Skip to the end and watch a video instead. Much easier.
Unless you knew, you'd never really connect the Mississippi River with Lake Itasca. The small trickle of water that seeps out of the north of the lake is quite pretty, but certainly gives no indication as to the monster that it turns into.
We drove there from Fargo, ND (it's nothing like the film), and stayed at Douglas Lodge which is just the right combination of rustic & civilised. It's a short walk to the lake and a great place to explore the rest of the park from. Plenty of trees.
Basically the only reason to go. Wading across the Mississippi is a nice novelty and surprisingly warm.
Chester Charles II
A boat tour on the Lake up to the headwaters is a nice way to soak up the atmosphere and get a different view of things. Plenty of wildlife abound, and snacks on board.
En route to Duluth, we stopped in Bemidji to visit Paul Bunyan & Babe the Ox, & then in Grand Rapids for a bit. We also found out why Minnesota has 10,000 lakes, because the rain was ridiculous. Duluth actually suffered massive flooding a few hours before we arrived but thankfully, the worst we experienced were a couple of closed roads.
The Aerial Lift Bridge is easily the strangest bridge I've ever seen and the size of the ships that go under it from Lake Superior (it's effectively a sea) is crazy.
Paul Bunyan statue (Bemidji, MN)
There's nothing else there that we noticed, but it's a fun statue in a nice location. Definitely worth a short stop at.
Aquarium of the Lakes (Duluth, MN)
It's no Monterrey but the collection of animals that live in and around the local area is pretty cool.
Enger Park (Duluth, MN)
Or specifically, the tower in Enger Park. It's an amazing view over the whole city and into Lake Superior.
Being a big fan of all things Rhymesayers, Minneapolis was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting, and it didn't disappoint. Clean, friendly, interesting, just the right temperature, plenty of nearby greenery, good food, etc etc.. It's fairly compact, yet still feels like a proper city.
We opted to stay downtown at The Foshay and would happily stay there again. Ideal for getting around the city and the cocktail bar at the top is lush.
Every goes to pose with the spoon and cherry, but there's plenty of other pieces to walk around, with the city skyline providing a striking backdrop in the distance.
Took a ride on Lyndale Ave to get to this place for a breakfast browse and it was well worth the slightly tricky parking situation. Pastries ftw.
Go and hire one of the bike things and ride around the waterfall. Stop for ice cream.
I'm not a food critic by any means, but I know when I like something; and I liked the food at Saffron. Their sort of middle eastern meets mediterranean tapas was ideal for vegetarian grazing & the local beer selection was great to wash it down.
(^ all in Minneapolis, MN)
Wisconsin by the river is basically a series of tiny towns on single streets that leave you wondering who lives there; like Stockholm. Small, pretty, perfectly nice, but just a bit odd.
La Crosse is another seemingly sleepy riverside place, but its main street is lined with tonnes of bars that seem a bit incongruous in the daytime. They must cater for the students. It also had some sort of fly plague the day we were there, and piles of tiny black corpses were everywhere. Icky. I'm sure it's ordinarily a nice place though :)
Out hotel was right next to this park, which as the name suggests, is beside the river.
One of the most (genuinely) awesome views of the entire trip was over the 'driftless area' from the top of Grandad Bluff. Words can't express. Just sublime.
World's Biggest Six Pack
It's not an attraction per se (or even a proper 6 pack for that matter), but you can't go to La Crosse without stopping at it. BIGGEST IN THE WORLD.
(^ all in La Crosse, WI)
Following a quick detour to Effigy Mounds state park in Iowa, we popped back into Wisconsin on the Cassville car ferry - an odd experience involving a long drive down a dirt track to the river before pressing a big red button and waiting for 20 minutes wondering if there actually was a ferry at all. The Dickeyville Grotto was worth it though. Utterly mental.
We then entered Illinois to stay in Galena, famed for its floodgates and being the home of Ulysses S. Grant. Strolling down the main street is like walking back in time, complete with 50's styled ice cream parlours and cobbled streets. (Well, one cobbled street anyway). There's not much there, but it's blissful.
Dickeyville Grotto (Dickeyville, WI)
A huge manmade religious shrine which, made of bits of shells, glass and stones etc - which looks like it would really hurt to fall over on.
