Explore Highway 79; A Colorful Adventure Awaits

Missouri Division of Tourism Director Katie Steele Danner prepares to cut the ribbon during ceremonies at the Highway 79 opening celebration.

The World Series has St. Louis in the national and international spotlight, and we all hope that the St. Louis Cardinals can be the comeback team of the year by taking games 6 and 7 this week in St. Louis.

But as the sports enthusiasts follow the boys of summer into their final games, Missourians to the north of St. Louis are already celebrating their momentous comeback.

I was honored to be the keynote speaker for the grand re-opening of Scenic Highway 79 in Northeast Missouri last week.  I joined Dave Silvester, Assistant District Engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation, and area elected officials as we encouraged all to “Explore Highway 79 … A Colorful Adventure,” (click here to read a news story on the event).

Linking Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, often called “America’s Hometown,” to the smaller cities of Louisiana, Ashburn, and Clarksville, Missouri’s Highway 79 runs parallel to the mighty Mississippi River. These communities were once riverboat boom towns; their Italianate and Victorian architecture is a tribute to their wealthy settlers. Like many boom towns, the wealth provided by the riverboats and railroads went away and many of the old mansions and businesses were abandoned.

Now, yesteryear is revived. Route 79 offers a scenic drive with a tourist’s eye view of Old Man River, rolling hills, limestone bluffs and soaring eagles. Opening this important thoroughfare, we help boost the economy in Clarksville, Louisiana, and Hannibal. Named “Fifty Miles of Art,” the old road acts as a corridor for artwork, crafts and galleries, offering many opportunities to artists and photographers alike to capture magnificent panoramic views on canvas or film. The once-abandoned buildings, particularly in Louisiana, are being preserved and renovated. Each of the three communities has events planned throughout the year to encourage tourism and further promote revitalization.

At Clarksville to the north of Louisiana, Highway 79-called the Little Dixie Highway of the Great River Road-has been designated as one of our Nation’s Scenic Byways, encouraging more travel into the area and further boosting the economy. The National Scenic Byways Program was created by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 or better known in FHWA circles as ISTEA. The program offers a way to preserve the scenery for everyone to enjoy, as well as economic benefits to local communities through tourism, hospitality, and various activities.

The element of art and nature certainly compliments the beauty of Highway 79.  From Hannibal’s River Arts Festival, to Louisiana’s Great Mansions and Estates Tour, to Clarksville’s Lock and Dam 24 Bald Eagles Winter Migration, to the Fifty Miles of Art Tour, Missouri’s Scenic Byway 79 brings the tourism and revenue that will restore and preserve the lifestyle along this historic stretch of the Mississippi River.  When the 50 Miles of Art event opens the first weekend in November, this arts corridor will celebrate, for the first time in two years, attendees’ ability to travel the entire length of Highway 79.

In Clarksville you’ll find Lock & Dam 24, where hundreds of Bald Eagles migrate, fish and nest during the winter months. Clarksville is known as one of the best Bald Eagle viewing areas in the United States. Many artists call Clarksville home. Visit the cluster of antique shops and galleries located on Second Street (Hwy. 79), Howard and Front Streets downtown. This entire district is on the National Historic Register.

Explore the "Fifty Miles of Art" along Highway 79.

Louisiana is home to some of the areas’ best known artists. The Louisiana Mural Organization has completed many community murals, and a sculpture park featuring international and acclaimed American sculptors is located outside Louisiana. The project was started by Henry Lay, alumni of Saint Louis University, who wished to use his estate as a place to promote the arts in Northeast Missouri. The sculpture park features site specific works of Story Woods, a children’s interactive sculpture area, and the Lay Center for Education and the Arts.

In Hannibal you will find additional creative artists using mediums from glass to paints. Although Hannibal is known for Mark Twain, there is more to see and do in this town of wonderment than you ever imagined.

Whether you are a waterfowl hunter, a hiker, a bicyclist, a motorcycle rider, a camper, a bird watcher, an arts lover, a nature enthusiast, or someone who refers to Missouri Highway 79 as the: Mississippi Bike Trail, the Great River Road, the Mississippi River Water Trail, Pike’s Passage, the Arts Tour, or the Little Dixie Highway, you will be able to enjoy scenic vistas and overlooks from high bluffs.

We appreciate the patience of the travelers who can, once again, travel Missouri Highway 79 and find a bird’s-eye view of the river and the lush Mississippi Valley.  The valley is a deep shade of green most of the time, full of dark, fertile soil that has provided food for Americans for centuries. The Pinnacle, at 850 feet above sea level, is the highest point on the Mississippi River. Barges, boats, and even the occasional riverboat can be seen from various overlooks.

Whatever your pleasure, we are sure that with this newly opened road, you will enjoy the ride on Route 79.  And you may even see a rally squirrel.

Written by Missouri Division of Tourism Director Katie Steele Danner.