Cape Girardeau is a thriving river community located near the bootheel of southeastern Missouri. Rich in history and culture, the town features an array of attractions for all ages. The city makes a great getaway from St. Louis as it is a an easy 2 hour drive down I-55. We recently spent a day exploring the area and left wanting extra time to see even more. Here are our recommendations on some of the best places for a great visit.
Easy river access led to the area being the home of several tribes of Native Americans before a Frenchman named Jean Baptist Girardot established a trading post here. He built the trading post on a large outcrop, known as the cape, that jutted out into the river. In the late 1700s, another Frenchman named Louis Lorimier arrived and created a trading post a few miles south of Girardot’s post. Lorimier is considered the community’s first official founder as his post became the start of the town of Cape Girardeau.
Cape Rock Park is located in the northeastern part of the city. The rock outcropping where Girardot established his trading post can be found in this park. Unfortunately, most of the rock was removed to make way for the railroad tracks in the 1800s. The remaining piece of rock is now known as Cape Rock. The park offers a great view of the river.
Admission: Free. Limited parking.
Near the Crisp Museum on Morgan Oak St, you can find a historic remnant of the former river bridge. Riverfront Bridge Park features the remains of the bridge approach from the original 1927 bridge crossing. When the new Bill Emerson bridge was built in 2003, the old bridge was demolished. The overlook provides great views and the park connects to walking trails.
Admission: Free. Free parking in a small lot or on the street.
Museums and Historic Sites
The Red House Interpretive Center commemorates the life of Louis Lorimier as well as Lewis and Clark’s visit to the town in 1803. The Center is a recreation of his home and trading post and hosts several exhibits and historically-accurate gardens. We weren’t able to visit due to time, but it looked so interesting even from the outside.
Hours of Operation: May-October: Fridays & Saturdays 1:00-4:00
Cape Girardeau contains several Civil War sites. Four forts were constructed in the area to defend the city during the Civil War. Of the four forts, only Fort D remains. The Works Progress Administration constructed a replica powder house. The block house and earthworks fort are open for tours with special events and reenactments occurring on specific dates.
Hours of Operation: Sunrise to sunset for the grounds. The fort is open inside for specific events.
Cape Girardeau has two different museums in town. The Cape River Heritage Museum showcases different exhibits on the history of the region. The Crisp Museum is located in the Cultural Arts Center at Southeast Missouri State University. The museum includes exhibits on the town’s history, Native American artifacts, and an art gallery. We weren’t able to squeeze in a visit to these museums but hope to view them next time.
Hours of Operation: Varies by season, see websites for up to date hours
Admission: Free for both museums
Bollinger Mill Historic Site is worth the short drive from Cape. The towering brick mill and weathered wood covered bridge provide a scenic spot of history. The stone foundation and dam were constructed in 1825. The mill burned during the Civil War and was rebuilt in 1867. The covered bridge was completed in 1868 to connect to the growing town of Bufordville.
The site is preserved as a working grist mill and state historic site. Guided tours are on hold due to COVID but self guided tours of the main level and basement as available to view the machinery and gift shop. A major construction project is underway to stabilize the bank and foundation. Check before visiting to ensure the site is open.
*****Update: As of June 2023 the entire grounds are closed due to construction
Hours of Operation: Grounds are open sunrise-sunset.
Mill is open Tues-Sat 10-4 and Sunday 12-4.
Admission: Free. Guided tours do have a fee.
Cape Girardeau has a variety of parks and trails. We only had time to explore a few of the parks and they were all beautiful.
Hiking Trails and Nature Centers
Trail of Tears State Park is located a short drive north of Cape. The park commorates the site where Cherokee Indian groups being relocated to Oklahoma crossed the Mississippi River during harsh winter conditions in 1838 and 1839. The Visitor Center tells about the thousands who died on the forced march. Today the park features mature woodlands, scenic vistas, hiking trails, a lake with swimming beach, and campgrounds. Even if you aren’t able to hike, the overlook drive leads to a great scenic view of the Mississippi River.
Hours of Operation: April-October: 7 a.m.m-10 p.m. daily. Closes at 6 p.m. November-March. The Visitor’s Center hours vary by season but are currently 9-5 Wednesday through Saturday and 12-5 Sunday.
The Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center is a must see spot. This amazing nature center has beautiful and educational displays on both the history of the area as well as the natural features and wildlife. They regularly hold special programs and activities for all ages. Don’t miss seeing the two headed snake!
Outside the center are several miles of trails including both paved and unpaved paths. The Wood Duck Swamp was a scenic highlight on our walk.
Hours of Operation: The grounds are open daily 4:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. The Center is open Tuesday – Saturday 8:00-5:00.
Another great area for a walk is the downtown Mississippi River Tales and Missouri Wall of Fame Murals. The River Tales Mural is 1,100 feet long and features 24 panels along the floodwall showcasing the history and heritage of the city. Descriptive markers explain each panel. The display runs the length of the historic downtown area making it easy to explore the shops and restaurants along the way.
The back side of the floodwall, alongside the river, features murals of more than 45 famous individuals who were born in Missouri or achieved fame while residing in the state. Take a walk along the water to view both the murals and the river views.
Admission: Free with free parking too
Cape Girardeau has so many attractions geared towards kids and families. We only made it to half the places we wanted to see, but we were so impressed with the family friendly features.
Take a Train Ride
The highlight of our trip was a ride on the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railway. Located in Jackson, Missouri, the train depot is just a 10 minute drive from Cape. The train is a piece of history with two 95 year old train cars and one newer car which has restrooms and air-conditioning. Refreshments are also available on the train.
The railway is entirely staffed by volunteers. Most train rides have a special theme. You can ride the zoo train, dinosaur train, Jr. Engineers Day, Railfan weekend, chocolate train, Halloween train, Santa Express, or Murder Mystery dinner train. Different themes have different activities available, but most train rides also include a mock train robbery by the James Gang and a stop at the Outlaw Village.
The kids absolutely loved the whole experience. Before or after the ride, visitors can also enjoy food and beverages inside the Whistle Stop Depot. There is also a gift shop and kids play area.
Hours of Operation: Most rides are on Saturdays from 1-3 p.m. but varies by event.
Admission: $17 for adults, $10 for children 2-12. Special events such as dinners or Santa Express are extra.
Cape Girardeau also has some really amazing playgrounds. We managed to visit two wonderful play areas that are located right across the road from each other. Melania’s Magical Playground is located at North Cape County Park. This beautiful castle themed playground is designed to be inclusive for all children. There is a fence and rubber surfacing, ramps, and swings for all ages and abilities. There are a variety of climbers and slides to explore. Restrooms are located within the play area. Some shade is available over the benches and under the pavillon.
Just across the street, you can find another great playground at Cape County Park South. Levi’s Adventure Trail is designed for natural play with elements inspired by the Native Americans who once called this area home. While the playground has so many great features, the zipline was the big hit. I’ve never seen this big of a zipline before on a playground and all the kids loved it. This park actually had 5 different playgrounds. Each pavillon in the park had its own small playground and restroom, perfect for gatherings.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. daily
Admission: Both parks are free with plenty of parking.
Other Family Friendly Attractions
We didn’t make it there, but Capaha Park also has a large and newer playground plus a splash pad. The Cape Splash Family Aquatic Center looks like a great place for whole family to stay cool outdoors. If your kids are into animals, Lazy L Safari Park looks like an amazing walk through zoo with over 50 species of exotic animals.
If you are looking for indoor fun for kids, check out the Discovery Playhouse Children’s Museum. They have two floors of interactive exhibits for kids of all ages. This museum is on our bucket list for our next visit to Cape!
Where to Eat
Port Cape Girardeau is a prominent building in the historic downtown that features family friendly BBQ and American fare. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Southern by Tractors. This restaurant is tucked away next to the Drury Plaza. Southern by Tractors features allergy friendly fare including gluten free and vegetarian options.
For dessert, try Sugar Chic Creamery downtown for sweet and creamy ice cream treats. I’m ready to make the drive again just to try a different flavor at My Daddy’s Cheesecake Bakery and Cafe. The dessert choices were simply amazing!
Have you ever visited Cape Girardeau? If so, we would love to hear about your favorite places.