Just One Road | Great River Road, Minnesota

Hanging with Paul and Babe

A massive river, a winding road and an oversized blue ox. If those three elements meet your criteria for a weekend wander, then you owe it to yourself to check out a chunk of the Great River Road—a historic, interconnected route that shadows the legendary Mississippi River, from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast. The GRR isn’t a single road as its name might suggest, but rather a squiggly collection of byways and roads patched together. The GRR spares you the packs of semis hurtling along the superslab and that soulless collection of big box retail stores, and rewards you with heaps of local color, flavor, and wildlife. Created in 1938 from a network of federal, state, and local roads, the River Road, or the “GRR”, is a ragtag collection of mostly sleepy two-laners that runs 2340 miles, most of them bearing a green-and-white sign showing a river steamboat inside a pilotwheel with the name of the state.

It isn’t all pretty, however. At times, it can seem like there are more smokestacks than pine trees along Old Man River, and only some sections of the Great River Road have been designated as National Scenic Byways. The bit we like is the 30-mile segment running from the Headwaters of Ole Miss south to Minnesota’s Bluff Country, framed by upland meadows, thick forests, and wildlife refuges along the way.

This first section of the River Road is also the actual starting point for the Mississippi, which begins humbly at 1475 feet above sea level at Itasca State Park, as a narrow stream. Walk across a path of smoothed-out stones at the river’s source, where Ole Miss begins its 2552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, then saddle up and follow the Wilderness Drive through the park’s interior to Clearwater County Road 2, through the town of Lake Itasca. As he flows north through virgin pine forests and lakes, Old Man River gradually widens, curving like a question mark into the middle of the state. Turn east onto Clearwater County Road 40 to Hubbard County 9, through Becida, and keep your eyes peeled: the GRR changes direction often and dallies in seemingly abandoned towns. At times, you’ll be going so slowly you’ll feel like you’re actually floating downstream. Turn north at 169th Ave, which then becomes Beltrami Co. Rd. 7, and follow it into Bemidji.

Bemidji, 100 miles south of the Canadian border, is where the mighty Mississippi meets its first true city. Pull over here and take in the jaw-dropping sight of two giant statues guarding the shores of Lake Bemidji: towering likenesses of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his faithful (and neutered) companion, Babe the Blue Ox. The adjacent building carries a bizarre collection of Bunyan’s bits—Paul’s humongous boxers, a titanic toothbrush, a hefty belt—and the Tourist Information Center nearby is open year-round, so duck in and brush up on your history. After all, you’re tagging along the Big Muddy.