Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

Minnesota Scenic Byways

flowers along a highway

Great River Road development study

The Great River Road development study (PDF 3 MB) was created in 2000 and the PDF format may not accessible to all assistive reader devices. If your reader is unable to access the document please contact Carol Zoff so that the report can be made available in an alternative format. The executive summary is also shown below so everyone can preview contents of the report.

Executive summary

The following report discusses the ability of the Great River Road to support tourism in Minnesota. The analysis is premised on the concept that the tourist will be the final arbiter, the person who ultimately decides if the Great River Road program has been successful or not. Of course this is merely an analytical approach. In reality, it will be the individual communities that will decide if they want tourism as an industry. They will determine if tourism enhances their quality of life and if they want to promote it. They will determine whom to attract, when they want them to visit, and how many tourists should be invited into their community.

It is not the purpose of this study to tell communities that they should increase tourism. The basic assumption of this study was that communities had already determined that the Great River Road was valuable and that one of its primary purposes was to generate tourism and income from tourists. Indeed, the value and purpose of the Great River Road was established over twenty years ago in a series of public discussions between the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the communities along the Mississippi River. It was not the intent of this study to revisit that discussion but rather to evaluate if the Great River Road program was achieving its goal of promoting tourism.

Report contents

An overview of the purpose of the Great River Road and its guiding concepts are outlined in Section 2: Program History. The history of the program, particularly, how the administration of the Great River Road has effected the selection and development of the route and the promotion of tourism is discussed in this section. The reasons for the study, how it was structured, and what were its goals are discussed in Section 3: Project Purpose.

The study was ambitious. Although it focused on approximately 575 miles of roadway that meandered between Ontario and Iowa, the complete 1200 miles of Great River Road in Minnesota was within its purview. Due to financial considerations, the Minnesota Department of Transportation requested that the primary focus be on three major segments: the National Route from Lake Itasca to Point Douglas near Hastings; the State Route downstream from Hastings to the border with Iowa; and the East Canadian Extension from Bemidji to International Falls.

Those resources that contribute to the experience a tourist has while traveling on the three selected segments of the Great River Road were inventoried and analyzed. Resources found on the parallel State Route from Lake Itasca to Hastings, the West Canadian Extension from Lake Itasca to Manitoba, and all designated spurs were typically not inventoried and analyzed as part of this project unless they were thought to contribute significantly to the experience of the tourist.

Four categories of resources were inventoried: recreational resources, cultural resources, river resources, and transportation resources. The inventory of recreational resources included 1,225 parks, forests, wildlife refuges, campgrounds, picnic areas, interpretive markers, museums, golf courses, and festivals. The inventory of cultural resources included 1,648 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. The inventory of river resources included 179 beaches, fishing piers, water access sites, and dams. The inventory of transportation resources included 3,224 segments of roadway, rest areas, trails, trail heads, and tourist regions. All in all, over 6,000 separate resources were inventoried as part of the project. Over 200,000 attributes or pieces of information were collected about these resources. This information was stored in a Geographic Information System and transferred to Mn/DOT to be used by future stewards of the Great River Road. A synopsis of the resource inventory is presented in Section 4: Resource Summary.

The fifth section of the report discusses the tourist. It reports on an extensive survey of 555 people who visited the Great River Road in the summer and fall of 1998. The survey reveals several interesting facts about typical Great River Road travelers and their preferences. For instance, it was discovered that tourists like to take short three-day vacations, two-hour pleasure drives, and over half don’t like to have their view of the river interrupted for more than one-half hour at a time while they travel on the Great River Road. The results of the survey are reported in the first part of Section 5: The Tourist. Understanding the image that tourists have of the Mississippi River and Great River Road and how brand identity is created and promoted is essential for positioning the corridor as a desirable destination. Concepts for ingraining a desirable image into the minds of tourists are offered in Section 5: The Tourist. An analysis of the survey revealed that the market was segmented by tourist motivations and travel styles. Seven different motivations were defined including guests, loungers, players, explorers, spectators, pilgrims, and accumulators. Guests were people who were visiting friends and family. Loungers were people seeking relaxation. Players sought adventure. Explorers were attempting to expand their knowledge or skills. Spectators were seeking to be entertained. Pilgrims desired experiences that would change their perception of life and its meaning. Accumulators wanted to purchase goods or services.

Four different travel styles were defined based by how people structured their trip. People either were Group-Structured, Self-Structured, Unstructured, or a combination of Group and Self-Structured called Semi-Structured. The complete discussion of tourist motivations and travel styles also occurs in Section 5: The Tourist.

