Minnesota Department of Transportation

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Minnesota Scenic Byways

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Great River Road National Scenic Byway

Minnesota’s Great River Road spans 565 miles of state and local roads. It features six unique destination areas that highlight the river landscapes as it evolves from headwaters to soaring bluffs. The Great River Road tells the river’s stories of place and people through 20 counties, 43 cities and three tribal communities.

MnDOT’s Great River Road program management seeks to preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River, to foster economic growth in the corridor and to develop the national, scenic and historic byway known as the Great River Road.

Since 1938 - ten states: one river

The concept of a parkway along the Mississippi River was conceived Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes in 1938 . The parkway was established under the leadership of the governors from the 10 river states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana).

This iconic parkway winds along through 10 states, following the river through quaint river towns, dense woods, majestic bluffs, big cities and rich farmland. It then flows through the vast delta to the Gulf of Mexico. Exploring the Great River Road is a journey that offers a taste of Mississippi River culture and history, natural beauty, outdoor recreation, musical tradition, regional cuisine and warm hospitality.

Since 1992 - Great River Road as part of the Minnesota Scenic Byway Program

The Great River Road, along Natchez Trace and Blue Ridge Parkway, inspired the creation of the National Scenic Byway Program.

"The scenic byways program was a grassroots initiative to protect the natural beauty and historic heritage of America's roads and highways,” the late Congressman James L. Oberstar said in April 2003, when he was a ranking member on U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “The program was created through the hard work, cooperation and support of local communities, states and the federal government, as well as conservation, recreation, transportation and tourism interests." "When Congress drafted the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991, I was able to insert language funding the first national scenic byways program. I am truly proud of the advancements made by the State of Minnesota since 1991 to improve its environmental research, and thereby enhance the scenic byways program."

Before ISTEA, Great River Road planning and construction was supported by FHWA categorical grants the 10 states would compete for, matched by state and local funds. Minnesota byways received more than $17 million through 173 National Scenic Byway Discretionary Grants between 1992 and 2012 to improve the byway experience and quality of life for Minnesota residents and businesses. Of these, Minnesota’s Great River Road received more than $6 million through 77 grants, leveraging state and local match funds.

Mississippi River Parkway Commission of Minnesota promotion, review and letters of support since 2012 has helped five Area Transportation Partnership organizations select projects receiving Transportation Alternative Program funds. These include 12 Great River Road community projects seeking $7.3 million matched with $12.9 million in local funds to improve byway traveler experiences.

Minnesota Great River Road

In Minnesota, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway is defined in state statute assigning responsibility to the Commissioner of Transportation to locate, construct, improve, maintain and acquire land to establish and maintain it to achieve the parkway setting originally envisioned.

MnDOT fulfills this responsibility through a statutory partnership with the Mississippi River Parkway Commission. It serves as one of five state agencies, along with House, Senate and citizen members. Technical assistance is provided by the National Park Service.

Corridor management

The 2016 Minnesota Great River Road Corridor Management Plan (PDF) describes the actions, responsibilities, procedures, controls, operational practices and over 90 strategies to help MnDOT, the Mississippi River Parkway Commission of Minnesota  and its partners provide and promote a superior byway travel experience. This plan aims to improve the quality of life locally while maintaining the archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic intrinsic resources supporting this National Scenic Byway.

Plan implementation celebrates the establishment of the Mississippi River Trail bicycle route, another cooperative effort lead by MnDOT and the Mississippi River Parkway Commission of Minnesota, as well as transit, air, rail and water modal travel options for river exploration.