Mississippi Palisades State Park (IL)
Just south of Galena is this large area of riverside bluffs that give astounding views of the Mississippi as it flows between Illinois and Iowa. It really starts to get wide here.
Before continuing through Illinois, we hopped back into Iowa for the last time to get an ice cream at Lagomarcino's - a place pretty much unchanged since 1908. Old.
Across the river again, we made a pilgrimage to Oquawka to see the grave of Norma Jean - a circus elephant who was hit by lightening in 1972 and buried where she lay. I felt more spiritual there than I did at Nauvoo which is where we stayed the night. The temple is impressive, especially given that it just rises out of nowhere, but maybe you need to be a Latter Day Saint to really feel the significance. I think we were the only non believers in the entire town, so had to watch what we said for fear of being burnt at the stake.
Not too far from THE TEMPLE, over in Missouri, is Hannibal. Home of Mark Twain themed tat. I'm not a fan at all so that's all I'll say.
Lagomarcino's (Davenport, IA)
The sundae was amazing but, and I hate to say this because it was a great place to visit, the 'Lago' soda that was invented there was a tad disgusting. Stick to water.
Norma Jean's grave (Oquawka, IL)
The grave is pretty much in the middle of a residential area, near a swimming pool, and it's definitely odd that it even exists as a thing to visit, but elephants rock and it's rather sad and poignant to take a moment to honour the memory of Norma Jean. R.I.P.
Tom Sawyers white fence (Hannibal, MS)
Tom Sawyer never existed. He never convinced people to paint this fence for him. But don't let that stop you from picking up a brush and pretending to paint it too. I think the book is shit, but I still did it.
Did you know that St Louis is pronounced 'Lewis' not 'Loo-ey'? I didn't. No-one corrected me though so I sounded thick for longer than I'd like. Meh. Inconsistency with French origins aside, it's a great city.
Our first night coincided with the Whitaker Music Festival which was a great excuse to spend the evening in the Missouri Botanical Gardens being cultured. Following that up the next day with a sculpture park, a zoo and an art museum (all for free!) made this the most civilised stop on the trip by far.
The Arch was just around the corner from our hotel, so we went past it several times, and I think it's actually more impressive from the ground that from the top - but that could be due to my vertigo and claustrophobia going mental when we made the trip up in the tiny tiny tiny lift. (It's tiny).
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard (St Louis, MS)
Basically ice cream that doesn't come out when you tip it upside down. It's a gimmicky delight in 40°C+ temperatures.
Blueberry Hill (St Louis, MS)
A very cool diner in a nice little part of town - Chuck Berry wasn't there when we went but apparently he's somewhat of a regular. Wagyu beef sliders were gorgeous.
St Louis Zoo (St Louis, MS. Obviously)
Considering it's free, this is an absolutely great place to spend a morning. Easy to get around, lots of animals, nice enclosures, super stuff. Also, camels! :)
World's Largest Catsup Bottle (Collinsville, IL)
Ridiculous really, but there's no denying it's the biggest one I've ever seen.
Before heading back into Illinois proper, we visited Kaskaskia which is on the Missouri side of the river but is an IL town. Or, used to be a town. It's a ghost town now and if you get lucky enough to visit the Kaskaskia Bell State Memorial while the caretaker is there, you can hear all about its history. (Or look it up). Worth a detour.
Via a quick stop in Chester (home of Popeye), we ended up in Rim Rock's Dogwood Cabins in the forest for a couple of nights. It's a lush place to relax & do nothing but its selling point is the proximity to the Garden of The Gods - a range of rock formations surrounded by trees. See photos for more impressive visualisations ;)
Garden of The Gods
We went in the morning, and again at sunset - both times were good but the latter was stunning. Sitting on a rock formation 100 foot up, watching the twilight descend across miles of treetops all around was something I'll remember for a long time.
Cave-in Rock (IL)
Winner of the award for the most literally named attraction in Illinois. It's a cave. In some rock. Worth a visit on its own, but made more interesting because of the ferry from there to...
A small Amish community populated by Amish people with their Amish goods and whatnot. Shopping there was an odd experience, but they make amazing brownies.
