Updated November 21, 2019
The popularity of Mississippi River cruising is seeing a resurgence; three paddlewheelers ply the Big Muddy every summer and Viking River Cruises will bring six modern boats to the river over a three-year period beginning 2017. Cruisers interested in the Mississippi have two main itinerary choices: the lower Mississippi River, from New Orleans to either Memphis or St. Louis, and the upper Mississippi River, from St. Louis to Red Wing or St. Paul, Minnesota.
Along the lower Mississippi River, passengers visit cities steeped in Civil War history, as well as era plantations and battlefields. The upper Mississippi is considerably more scenic and the Midwestern towns visited provide a slice of Americana.
On our seven-day Upper Mississippi sailing onboard American Queen Steamboat Company's American Queen, we visited cities and towns in Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Read on to discover what a cruise on the Upper Mississippi River is like.
--By Dori Saltzman, Editor
All photos courtesy of Dori Saltzman, Editor
The 436-passenger American Queen is the only true paddlewheeler offering overnight cruises on the Mississippi River. (The wheel is not just decorative, but actually propels the boat forward.) The boat features four lounges, a dining room and alternate eatery, and a main theater modeled after Washington D.C.'s Ford's Theatre.
Tip: Though river cruise lines sailing the Mississippi River typically offer at least one free excursion in every port, consider doing a little research on your own. Many ports have more to offer, especially outdoor activities, than what the cruise lines highlight.
All Upper Mississippi River cruises stop in Hannibal, Missouri, where Samuel Clemens spent his formative childhood years having adventures that inspired many of his books and stories. Visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum and see the white picket fence Tom Sawyer's aunt wanted him to whitewash.
Tip: Take your time inside the interpretive center at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. There is a lot to read and a long video to sit and watch, but it makes the rest of your visit to his home and Becky Thatcher's house more meaningful.
Hannibal also has a thriving artist community, and American Queen Steamboat Company offers its passengers the chance stretch their inner artist at Ayers Pottery. After a quick lesson on throwing clay on a pottery wheel, you can make your own small bowl.
Tip: If your river company doesn't offer a pottery-making tour, contact Ayers Pottery well in advance of your cruise to find out if someone will be available to lead a class.
A stop in Clinton, Iowa, gives you a chance to visit towns in two different states during the same visit. In Clinton, you'll want to visit the Sawmill Museum in order to understand the importance of the lumber industry to the town's growth. Across the river in Fulton, Illinois, you can visit the De Immigrant Windmill, which the townspeople (mostly of Dutch descent) brought over from the Netherlands.
Tip: Make time to tour the George M. Curtis Mansion, once owned by a lumber baron. Check out the carved banisters and ornate trim, all made using different woods; Curtis styled each room of his house to display the various types of lumber he sold.
Navigating the River
As your riverboat makes its way into Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Mississippi River gets crowded with small islets, and the deep part of the channel narrows. Pilots must follow a prescribed path, staying in between navigational buoys to avoid grounding.
Tip: Talk to your onboard riverlorian if you want to know more about navigation on the Mississippi River, and take time to watch the scenery go by. It's relaxing and there are lots of opportunities for wildlife sightings, especially as you move north.
A multimillion-dollar revitalization project has transformed Dubuque's riverfront and downtown area into a thriving tourist attraction. Don't miss the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, the Dubuque Museum of Art or the Fenelon Place Elevator.
Tip: Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged before heading up the 296-foot-long Fenelon Place Elevator; it's the best place to get panoramic photos of downtown Dubuque and the Mississippi River.
Field of Dreams
Thirty miles inland from Dubuque, Iowa, sits the baseball field used in the filming of the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams." Visitors can walk the plates, sit on the same bleachers as Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones or walk into the rows of corns listening for whispers in the wind.
Tip: Most river cruise visits to Dubuque are long enough to combine a visit to the Field of Dreams with time spent in the city. Arrange with a local taxi company to have someone waiting to whisk you away to the movie site as soon as your boat arrives in town.
Locks and Bridges
There are dozens of bridges spanning the Mississippi, most too low for a steamboat with tall smokestacks to get under. To get around this, American Queen's smokestacks fold down. The ship also must pass through more than 25 locks on the Upper Mississippi.
Tip: Head outside whenever your boat passes under a bridge or goes through a lock. Not only are those moments great photo ops, but at some of the locks you'll be able to engage in conversation with a curious local who stopped by to watch the boat go through.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Folks in La Crosse, Wisconsin, embrace their past, with volunteers greeting riverboat visitors while dressed in their best 19th-century finery. Stop to chat or take a photo and get the inside scoop on interesting places in La Crosse to visit.
Tip: Self-guided walking tour maps are available from the La Crosse Visitor's Bureau, with directions to and descriptions of some 20 buildings in the city's historic downtown.
The Norwegian Valley
To learn more about the history of Norwegians in the Midwest, plan a visit to the recreated homestead of Norskedalen (the Norwegian Valley), where you'll hear about the trials and tribulations of early Norse immigrants from re-enactors. It's about 30 minutes away from La Crosse.
Tip: A visit to Norskedalen takes about an hour (unless you want to hit their 6 miles of nature trails) so there's plenty of time to see both the village and La Crosse; you'll need to prearrange transportation.
Red Wing, Minnesota
The starting (or end) port for some Upper Mississippi cruises, Red Wing, Minnesota, is best known as the home of Red Wing Shoes and Red Wing Pottery. You can visit the showrooms of both companies; at the Red Wing Shoe store you'll find the world's largest boot measuring some 20 feet long, 7 feet wide and 16 feet tall.
Tip: Those looking for a more active way to explore Red Wing and environs can rent bikes from the St. James Hotel. The minimum rental is four hours and prices include trail passes and a to-go lunch. Call ahead to reserve bikes.
Keep your eyes peeled when sailing the Northern parts of the Upper Mississippi; there are bald eagles all along this stretch of the river and you're bound to see quite a few. But if you want a nose-to-beak encounter with these majestic birds, arrange for a taxi ride from Red Wing to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha.
Tip: Try to sit as close to the front as you can during the one-hour presentation (wait 'til the next one if you're too far back and you've got the time); you'll be able to feel the wind from the eagle's flapping wings.