Mississippi River Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

New Exhibit & Concerts Rock Mud Island River Park This Summer

I’m feeling that late-summer panic of seeing the first day of school on the calendar and realizing the party’s about to end. In response, I’m treating my kid/research assistant to every last summery hurrah in and around Memphis. Last Friday, that led us to Mud Island River Park.

We typically visit this park just once or twice a season. We should do better. Wading through the River Walk, my daughter’s favorite part, is free. She never tires of it (and, keeping up after her, I never get to read as many of the interpretive signs as I want to). On a pretty afternoon like last Friday, we could have stayed hours longer – her, splashing through the entire five-block replica of the Lower Mississippi River; me, lingering over the stories of each city and skirmish along the path.

The Riverwalk at Memphis' Mud Island River Park is an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River flowing from its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois 954 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Dan Ball. Copyright © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011 All Rights Reserved.

The River Walk at Memphis’ Mud Island River Park is an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River flowing from its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, 954 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. Interpretive signs dish on key cities and historic events along the river’s course. Photo by Dan Ball. Copyright © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011 All Rights Reserved.

We did journey all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, a millionish-gallon pool where you can rent pedal boats and savor this view of downtown Memphis:

Mud Island River Park in Memphis, Tennessee

But for this visit, we’d received a tip on a new exhibit in the park’s Mississippi River Museum. We worked through the museum’s permanent galleries, a thorough look at the Native Americans, European explorers, Civil War soldiers, steamboat culture and musical styles that have clashed and flowed with the river.

bottles Circa 1845

In the Mississippi River Museum’s permanent galleries, you’ll find artifacts from weapons to the quotidien, including these bottles dated around 1845.

An 1870s-era steamboat  grand salon and pilothouse and stateroom

Somewhere around the middle of your tour, you’ll step aboard the 1870s-era “Belle of the Bluffs,” a three-level steamboat showing off her grand salon, stateroom and pilothouse. The vessel stands in water, her decks stacked with bales of cotton.

Captain T.P. Leathers, Mark Twain, gamblers and performers

Then you’ll meet characters of the steamboat era, including Captain T.P. Leathers (pictured here), Mark Twain, gamblers and performers.

Musical instruments

Of course, several of the permanent galleries sing the soundtrack of the river, highlighting Delta Blues, jazz, rock and soul.

At the end of the 18 permanent galleries (allot a minimum of one hour), we arrived at the new exhibit, a traveling installation known as RiverWorks Discovery®: A Journey of Exploration.

As our tipster foreshadowed, my daughter was THRILLED. She ran from station to colorful station engaging in activities like:

  • Touching everything on display, from examples of Native American tools to beaver pelts (used to demonstrate early trading on the river)

Mississippi River Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

  • Piecing together puzzles depicting a barge, a steamboat and river animals

Mississippi River Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

  • Playing these pipes to the tune of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”

Mississippi River Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

  • Turning a pilot wheel
  • Using touch screens to reveal facts about river personalities and to play conservation-themed games (such as helping a fish navigate a polluted waterway)
  • Maneuvering a wooden fish through the invasive species milfoil inside a plexiglass aquarium
  • Dressing up like a towboat captain (part of the exhibit’s message on river commerce)

More kid-friendliness: At 2,000 square feet, you won’t need more than an hour or so to experience RiverWorks Discovery, and its placement in a bright area of the museum with picture windows overlooking the Mississippi creates a welcoming discovery space. (Fair warning – the permanent gallery’s Civil War vignettes, dark and filled with the sounds of cannon fire, intimidated my almost six-year-old. As an adult, I thought they were pretty cool.)

Inside the museum's Civil War galleries, you can look down on the deck of a Union gunboat from a Confederate battery.

Inside the Civil War galleries, sight this Union gunboat from a mock Confederate battery.

RiverWorks Discovery will remain at the Mississippi River Museum through Oct. 31, 2013, when Mud Island River Park’s season officially ends. Until then, hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with last admission at 4 p.m. Buy the package ($10 for ages 12-59; $9 for ages 60-plus; $7 for ages 5-11; free for ages 4 and under) for a monorail ride over the Mississippi River to and from the park, museum admission and access to the River Walk. For $4/all ages, you can take the monorail ride a la carte – short but worth it, especially when you consider the free fun on the other side: the engineering marvel that is the River Walk; picnic tables and benches; epic views like this.

Mud Island River Park, Memphis, Tennessee

Bonus: Summer concerts at Mud Island Amphitheatre

After hours, the park’s Mud Island Amphitheatre hosts open-air concerts: Shinedown and Papa Roach on Sept. 4; Steely Dan on Sept. 6; Fall Out Boy with Panic at the Disco on Sept. 27; The Lumineers with Dr. Dog on Oct. 8. Link here for concert ticketing info.

How do you do Mud Island River Park? Tell us in the comments section below.

Looking for more great summer trip ideas? Visit our Summer in Tennessee site and enter our #MakeSummerLast sweepstakes for a chance to win a Tennessee vacation for 4 to Chattanooga!

Hi! I’m Samantha Crespo, and I am Floridian by birth, Tennessean by heart. Growing up, I vacationed in East Tennessee, so I...Read on

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