Tag Archives: great river road

American Highways

For me one of the biggest attractions in the US are the roads themselves. I have to admit I love driving so my opinion might be a bit biased, but it’s difficult to deny that highways and car culture in general, are important parts of American culture. Many countries have great roads, be it smooth German autobahns without speed limits or the narrow, twisted mountain roads of Italy, but no other country is as connected to its roads and cars as the USA.

Before my first visit to America I already had an image of its freeways, highways, pickup trucks etc. They are shown in countless movies, TV dramas and even comic books, it is virtually impossible nowadays to grow up in any modern country without being familiar with those aspects of America and its pop-culture. I still remember my first visit to America, when after landing in Miami, we were driven to Orlando (where we were about to start work in Disney World). During one of the short stops at the service station most of the guys from our bus started taking pictures in front of those massive American eighteen wheelers. Such is power of an icon.

During my first road trip in the USA I was only a passenger because I still didn’t have a driving licence. Those were two iconic trips, one from coast to coast, another one along the Pacific coast. Being both a geographer and map enthusiast I was responsible for navigation and a lot of the planning, and I loved every moment of it (even long featureless drives of west Texas). Only long drive across the entire country will help you understand how big it really is. Still, being a navigator is not the same as driving yourself. After coming back from my second trip during which we drove, among others, the famous Pacific Highway, I knew I’d be back in the USA. This time armed with a driving licence. The desire to drive myself was probably important factor why I decided to visit America again.

Since then, during many visits, I have driven thousands of miles along the interstate, state and county highways as well as special scenic byways. And I absolutely love it, every single mile of road. It doesn’t matter if it’s busy 12 lane urban freeway in LA, or empty, straight highway in western Kansas, or a twisted mountain road in Utah. They are all attractive in their own way.

There are some roads especially worth recommending. One of them, the Pacific Hwy, is in my opinion one of the most scenic drives on earth. Most people know about the stretch from San Louis Obispo along the famous Big Sur up to Monterey. It is spectacular California Hwy 1 where every twist and turn opens an amazing vista. If you can choose only one road in America make sure you choose this one. Pacific Highway is much longer however, continuing north of San Francisco through sparsely populated North California and then along the Oregon and Washington State coast. It might be a bit less wild than at Big Sur, but only a bit. On the other hand there are nice charming villages and small towns well worth visiting. Add lighthouses, sand dunes, wild beaches, huge forests and you get the picture. It is one of the roads I could drive over and over, and over again. We shouldn’t also forget about one short, but well known, part of the Pacific Hwy, the Golden Gate Bridge, which is probably one of the most photographed structures on earth. My long lasting irrational obsession with the idea of crossing it was an important factor in planning our coast to coast trip.

Another fantastic coastal road is US Hwy 1 in Florida. Connecting countless tropical islands this road run, mainly on long bridges and causeways over a turquoise tropical sea. Only 120 miles long it takes you from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Miami to the paradise of Key West. It is a perfect drive for an open top car and offers some of the best sunsets in the world. Sadly, we didn’t drive convertible, just ordinary sedan, but there were three girls and me on-board 😉

On the other side of the eastern US there is in some ways a similar road. It’s US Hwy 2 from Vermont across the Lake Champlain to the New York State. Connecting small communities on the remote islands of North Hero and Grand Isle it has feel of a quiet end of the road as well as the end of the world. Drive it slowly, shop in some locally owned stores, try food in some no nonsense, down to earth, local restaurants and you will understand the appeal of this route.

Away from the sea or lakes there are many interesting desert highways, especially in the south western United States. One of them is Utah Hwy 12 which is almost like driving in a giant open geology schoolbook as this unique road passes through some really spectacular formations. Connecting Bryce Canyon NP with Grant Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef NP, it is every geographers’ and geologists’ dream road, where every turn opens spectacular view of geological wonders. It is also relatively little trafficked especially outside the main summer season. Equally spectacular and much more popular is US Hwy 163 from Mexican Hat in Utah to Kayenta in Arizona. It is famous due to the spectacular vista over the rock formations of Monument Valley known to most of us from the epic western movies. Apart from some bored locals almost every car pulls over and everyone takes pictures. Yet another example of power of an American icon.

Another spectacular desert drive in the SW states include California Hwy 190 across the Death Valley and then US 395 along the eastern foothills of the magnificent Sierra Neveda. It is actually impossible to list all the spectacular desert routes here as most of the highways in Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, souther California or Nevada are simply fantastic.

