The Great River Road
Credit: Alamy

The Great River Road

When people talk about taking a cross-country road trip, they are typically referring to making the cross-country trek from the East Coast to California or the Pacific Northwest (or vice versa). Everyone should make that trip once, but no one should be walking around thinking that is the only way to go cross-country. The Great River Road, which winds from Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi River, offers more Americana per mile than any hyphen-straight highway through the West.

The scenery alone is worth the trip. Created in 1938 from a network of federal, state, and local roads, the 2,000-mile asphalt ribbons winds through 10 states while rarely leaving the banks of the mighty river. Open prairie blurs into green hills before upland meadows dim into thick forests and cypress swamps. And the Great River Road can also be a hoot to drive. It has as many twists and turns as the river, most long sweepers, but there are a few tight s-curves here and there to make things interesting. Just be sure to keep an eye peeled for smoky, law enforcement is invariably out en masse.

But the real attraction is the food and music. Foodies will love the abundance of southern soul specialties, barbecue, and Cajun dishes. Musics fans won't have to look too far for a live show, especially if you're looking for good blues or jazz. From Minneapolis's Amsterdam Bar and Hall, which garnishes alternative rock with Dutch cuisine, down to St. Louis's classic blues bar Beale on Broadway, and the Big Easy's d.b.a., a Frenchman Street hangout where eclectic lineups are on tap with exotic liquors, the road giveth and rarely taketh away.

The only catch is the traffic. The River Road is not for anyone in a hurry. To the contrary, this a road for folks who want to pull over to check out the wildlife (two- and four-legged) and maybe sit on the hood of their car and watch the Mississippi slip past.

More information: The Great River Road is not so much a road as a series of roads. Road trippers can follow signs or just endeavor to stay near the river, which is always close at hand.