Great River Road: Explore Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa
Route Details Length: About 470 miles. When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer because of river activities, and
Length: About 470 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer because of river activities, and in fall for spectacular foliage.
Not to be missed: Riverboat excursions from several cities, including LaCrosse, Prairie du Chien, and Dubuque.
Nearby attractions: River Museum, a group of six museums focusing on Mississippi River history and lore, Dubuque, IA. Field of Dreams baseball diamond, setting for the popular motion picture, Dyersville, IA. The Mall of America, the country’s largest shopping mall, Bloomington, MN.
Further information: Mississippi Valley Partners, P.O. Box 610, Stockholm, WI 54769; tel. 715-442-2900, www.mississippi-river.org.
To Mark Twain, who as a young man knew the Mississippi River as well as anyone, its upper reaches were “as reposeful as dreamland.” And anyone who travels this portion of the Great River Road (a mere 470 miles of its entire 6,000-mile length) would surely agree with him. For unlike the bustling commerce of the Lower Mississippi, the Upper Mississippi is a place of quiet splendor. Running up one side of the river and down the other, this magnificent roadway — marked by green — on-white signs featuring the image of a steamboat pilot’s wheel-is truly a worthy companion to America’s greatest waterway.
Nelson Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor, lobbied to make Cassville the state capital, but it lost to Madison and instead became a major steamboat center during the mid-1800s. At Nelson Dewey State Park, which contains five original buildings from the governor’s homestead, visitors can enjoy picnicking, camping, hiking, and lovely views of the Mississippi. Adjacent to the park is Stonefield Historic Site, where life of an earlier era is evoked in a reconstructed town from the 1890s. In midwinter Cassville is a good place to spot bald eagles, which roost there.
2. Wyalusing State Park
Perched atop bluffs 600 feet high, this riverside park affords sensational views of the Mississippi River valley. Sprawling over some 2,700 acres, the park has 20 plus miles of trails, including some that wind among curious rock formations, canyons, and prehistoric Indian mounds. A few miles south of the park’s entrance, the village of Wyalusing adjoins a riverfront beach.
3. Prairie du Chien
One of the oldest European settlements in Wisconsin, this town was a fur-trading post during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Among those who profited from the local trade was Hercules Dousman, whose 1870s mansion, Villa Louis, sits atop a 1,000-year-old Indian burial mound.
Leading north from Prairie du Chien to La Crosse is an especially scenic route — a 60-mile ribbon of roadway shadowed by towering bluffs. Stop at the Old Settlers Overlook (two miles north of Genoa) for a panoramic view of Old Man River.
4. La Crosse
Unlike the northern and eastern parts of Wisconsin, where plateaus and hills were planed down by glaciers, the state’s southwestern corner was untouched. The result is a region of of deep valleys and high ridges. In the heart of this territory sits the lively city of La Crosse, often called the Gateway City largely because of its location at the confluence of the Mississippi, Black, and La Crosse rivers. The view from Grandad Bluff, a 500-foot-high summit, takes in parts of three states — Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.
In summer, La Crosse is sometimes a port-of-call for two floating palaces, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen. Both paddle wheelers offer overnight trips, but shorter excursions are available on boats departing from numerous towns along the river. An ideal way to spend a lazy afternoon is to take a cruise down the river and savor the sights: tiny tugboats pushing and towing block-long barges, princely paddle wheelers splashing up memories of a bygone era, and houseboats of every description hugging the shore.
To walk down the streets of this drowsy town is to step back in time — back to the days when riverboats rolled by all afternoon and the best bargain in town was a 25-cent dinner at the Trempealeau Hotel. Just west of town is 1,400-acre Perrot State Park, where bluffs 500 feet tall afford majestic views of both the Mississippi and Mt. Trempealeau. The peak, which is shaped like a squat volcano, was considered sacred ground by local Indians. Nature lovers will want to visit Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,000-acre preserve, home to white-tailed deer, bald eagles, and many waterfowl.
6. Fountain City
Nestled beneath the green brows of two cliffs, this river town is named for the area’s many springs. Terraced gardens, hillside homes, and handsome 19th-century brick buildings combine to give Fountain City its quaint appearance. Nearby Merrick State Park, which covers 325 acres, offers camping, hiking, and swimming and is especially popular with anglers who enjoy fishing for a variety of panfish, including bluegill, crappie, northern pike, and walleye.
As technology brought bigger barges to the Mississippi, deeper water was needed to accommodate them. So in 1930 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to build an elaborate system of 29 locks and dams to make the waters of the upper river navigable. One of the best places to appreciate this engineering triumph is in the town of Alma. From a downtown observation deck (or from nearby Buena Vista Park), you can view Lock and Dam No. 4 and marvel at one of man’s most ingenious attempts to tame the mighty Mississippi River.
Pepin has two claims to fame — one natural, the other literary. Lake Pepin, a large natural lake on the Mississippi, is an aquatic-lover’s paradise. Nearly 3 miles wide and 20 miles long, it is guarded by tall bluffs and surrounded by rich, rolling farmland. The town is also near the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the ever-popular series of books that includes Little House on the Prairie. Seven miles north of Pepin, you can visit the Little House Wayside, a replica of the log cabin Wilder immortalized in her frontier tales. On the way to Stockholm, the drive reaches one of its highlights: a 20-mile stretch that is considered one of the most scenic spots to be found in the entire Midwest.
