The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River as it winds through the heart of America. From its beginning in northern Minnesota to the delta in New Orleans, travelers have been following the river for centuries. Now it’s your turn to enjoy a pet-friendly road trip through the cities and small towns, breathtaking landscapes, and historic sites along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.
It’s always best to start a journey at the beginning, so the first stop on this pet-friendly road trip is at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
Established in 1891, Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest state park and protects over 32,000 acres, including more than 100 lakes. Most importantly, this is where you and your pet can walk across the mighty Mississippi River. (Don’t forget to snap a pic!)
The park also offers 45 miles of pet-friendly trails, and Wilderness Drive, a 10-mile loop that circles the park and passes scenic views and historic sites. With opportunities to paddle, peddle, hike, and splash, Itasca is a great place to tire out your furry travel buddy before taking off on you adventure.
If you’re having too much fun to hurry on your way, Itasca has two pet-friendly campgrounds for tents and RVs.
READ MORE ⇒ Experiencing Itasca State Park with Pets
Minneapolis and St. Paul – collectively known as the Twin Cities – are divided by the Mississippi River, and the stretch of river passing though this metropolis is part of the 72-mile-long Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. The park’s visitor center is at 120 Kellogg Boulevard West in St. Paul, and is a great place to start your visit. Take turns enjoying the informative movie (pets aren’t allowed in the building), then grab a map and hit the trails – they’re all pet friendly!
If your pup is hounding you for some off-leash play time, take the trail south just over a mile to High Bridge Dog Park. There’s plenty of space to burn off some energy, and there are separate areas for large and small dogs.
On your way back, keep an eye out for Red River Kitchen at City House. From May to October, this food truck operates in a restored grain elevator and flour mill right on the bank of the Mississippi. Dogs are welcome!
Nestled on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge protects diverse ecosystems that sustain a dazzling array of wildlife. But what makes this place specials is its location on the “Mississippi Flyway” – the route traveled by about 40% of all migrating waterfowl and shorebirds in North America.
The refuge’s marshes, oak savannas, and hardwood forests provide food and shelter bald eagles, Sandhill cranes, osprey, American pelicans, herons, egrets, turns, ducks, and thousands of song birds. All the trails in the refuge are pet-friendly, so pack a picnic and your binoculars and plan to make a day of it!
Standing atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, it’s easy to see why American Indians chose this breathtaking place as their home. And they thrived here! They did so well, in fact, that around 2,500 years ago they began the arduous task of building mounds to bury their dead.
Using bone and stone tools and hand-woven baskets, soil was hauled to construct round domes of earth 2 to 8 feet high and 10 to 20 feet across. But then they did something really unusual. The ancient people in this particular area began building “effigy” mounds, which resemble animals. It’s estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 effigy mounds were built, and around 4,000 remain today. Effigy Mounds National Monument protects 206 prehistoric mounds, 31 of which are in the shape of animals.
Leashed pets are welcome to enjoy the park grounds and trails with you, as long as they are cleaned up after. Please be respectful of the mounds – neither you nor your pets should walk on them. The park also offers ranger-led tours, primarily during the summer months. Well-behaved pets that don’t disrupt the presentation are welcome to join the tours, and we highly recommend you do!
The city of Galena was named for a mineral that was mined here, and that’s what originally put this town on the map. In the early 1800s, Galena’s population rivaled Chicago’s. And it was the largest steamboat hub on the Mississippi north of St. Louis.
Now the town is a charming getaway with local flavor, rich history and rolling vineyards. Known for its well-preserved 19th-century buildings, 581 acres of the city is listed on the National Register of Historic places.
You and your pup will find many pet-friendly businesses in the quaint downtown. Accommodations, shopping, art galleries and studios, and wineries all await your visit. There’s even a doggy day spa where your pet can be pampered with a pawdicure!
During your visit the home of famous author, Mark Twain, in Hannibal, Missouri, don’t miss the photo op with Twain’s most memorable and mischievous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Located at the foot of Cardiff Hill at Main Street, you can’t miss the bronze sculpture.
Hannibal’s historic Main Street offers other fun activities, too. Peruse the shops and boutiques, relax at the winery or microbrewery, or get the chills on a haunted ghost tour.
The Gateway Arch towers over the Mississippi Riverfront in downtown St. Louis – a symbol of the role this city played as the American frontier expanded westward. From the beautiful Citygarden, past the Old Courthouse, and down to the riverfront, you and your furry travel buddy will find plenty to enjoy during your visit. While pets aren’t allowed inside the Arch, the extensive park grounds offer lovely places to explore. Find a bench and wait in the shade if some of your party wants to take the tram to the top, while others remain firmly on the ground.
Gateway Arch Riverboats welcomes pets aboard their one-hour tours. And be sure to stop on the waterfront for a photo op at the sculpture of pet travel pioneers, Lewis and Clark, with their Newfoundland, Seaman. If hunger strikes, you’ll find a nice selection of pet-friendly restaurants around downtown and at Laclede’s Landing, a short walk from the Arch.
The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail was the first formed in the state of Illinois, and includes some of the oldest vineyards in the state. Winding through the rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest, eleven wineries dot a well-marked 40-mile route. Enjoy nationally and internationally awarded wines, friendly service, and unique wine and food experiences. Each winery offers their own individual style and winemaking techniques that make your journey a pleasant adventure through the hills of southern Illinois.
Wander a few miles off the wine trail and you’ll find a wide array of specialty shops, unique eateries, breweries, and art galleries, as well as inns, cabins and bed and breakfasts. Offering truly local experiences, these businesses provide one-of-a-kind opportunities that you won’t find anywhere else.
