How to Choose a U.S. River Itinerary

by Fran Golden

How to Choose a U.S. River Itinerary

by Fran Golden

River cruises can give you a whole new perspective on the American landscape, as you ply the mighty Mississippi on a steamboat, follow in Lewis and Clark's wake out west, or check out the foliage in New York. The pace is slow and the water is typically calm, making for a relaxed journey. Even more relaxing: Not having to shell out for an international plane ticket, or a plane ticket at all, if you are within driving distance of the embarkation port. Here are some of the top U.S. river cruise itineraries. 

5
Columbia River Gorge / iStock.com / jeffwang
New Orleans' French Quarter
1 of 5
1. Lower Mississippi

The legendary Mississippi — the world's fourth-largest river — flows north to south through the middle of America. These itineraries feature sleepy river towns, Southern cities, and, of course, plenty of Civil War history. Cruises are available virtually year-round and include experiences on classic-style steamboats that explore the stretch between New Orleans and the "Blues City" of Memphis. (Some also run roundtrips from New Orleans.) 

The legendary Mississippi — the world's fourth-largest river — flows north to south through the middle of America. These itineraries feature sleepy river towns, Southern cities, and, of course, plenty of Civil War history. Cruises are available virtually year-round and include experiences on classic-style steamboats that explore the stretch between New Orleans and the "Blues City" of Memphis. (Some also run roundtrips from New Orleans.) 

St. Louis Gateway Arch
2 of 5
2. Upper Mississippi

Cruising between St. Louis and Saint Paul, Upper Mississippi itineraries appeal mainly to those who want a good look at the heartland. Scenery includes dense foliage, open prairies, and limestone cliffs. This stretch is loaded with locks, and cruises are offered only between July and October (the fall itineraries bring a spectacular display of colors). Highlights include Hannibal, Missouri, the birthplace of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain); the Mark Twain Caves, where the legendary author explored as a kid; and, of course, the iconic Gateway Arch, which towers over the river. Along the way, you’ll also find opportunities to take the unusual funicular railway in Dubuque, Iowa; check out the brewery scene in La Crosse, Wisconsin; and purchase artisan ceramics in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Cruising between St. Louis and Saint Paul, Upper Mississippi itineraries appeal mainly to those who want a good look at the heartland. Scenery includes dense foliage, open prairies, and limestone cliffs. This stretch is loaded with locks, and cruises are offered only between July and October (the fall itineraries bring a spectacular display of colors). Highlights include Hannibal, Missouri, the birthplace of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain); the Mark Twain Caves, where the legendary author explored as a kid; and, of course, the iconic Gateway Arch, which towers over the river. Along the way, you’ll also find opportunities to take the unusual funicular railway in Dubuque, Iowa; check out the brewery scene in La Crosse, Wisconsin; and purchase artisan ceramics in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Whiskey Barrel House in Kentucky
3 of 5
3. Ohio and Tennessee Rivers

Less common summertime cruises explore Mississippi River tributaries, including the Ohio River between Memphis and Cincinnati. Visit John James Audubon's hometown of Henderson, Kentucky, and stop by Louisville for famous sights like Churchill Downs Racetrack and the Kentucky Derby Museum. There are also occasional cruises between St. Louis and Cincinnati, which emphasize Kentucky's famed Bourbon Trail.

Less common summertime cruises explore Mississippi River tributaries, including the Ohio River between Memphis and Cincinnati. Visit John James Audubon's hometown of Henderson, Kentucky, and stop by Louisville for famous sights like Churchill Downs Racetrack and the Kentucky Derby Museum. There are also occasional cruises between St. Louis and Cincinnati, which emphasize Kentucky's famed Bourbon Trail.

Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park
4 of 5
4. Hudson River

Hudson River cruises typically run roundtrip between New York City and Albany, and they're especially popular during peak foliage season. Weeklong cruises stop at different riverfront towns (including Kingston and Sleepy Hollow) to see sites like the Vanderbilt Mansion and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Additionally, many prominent families had mansions along the river that are now open to visitors: Besides the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers had Kykuit, while Lyndhurst is one of the most elaborate Gothic revival mansions in the U.S. Since the cruises start and end in Manhattan, you'll also have a chance to check out the urban foliage in Central Park, as well as plenty of other city sights.

Hudson River cruises typically run roundtrip between New York City and Albany, and they're especially popular during peak foliage season. Weeklong cruises stop at different riverfront towns (including Kingston and Sleepy Hollow) to see sites like the Vanderbilt Mansion and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Additionally, many prominent families had mansions along the river that are now open to visitors: Besides the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers had Kykuit, while Lyndhurst is one of the most elaborate Gothic revival mansions in the U.S. Since the cruises start and end in Manhattan, you'll also have a chance to check out the urban foliage in Central Park, as well as plenty of other city sights.

Multnomah Falls
5 of 5
5. Columbia and Snake Rivers

The scenic Columbia River is the largest in the Pacific Northwest, flowing south from Canada and dividing Oregon and Washington. Cruises explore the border between the states, along with a portion of the Snake River towards Idaho. Itineraries offered from spring to fall take you through the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, offering access to sights like Hells Canyon and Multnomah Falls. Along the way, you'll learn more about Lewis and Clark as you trace some of their western route and catch up on the region's vibrant Native American history. Drinking locally produced wine and tasting fresh-caught salmon and crab is part of the scene, too. The cruises are between Portland and the quaint small of Clarkston, Washington (named for Clark), across the Snake River from Lewiston (named for Lewis), Idaho.

The scenic Columbia River is the largest in the Pacific Northwest, flowing south from Canada and dividing Oregon and Washington. Cruises explore the border between the states, along with a portion of the Snake River towards Idaho. Itineraries offered from spring to fall take you through the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, offering access to sights like Hells Canyon and Multnomah Falls. Along the way, you'll learn more about Lewis and Clark as you trace some of their western route and catch up on the region's vibrant Native American history. Drinking locally produced wine and tasting fresh-caught salmon and crab is part of the scene, too. The cruises are between Portland and the quaint small of Clarkston, Washington (named for Clark), across the Snake River from Lewiston (named for Lewis), Idaho.

Up next...

10 Best Ports for Fun Fall Activities

Koblenz, Germany
Go Back
Find The Best Cruises
Find a cruise

Find the best deals!

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices