Wandering the Mighty Mississippi River

Highway System Invites RVers to Meander Along the Mississippi River.

Tackle a drive along the Great River Road, an ambitious trek that shadows the Mississippi River, and one thing is clear: Like the mighty river itself, your journey isn’t a straight shot, but a random amble — slow, impulsive and given to surprises.

Along the Mississippi the eagles appear from nowhere, a breathtaking ambush above a bare winter field south of Cassville, Wis., along a sleepy rural stretch of Highway 133. “What is THAT?” squawks my traveling partner.

There they hover, a thick cloud of 30 to 40 American bald eagles — with a few turkey vultures for good measure — swooping and diving through the river haze like starlings on steroids, not a stone’s throw from where we sit. All told, a stunning display of aerial acrobatics easily observed through the window of your own RV.

Winter may seem a peculiar time to venture to the Mississippi River, what with its liquid lure for warm weather recreating, from boating, camping and fishing to thrilling water sports.

John Deere pavillion MolineBut the Great River Road – an interstate network of highways that flanks and flirts with the Mississippi for 2,400 miles – allows modern explorers a chance to study the seasonal faces of a major American waterway that is both a scenic destination and a powerful, blue-collar workhorse.

For if the Mississippi River is indeed the nation’s central artery, the Great River Road offers capillaries that take us to it, simply by following road signs. And for self-sufficient RVers, biting off a chunk of the Great River Road in the off-season affords its own unique pleasures, while letting forward-thinking travelers scout sites we might want to return to when the river awakens each spring.

Bald eagles are definitely part of the winter attraction, spurring public eagle-watching events along the Upper Mississippi River from December through March and luring birding enthusiasts by the hundreds.

As many as 2,500 eagles have been known to winter along the river’s scenic banks and bare snags, especially around open water near the Upper Mississippi’s 29 locks and dams, from Minneapolis, Minn. to St. Louis, Mo. In fact, birding experts now claim the major concentration of American bald eagles in the continental United States now winter here, a remarkable environmental comeback.

The beauty of the Great River Road is that it can be tackled in easy chunks. Marked highways straddle either side of the river, and it’s easy to hopscotch from state to state. Just follow your impulses.

For our trek, we chose a three-day stretch, beginning just south of Wyalusing State Park in western Wisconsin — a famed eagle-watching site — and rambling south toward Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton, Ill., just upriver from St. Louis, Mo.

If the Lower Mississippi is known for picturesque river towns and bustling commerce, the Upper Mississippi boasts its own charms — the natural splendor of towering bluffs and forested campsites interspersed with historic attractions and museums, riverboat casinos and urban amusements.

Little wonder The Great River Road was named among the nation’s “Ten Best Scenic Drives” by the Society of American Travel Writers.

We start by peeking into Nelson Dewey State Park, nestled in a rustic, wooded setting atop rolling hills and staggering bluffs that overlook the nearby Mississippi. Here, narrow roadways lead to picnic shelters, hiking trails and forested campsites, including 17 with electrical hookups and a dump station. While not a luxury resort, the park offers a quiet, serene setting for those who truly want to get away from it all. Reservations may be made for sites May through October at (888) WIPARKS or www.ReserveAmerica.com.

Directly across from the park, visitors can explore the Stonefield State Historical Site, featuring a turn-of-the-century re-creation of a village and farmstead and a state agriculture museum.

Turn south and roll through Cassville, once a major steamboat center, toward the Grant River Recreation Area — part of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge. Here, you can learn more about the region’s rich natural diversity, including some 134 species of fish that inhabit local waterways, including Northern pike, walleye, large mouth bass and bluegill. Camping is available April through October among 73 sites. Reservations can be made by calling (877) 444-6777.

Stick to signs marking “The Great River Road” and you’ll amble through a series of colorful little towns, including Potosi-Tennyson (“The Catfish Capital”) and tiny Dickeyville, which boasts The Grotto, a strangely fascinating concrete garden adjacent to the Holy Ghost Catholic Church.

Created by a parish priest in the 1920s from 6,000 pounds of cement, this odd labor of love is elaborately adorned with bits of colored glass, rock, shell, minerals, petrified sea creatures and even Indian relics. Park on Main Street and stroll the curious, sparkling landscape.

But just down river in Dubuque, Iowa, lies another jewel: The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, where history, ecology and entertainment collide in one handy stop — with plenty of RV parking.

“We appreciate nomads,” confirmed an enthusiastic museum official.

