The Mississippi River Trail

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The following is a guest article by Bob Robinson, author of the “Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail.”

This is the time when cyclists start planning their tours for the coming year. Some will be looking to depart on an extended cross-country adventure, while others search for an exciting multi-day tour. But before you make any plans, consider a new bike route, which accommodates all types of riders.

As it follows the Mississippi River corridor from its headwaters in northern Minnesota to the southernmost point in Louisiana, the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) provides a 3,000-plus-mile ride through America’s heartland. For those cyclists looking for an enjoyable multi-day tour—by crossing the river on one of the many biker friendly bridges, or via a ferry ride—the options for extended multi-day loop tours are unlimited.

Although the Mississippi River Trail Project was first conceived in 1996, it wasn’t until this year that a designated bike route along the entire length of the Mississippi River had been established. It was not until the publication of Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail in August of this year that the entire route had been fully documented, including maps, turn-by-turn directions, points of interest, and services. From the ankle deep headwaters of the Mississippi River, as it flows over the natural rock spillway of Lake Itasca, to when it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the MRT does a great job of following the corridor of this mighty waterway. The route planners utilized existing roadways, and where available bike/pedestrian pathways, to guide cyclists to the many recreational and historical destinations along the corridor. Since early explorers, the Mississippi River was a major means of transportation; therefore, many of the communities have been accommodating travelers for generations and are adjusting to serve the needs of two wheeled travelers.

The Mississippi River starts out as a small narrow stream, linking many of the lakes in northern Minnesota. The early miles of the MRT follow rural roads, crisscrossing the river as cyclists tour the state’s lake resort region. In the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the route follows the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway along the Mississippi River banks past St. Anthony Falls, the only falls on the river. As the route continues south to Hastings, you have the option of crossing the river to ride Wisconsin’s MRT. If you choose to ride in Wisconsin, be sure to visit the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center in Prescott. There are interesting displays related to the area’s history and the location high atop the bluff provides a unique view of the confluence of the St. Croix River as its blue waters merge with the brown waters of the Mississippi River. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have their own unique features that make for an interesting bike tour. Cyclists can’t go wrong when choosing which bank of the river to follow.

History along the Mississippi River did not begin with the arrival of European explorers. All along the length of the river cyclists pass remnants of early Native American cultures. Iowa has a must stop for cyclists at the Effigy Mounds National Monument. Park your bike at the visitor center and hike the Fire Point Trail and see mounds built 1,400 years ago that are in the shape of a bear. There are also the Winterville Mounds State Park and Emerald Mound Site in Mississippi. The MRT also passes Mastodon State Historical Site in Missouri, where you can see a replica of a male adult mastodon.

Along with exhibits about Native American history, as you ride the MRT you will also see evidence of early European influence. In Ste. Genevieve, MO, the Bolduc House, with its vertical-log walls, is regarded as one of the most authentically restored Creole houses in the nation. (I asked the tour guide why the vertical-logs? She just shrugged and said, “What can I say, they’re French.”) Also in Missouri, Kaskaskia was once the center of French colonial administration for the Middle Mississippi River. It was called “The Paris of the West.”

Cyclists will visit places along the entire length of the MRT that they will remember from their early American history classes, such as the explorations of Lewis and Clark. There are exhibits in Charleston, MO where the explorers camped as they trained their party on the skills they would need on their voyage. The MRT also passes by the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Illinois. This is a modern museum with many interactive displays that focus on the adventures of the explorers. On its southern section, the MRT passes through the cities of Vicksburg and Natchez where the Civil War comes to life as the result of their preservation efforts. Who would have thought riding a bicycle across the country could be so educational?

In southern Missouri the MRT reaches the northernmost regions of the Mississippi alluvial plain. If you had been standing in this area 12,000 years ago you would have been underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. As the gulf waters receded the Mississippi Delta was formed. As you ride along the MRT through the delta regions in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana you pass rich bottom farmland and an abundance of wildlife. The crescent shaped oxbow lakes you’ll ride past create habitats that lure waterfowl from across the country. At times the MRT routes cyclists along the top of the river levee. As you ride along the top of these enormous levees, with the mile-wide Mississippi River at your side, reflect back to the small stream you waded across at the beginning of your journey. You and the river have come a long way during your MRT adventure.