I never thought that I'd ever take a detour to pose by a statue of Superman in Superman Square, Metropolis but I did. I also never thought I'd follow that up by posing next to a giant carved Indian head in Paducah but I did that too. So many firsts! Amazing. Another random thing that should've happened was seeing white squirrels in Kenton, TN but they proved to be frustratingly elusive. Still, the picnic among the trees that they allegedly live in was nice.
Moving down to Memphis, we checked into the Peabody Hotel and immediately got our first taste of the world famous Peabody ducks. (Not literally.) It's quite a show, even if it does get a tad repetitive after the 5th time ;)
Hanging out in the birthplace of rock n roll, you're almost obligated to visit Graceland. I actually gained a slight appreciation for Elvis after paying the extortionate entry fee, so it succeeded there. I still can't name more than a handful of Elvis songs though.
Beale Street is quite an experience in itself, but only really because it felt odd drinking on the streets in America. (I mean, it's no Union Street). It's also very loud - lots of conflicting music, and masses of people. I've made it sound a bit shit there, but I enjoyed it a lot.
Civil Rights Museum
Built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, it's a place that ought to be compulsory to visit.
There's a museum that has an astounding amount of information about the Lower Mississippi River Valley which is worth an hour or so, but the main draw is the scale replica of the river itself (30 inches to mile) that stretches 2000 feet alongside the actual river. It's rather impressive and goes a little way to demonstrating just how long it actually is.
The oldest restaurant in the city, in 'historic' downtown, has a bit of a past. If you believe a random woman in our hotel, it was Elvis' favourite place to eat, and it's been in one or two films too. I'd never heard of it though but I'm glad we popped in for lunch on our way out of the city.
Earlier in the trip, someone had said that "when you step out of the car in Clarksdale, you can just feel the blues". If by that, they meant that you feel like you're the only person alive in the whole city, then I agree. During the day, the streets were deserted and the place doesn't look like it's still inhabited. And yet, it has great options for food.. Quality restaurants on tumbleweed streets, surrounded by crumbling buildings. Very odd.
The music choices are of course, also plentiful. We ended up at Ground Zero Blues Club, mostly hoping to see Morgan Freeman, but content instead with a young band called the Stone Coats. They were good. We got our fix of music in Clarksdale. Everyone was happy.
We actually stayed just outside of town, at the Shack Up Inn and if you ever go to Clarksdale, you should too.
Shack Up Inn
Contemporary rustic shack chic is what I'd call it. We stayed in a renovated shotgun shack and I'll admit I felt a bit inappropriate getting the tourist experience of a sharecropper but there's no denying the uniqueness of a night there. Cold showers in a concrete box have never been so much fun.
If you're more of a fan of guitars than I am, this would be the place to sell your soul and get the ability to shred with the best of them. If only there were some sort of turntables version somewhere.
Stone Pony Pizza
We had normal sized pizzas but the table next to us ordered one that was literally about 5 foot in diameter. I din't see it on the menu but I want to go back so I can test myself. It looked amazing.
Deeper into Mississippi, before the antebellum haven of Natchez, we took a slight meander to the Windsor Ruins (vaguely near Port Gibson). By far the most bizarre place we stopped at on the whole trip - it's the remains of a burnt down Greek Revival mansion which is slowly being swallowed by the forest around it. It's really eerie as it emerges from the trees in front of you on the dirt track that leads towards it.
Natchez ups the ante with its plethora of grand plantation houses in considerably better condition. than Windsor. We actually stayed in one (Monmouth) and visited several others. The wealth is astounding, even if the methods for acquiring that money were despicable.
Oh, and the July 4th celebrations there weren't great to be honest.
Windsor Ruins (nr Port Gibson, MS)
Site of one of the scariest experiences of my life. It's in the middle of nowhere and quite creepy anyway, but when there was a massive cracking sound and the whole tree line shook about 10m away - well, I've never ran back to a car so fast ever. Still don't know what it was. Bear? Serial killer? Smoke monster? Who knows. Didn't stay long enough to find out.
Longwood Plantation (Natchez, MS)
This incomplete house would've been amazing had it been finished (damn that civil war malarky!), but even without the upper floors being habitable, it's not too shabby.
