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The Upper Mississippi Great River Road
Scenic Byway Guide, Part 1.

Great River Road
Upper Mississippi Great River Road

Overview of Upper Mississippi Great River Roads

The stretch of the Mississippi River north of Rock Island, Illinois is considered by many to be the most scenic drive along the Mississippi. One reason is that most of this portion of the Great River Road lies within the “Driftless Area” a unique geologic formation from the last glaciers to cover Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Northern Illinois. It is characterized by deeply carved river valleys, high bluffs, numerous rivers, creeks and springs, cave formations, and dramatic canyons. The bluffs that line the Upper Mississippi can reach as high as 600 feet above the river. (Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driftless_Area )

At Prescott, Wisconsin the St. Croix River (a National Wild & Scenic River) joins the Mississippi River and adds substantially to the volume of water flowing into the basin. At this point the Mississippi River itself turns east into Minnesota. It is also at this point where our scenic drive map follows the St. Croix River, following on the Minnesota side past Afton Alps, Stillwater Minnesota, and north to Taylor Falls and  the St. Croix Falls Interstate Park.

Actually the Great River Road is made up of several state Great River Roads. Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota each have their designated Great River Road Scenic Byways. Our itinerary crosses the river several times depending upon which side of the river we think offers the best scenic attractions.

Part 1 Great River Road – Rock Island to Fulton, Illinois

We start our Upper Mississippi Great River Road Scenic drive at Rock Island and the Quad Cities because the Upper Mississippi River Visitor Center is located there in the Corps of Engineers Locks and Dam #15 facility. Open seven days a week and on weekends they give guided tours of the lock and dam. Even without the tours, it is a worthwhile visit to see the museum/education area with multi-media exhibits. Also an observation deck to watch ships come through the locks. While you are in the Quad Cities, there are two other conveniently located attractions you should see. The Visitor Center is actually located on the grounds of the Rock Island Arsenal. If you are golfer, you might enjoy the Arsenal’s golf course, the oldest golf course in the Quad Cities area.  But the main attraction is the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, the Army’s second oldest museum, with a history of the establishment of the Arsenal on the island, the arms manufacturing process used at the Arsenal, and exhibits of over 1200 large and small arms collections.

John Deere Pavilion
When in the Quad Cities a visit to the John Deere Pavilion is a must.

As you are leaving Arsenal Island to the east, you can stop in another significant Quad Cities attraction: The John Deere Pavilion. After you cross the bridge over the river, turn right on River Drive and it is a block down the street. To learn more about these attractions, see our earlier article on the Mississippi Visitor Center and the John Deere Pavilion.

The operating windmill at Fulton, Illinois creates old fashioned stone ground grain for sale in the Mill store and museum

After leaving the John Deere Pavilion, head east and north on River Drive until it joins with State Highway 84 (The River Road), heading north towards the historic Dutch community of Fulton. You’ll have some nice views of the river along this route. As you arrive in the outskirts of Fulton, be sure to take the drive into the downtown area to see the famous De Immigrant Windmill and Museum. Fulton has a number of quaint shops and several nicely restored historical buildings. It is also on the Great River Bike Trail. We did an earlier article on Fulton and the Windmill on our QuiltingPathways website. Learn more about Fulton and its De Immigrant Windmill here.

RV users wanting to spend the night or a few days in the Fulton area should check out the Thomson Causeway Corps of Engineers Park. It is about 8 miles north of Fulton off highway 84. Thomson has 131 campsites, 120 with electric hookups. Wooded, nicely spaced sites. Paved roads and parking pads. Typical 5 star Corps quality. Popular for fishing, canoeing  and boating and a good place for families as it is far enough from town and busy highways that you can let the kids “off their leash.” Its also a good campground for biking as the Great River Bike Trail runs adjacent to the park.

See Part 2. Great River Road Travel > Savannah, Illinois to Dubuque, Iowa