Traversing the Mississippi on Mud Island in Memphis, Tennessee

The Mississippi River on Mud Island

The Mississippi River on Mud Island

Something childlike takes over me when I go to Mud Island. I must go to the far north end of the Mississippi River and walk the length of it, from Illinois to Louisiana: Roughly one mile.

For me, and I think most who visit it, the big attraction at Mud Island is the large scale model of the Mississippi River. Odd, standing on an island in the middle of the actual Mississippi, that you can take a wandering journey along its miniature banks and wind up standing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. That, and who comes up with this stuff?

Mud Island’s Other Stuff

Sadly, Mud Island is a bit of a bust as a major tourist draw. Though I find the place to be buckets of funky and the half a dozen visiting friends I took there seemed impressed, the island is usually on the low registers of occupancy. It’s a shame because those people back on the mainland are missing out.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else. Memphis has a great knack for executing whacky ideas like this (see also: the Pyramid). Sometimes they are successful.
  • It’s a great time picking up little tidbit facts as you explore a river known the world over. All the while, next to you, a child is splashing barefoot in the model. It’s just a fun thing to be around.
  • Great for families, history buffs, lovers of an easy-going afternoon, fans of Mark Twain, steamboat captains, and those who need to take a stroll after gorging on Memphis BBQ.

Obviously, the river model is the showstopper, but there are other things to see and do as well. The island houses a pretty extensive Mississippi River museum, with special attention to the steamboat culture of old, including a full-sized replica of one of the vessels. There is a fun and pretty ancient monorail (Tom Cruise used it to escape the bad guys in The Firm) that transports visitors to the island. Music shows are held at the island’s outdoor amphitheater.

Make the Most of Your Visit

I always do several things when visiting Mud Island. The first is to park downtown as opposed to near it. I catch a ride from there on the trolley, which circles back and will let riders off right near the island’s entrance. Then, there are two options for getting out to the island: the monorail and the footbridge above it. I take one to get there and the other to get back. The monorail is creaky and old, but it was state-of-the-art back when the island kicked off, a detail I find endearing. I actually prefer the walk over because the views of the river and city are worth stopping to enjoy.

View of Mud Island from the Peabody Hotel

View of Mud Island from the Peabody Hotel

Without a doubt, the two major points of interests are the river model and the museum. I walk the length of the model first and use the museum to both bring some historical resonance to the river (and cool off after the walk). Typically, I’m pleased to be a pedestrian, so I take advantage of the pathways along the river to walk back towards Union Avenue. It’s easy to combine a visit to Mud Island with other downtown highlights like the Peabody Hotel, Auto Zone Park, Sun Studio (where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis kicked off their careers) and Beale Street.

I always like to start with Mud Island. The design of the park is exciting and interactive, and the Mississippi River is so integral to the history, culture, and fabric of river cities like Memphis. As a general rule, I think it’s a success when an attraction makes me want to learn more about where I am. After nearly a decade of visiting it, Mud Island still does that.

Practicalities

  • There are a lot of stairs, bridges, and obstacles to trip on, so if walking is a problem for you, this may not be the best of destinations. Also, in the summer, it’s a scorcher.
  • If you visit the Peabody, make sure you go to the roof of the hotel to visit the ducks, a famous institution. Every day there is a little event for taking the ducks from the roof down to the hotel lobby’s fountain—in the lobby elevator. It’s fun spectacle to watch.
  • Expect some of Mud Island’s concession facilities to be closed. While the island is worth the visit, its overall success as a tourist draw has been less than stellar in recent years.

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