The Mississippi River Trail: It's All About Connections
Tourism benefits from the 3,000 mile system of bicycle-friendly roads and multi-use pathways along the Mississippi River.
By Teri Eastin
Coursing along America's second longest river, the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) winds its way from the headwaters near Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico connecting the wilds of Minnesota to the depths of the emerald green Gulf of Mexico. A 3,000 mile system of bicycle-friendly roads and multi-use pathways, the Mississippi River Trail is a "string of pearls" connecting ten states, the cities of Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and hundreds of smaller towns. The MRT is a unique way to experience the Mississippi River's natural wonders, transportation system, recreational facilities, and cultural heritage.
The experience begins in Lake Itasca State Park where an interconnected 20-mile system of paved biking trails give riders an unsurpassed experience through the pines and birch of Minnesota's North Woods. Traversing through smaller towns like Bemidji, riders have access to a number of services, bike-friendly accommodations, and support services as the trail transcends the less populated regions to the more vibrant urban areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Hundreds of miles of trails through the Twin Cities connect nearly a dozen city parks and natural areas and provide unlimited opportunities to explore the region.
Dropping southward beyond the Twin Cities to Lake Pepin, gigantic bluffs begin to dot the landscape and smaller historic towns offer a backward glance in time. On the Wisconsin side of the river the trail follows a state highway along dramatic bluffs and through distinctive small villages no more than a street or two wide. Beyond LaCrosse the Wisconsin MRT moves inland toward quaint and orderly farming country that makes Wisconsin the "Dairy Center of the Nation."
On the western side of the Mississippi, the MRT crosses from Minnesota into historic New Alban, Iowa. New Alban, and other small communities like it, dot the MRT in extreme northeastern Iowa as the road winds up and down rolling hills and wooded landscapes.
Stretching southward, the trail passes Effigy Mounds National Monument where, centuries ago, Native people created bluff top mounds in the shape of animals. Nowhere are the views as magnificent as in Dubuque County. Steeply rolling hills and long-settled farming country form the landscape as the trail carries the rider from one breathtaking summit to another. The city of Dubuque is a crowning point as the trail takes the rider through the historic downtown and along the riverfront.
When the MRT reaches the Quad Cities, it becomes part of RiverWay. Nearly 100 miles of trails connect natural areas with downtowns. The two states, Iowa and Illinois, are joined by a water taxi system. The RiverWay is know for its public art adornment and is embraced as a key part of the culture and revitalization of the waterfronts.
Through Illinois, some of the outstanding features include the Kornthal Church, circa 1860, located 2.7 miles beyond the town of Jonesboro. Built by Austrian immigrants, the interior is hand carved preserving Old World ambiance. At the village of Tamms, stop at the Old Depot, circa 1890, and spend some leisure time at Horseshoe Lake. Surrounded by cypress trees, Horseshoe is a traditional landing place for geese during the annual spring and fall migrations.
Cairo, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, began developing into a port city as early as 1818. Completely encircled by levees, Cairo is though to resemble Cairo, Egypt, hence its name. During the Civil War, General Grant headquartered here and many union generals and admirals planned, plotted, and executed the war on western waters. The U.S. Customs House (1872), the Queen Ann-style Safford Memorial Library, Magnolia Manner, an Italianate mansion (1869), and the lovely red stone Church of the Redeemer (1860) are great opportunities to relieve 19th century history.
The historical and cultural texture of life on the Mississippi is incredibly rich. As you travel through the 50 miles of MRT in Kentucky, perhaps a few ghosts from the past will capture your westward expansion imagination. Chickasaw Indian hunting grounds are part of the ancient landscape with lands formerly resplendent with deer, bear, fox, and fowl. Clear, cool streams brimming with fish helped feed the Native tribes. In the town of Wickliffe, the Wickliffe Mounds provide an opportunity to step back into a Mississippian Indian life that began as early as 800 A.D.
Tennessee's MRT is home to varied attractions beginning with Reelfoot Lake State Park formed during the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. For three days the mighty Mississippi flowed backward filling the cavern created by the quake. The trail makes it way through Henning, TN, home of Alex Haley, and southward to Memphis through forests and along bluffs.
In Memphis, folks say the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. Blues and barbecue can be found on almost every corner and no trip is complete without a stop on Beal Street where rhythm is king. Become part of the Delta cotton and rice growing culture while visiting Arkansas. Stop on Crowley's Ridge and rest in peaceful St. Francis National Forest where respite from the heat can be found under shady cypress and huge pines. Helena, with its Delta Cultural Center, and annual "Blues" festival is a must-do.
Pick up the Confederate charge as you cross into Mississippi and roll through the Delta toward Vicksburg. This delightful landscape tour begins in Greenville, and ends when the MRT crosses into Louisiana at Natchez. Along the way, you'll pass through Vicksburg, with its great battlefield park commemorating one of the Civil War turning points. The Delta farm country offers many reminders of the past Ð cotton gins, shotgun houses, and miles and miles of soybeans, cotton and other row crops. Veer off the trail to Highway 61 known as the "Blues Highway." In Clarksdale head to the Delta Blues Museum at the Freight Depot in "Blues Alley."
Below Vicksburg, pick up the Natchez Trace, a linear National Park commemorating the old overland passage to Port Gibson, deemed too pretty to burn, by General Grant. Louisiana, a land of contrasts, becomes part of the trail when you cross the Natchez Bridge. Control over water is key here with enormous levees holding back the sprawling river. Giant spillways Morganza, Old River and others punctuate the landscape as silent indicators of what the land is like in flood.
New Orleans is, of course, forever changed by Katrina, but building anew. Rich black coffee sipped from tiny china cups, mouthwatering tarts and pastries, and the undaunted French Quarter are alive and well. Like no other place in the world, the resilience of the Cajun spirit oozes from the rich black dirt beneath one's feet. Plantations, those jewels of antebellum era, offer bed and breakfast hospitality along the Great River Road. At last, the Gulf of Mexico! It is a friend, a foe, and an oasis of ocean both giving to and taking from the land and its inhabitants. The connections between these stunning resources create an unforgettable experience awash with the history of our heartland civilization.
Forever connections are made on the Mississippi River Trail. Because of the MRT, river towns have redeveloped their waterfronts with public spaces that residents and visitors from through the world can enjoy. Public trails designed for multi-use recreation and transportation tie these waterfront spaces together.
The Mississippi River forms the backbone of this 3,000-mile network of communities. Through a system of connecting trails, the MRT is linked to other towns near the River and to the rest of the nation via riverboats, railroads, airports, and automobiles.
MRT, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit membership organization. To join or make a tax deductible contribution, please go to www.mississippirivertrail.org/mrt-join.php. For more information, go to www.mississippirivertrail.org or call Terry Eastin, Executive Director at 479-236-0938.
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Updated January 17, 2012