Rosewood Plantation (St. Francisville, LA)
As we entered Louisiana in a dash to Baton Rouge, we didn't have time to explore the house itself, but the grounds are mighty impressive. Lots of nooks and crannies, and little glimpses of the house through the spanish moss resulted in approximately 689 photos in an hour by me.
We didn't have much time in Baton Rouge, but made the effort to get out to the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center on the one afternoon we were there. Despite the fact that most of the swamp area had dried out, it was nice to wander around. We saw a water snake (the first snake I've EVER seen in the wild), an owl, and a giant grasshopper. That'll do me.
A brief walk along the riverfront was also nice, and the old/new state capitol buildings are worth a quick stop at.
Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center
It was dead when we went so we were lucky enough to have the visitor center to ourselves with a volunteer who was happy to introduce us to the animals. Edutainment.
State Capitol (the new one)
If only to go to the viewing platform at the top and soak up the impressive views.
It rained a lot in and around St Martinville which was worrying seeing as we were only really staying there to be near the Atchafalaya swamps for a wildlife tour. Luckily, by the time we got to where the boat was launched, the weather was ideal, so we went out on a 3 hour trip around the most confusing series of waterways you've ever seen. The scenery and the dozens of bird species were stunning but it was the alligators that we went to see, so were pleased to rack up about 10 sightings in the water.
It really is beautiful down there and if you get the chance, spend a bit of time getting lost (though, not actually lost) around the swamps. Blissful.
Specifically this one. Kim, the guide we had was a highlight in his own right, but the trip on a whole was great. It felt like the right way to enjoy the area and I'd love to go back (with a better camera zoom lens).
Breaux Bridge (LA)
A small town that I'll always remember for my first po' boy (at 'Le Cafe' - go for the shrimp, it was divine). We tried to get back there in the evening for some cajun music but the weather made it impossible to drive. Maybe next time.
Finally. The last stop on our trip. What can I say about New Orleans(?)
It's a bit surreal knowing it's an American city but not really. The French Quarter looks more Spanish than French. They love their voodoo. We didn't get mugged or feel unsafe at any point (other than when sitting at the end of a piano next to a guy who kept on toying with a large knife). It rained every afternoon, but only for a bit. Bourbon Street is dirty, rank, seedy and smells of shit (I'm no prude, but really, it's not a pleasant place). The music and bars on Frenchman Street were much better. Beignets at Cafe du Monde are worth falling into the tourist trap. Getting caught up in a second line is quite fun. Go out to eat, not to drink - the food is great, the drink is the same anywhere. Canal Street is huge, but there's nothing there worth seeing other than the Ignatius statue. Yeah, there's quite a lot of sketchy people, but they're outnumbered by the nice people, who are outnumbered by the tourists. Mardi Gras must be absolutely insane.
The last authentic steamboat on the river does its best to replicate the glory years and while we didn't sample the 3 course meal on board, we did enjoy the 2 hour trip up and down the river. Nice way to see New Oreleans from a different angle.
Mardi Gras World
A huge warehouse near the docks which plays home to every mardi gras float that ever existed. Ever. It's impressive.
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop
The oldest bar in America - this is where we encountered creepy knifeman - it's a world away from the other bars on Bourbon and once the frat boys drop away, is an atmospheric place to usher in the early hours.
All the touristy things
Cafe du Monde, the French market, voodoo tours, the cemetery, Snug Harbour (though we preferred The Spotted Cat), all that jazz.. It's famous for a reason. It's fun :)
We had hoped to continue down the river to Venice to complete the Mississippi trip properly but ran out of time on our car hire (also, it seemed like an awful long way to go). Still, covering 99% of the river wasn't too bad going. Plenty of places I'd like to have spent more time at and plenty of places we missed completely but 3 weeks was always going to be pushing it slightly. That said, it was never rushed. This always promised to be a grandiose epic and it certainly lived up to our expectations. You should do it if you get the chance.
I made a little video of the journey too which you might like to watch. Bonus points if you can keep count of the number of bridges.
Thanks for reading . Feel free to send me any questions or comments @mattnortham.