Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Every U.S. state that touches the Mississippi River has a story, and with endless ways to experience history, culture and dining along this iconic waterway, travellers have an invitation into the “heart of America.”
That is the promise (and tagline) of Mississippi River Country, a group that promotes the ten states along America’s most famous river, including the places, people and attractions that make it special.
“Some of our destinations are well known, like New Orleans,” said Lyn Pilch, managing director at Mississippi River Country, speaking to PAX at an info dinner Monday night (Feb. 27) at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum. “But then we have a state like Arkansas, which some people don't know, and it's a delightful state with lots of outdoor activities, like hot springs.”
The genesis of this specific north, central and southern strip in the U.S, as a tourism product, dates back to the mid-1980s when it was solely promoted to the Japanese market.
In 2018, the group regrouped and decided to expand its marketing to Canada, an activation that launched last year.
Why Canada? Pilch said the group saw “a void” in that many of its members states were not represented north of the border (with exception to Louisiana) and that some destinations “were falling through the cracks.”
“It became a collective effort for us to introduce Mississippi River Country to Canada in a new way,” Pilch told PAX.
The result of this strategy was the launch of a new English language website, MississippiRiverCountry.com, which serves as a resource for itinerary ideas within the ten states the group represents.
Travel ideas aren’t limited to geography. Rather, they’re organized by themes, and “Music,” Pilch said, is the most popular.
“We are the birthplace of almost every single music genre created in the U.S.,” she said. “Jazz, blues, country music – it was all born in Mississippi River Country.”
“Food and Agriculture,” she said, comes in second. Mississippi River Country produces all kinds of produce, from dairy to fishing to soybeans to rice.
“It’s very much a farm-to-table region,” Pilch said.
And visitors to the website can find things they’re interested in, by theme, without previously knowing where things are located.
For example: the region is home to more than 15 Frank Lloyd Wright properties. Architecture lovers (or travel agents) can use the website to match themselves (or clients) with U.S. locations that are home to famous structures.
Mississippi River Country - in focus
Last night’s participants included Illinois (the Illinois Office of Tourism, Heritage Corridor Destinations, Visit Springfield and Great Rivers and Routes), Tennessee (Memphis Travel), Arkansas (the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism), Mississippi (Visit Ridgeland and Visit Vicksburg) and Louisiana (the Louisiana Office of Tourism).
Illinois, located in the Midwestern U.S., is nicknamed "the Prairie State” for its abundance of farmland, forests and wetlands.
Its largest cities include Chicago, St. Louis, Peoria, Rockford, and Springfield (its capital) and the state takes pride in promoting local businesses.
“We've got that everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to hotdogs on a stick that you dip in corn batter,” said Mary Twomey of the Illinois Office of Tourism. “I’d also argue that we've got the best pizza in the country.”
(The stuffed variety, in particular).
The Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, promotes experiences within communities along the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, which starts a few miles southwest of Chicago and extends southwest through Starved Rock Country.
Attractions include the I&M canal (a mid-1800s, 96-mile landmark), the first hundred miles of Route 66 (celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2026) and adventure/water parks, such as Raging Waves Waterpark.
In Springfield, visitors can explore the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, who lived there for 17 years before his election as the 16th president of the United States. History buffs can tour Lincoln’s home and even visit his tomb.
Architecture lovers may gravitate towards Dana-Thomas House, a lavish home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright during his early Prairie period, originally built for socialite Susan Lawrence Dana.
And Route 66 runs right through town, offering up local restaurants and experiences.
In the Great Rivers & Routes region, there are more than 320 kilometres of hiking and biking trails, from nature excursions (such as the Fall Foliage and History Tour) to thrills (Aerie’s Resort offers zip-lining and its family-friendly “Alpine Coaster”) to culinary connections (Collinsville, IL, is said to supply 80 per cent of the world's horseradish).
Over to Memphis, in southwest Tennessee, there are roots in blues, soul and rock 'n' roll.
This city is a mecca for music lovers. It’s where Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Johnny Cash recorded albums, and Presley’s Graceland mansion is a popular attraction (that’s seeing even more interest following the release of the 2022 biographical film, Elvis, by Baz Luhrmann).
Memphis is also famous for its comfort food – there are more than 100 barbeque restaurants, including vegan and fine dining options, and some 200 chicken wing establishments.
In Arkansas, visitors have the great outdoors at the fingertips, from wilderness areas that encompass mountains, caves, rivers and hot springs to the Ozarks region in its northwest, which has hiking trails and caves, such as Blanchard Springs Caverns.
The state is home to Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home, which offers tours, as well as Crater of Diamonds State Park, where the public can dig for real diamonds in their original volcanic source.
“Whatever you find, you keep,” noted Kim Williams of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
Over to Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta region is widely considered the birthplace of blues music. And Ridgeland, located on the Natchez Trace Parkway, with ample bike trails, is a cycler’s paradise.
Here, one unique draw is the “Snappy Sync” fireflies experience at the Bill Waller Craft Centre.
Near the end of May, visitors can witness the magic of thousands of twinkling Snappy Sync fireflies flashing together during a special, 20-minute guided tour near the historic Old Trace.
It’s a big deal, given that these rare fireflies do this dance for a short period of time. And each tour is led by a Mississippi Master Naturalist.
Visit Vicksburg is also all about promoting the great outdoors. Visitors can explore museums, public art and partake in interesting tours, such as the African American Heritage Tour.
And last (but not least), there’s Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico – a melting pot of French, African, American and French-Canadian cultures.
From New Orleans (famous for its colonial-era French Quarter, Mardi Gras festival, jazz music, Renaissance-style St. Louis Cathedral and wartime exhibits) to the capital of Baton Rouge (home to the castle-like Old Louisiana State Capitol, now a museum) to Lafayette (the heart of Cajun and Creole country), Louisiana offers travel that can “feed your soul,” as the tagline for the state’s tourism board reads.
New in New Orleans, for one, is “Vue Orleans,” an indoor/outdoor observation deck and cultural exhibit featuring the only 360-degree panoramic views of the city.
And the lively state, with its coastal marshes, swamps and savannahs, is set up for one amazing road trip as many destinations in Louisiana are within driving distance of each other.
Useful for travel advisors
How can Canadian travel advisors benefit from Mississippi River Country?
“We have great relationships with the communities in these ten states,” Pilch explained. “We’re able to find exclusive opportunities for packages that maybe others don't have.”
For example: if you were planning a music-themed itinerary, and you’ve scheduled lunch in Clarksdale [Mississippi] – “we can not only give you lunch, but we can also have a blues musician play for you,” Pilch said.
“We plan Chef's tables, cooking classes…we can offer those unique experiences that people can’t get while travelling on their own. Which offers more value.”
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