By Anne Lewis
The natural beauty of northern Minnesota is one of the region’s greatest assets. But it takes more than scenery to meet the criteria to be named a National Scenic Byway. That’s why the Great River Road — the network of highways beside the Mississippi River at the heart of the north woods — unequivocally qualifies.
Apropos the beauty of the region, northern Minnesota hosts five of the state’s eight National Scenic Byways. Beyond natural and scenic beauty, though, these picturesque travel ways must also possess characteristics of regional significance, including archeological, cultural, historic and recreational attributes to make the list. When you’re on it, you’ll see the Great River Road has them all.
The Great River Road, like the Mississippi River itself, starts in Itasca State Park and meanders through our region in its own way. The importance of the river to early community life both in Minnesota and throughout the nation dictated where towns grew. Today’s travel routes — interstate, state and county roads — appear to logically link culture and commerce centers. But the heart of our nation and our region once revolved around the great rivers. This collection of roads following the Mississippi — the Great River Road — links us back, allowing a deeper look at places and people.
The Great River Road lets you explore so much more than lakes and forests. National Scenic Byway signs and the iconic green paddle-wheel signs mark the way to not only scenic highlights but also the history and human interaction that integrated nature with life in days past and still does today. Recently added Mississippi River Trail (MRT) signs offer similar experiences for those who want to bike beside the river. All three signs mark the direction to uncovering the authentic, deeply rooted characteristics of our region.
Start with Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe students from the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School near where the Great River Road and Leech Lake Reservation intersect. The school’s students are taught and mentored to perform traditional dances and songs throughout the region, in addition to their regular studies.
If you’re on Hwy. 2 heading west from Cass Lake, you’ll come upon the unique and colorful Big Winnie Store in Bena, where the Great River Road meets the state highway. Listed on the National Register for Historic Places, the store almost startles passersby. The original owner wanted to build a store with an “Asian and Bavarian” look. As luck would have it, Frank Lloyd Wright used to visit Lake Winnibigoshish at that time, and it should surprise no one that he drew the sketches that formed the basis for the store’s design. The building itself has had a colorful history housing and feeding loggers and trappers, and later Civilian Conservation Corps members and even German prisoners of war. Today descendants of the original owner have painstakingly renovated the store with an adjoining campground and picnic area. They’re happy to share the building’s story if you stop by!
Also at that spot, you can take Minnesota Hwy. 84 south 7 miles to see one of the early significant engineering developments in the history of the Mississippi River, in the town aptly named Federal Dam. While it’s a little off the Great River Road, it’s a wonderful Mississippi River place with yet another story to tell.
Dating back to 1866, the first mission of the newly formed St. Paul office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to survey the Upper Mississippi River for flood and navigation purposes. The eventual plan — developed from the survey and the experience of a Nicollet Island tunnel collapsing — included building the first American reservoir ever on Lake Winnibigoshish. Eventually, a system of Mississippi River headwaters reservoirs — including Pokegama, Leech, Sandy, Cross and Gull — was built to maintain the 4-foot low-water channel between St. Paul and St. Louis and secure Mississippi River navigation for generations to come. It was an engineering innovation of large proportion in its day, and we have come to take the reservoir system’s form and function for granted — that is, until the spring thaw and occasional flooding occurs.
Returning to the Great River Road, and following it east and south along County Rds. 3 and 74, brings travelers to Schoolcraft State Park. Nestled among towering white pines, this rustic campsite beside the Mississippi River commemorates an individual who embodies America’s exploration era and was a chronicler of topography and culture. Henry Schoolcraft accompanied Michigan’s governor, Lewis Cass (yes, there was an era when state governors didn’t just govern, they went out and claimed new territory too), as he sought to find the source of the Mississippi River. Ten years after that initial exploration, it was Schoolcraft who found the source and gave it the name Itasca, combining two Latin words meaning “true” and “head.” But Schoolcraft was more than an explorer. His first marriage was to a member of an illustrious multicultural family with strong Ojibwe roots. His writings, including a congressionally commissioned study of Native Americans, are thought to have been the basis, in part, for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” linking Minnesota and all things Hiawatha for many years to come. Think Minnehaha Falls, Lake Hiawatha and the Longfellow neighborhood in Minneapolis.
Continuing on to County Rd. 76, we come to the Forest History Center, one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s 26 sites throughout the state. With its authentic reenactment of a 19th-century logging camp and its displays of current forestry practices and regional impact, the Forest History Center is a unique environmental history and learning center along the Mississippi River. It offers living history experiences, naturalist programs, wildlife encounters, artisan craft workshops, outdoor recreation, concerts and cultural festivals, children’s activities and more. A National Great River Road Interpretive Center too, the Forest History Center offers insights and engagement to people of all ages. Located in Grand Rapids, it’s in the heart of Minnesota’s nature and acts as an interpreter of the region’s and river’s resources and their impact on the area.
As one leaves the Forest History Center and travels along Hwy. 76 to the east, there’s a canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard retailer, Paddlehoppers, just over the river. Offering all forms of Mississippi River transport for rent as well as sale, this shop lets you call ahead to reserve the water conveyance of your choice and then gives you a ride to an upriver destination. Pick from a four-hour or eight-hour return trip for up-close-and-personal encounters with the Mississippi River. Be sure to hit Tioga Recreation Area with your mountain bike while you’re at it!
*Tip: The north has an incredible bike trail system that is a must, including the Paul Bunyan, Mesabi and Ride the Range trails. Fall is an amazing time to check it all out.
The Great River Road continues its riverbank concourse through pastures, some dirt roads, and several twists and turns on its way to Aitkin, Minnesota, whose tagline is “Mississippi Riverboat Town.” Explore the region’s history as well as the chronicles of how this Minnesota county experienced the major national shift from river to train transportation as a microcosm of the country’s experience. It’s all located in the Aitkin County Historical Society in the restored Great Northern Depot.
Taking state Hwy. 210 out of Aitkin through more agricultural countryside and woodlands, travelers will find themselves in the towns of Crosby and Ironton, home to one of the state’s most ambitious land reclamation endeavors, resulting in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Local residents worked with state officials for over 30 years to reclaim an overgrown mining area — renowned for its pristine waters, including the Mississippi River. Its hilly terrain has made for excellent biking and hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts of all abilities. Arriving just in time for the rise of “adventure tourism,” this Great River Road destination boasts rustic camping (winter as well as summer), biking, scuba diving, paddling and endless promontories from which to view Minnesota’s nature at its best. The recreation area not only boasts scenic beauty but also holds onto its rich history of “boom and bust” and gives visitors a story of resilience and innovation that is standing the test of time.
These are just a few of the stories and authentic adventures to be found on the National Scenic Byway, the Great River Road in northern Minnesota. It’s not a route for rushing through but rather — for those willing to take the time — a network of pathways to intrinsic and intriguing experiences to be savored.