MRT, Inc. is the governing body behind the creation of the Mississippi River Trail. The board members and management staff have unselfishly contributed to making the MRT a reality. It is their goal to make this a world-class bicycling route that will guide cyclists through the 10 states that border the Mississippi River. To accomplish this goal they work diligently to encourage use of the MRT. One means of encouraging cyclists to ride the route is to offer those who have ridden the length of the MRT, either as a cross-country ride, or a series of multi-day tours, an official Certificate of Completion award. This award will be signed by the Executive Director of MRT, Inc. and include a serial number reflecting the order in which the recipient has completed the ride in relation to other cyclists. So when compiling your New Year’s resolutions, add obtaining your Certificate of Completion to the list.

About The Author, Bob Robinson:

When I first began planning my ride on the Mississippi River Trail, the route was somewhat difficult to determine. Working closely with the executive director of the MRT, Inc., Terry Eastin, I collected contacts with the various organizations that contributed to the path the route follows through the 10 states that it crosses. With the help of these contacts (wonderful people who I thank dearly), I was able to trace the entire designated route of the MRT. As one of those people who like to know something about the area I am riding through, I began researching the surrounding environment of the Mississippi River corridor. The more I learned about the history of the Mississippi River and the communities along the river the more I was drawn into its story. The end result of this research and the ride is my “Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail.” As I explain in the book, it is not intended as a personal journal of my adventures while riding the MRT. The guide is a collection of relevant materials for cyclists to use to create their own adventures. My intention was to create a guidebook that would include all necessary information that cyclists need to plan and ride the MRT, and still limit the book to a manageable size that would be convenient for cyclists to carry with them. To learn more about the Mississippi River Trail go to www.mississippirivertrail.org, where you can also order a copy of the guidebook.

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of BicycleTouringPro.com - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the author of "The Bicycle Touring Blueprint" and three additional cycling books. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

30 Comments

  1. Trevor

    December 9, 2008 at 10:27 am

    That sounds like a great trail. What is the trail itself like? Does it share the road with cars?

  2. Karen Walker

    December 10, 2008 at 12:26 am

    Is that the same as the Great Rivers trail that I heard Adventure Cycling talking about? It sounds similar, but I think they mentioned it going through Nashville.

  3. Bob Robinson

    December 10, 2008 at 8:03 am

    Trevor, the MRT is a designated bicycle route. Where available it does follow existing separated bicycle trails, however most of the route utilizes highways that follow the Mississippi River corridor. It is a great ride. There is awesome scenery, wildlife, and history that make it interesting and fun.

  4. Bob Robinson

    December 10, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Karen, while researching the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) I saw the Great Rivers (GR) route discussed by Adventure Cycling. The two routes do overlap in some areas in the midsection of the country, however from what I could tell the GR doesn’t begin at the Mississippi River headwaters in Minnesota. Also, the GR veers eastward in Kentucky then angles across the state of Mississippi, and the GR doesn’t follow the Mississippi River to its southern most point in Louisiana, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. I’m sure the GR is an enjoyable ride, because Adventure Cycling does some great rides, but to really experience the Mississippi River adventure I think you need to follow the river corridor like the MRT does.

  5. Linda Baron

    December 10, 2008 at 8:53 am

    So glad to see this article and will order the book. I’m thinking seriously about riding the full route this spring-summer and have been combing the web for information. Would love to hear from anyone who has done this trip. Also interested in group tours. I’ve found a couple, but none scheduled for 2009.

  6. Benny

    December 11, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Over the past few years I have ridden a lot of the MRT as mini-tours. I like to ride sections that have the route on both sides of the river so I can make a loop out of it and not have to arrange shuttles. This past fall I had the new guide book and it was a lot easier to follow the route. The directions on the MRT website were incomplete.
    It has been an enjoyable ride. I hope to finish it completely someday and get my certificate of completion.

  7. Darren Alff

    December 15, 2008 at 12:32 am

    Bob, if you had time to only ride for two weeks, what part of the trail would you cover?

  8. Bob Robinson

    December 15, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    That’s a really tough question to answer. When I rode the MRT people would ask me my favorite sections and I’d always answer, “whatever part I’m riding.” But if I only had a couple weeks to ride, I would start at the headwaters at Lake Itasca and follow the MRT south as far as I had time for. You should really enjoy riding the rural roads the route follows in northern Minnesota as it follows the Mississippi River. You’ll pass a lot of lakes, state parks, and forests. Then you’ll ride through the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas on some really nice separated bike paths. The paths run right along the river bank, with a lot of historic displays about the river and the area.

