Huckleberry Finn and Jim had their raft. Modern adventurers have their cars and the Great River Road.
Now in its 75th year, this national scenic byway follows the Mississippi for 2,069 miles and ten states.
Though delta culture has long captivated travelers, the Upper Mississippi River Valley of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois is especially rich for road-trippers. Rivaling the water views are such land gems as Native American effigy mounds, built some 1,300 years ago. The Driftless Area lies where the four states converge, its rugged terrain left untouched by glaciers that once covered most of North America.
The region’s winter trump card?
Up here, bald eagles cluster around the river’s locks and dams. At Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, Iowa, they skim over open water in search of prey. Park visitors climb the spiral staircase of the stone fortress for a panorama. Winter bald eagle watches held in small towns along the upper Mississippi showcase Midwest hospitality as well as ecological resilience.
In the 1960s, environmentalist Rachel Carson counted just 59 bald eagles along the river’s length. Last year, bird-watchers in Dubuque spotted 300 hanging around on a single day.
Insider’s Tip: Walk on a 92-foot map and watch otters and sturgeon at Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
This article, written by Jenna Schnuer, appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.