Looking for something more on the mountainous side? One of the best mountain roads I have ever driven was not in Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, not even in the Appalachians, but in South Dakota. Yes, that’s correct. There are mountains in Southa Dakota even if they are called hills.The Black Hills to be precise. The road we are talking about is the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It is loop, over 68 miles long, which follows four different local highways. This road is curvy and narrow, actually very curvy and very narrow. In some places it is just ribbon of tarmac, only wide enough for one car, squeezed between the rock walls and sheer drop on the other side. There are tunnels so narrow you have to honk before entering, so you won’t have a head on collision with some oversized pick-up truck, and pigtail bridges where you make full 360 degrees circles. In general this scenic byway is more like Spanish or Italian mountain roads than an American highway.

Some of the mountain roads were built just for the pleasure of driving. One of them is the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. Its construction started in 1935 during the great depression and didn’t finish until 1987 when the spectacular s-shaped Linn Cove Viaduct was opened The 469 miles long parkway is maintained by the National Park Service and runs mostly along the Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Mountains. The parkway doesn’t connect any settlements, uses short side roads to connect to other highways, and there are no direct interchanges with other highways. It was design to be a spectacular drive, with numerous viewpoints, often running as close to the ridge as possible and I can confirm that its designers did a good job. It is a fantastic piece of highway, well worth getting out of the main roads.

Other spectacular mountain roads include California Hwy 180 leading into the Kings Canyon – Sequoia NP, US Hwy160 from Alamosa to Cortez in Colorado or finally California Hwy 120 and 41 in the amazing Yosemite.

If you don’t really like deserts or mountains there are some other interesting drives. How about the great American rivers? One of the best trips I’ve done was driving through the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It is a great drive, especially if you leave the main intestate freeway and choose the old road instead. It’s not always possible but there are few preserved bits which offer spectacular vistas over the great Columbia River and some nice waterfalls as well. You can cover the most interesting part of this river in a day. But if you are looking for a more epic river drive there is no better option than the Great River Road along the mighty Mississippi. It is actually system of the US, state, and even county highways running as close to the river as possible. You can drive practically from the source to the Gulf of Mexico on either side of the river. Of course there are more and less interesting parts. My favourite part stretches from Davenport in Iowa to Minneapolis in Minnesota, especially the Wisconsin Hwy 35 from the Illinois border to the town of Prescott just few miles downriver from Saint Paul. Mississippi in this region flows between high bluffs offering some really great views. Other attractions along this route are tiny towns like De Soto, Genoa, Alma and Nelson or some slightly bigger ones like Winona or Red Wing. Being a road and infrastructure geek I also love all the bridges along the great river, especially the old narrow steel ones. Sometimes I crossed them back and forth just for the thrill of driving across them.

A lesser known river offering great roads along its banks is the St Lawrence River. The most interesting part of it stretches along the Canadian – US border from Cornwall to Kingston, which is called the Thousand Islands for a good reason. From the road you can see countless islands from big to tiny ones. Some of them are big enough for a castle (well, at least a replica of one) some are big enough for a house but on some, it is only possible to fit small hut or a birdhouse. I drove the scenic byway on the Canadian side of river but I’m sure the New York State side is interesting as well.

Many of the roads mentioned above are all relatively well known and you can find them in guidebooks and brochures. But the US is a country full of great driving experiences. I particularly like the empty roads of central United States. The best ones are designated as tourist roads but they still might not be well known outside America, or even inside the county for that matter, which is a pity. Take for example the Sand Hills Scenic Byway in Nebraska or Flint Hills Scenic Byway and Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas. These roads gently roll across the empty but strangely interesting and wild landscape of the American prairies. For me the biggest attraction of them is this emptiness which is usually difficult to experience in Western Europe, maybe apart from Scandinavia and parts of Scottish highlands. Other less spectacular and less known scenic highways worth a drive are often designated by some states. Two of them are for example Arkansas Hwy 7 and Arkansas Hwy 21. These twisted and curvy roads run across the heavily forested parts of the Ozark Hills and are often as deserted as some roads in Wyoming. Great place to try your cornering skills 😉

But even if roads are not marked as scenic byways some of them are simple a joy to drive. I love the empty state and US highways cutting across the prairies of Dakotas and Nebraska or the farmlands of Kansas and Oklahoma. They are straight, usually smooth, with views stretching all the way to the distant horizon and the big sky above. And the lack of trees in those regions makes the horizon even further away and the sky even bigger. Great examples of such roads are US Hwy 189 in Wyoming, from Evanston towards the Jackson Hole or US Hwy 85 connecting North and South Dakota. With country music radio station turned on I can drive for hours, or even days, without getting anywhere in particular. I like it so much that probably half of my pictures taken in USA have roads or roads signs on them.

