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Explore the Nation’s History Aboard a River Cruise

By most standards, the United States is a young country. Many early and critical chapters in our development were penned in journals that exist to this day or were even captured in photograph. The nation is also expansive, geographically diverse, and often life-affirmingly beautiful. Railroads and superhighways might have officially opened the country for business, but its rivers allowed for the exploration and expansion that unlocked its doors. There might not be a better way to connect with the country and its history than via river. Here are some great ways to do so.

The Mississippi

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A strong case can be made that the river that helped mold and shape the country and its identity the most, is the mighty Mississippi. From the Midwest to the Deep South, and across 10 states, the Mississippi explores the country, quite literally, from top to bottom. Upper or lower river trips take about a week with complete river voyages lasting upwards of 22 days.

The lower section of the river encapsulates American culture: the Cajun and Creole of New Orleans, antebellum homes and Civil War battlefields of Mississippi, and the BBQ, jazz, blues, and rock ’n’ roll of Memphis. Upriver, take in St. Louis as well as Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown and inspiration for much of Mark Twain’s literary career. Continuing, other noteworthy highlights include Dubuque, Iowa, and the forests as well as the wildlife viewing opportunities of Wisconsin and Minnesota, before finishing up in St. Paul.

The Ohio

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At nearly 1,000 miles long, and with its own captivating story to tell, the Ohio River is far more than just a tributary of the Mississippi. With a watershed encompassing 15 states, the Ohio opened up America’s expansion into the West. Trips from Pittsburgh to St. Louis run eight to 10 days.

Cruises start in Pittsburgh where commerce along the Ohio was bolstered by the “Steel City.” The cruise continues by old steamboat stops in Ohio and on into Kentucky — the home of Bluegrass as well as some critical Underground Railroad locations. Continuing into Missouri stops include historic Civil War sites and important Native American grounds. Cruises end in another cultural cornerstone, St. Louis.

The Columbia

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More than 200 years ago, the Lewis and Clark Expedition embarked on an epic two-year sojourn that mapped the Columbia and helped inspire the migration of pioneers and those with a pioneer spirit, to this day. Cruises that range from four to eight days, trace much of it, often with an additional journey up the Snake River to the border of Idaho.

Starting in Portland, one of the country’s new capitals of food and drink, trips get going on the Willamette River before joining the Columbia and heading out to the mouth of the river at Astoria. From there, it’s back upriver and into one of the most inspiring sections of the Lewis and Clark explorations, the Columbia River Gorge. Stops at Multnomah Falls, The Dalles, and Pendleton, offer further photo ops before ending in Clarkston, Washington, where some operators offer a jet boat ride into Hells Canyon.

The Hudson

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Early American history and stunning scenery, particularly in fall, are the hallmarks of a Hudson River cruise. Guarded by the Catskill Mountains to the west and the Taconic Mountains and Berkshire Hills to the east, a roughly week-long trip through the Hudson Valley is a quintessential Northeast excursion.

Starting in New York City and turning around in Albany, the yin and yang of the Hudson is an easy and pleasant reveal. Between those two bookends, a number of the cities and towns date back to Dutch and English rule. Stops and highlights include the Vanderbilt Mansion, the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Olana State Historic Site, West Point Military Academy, and the town of Sleepy Hollow, immortalized by Washington Irving.

The St. John’s River and Tolomato

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This journey essentially traces the route taken by explorers in the 19th century searching for a tropical Shangri-la. In some ways, they found it. The St. Johns and Tolomato rivers explore a unique section of north Florida that is all at once home to throngs of wildlife, a bustling metropolis, and the oldest city in America. A week-long cruise visits it all.

Beginning in Jacksonville on the St. John’s, one of only a handful of north-flowing rivers above the equator, the cruise sets out for the charming town of Palatka before reaching Lake George and the Ocala National Forest. Visitors will want to keep an eye out for alligators, black bears, and manatees. Once on the Tolomato, the river narrows but the scenery remains strikingly wild all the way to St. Augustine. Founded in 1565, the explorable town is home to narrow streets, impressive architecture, and historic ruins.

–Written by Adam Sawyer

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