Section 5 concludes with a discussion of Tourism Implications. As a result of the analysis of tourists, six implications for tourism are addressed. These six implications are:

  • Shorten the route. Make the Great River Road more comprehensible to tourists. Focus development and promotional efforts on the National Route from Lake Itasca to Hastings and the State Route downstream from Hastings.
  • Focus on destination areas. Recognize that most tourists spend only three days at a time on vacation. Create short “natural” destination areas based on geography and history. Use the term “Mississippi” in the name of each destination area.
  • Encourage local control. Encourage the development of local stewardship organizations for each destination area. These local stewardship organizations should be composed of stakeholders from local, state, and federal agencies and organizations. Encourage stakeholders to develop local Great River Road management plans for their destination area. Give control of promoting the road to the stewardship organization. Initially, assist local destination marketing organizations in promoting the Great River Road.
  • Match tourist motivations and travel styles with specific destinations. Recognize that different destination areas will attract different types of tourists. Recognize who is attracted to a destination area’s natural and cultural attractions. Recognize that travel styles must also be accommodated if tourists are going to visit the places they would like to visit. Concentrate initial capital improvements and promotional strategies on serving the target market.
  • Improve route wayfinding. Assist the tourist in comprehending the Great River Road. Improve route designation markers. Improve the graphic quality of the route markers. Add distinctive mileage markers starting with Mile Zero at the Headwaters.
  • Increase connections with the Mississippi River. The focus should be on the river, not the road. The road is a conduit for people to enjoy the natural and cultural attractions associated with the river. The local stewardship organization should develop plans for capital improvement and promotional projects and programs that would draw people to the river.

Section 6: Marketing Strategies presents the concept that there are certain types of trips that are better supported in particular locations. It implies that the all of the Great River Road can’t be all things to all people. Using four criteria, it suggests that it is more useful to segment the Great River Road into seven destination areas. The four criteria are:

  • The destination area must be oriented to the Mississippi River
  • The destination area must be defined by either natural or cultural history
  • The destination area must be locally supported
  • The destination area must incorporate a practical marketing strategy

The seven destination areas created are:

  • Mississippi Headwaters (Lake Itasca to Bemidji)
  • Mississippi Northwoods (Bemidji to Grand Rapids)
  • Mississippi Mines (Grand Rapids to Brainerd)
  • Mississippi Crossroads (Brainerd to Little Falls)
  • Mississippi State Scenic River (Little Falls to Anoka)
  • Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Anoka to Hastings)
  • Mississippi Bluffs (Hastings to Iowa Border)

Brief narratives of each destination area are presented in Section 6:Marketing Strategies. The section concludes by suggesting that some portions of some destination areas deserve to be more thoroughly studied as examples that could be used by other destination areas to enhance tourism on the Great River Road. These examples became the Demonstration Areas discussed in Section 7: Demonstration Areas. Four demonstration areas were selected for further analysis:

  • Mississippi Headwaters (Lake Itasca to Bemidji)
  • Mississippi Crossroads (Brainerd to Little Falls)
  • Mississippi Gorge (Minneapolis to St. Paul)
  • Mississippi Bluffs (Red Wing to Winona)

A discussion of the resources that constitute the demonstration area, what type of tourists find it attractive, what capital improvements are necessary to enhance tourism, and what marketing strategies would be effective for promoting the area are discussed for each of the four areas.

The concluding section discusses how the ideas presented in the previous sections could be implemented. Recognizing that many agencies and organizations have a vested interest in the Mississippi River, the Great River Road, community development, and tourism, the study concludes by suggesting that two Stewardship Organizations be formed. The first is one for each destination area. These would be locally controlled and reflect the interests and values of the community. It is suggested that these local Destination Area Stewardship Organizations could be developed from existing Destination Marketing Organizations supplemented by other stakeholders. It would be important that the local organization reflect both private and public sectors and their respective interests.

The second Stewardship Organization would be a state-level group. It was suggested that this group also reflect both private and public interests and be given sufficient human and capital resources to be effective in developing and promoting the Great River Road. It was suggested that transforming Minnesota’s Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC) may be an effective instrument for generating support for the Great River Road program. In particular it was suggested that the MRPC be reconstituted and renamed the Mississippi River Heritage Byway Commission of Minnesota. It is suggested that the when legislation reauthorizing the MRPC is presented at an upcoming legislative session, that the MRPC be reconstituted and given the authority and resources to implement this plan.