Why roads signs? I guess because they are as iconic as roads and places themselves. Imagine signs standing in the middle of nowhere and showing distances and directions to places like Death Valley, Dodge City or Deadwood. On one hand American highways are simple and logically marked, on the other hand you have to remember that apart from the federal system each state has its own highways with distinctive road numbers and road signs. I love those varied state highways shields. In Utah there is image of beehive, in Washington State, the profile of the head of George Washington, in North Dakota there is head of Native American. And those are only few examples. Compared with that, European road signs are deadly boring and logical.

Of course there is another side of the American road. Its busy urban freeways, those wide rivers of concrete and tarmac with gigantic multilevel junctions. For many it must be an image of hell on earth, like for example the infamous freeways of LA. But for me it has some strange magnetic pull. When I navigate through 12 or 16 lanes of LA or Dallas freeway it gives me some difficult to explain thrill and excitement. It’s completely opposite extreme to the empty roads of, let say, Wyoming. America is land of contrasts. Its emptiest roads are much quieter than anywhere in Europe but its busiest freeways are busier than anywhere else. Driving through some of the junctions is like entering a temple of car culture. One of these places is famous (among the road enthusiast) Texas High Five. It is a five (yes five!) level intersection of the Interstate Hwy 635, US Hwy 75 and some local roads in Dallas. And there are more of similar junctions, especially in Texas and California which are true car heavens.

So, if you really want to experience the real, non touristy, side of America you have to drive its highways, eat at the roadside fast food joints, stop for a break at the truck stops and sleep in the roadside motels. For some it might be unethical and environmentally unfriendly, for others boring and uninspiring. But if, like me, you love the smell of petrol and tarmac you will simply love it.

Mississippi River

Mississippi is difficult word. Especially for non native English speaker, like me, all those double consonants were impossible to memorize. Only after some years I learnt how to spell it. It is also one of those names which start imagination. When I was young I was looking at maps of USA and this great river was always catching my attention. Then there were books, (anyone remembers Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer) and movies which placed Mississippi deep in my head. Finally, last summer, I decided to visit central USA, including the Mississippi river valley.

I started my trip in rather unusual place which was Davenport, Iowa. Now, it is not where most people start travelling alongside the Mississippi River. Iowa in general is not a state where tourists are going in droves. In my case I had to cross it on my way from the great plains of Dakotas and Nebraska to the Great River itself. Davenport didn’t really look like city worth stopping, (apart from the night in a cheap motel), so I immediately crossed to Moline, Illinois, which I would probably pass as well but I got lost. But let’s start from the beginning. I got off the highway to stop at the Illinois welcome center. Most states in the US operate tourist information centers alongside the major interstates. They are usually real mines of useful, as well as useless, information, brochures and glossy magazines. After getting all I needed I was trying to go back to the interstate 80 but somehow ended up in Moline. Driving up and down, trying to get back to the freeway, I found place called the John Deere pavilion. John Deere is one of the American icons. In the Midwest John Deere baseball cap is as important part of the local clothing as Stetson hat is in the American west. Pavilion itself, apart from great gift shop full of toy machines and branded clothing, offered a chance of getting into some seriously big machines. Where else could you try how it feels to sit in the driver’s seat of a combine harvester or the 8345RT tractor with caterpillars instead of wheels? If you have even a bit of child left in you, don’t skip this place!

From Moline I used main roads away from the river to get to Hannibal, Missouri where the real trip along the Mississippi started. Hannibal is small, quintessentially American, town famous as a place where Mark Twain grew up. The town became inspiration for fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nowadays the biggest attractions in town are those connected to the great writer himself like his boyhood home, museum or J.M. Clemens Justice of the peace office (Mark’s father office). But the best way of experiencing the town is to wonder aimlessly around its few streets enjoying lazy atmosphere. South of town there is a vista point on top of the high bluff which offers great view of the Mississippi valley and the town of Hannibal itself. Similarly good view you can find north of downtown from the lighthouse. Yes, there is a lighthouse in Hannibal, thousands of kilometers from the nearest ocean.

The best way of following Mississippi is to drive the Great River Road, a well marked scenic byway, running almost the entire length of the river. It uses local, county and state highways on both banks of the river as close to the water as possible. Navigation is made easy by signs featuring steering wheel but it helps to have some detailed map as this road can be a bit more complicated than you might expect from a popular tourist route. I decided to follow eastern branch of it which offered a taste of the real rural Illinois. Fields, farms, small towns, lush greenery and heat.