    South of the twin cities I recommend crossing the Mississippi River at Hastings, into Prescott, Wisconsin. It’s not that there isn’t a lot to see in Minnesota after Hastings, but unless you are going to ride the MRT on both sides of the river, I would ride in Wisconsin here. It’s a really smooth highway through here with some really great views of the river. You’ll also get to ride the Great River Trail taking this route. The trail is crushed limestone, but I didn’t have any problems with 700/32 tires.

    Everyone’s daily mileage is different, so I’m not sure how far you’d get in two weeks, but if you still have a couple days remaining when you reach La Crosse, I recommend crossing the river back into Minnesota. This will put you on a course to cross into Iowa to see Effigy Mounds National Monument.

    Yes, I think this would be a great route. However, if you stop here you’re going to miss a lot of picturesque river towns in Iowa and Missouri, plus the 100 hundred miles of scenic separated bike paths in Illinois. Then there’s the Chain of Rocks Bridge that was part of the famous Route 66. You’ll also miss the opportunity to layover in Memphis and New Orleans a couple days to enjoy some great food and music. And you’re going to miss out on the “delta” experience. So I guess you’re going to have to come back and ride the entire MRT.

    Enjoy!

  9. Clint

    January 25, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Bob,
    Any thoughts on the tradeoffs of doing the MRT from South to North vs. N to S?
    N to S seems more in keeping with the “natural” order of things, but S to N seems like it may offer weather advantages for a Spring/early Summer start. [Such as South winds [?] & escaping from the hot, humid segments early in the tour ]….
    Looking forward to reading the book; thanks for making it available !
    Clint

  10. Bob Robinson

    February 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I apologize for not responding to you sooner.

    When I rode the MRT for the guidebook I went north to south because, like you said, it just seems like the natural direction to follow. I liked the idea of witnessing the transformation of the river from a small stream to the huge river it becomes. As I rode south my affection for the river grew and continued to build the further south I went until the climax with reaching the sign at the Southernmost Point in Louisiana. I don’t know if following a south to north route would result in those same feelings. Finishing at the headwaters, at the point of its origination, might make you appreciate the river even more. That is food for thought. When anyone does finish a south to north ride please let me know about your experience.

    You are right, overall the wind does favor a south to north ride. I don’t feel it is enough to plan your entire trip around it. And if you are beginning your ride in the spring you should start in the south. As warm as it can be in Louisiana you could begin in the winter. I’ve ridden my bike in February down there when it was in the upper 70’s. I know that the MRT in Mississippi and Louisiana is a popular bike tour during Spring Break.

    Thanks for your interest. Enjoy you MRT adventure.

  11. Darren Alff

    February 23, 2009 at 7:13 am

    Bob Robinson, the author of “Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail” just emailed me to let me know about his new website at: http://www.spiritscreek.com that is intended to be used as a communication tool for cyclists riding the MRT. The site is in the early stages, but it might provide some extra support for those wanting more information about this specific route.

  12. Philip Zweig

    April 2, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Bob,

    I’m planning a trip from Fayetteville, AR to Atlanta, GA. I am having trouble finding bicycle friendly crossings of the Mississippi River. It looks as if Hwy 49 around Helena may be a possibility but are there are any north of Memphis?

    Thanks,

    Philip

  13. Teri Bozeman

    April 21, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    We just hatched the absurdly exciting idea of taking our family on the MRT for the last half of summer and into autumn, making the whole trek on bike. We have 5 kids, ages 11 years on down to 1 year, and would tent camp the majority of nights. Is there anyone who has ventured out on the trail with children? Are we nuts?? :)

  14. Darren Alff

    April 22, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    I don’t think taking your family down the Mississippi is a crazy idea at all. In fact, I think it’s a great idea!

    When I rode my my bike down the Great Rivers Route in 2004, I came across a group of “blind bikers”. These blind bikers were kids between the age of 14 and 17 who were physcially blind. They could not see. And they were riding on tandem bicycles (with a seeing person in the front) down the Natchez Trace for three days straight.

    The best part about the Mississippi River Train and that whole area is that it is relatively flat. There aren’t a lot of hills and the roads are mainly free of cars.

    Teri, you should have a great time on your travels. And your family should have a great time as well. Just be as safe as you can. Maybe consider getting a mirror so you and the kids can see behind themselves at all times (http://www.bicycletouringpro.com/store/products/mirrors/index.php)… and enjoy every moment!

