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.