As its name suggests, this quiet village was founded by Swedish settlers. In the early 1970s a new wave of immigrants arrived — artists from Midwestern cities. Their work is displayed at local shops and galleries and at an annual art fair. But the most memorable sight here is the sweeping view of Lake Pepin from Maiden Rock, two miles north of Stockholm. In legend, it was named for a lovelorn Indian princess who leaped off the cliff to avoid marrying the man her father had chosen for her.
Just outside of this old river town, turn off Rte. 35 onto Freedom Park for an overview of the river’s “color line” — the spot where the bluish waters of the St. Croix River merge with those of the brown and muddy Mississippi. Mercord Mill Park, downtown, offers a close-up of the junction where the rivers meet. Traveling west on Rte. 10, cross the bridge into Minnesota.
From early summer through early fall, history takes center stage in Hastings. In May the town hosts Front Porch Days, a festival featuring traditional front-porch pastimes, including a rocking-chair marathon. The third weekend in July brings Rivertown Days, highlighted by a flotilla of brightly illuminated boats. And September heralds Main Street Festival, held in the historic downtown district.
12. Red Wing
Heading south on Rte. 316 and connecting with Rte. 61 South, the drive ventures deep into the heart of Hiawatha Valley, where lush hills and hardwood forests make autumn an eye-popping time of year. The picturesque town of Red Wing, named for a great Dakota Indian chief, was once a major wheat center, but today it is known for its pottery and shoemaking industries. For stunning views of the Mississippi — which makes its sharpest bend just to the north — visit nearby Memorial Park, Barn Bluff, and Sorins Bluff.
13. Frontenac State Park
Campers, hikers, sightseers, and bird-watchers all give raves to this 1,754-acre park. Situated beside the widest expanse of the Mississippi, the park has unparalleled views of the surrounding river valley. Flanked by Minnesota and Wisconsin, the river here is buttressed by so many bluffs that some say it resembles the Rhine. During the late 1800s, Old Frontenac — surrounded by the park — evolved from trading post to trendy resort. Handsome homes became so ubiquitous that the area was dubbed the Newport of the Northwest.
Leaving Frontenac State Park, you will pass Lake City, then Wabasha, then arrive in Winona. Built on a huge sandbar formed by the Mississippi thousands of years ago, the town sits in the shadow of limestone bluffs that afford magnificent views of the river and Lake Winona. In this vicinity Rte. 61 parallels the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a vast network of wetlands, islands, forest, and prairie that border the Mississippi. Extending for some 260 miles through four states, this 200,000-acre preserve shelters some of the finest and rarest wildlife communities in the Mississippi Valley, including 292 species of birds, 118 kinds of fish, and many types of aquatic plants. For more information, write or call the refuge: 51 East Fourth St., Winona, MN 55987, or tel. 507-452-4232.
15. La Crescent
The 26-mile drive from Winona to La Crescent is pleasant at any time of year, but the real treat comes in spring and fall, when Apple Blossom Scenic Drive (which parallels a portion of Rte. 61 atop tall bluffs) brings visitors past blooming or blazing orchards. Two dozen varieties of apples are grown here, and all of them are sold and celebrated at the annual Applefest held during the third weekend in September.
16. Yellow River State Forest
Anyone who ever thought Iowa was all cornfields will think again when they come upon Allamakee County. Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the state, the region is so blessed with hills and valleys that some call it Little Switzerland. The pride of Allamakee is Yellow River State Forest — 8,500 acres of lush landscape traversed by an enticing series of sparkling trout streams.
17. Effigy Mounds National Monument
To honor their dead, the early Indians in this area marked burial pits by topping them with low, rounded earthen mounds. Nearly 200 such monuments — some shaped like birds and bears — can be seen at this 2,500-acre preserve. Most of the mounds are reached by a steep path that leads to 11 miles of trails. Take Fire Point Trail to the observation terrace for a memorable view of the Mississippi.
18. Pikes Peak State Park
Most explorers would be proud to have even one place named in their honor, but General Zebulon Pike could claim two: one peak in Colorado that became famous, and a bluff in Iowa that few people have ever heard of — despite the fact that Pike sighted it a year before its legendary counterpart.
During his 1805 expedition to map the Upper Mississippi, Pike chose two locations for forts, one of them atop a summit on the west side of the river. The area is now occupied by a 1,000-acre park that overlooks the site where explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet first encountered the Father of Waters. The park offers a bird’s-eye view of the confluence point where the Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi.
Iowa’s oldest city, Dubuque, gave birth to the state’s first bank and newspaper. Among the city’s attractions are the General Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam and the Dubuque Museum of Art, housed in the old county jail. (The building is one of the few remaining examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in America.) The best views are from the top of the Fenelon Place Elevator — built in 1882 to connect bluff-top homes with downtown businesses, it is one of the world’s steepest and shortest railways — and from Eagle Point Park, with sweeping vistas that overlook broad areas of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
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