  15. juan garcia

    May 27, 2009 at 11:19 am

    i plan on riding the southern tier route from san diego, ca to st. augustine, fl., but plan on doing the mrt first. i have always been awed by the magnificent mississippi river. i plan on going from north to south. any takers wanna go with me? i am a “rookie” at this but have done a few centuries in 9 hours. i plan on doing this to see america, not be a greg lemond. takers?

  16. jose merlos

    September 29, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    im riding the mrt. im gonna start in chicago take the american discovery trail west til i get to port byron, from there heading south til whenever i feel is time to come back home. this will be my first tour. i hope everything goes well. anybody got any advice. im leaving october 4th…

  17. Steven

    November 24, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    I am going to ride the trail from south to north next spring. I was going to go north to south but I heard stories from another bike traveler who attempted it from north to south and she had to quit in Indiana because she couldn’t go any farther in 110f weather. If I complete it from south to north can I still get the certificate.

  18. Charlie hall

    December 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Looking into the mrt n to s. Any suggestions on flying to starting point and upswing bike . Nearest airport etc. Thanks

  19. Rick Collier

    February 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    I’ve been trying to find a way to get in touch with Bob Robinson for some time, and I guess this is about as good a possibility as any.

    All I really wanted to say was to express my appreciation for Bob’s incredible guidebook to the roads along the Mississippi.

    A little more than a year ago I cycled from Itasca all the way to the farthest point S in Louisiana, following for the most part the detailed and impeccably accurate maps and route descriptions in Bob’s “Bicycling Guide” (I think I actually went further S than his book suggests, but I had to wade through sea water and mud, and was probably trespassing as well).

    It was a fantastic ride — took me 45 days — and I say this despite the fact that that autumn was the wettest the region had seen in 50 years. But lots of very cool campgrounds, little restaurants and pubs, wildlife, birds, and friendly people all along the way. The only disappointment was that you get to see the Mississippi only a small fraction of the time you’re riding . . . but that’s not Bob’s fault; it’s the fault of those who designed the roads.

    I was chasing the warm weather all the way south, so that by the time I got into Louisiana there were several inches of snow on the ground in Minnesota where I been riding on a few weeks earlier.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for your book, Bob! And I encourage anyone else who might want a pleasant ride and a great adventure to follow Mr. Robinson’s guidebook.

    rick

  20. Pingback: THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER TRAIL… « the pyramid beach roadhouse

  21. Fletcher Moore

    September 29, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Rode the whole trail in July. I have some notes that will probably be of use to the book — most importantly you can’t get to the south side of the I-55 bridge in Memphis by going by the primitive trail by the church any longer — it’s completely grown over. That crossing, or more particularly, trekking along the side of the interstate just past the bridge, was a freaking nightmare.

    Overall though, it was a fun trip. I have no idea how to get my certificate. The MRT website looks like it receives attention about once every two years.

  22. tombuoye

    November 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Just rode from Hannibal MO to NOLA in Oct, 2011 Great ride, great roads and drivers IMHO.
    Two things:
    Do not stay at the Pleasant View Motel in Arnold. Really. The dirtest, most disgusting motel i’ve even been in. Put newspaper down on the ‘carpet’ to walk around. I’ve stayed at many older, small motels, including the Deluxe Inn in Vicksburg and the Levee Inn in Greenville Tn, but the PV was beyond the pale. If there was room for me to set up my tent i would have. The manager was amazed that the PV was in a book, and even came knocking at the door to find out what book referenced the PV. I was out of options, an hour after dark, raining…….

    The MBT around/near the St Louse airport is closed. Between Tassig road and Missouri Bottom road off of SH 370, you have to ride on SH 370 to the MBR exit. MBR is washer out between Tassig and Leafcreast. I spent 45 minutes trying to find a way around the closure until a fellow biker helped me out.

    The route St Charles to Arnold should read Mile 4.
    instead of L onto Tassig Rd, L onto SH 370 ~1.0mi
    Exit Missouri Bottom Rd (after junctioon w/ I 270

    Hopefully someone will find this useful

  23. tedstur

    January 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I am thinking about riding the MRT this coming summer. I see one traveler above took 45 days to complete it. How many days do you think it will take to ride this route from Itasca to NO?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      January 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      I have not ridden this exact route myself, but I rode a similar route from Chicago, IL to New Orleans, LA and it took me 30 days at a leisurely pace.

