The Mississippi River may be more famous for its steamboat history than any other river in the U.S., but the paddlewheel actually got its start on the Ohio River. The Ohio River is still a main thoroughfare for shipping and an integral part of the lives of locals along its banks. Despite the river traffic, Ohio River cruises are delightfully scenic and relaxing; there's more to see than you might expect.
Both Mississippi River and Ohio River cruises bookend their itineraries with large cities, but pack them full of the lifeblood-of-America small towns to give cruisers a real taste of Americana. Because Ohio River sailings always start or end on the Mississippi (either in St. Louis or Memphis), you can combine an Ohio River cruise with a Mississippi River sailing for a true American heartland voyage.
Here are our five tips for Ohio River cruises, covering everything from the best time to do an Ohio River cruise and top itineraries to things to pack and port highlights.
With the Lower Mississippi states at their hottest and muggiest during the summer, the bulk of the summer is split between mostly Upper Mississippi sailings and a select few Ohio River sailings in late June and into July. But even temperatures on the Ohio River can climb into the 90s and humidity is high during the summer. Always be prepared for sudden thunderstorms brought on by the humidity.
American Cruise Lines operates a few Queen of the Mississippi itineraries on the Ohio from Cincinnati to Memphis (or vice versa), while American Queen Voyages operates several on its namesake boat American Queen from St. Louis to Cincinnati (or vice versa).
Cruisers interested in the Ohio River typically have a few itinerary choices to choose from (both of which are offered going in either direction). Some are more often available than others, however.
St. Louis to Cincinnati: The start (or end depending on whether you're sailing up or downriver) is actually on the Mississippi, but the bulk of your cruise will be on the Ohio River. Stops might include Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Paducah, Brandenburg, Henderson and Louisville, Kentucky; and Madison, Indiana.
Memphis to Cincinnati: This itinerary includes a short amount of time on the Tennessee and Kentucky Rivers. Stops typically include New Madrid, Missouri; Paducah, Henderson and Louisville, Kentucky; and Madison, Indiana.
Cincinnati to Pittsburgh: This third itinerary is rarely offered. American Cruise Line (ACL) doesn't offer it at all, and American Queen Voyages (AQV) offers it no more than twice a year. Ports visited on this itinerary include Maysville, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Gallipolis and Marietta, Ohio; and Point Pleasant and Wheeling, West Virginia.
Pittsburgh to St. Louis: AQV doesn't offer this itinerary, but ACL does. ACL's itineraries that start in Pittsburgh and end in St. Louis (and vice versa) include popular ports like Cincinnati, Louisville, Paducah and Cape Girardeau, among others.
Every stop along the way of an Ohio River cruise is unique in its own way and can be highly enjoyable to travelers of all interests. While itineraries begin and end with big cities (St. Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati), Ohio River itineraries focus on small-town USA; there might be less to see, but residents love to welcome you into their town.
Here are many of the port highlights cruisers can revel in while on this famous flowing destination.
Cincinnati, Ohio: Located right on the Ohio River, visitors to Cincinnati can visit several National Historic Sites via charming walking tours. A must-visit museum is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Louisville, Kentucky: This part of Kentucky is famous for two things -- horse racing (its home to the Kentucky Derby) and whiskey (Jim Beam distillery anyone?).
Memphis, Tennessee: Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash -- Memphis is synonymous with music, be it blues, jazz or rock 'n' roll. Tour Presley's Graceland mansion or Sun Studio where Elvis, Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis all got their starts.
Stroll down Beale Street, peek into the dozens of music clubs, or explore the country's troubled history at the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Paducah, Kentucky: This tiny town of Paducah is located near the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, and its main attraction is a beautiful 50-piece mural. This mural details the history of Paducah from its early Native American roots through the Civil War and into the 20th century.
Henderson, Kentucky: The main attraction near small-town Henderson is the John James Audubon Museum. Here you'll learn about Audubon's life, view personal memorabilia and explore his original oil and watercolor paintings.
Madison, Indiana: A quiet river town (except during the Madison Regatta, a powerboat race which dates back to 1911), you'll see lots of Federal and Greek Revival-style homes here. Once the site of 13 saddletree (the frame on which saddles are built) factories, only the Schroeder Saddletree Factory and Museum (which operated for 94 years) remains fully intact.
States along the Ohio River in July can get pretty muggy and with humidity come mosquitoes. They're not so much of a problem on the river itself, but during port stops you'll want something to keep them away.