At 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park is one of the largest urban parks in America, providing plenty for you and your pet to explore! Start your visit in the Outback, an off-leash area where dogs can investigate more than 100 acres of meadows, woods, ponds, and trails – all sans leash. After a good romp, stop by the dog wash station where your pal can rinse off before hopping in the car to explore the rest of the park.
The park offers more than 40 miles of trails winding through quiet woodlands, along the river, and around the lakes. Leashed pets are welcome on all the trails, and our favorite is the Hyde Lake Promenade. If your pup would rather ride, rent a kayak or paddle board and enjoy paddling around Hyde Lake instead.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Kitchenette, a grab-and-go café attached to the visitor center. Their covered outside seating provides great views and delicious snacks for ravenous dogs and people.
READ MORE ⇒ A Day Trip to Shelby Farms Park in Memphis
Experience southern nature at it’s best at Mississippi River State Park in Marianna, Arkansas. With seven bodies of water and miles of pet-friendly trails, you’ll have ample opportunities explore.
Rent a kayak and paddle the cypress swamp, or lace up your hiking shoes for a one-mile loop through the unique flora and fauna on the Bear Creek Lake Nature Trail. This easy trail winds through groves of large native trees, many which are identified, and is a great way to explore the forest regardless of the season.
Stay for the spectacular sunset and extraordinary star-gazing at the park’s campground, with campsites available for both tents and RVs.
The Civil War divided the nation, but both sides agreed on one thing: Vicksburg was the key to victory. Facing 170 cannon, the Union Army laid siege to Vicksburg for 47 days, finally forcing the surrender of the Confederate Army on July 4, 1863.
Now Vicksburg National Military Park preserves the historical significance of the North’s victory here, which gave them control of the Mississippi River. Over 1,400 monuments and memorials dot the landscape, each honoring the veterans of the battle. Drive through the park on a self-guided tour, hire a Licensed Battlefield Guide to gain a better understanding of the events, or hit the trails to experience the features up close. During your visit, don’t forget to ask how your pup can earn his B.A.R.K. ranger badge!
Get a taste of southern hospitality in Natchez, Mississippi. Known as the hidden jewel of the South, Natchez embodies more than 300 years of history on the Mississippi River. Its meticulously kept antebellum homes and churches, beautiful parks, historic walking trails, southern home cooking, and city tours offer much to discover.
The Natchez National Historical Park protects locations pivotal to the history of Natchez, including the Melrose Estate and Fort Rosalie. The pre-Civil War Melrose Estate was built by a wealthy cotton planter, and the mansion is complete with original furnishings and intact outbuildings. Fort Rosalie was established by the French in 1716 and was intended to guarantee control of the largest and most navigable river in North America. Leashed pets are welcome to explore the grounds at both locations with you.
Completed in 1932, and standing 34 stories tall, Louisiana’s capitol in Baton Rouge is the tallest state capitol building in the US. Towering proudly over the city and the Mississippi River, it’s a treasured landmark that invites you to enjoy it – both inside and out.
Pets aren’t allowed inside to see the stunning mosaic ceiling or visit the observation deck on the 27th floor. But they are welcome to stroll the 27 acres of pet-friendly grounds and gardens surround the Capitol. As you mosey along the paved paths under massive live oaks and palm trees picturesque views of the magnificent structure appear from every angle.
The land that the Capitol occupies has its own history. This area provided access to the lower Mississippi River, and evidence of it’s strategic military location is still evident. Just east of the Capitol is Arsenal Park, where a warehouse erected in 1838 for gunpowder storage still stands. You’ll also find canons perched atop a ceremonial platform built by Native American around 1,000 years ago.
Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, allows visitors and their pets to experience the life of a wealthy Sugar Baron in the 1800s. Well-behaved, leashed dogs are welcome to join the mansion tours, as long as other guests don’t object. If someone is uncomfortable with dogs, you may be asked to wait 30 minutes for the next tour.
Leashed pets are also invited to relish the 38-acre expanse of lush gardens and grounds. When you’ve worked up an appetite, enjoy lunch at the outdoor seating area of the restaurant. Pets are also welcome to stay with you at the Inn at Houmas House – food and water bowls provided!
The staff simply asks that you call the gift shop (225-473-9380) prior to arriving with your pet. The resident pups are always around, and they appreciate a heads-up when another dog is on the property.
Ahhhh, New Orleans. The Big Easy. The Birthplace of Jazz and home of Mardi Gras. If there’s another place in the world like it, we haven’t been there. And there’s a lot you and your pet can do together in this eclectic city! Take a walk in the Garden District, stroll through Louis Armstrong Park, pick up biegnets at Café du Monde, and hop the Canal Street Ferry to check out the Algiers Point neighborhood.
But, if you don’t want to end up in the dog house, there’s one New Orleans attraction you’ll want to be sure not to miss! City Park, at 1,300 acres, is recognized nationwide as the archetypal urban greenspace. More importantly, however, it includes a beautiful 4.5-acre, fenced dog park that you pup will love. Entrance is by permit only, and guests can receive one by visiting the Park Administration building between 8am and 5pm, Monday through Friday.
The Mississippi passes through many unique areas of the United States, all offering new experiences and simple pleasures to passing travelers. What ties it all together is an appreciation for the mighty river which cuts the country in two, but also binds us together.
Traveling the backroads through countless river communities, you feel the powerful connection between America’s north and the south. While each place has a distinct culture, it’s easy to find beauty, hospitality, and pet-loving people at every stop on the journey.
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