After passing towns Quincy and Warsaw I arrived to Nauvoo. It is small town, with population just above one thousand, but historically quite important. In 1839 group of Mormons settled there, among them Joseph Smith founder of the religion and Brigham Young, leader who after death of Smith led Mormons west to Utah territory. Because of that it is a place where you can probably see more Utah license plates than anywhere outside the Utah itself. Today Nauvoo is a very well preserved town with number of historic houses and local businesses (like black smith shop, bakery, post office or gunsmith shop) looking almost exactly as they did 160 years ago. There is also replica of the historic temple. Build in 2002 but looks identical as the original one.

North of Nauvoo I continued along the Great River Road. It wasn’t the most spectacular part of it. Land was flat and I couldn’t see river from the road as it was hidden behind the tall levees. Finally, I spend a night on some god forgotten campground where mosquitoes wanted to eat me alive.
In northern Illinois things got much more interesting. High bluffs appeared on the both sides of the river with road squeezed between them and the Mississippi itself. One of the best places to explore this varied topography is Mississippi Palisades State Park. Short hiking trails lead from parking lots to scenic overlooks from where you can see the river valley stretching for miles north and south. Apart from a spectacular topography, the northern Illinois (and Iowa on the western bank of Mississippi) offer interesting small towns like Fulton, Clinton, Savanna or Sabula, the last one located on the island in the middle of the river.

The most famous of them is actually few miles of the Mississippi. Galena at its peak in the mid-19th century was booming mining community with population of 14,000. Now, with only 3,500 inhabitants, it is much more quiet place. Its downtown is almost completely preserved and is full of historic houses and churches located on a hilly terrain. One of the main attractions is home of general Ulysses S. Grant, the civil war hero. The whole town is a perfect place for lazy stroll, doing some shopping, or having a nice meal. It is also very photogenic but the best time to take pictures is in the earlier part of the day as it is located mostly on the north-western slopes and in the afternoon you will have sun facing you. After Galena I left Mississippi river valley for a while and moved inland to southern Wisconsin. My destination was town of New Glarus. As the name suggests it was established as a Swiss community and even now in the countryside surrounding the highway leading there you can spot farms proudly displaying Swiss flags next to the American ones. The town itself offers quite bizarre experience with some pseudo-alpine buildings. In some moments you can get really confused. Are we still in USA? But all this unashamed commercialization hide community with really interesting history. You can explore it in Swiss Historical Village which preserve some original wooden buildings from the early pioneer times. At the end you can have pizza in pizzeria Ticino, which looks exactly like moved from the Alps.

After continuing my detour to Madison, where I visited Wisconsin State Capitol, it was time to get back to the river. In Wisconsin the Great River Road follows state highway 35 and it is a truly spectacular drive. One place which you shouldn’t miss is the Wyalusing State Park at the confluence of Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, just south of the Prairie Du Chien. It offers spectacular views from the 150m tall bluffs, on top of which you can find prehistoric Indian mounds. Campground in the park has some of the best tent sites I have seen in my life. They are located right on the bluffs edge so you can see spectacular views practically from your tent. Unfortunately they have to be reserved in advance, so I couldn’t stay there. That caused other problems. There was some convention or gathering going on the weekend I was there so all the hotels in Prairie Du Chien, and also in town of McGregor on the Iowa side of river, were full. I ended up driving over 20 miles west, inland into rural Iowa, to the town of Postville where I stayed in the worst motel in my life. Doggy, dirty, creepy, with bad service and not as cheap as you could imagine.

Anyway, the following morning weather was great and I got back to the river in a good mood indeed. North of Prarie Du Chien lays probably the most spectacular part of the Mississippi Valley. Almost all the way to the outskirts of St. Paul (about 200 miles away) you encounter one amazing vista after another one. The valley is also dotted with small towns like Ferryville, Genoa, Stockholm, De Soto or Alma. They usually contain few houses, a bar or two, local shop, sometimes a gas station, all which makes them very tranquil. It is also fun to cross the river on some narrow and steep steel bridges linking Wisconsin with northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. It is big attraction especially for road and bridge geeks like me. One of the best spots to enjoy the great view of the Mississippi valley is Garvin Heights City Park in Winona, Minnesota. Located just off the US Hwy 61, this view point offers an amazing vista of Winona, which is located in the middle of the valley, and the surrounding countryside. Equally good view you can find from Wabasha Overlook at the outskirts of the town of Wabasha, also in Minnesota just few miles up the river. The difference is that if you can drive to the viewpoint in Winona you have to climb to the one in Waabasha. The landscape is really impressive all the way to suburbs of the Twin Cities.

It was my dream for many years to follow the Mississippi river. I red books about it, explored maps, watched movies etc. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed seeing it in reality.