  24. Joan White

    February 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    My husband and I would like to bike part of this trail in early April. (we are 62 years old) and relatively good shape . I don’t l;ike biking where there is a lot of traffic. We would probably like to do about 40 to 60 miles a day. Any suggestions?? Thanks

  25. Richard Collier

    February 9, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Hi Joan,

    A couple of comments for you (hope they get to you via this address . . . please me know if you receive them, ok?):

    1. April would be too early if you plan to start in Minnesota — I did a tour in May in Minn and Wis and nearly froze to death once. You’d be better off in April starting as far S as Tennessee, would be my bet

    2. I did the entire Mississippi trail when I was 68; there were hard days, but nothing a cold beer and bag of snacks couldn’t (start to) fix

    3. My only disappointment was how little of the river one actually sees on this (or likely any) route . . . only maybe 15% of the time

    4. I tried to average 85-110 km/day . . . the longer days were simply to stretch from one campground to another

    5. There are, perhaps inevitably, sections with lots of traffic and sometimes, if rarely, sections with narrow or no shoulder and lots of traffic. The worst spot was just S of Cairo, Ill., going over the bridge and then about 10-12 km after that. There was no mercy. However, much of the route has little traffic and is most pleasant to cycle.

    6. Again, there are some sections with strenuous and repeated hill climbs (which you’d expect along a river when you’re traversing tributaries); northern Illinois was perhaps the most notorious for this. S of Kentucky and Tennessee, which can also be hilly, the terrain flattens out considerably.

    Hope this helps.

  26. Dieter Fischer

    April 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Hi all,
    I’m planning to cycle the Mississippi in May/June, staying mostly in my tent. Just a few questions:

    If I cycle between the 100 – 140 kilometres each day, will I find a proper campground (hot shower, camp kitchen for light cooking etc) each day?

    If not, have you ever camped in the wild, so to speak? Is it safe?

    Any idea what I can expect in terms of wind, and what are the hills like, you mentioned?

    Any useful information will be appreciated.

    Regards from Australia
    Dieter

  27. Carrie Yehle

    September 4, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    I’m happy to see a comment forum here about biking on the Mississippi River Trail. I’m planning my very first bicycle tour for next year (2013) and I wanted some advice ranging from the right time of year to go on the MRT to the right bike to ride. I’m starting out in New Orleans and going north to the Twin Cities, MN and so far I was planning on leaving early April and riding between 50-65 miles a day while camping out most nights to arrive in the Twin Cities by the end of May. I want to be leisure about it but I don’t want the tour to take longer than 35 days either. Is this a reasonable goal given the distance I’m trying to cover? Is travelling from south to north from April to May a good time to go, weather-wise? I Or would a mid-June to end of August time frame be a better idea?
    Also, I planned on doing the tour on my 2007 Trek 7700 hybrid bike with a Bob Yak trailer and adding a multi-position handle bar as well. This is the plan but should I consider a different option and put money down onto a touring bike instead? The Trek 520 looks like an incredible bike to own and use on this trail but if my Trek 7700 Hybrid is still a good way to go then that would work out better on my pocket. I want to enjoy the trip and not make it gruelly either. My Trek hybrid bike is the most comfortable bike I own which is why I’m considering it for this trip. I just want to know from an expert if my hybrid would hold up for such a long tour.

    I appreciate any feedback I can get with this. I’ve enjoyed reading the stories of past adventures and learning about the ups and downs each experience in order to plan out my tour. Thanks for making this forum possible!

  28. Doug Hauser

    September 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Looking for the best way to cross the Mississippi in southern Missouri. Do not want to deal with Cairo, Illinois so thought I would cross at Dorena on the ferry. If there are problems with that plan, what is a safer bridge to cross the Mississippi River in that area? Thanks.

    Doug

  29. Jane Weiss

    July 3, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Great article! We have just returned from a cycle tour along the Mississippi River Trail. We began in May of this year and rode the trail from North to South. Bob Robinson’s guide book was an invaluable tool and we highly recommend folks that are considering the route invest in the book.

    We did divert from the MRT route a few times because of road and weather conditions, but for the most part we cycled the entire route to New Orleans. It was a fabulous experience! For those interested in our cycle tour, feel free to visit our blog: http://www.rwnetworks.blogspot.ca

    Happy cycling!

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