Four initial implementation projects were identified to meet the most urgent needs and move toward accomplishment of the greatest number of CMP strategies. They are:

  • Wayshowing Signage: Complete - The entire Great River Road was re-signed in 2018 to address the 22 percent of signs that were missing and 32 percent that were not compliant with the Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices. As-built GPS data for each sign will be incorporated into MnDOT’s asset management systems to help assure and measure long-term system maintenance.
  • Plan Your Trip Interactive Mapping Tool (for travelers, attractions and Convention and Visitor Bureaus): Officially launched Sept. 1, 2018. For use before and during your Mississippi River exploration, the  interactive map helps navigate the Great River Road and Mississippi River (bicycle) Trail alignments, discover over 700 points of interest, find over 200 local food providers, and see where Tribal lands are along the river. Other Great River Road travel options include Amtrak train stations, excursion boat landings and airports. Beyond the river, alignment with Minnesota's 20 other state and national scenic byways offer more travel opportunities. Building from Plan Your Trip, six Mississippi River online travel guides framed by each of the unique regions of Minnesota's Great River Road offer a sampling of in-depth stories and river experiences:
  • Plan Your Project Interactive Mapping Tool (for byway and resource managers): In final development. The Plan Your Project app is intended to provide transportation officials with the context of Minnesota’s 565-mile Great River Road National Scenic Byway. This will help state and local road managers better serve Minnesota residents, businesses and global travelers by incorporating context information into transportation scoping, planning, design, construction and maintenance activities. Our online map tool is intended to harness the power of GIS technology and Great River Road corridor management plan data to provide an easy-to-use tool for smartphones, tablets and PCs. The tool will help users better understand the Great River Road and Mississippi River Trail alignments, provide opportunities to coordinate multi-modal travel, find byway attractions (context, access, signage and contact information), and alert them pending transportation projects.
  • Great River Road Ambassador Development: To be implemented next.  Educating potential Ambassadors, including Convention and Visitor Bureaus, attraction managers, elected officials, as well as transportation agency staff, about the unique characteristics and needs of byway tourists, parkway characteristics, and the economic benefits associated with the Great River Road, including training Ambassadors to use and promote the Plan Your Trip and Plan Your Project interactive maps.

The following five themes frame the CMP strategies:

  • Facilities Management: Assure safe travel through route signage, mapping, and traveler information. Maintain the byway as a seamless travel experience that honors the Mississippi River. Provide integrated multimodal travel options (air, rail, boat, vehicular, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian) so travelers can focus on enjoying the journey.
  • Technology: Use technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of byway management and measure the success. Enhance the visitor experience through web-based and mobile-based technology to promote travel experiences with easy-to-use travel information. Use social media to share river exploration insights from travelers and byway managers alike.
  • Education and Engagement: Educate byway facility managers, intrinsic resource managers, businesses and residents about the opportunities and benefits of leveraging the Great River Road as a tool to improve the state's and their community's livability and economy. Engage travelers locally and from all over the world to travel here for Mississippi River exploration.
  • Placemaking: Strengthen connections between the byway and the people and places that tell the story of the river. Protect, enhance, and promote the intrinsic resources available within and between communities. Develop itineraries that reflect the unique landscape and activities offered by the Mississippi River as it flows through Minnesota.
  • Health and Active Living: Promote active Mississippi River exploration that includes bicycling, walking, hiking, and boating. Promote healthy, local food options. Manage and promote the byway applying geotourism principles that simultaneously sustain place and advance tourism.

What do we know about Minnesota’s Great River Road traveler?

Great River Road visitor surevey results overview:

  • 73 percent of respondents were aware that they were traveling on the Great River Road.
  • Most respondents were traveling by car and 20 percent were traveling by bicycle.
  • 25 percent of respondents were over the age of 50; 27 percent were under 18.
  • 75 percent of respondents visited or plan to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
  • The top three activities in terms of enjoyment included touring by car, headwaters/Itasca State Park, and hiking.
  • 75 percent of respondents were visiting friends and family or were vacationing.
  • Many respondents would like to see more and better signs indicating they are on the Great River Road. Many listed getting lost as a least favorite activity or a need for improvement.
  • 95 percent of respondents definitely will or probably would plan to visit again.
  • Most travelers learned about the Great River Road from the website, existing local knowledge, friends/family, brochures, and wayshowing signs.