In particular, it is recommended that the Commissioners (or a high ranking agency staff member) of Economic Development, Transportation, Natural Resources, and the Director the Historical Society be made the core of the commission and charged with implementing the recommendations of this report and providing assistance to communities seeking to develop tourism along the Mississippi River and the Great River Road. It is recommended that a local representative involved in tourism development from each of the destination areas be placed on the board by the Governor and confirmed by the State Legislature to better foster local stewardship of the Mississippi Heritage Byway. To ensure legislative involvement, it is recommended that the commission also include four at-large members from the state legislature with constituency on the river, two from the House and two from the Senate.

It was also suggested that it maybe useful for the MRPC to attain status as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit or public-benefit corporation to enable it to attain grants from foundations and donations from concerned individuals.

Study conclusions, marketing recommendations

In conclusion, the report makes seven major recommendations involving the marketing of the Great River Road. The seven marketing recommendations are:

  • Use tourism to generate economic and social benefits. Coordinate the development and promotion with the for-profit private sector of the economy. The Great River Road program has been the domain of public agencies for over sixty years. It has not been seen as particularly beneficial to private sector interests. The public agencies that currently administer the Great River Road program must involve the private sector if the program is to enhance tourism and provide meaningful economic and quality of life benefits to local communities.
  • Focus on the river and the tourist. The river is the most important resource. It is the resource that has the best name recognition. Tourists are the reason that the road exists. They are the customer. Their needs must be anticipated and fulfilled. The river and the tourist create a system, the road is merely the tool that brings them together.
  • Divide the route into destination areas. The Great River Road is too big for today’s tourist to appreciate. Give it to them in bite-size chunks based on how
    contemporary tourists travel. Divide the road up based on natural and cultural history and the ability to provide sufficient attractions and services for tourists.
  • Identify and pursue target markets by destination area. Realize that tourists have different motivations and travel styles. Matching the motivations and travel styles of tourists to those destinations that naturally support their desires is the most practical way to develop and promote tourism.
  • Develop local and state stewardship organizations. Reorganize how the Great River Road program is administered. Initiate more local control. It is imperative that local stewardship organizations identify the visitors they want to attract and how they will accommodate them. The need to develop and promote attractions and services should be initiated by local people familiar with the needs and aspirations of their communities. The state stewardship organization should be designed to be responsive. It should have sufficient clout and resources to support local initiatives.
  • Create a coherent and appealing identity. Recognize that the Mississippi River, not the Great River Road, is the primary attraction. Emphasize the river in order to tie all destination areas together. Use the word “Mississippi” in naming each destination area. Encourage changing the name of the Great River Road to the Mississippi River Heritage Byway. Create an overarching Mississippi River Destination Area. Emphasize Minnesota as “The Mississippi Headwaters State” by emphasizing that Lake Itasca is a unique world-class destination. Assist the tourist in comprehending the Great River Road by improving route designation markers and adding mile markers.
  • Shorten the route. Make the Great River Road more comprehensible to tourists. Focus development and promotional efforts only the National Route from Lake Itasca to Hastings and the State Route downstream from Hastings.

Capital improvements

The report concludes with suggestions for five capital improvement programs. The five programs are:

  • Pave all remaining unpaved segments. Unpaved segments in the Mississippi Headwaters and Mississippi Mines destination areas degrade the whole system. It is imperative that the expectations of a tourist are met along the whole designated route. Tourists are increasingly sophisticated and familiar with other national byways that are typically well-maintained and paved. Unpaved roads are not viewed favorably by most tourists, except for certain types of explorers. Touring bicyclists especially dislike unpaved roadways. Approximately 25 miles of the 575 mile Great River Road is not paved. Paving the remaining unpaved segments should be a primary goal of the MRPC and the two affected destination areas.
  • Create a system of unique mileage markers. A mileage marker system unique to the Great River Road would assist the tourist in staying on the route. This is especially important since the fear of becoming lost is one of the major reasons tourists avoid a particular destination. Currently, it is very difficult to follow the route, even with a map and knowledge of where the road goes. A mileage marker system coupled with improved directional signing at intersections would greatly decrease any foreboding a tourist may have toward traveling on the Great River Road. A system of unique mileage markers would also make it possible for local attractions and services to advertise their location as being on Mile “x” of the Great River Road. Not only would this be useful to the merchant it simultaneously increases the visibility of the Great River Road to residents and visitors. The value of the markers would make it possible for private interests in each destination area to create guidebooks based on the markers.
  • Create a system of gateway kiosks in the anchors of each destination area. Design and construct a unique Great River Road Gateway Kiosk in each anchor community. Kiosks should be built, preferably at a travel information center or other major attraction for tourists on the river in Itasca State Park, Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Brainerd, Little Falls, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Red Wing, and Winona. The exact location should be determined by the local stewardship organization. Adding kiosks in other communities may be included as determined by the local stewardship organization. The kiosks would be designed to provide information on public attractions along the Great River Road. It would also incorporate information important to tourists such as advertisements for lodging, restaurants, recreation, entertainment, and travel services provided by the for-profit private sector. Interpretive information about the natural history of the Mississippi River Valley and the cultural heritage of the river communities would also be included. The kiosk, as part of a general marketing strategy, would be the hub where several radiating trips to various attractions and services scattered throughout the destination area would be promoted. By using a hub and spoke strategy, not all attractions would need to be on the Great River Road, merely accessible from the hub. This will allow the route of the Great River Road to simplified into a spine that will connect the anchor communities and specifically, the anchor kiosks. The anchor kiosks will act as gateways to visiting the whole community.
  • Complete the bicycle and pedestrian trail parallel to the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Iowa border. It is unlikely that many tourists would bicycle or hike the whole route in one trip from Lake Itasca to the Iowa border. In this, they are like their motorized brethren. Nonetheless, bicyclists and pedestrians are requesting improved facilities throughout the Mississippi River corridor. Many improvements have been completed. If these improvements could be linked, a complete system of trails paralleling the river and linking various attractions and services could be created. Twenty years ago, it was envisioned that the Great River Road would provide such an opportunity. Much of the system was paved with four foot shoulders which was considered adequate for bicycling at the time. Unfortunately, as a modern bicycle facility, a four foot shoulder is not considered sufficient. Recently, an organization called the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) has promoted the concept of creating a national trail along the river. MRT has received federal support for its effort. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has also supported the development of several trails, particularly with the National Park Service (NPS) in the Twin Cities. It is recommended that the MRPC, the local stewardship organizations, MRT, DNR, NPS, and other agencies and organizations work together to complete the system. Typically, this could be accomplished by paving the shoulder of the Great River Road or creating an off-road trail where traffic volumes make it unsafe to pedal on the highway. It is recommended that the state-aid standard 8-foot shoulder not be applied if traffic volumes are low and paving an 8-foot shoulder would adversely impact visual quality or some other environmental or social value.
  • Assist local communities in developing their riverfronts. The Mississippi River and the communities that grew along its banks are major attractions to a tourist. Redeveloping the riverfront provides a way for a community to conserve and share with tourists its natural and cultural heritage. The authenticity and charm of old buildings, the commercial activity found in the river and the riverbanks, and the inspiring natural landscape provide value to residents and tourists. By improving access to the river, renovating buildings, creating scenic overlooks, and developing riverfront recreational facilities, a community naturally promotes travel to the Mississippi River, the Great River Road, and every other river community throughout Minnesota.

Economic implications

The Great River Road currently underperforms statewide averages for tourist spending. The median Great River Road party of 2.5 people only spent $6.00 per day on nonessential shopping or $2.40 per person per day. The opportunity for Great River Road tourists to contribute to local economies has not been realized. This outcome is not unexpected. Traditionally, only free public resources associated with Great River Road have been promoted. By partnering with the for-profit private sector in local destination areas, the amount of money spent by tourists on consumer articles could also be increased substantially.

In 1998, TravelScope, a national survey of tourist spending behavior, concluded that a tourist would spend approximately $32.00 per day in Minnesota. A 1998 Minnesota Office of Tourism Study concluded that residents spend approximately $43.00 as tourists and non-residents each spend approximately $50.00. With 2.5 people per traveling party, the Great River Road should be generating at least $80.00 per party per day for food, lodging, vehicular expenses, and shopping. It is not.

According to the survey (Question 68) conducted by Gartner Consulting, the median party was spending $69.00 per day for these essential travel items. At a minimum, average expenditures for essentials could be increased by over 16% with proper promotion.

If more was done to target out-of- state visitors, especially those in upper income brackets who may be attracted to Minnesota's reputation for pristine wilderness and clean cities, it may be possible to enhance this percentage increase dramatically. Similar efforts by other Minnesota Destination Areas in northern Minnesota, have increased the spending of the average tourist to approximately $53.00 per day. This would translate into $132.50 for each party traveling on the Great River Road—a fantastic 92% growth over current levels. Such an increase in economic activity would be substantial.


By implementing these recommendations and improving the administration of the Great River Road Program, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will be able to complete what it set out to do with this study: Create a Great River Road that enlivens communities and excites tourists.