Mississippi river boatLocated downtown at the Port of Dubuque, the museum offers an excellent education about America’s most powerful waterway. Youngsters find plenty of interactive exhibits — care to be a river pilot and guide a simulated barge? Tours and fun living- history exhibits bring the river to life for everyone.

Nearby, in Dubuque’s Ice Harbor, you’ll also find river rides — including sightseeing and dinner cruises — and the Diamond Jo casino, a riverboat featuring dock- side gaming action.

Drive south, and you realize that highways bearing The Great River Road logo don’t always hug the river. At times, the Mississippi taunts you, teases you — only a distant haze above the treetops.

Stick with it and you’ll roll through the heart of small-town America.

Grab a slice of pie at a hometown café. Poke into a Main Street antiques shop. This, too, is the face of the Mississippi.

Clinton, Iowa, offers larger shopping centers and an opportunity to stock up on supplies for the road. As with many nearby towns, the community hosts an annual January Eagle Watch, as well as eco-cruises on the Mississippi, a theater aboard a restored paddle wheeler and a 14-acre arboretum.

But to pick up the pace, move south on U.S. 67 toward the Quad Cities area, where the Iowa communities of Davenport and Bettendorf face the Illinois communities of Rock Island and Moline across the Mississippi River.

Here, you’ll find urban amusements and — let’s face it — traffic congestion. RVers may want to avoid a trek to the Rock Island Arsenal, an active U.S. Army installation located on a 946-acre island in the middle of the Mississippi.

Though the island offers many historic sites — and hosts the Mississippi River Visitor Center — reaching it required navigating a tangle of clogged roadways, only to find aggressive guards who demanded military identification. (There was also little room to turn your rig around and escape.) If you try it, be sure to use the Moline entrance.

Safer bets include the attractive John Deere Pavilion, which details the farm equipment company’s history with exhibits and displays, in downtown Moline, arts and antiques in downtown Davenport, or gaming at the Isle of Capri or Rhythm City casino riverboats along the Iowa waterfront.

Need a treat? Catch a memorable scoop at Whitey’s Ice Cream, Quad City’s finest locally made cones.

Switching to the Illinois side, we aimed south on U.S. 67 in search of Big River State Forest — 2,671 acres of dense piney woodlands that draw hikers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and equestrians. Though there is a dump station, no electricity is offered at Big River. Electric sites are available, however, at Delabar State Park, just 8 miles to the south.

Here, clean, well-kept campgrounds border the Mississippi, with graveled RV sites and playgrounds, boat ramp access and grills. Ice fishing is popular in the winter. For more information on both parks, call (309) 374-2496.

Winding through nearby Oquawka, we pick up the river trail en route to Burlington, Iowa — the very picture of an old-fashioned Mississippi River town. Just over the bridge off U.S. 34 is a bustling downtown and Port of Burlington Welcome Center, alongside the Catfish Bend Riverboat Casino, which docks there November through April.

History pulls us onward to Nauvoo, Ill., founded by Joseph Smith Jr., who also founded the Latter-Day Saints Movement, and impossibly quaint Hannibal, Mo., boyhood home of author Mark Twain and birthplace of “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown.

In addition to touring Twain’s home, visitors can ride a trolley; take riverboat cruises and tour nearby caves cut into spectacular shale and limestone bluffs.

Don’t forget to stop by one of the many lock and dam installations along the Mississippi. Catch a glimpse of human ingenuity and river power at its most impressive, while pausing for prime bird watching.

Stick with Illinois Highway 96 and jog to Highway 100 and you’ll find the Illinois River joins the majestic Mississippi at Pere Marquette State Park, five miles west of Grafton, Ill.

At 8,050 acres, this is Illinois’ largest state park, noted for its sublime fall color, scenic overlooks and winter bald eagle population. Campgrounds offer 80 RV sites, featuring electrical hookups, dump sites, water and shower amenities, available May through October.

Don't ForgetThe Illinois Department of Natural Resources hosts eagle-watching programs from late December through late February. Reservations are required, at (618) 786-3323.

And so we reach our chosen trail’s end, a stone’s throw from the most beautiful bluffs along the Mississippi, and nearly within sight of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. But that’s another story. As the Great River Road stretches onward, so does the river, tumbling inevitably toward the Gulf of Mexico.

We pause at sunset to watch the snowy white head of an eagle flash high over the Mississippi — a true winter icon. For a moment, his wings tip toward us, as if in parting salute.

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