Wisconsin’s Great River Road is just part of America’s oldest National Byway, the more broadly named Great River Road, a fabulously scenic roadway that travels more than 2,000 miles across 10 U.S. states from Minnesota to Louisiana. But Wisconsin’s 250-mile stretch deserves a closer look, as it connects 33 historic towns and villages that reside along America’s second longest river and traverses through two National Wildlife Refuges, multiple state parks and of course, several extraordinary points of interest. If you’re looking for a new and fascinating unique adventure for a great American road trip, here are seven suggested stops from north to south, along the Badger State’s scenic byway.
Founded in 1854 by Swedish immigrants, Stockholm has a tiny population of just 75 residents. But it’s the residents, its boutique shops and gourmet dining that make this a highly recommended stop along Wisconsin’s Great River Road. As one would expect in one of the best small communities in the entire Midwest, most of Stockholm’s shops are along a few blocks of Wisconsin State Highway 35, the longest in the state. But each of the charming shops have something unique to offer, such as handcrafted yarns from Hugga Bugga, Scandinavian gifts at Ingebretsen’s, finely crafted Amish furniture from Northern Oak Amish and fine kitchenware at the Palate Gourmet Kitchen Store. For dining, travelers will not go away hungry or disappointed at outstanding spots like Bogus Creek Café and Bakery, Lena’s Lucky Star and Stockholm Pie and General Store, known for its world-famous, Best in Wisconsin fruit and nut pies. Visitors should also take some time to visit the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm Village Hall and Stockholm Village Campground overlooking the Mississippi River. Lastly, not far from Stockholm but highly recommended is the popular Maiden Rock Apples, Winery & Cidery, well known for its premium hard ciders and fine wines.
A very charming community of just 580 residents, the Town of Pepin is acclaimed for its breathtaking vistas along its namesake Lake Pepin, premium wines and charming bed and breakfasts like Harbor Hill Inn. But this historic town is also very well-known as the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House Books children’s series, including the beloved “Little House on the Prairie”, the 1935 inspiration for the very popular American television series which aired several decades later. In addition to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, visitors have a few other exceptional sightseeing options to consider, like Five-Mile Bluff Prairie State Natural Area and Tiffany Bottoms State Natural Area along the Chippewa River, and Villa Bellezza winery, a marvelously picturesque spot reminiscent of a Tuscan farm and heralded for both its award-winning wines and one of the finest wedding and special events venues in Wisconsin. In addition to the winery, Pepin is home to many more excellent dining options, like Harbor View Café, Pickle Factory Waterfront Grill, another Stockholm Pie Company, and Garden Pub and Grill, as well as shopping at places like Harbor Hill General Store and Pepin Country Stop. As the largest lake on the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin is known as the Birthplace of Water Skiing and its Lake City Marina, a very popular spot for a summer outing, holds the only working lighthouse on the entire Mississippi River.
Alma is yet another tiny community along the Mississippi River that seems to have more things to do than its total number of residents. The county seat of Buffalo County situated near the Buffalo River tributary of the Mississippi River, Alma has a population of under 800 and like Stockholm upriver, was founded by Swiss immigrants in the mid-19th century. And just like Stockholm, has a vibrant downtown area, with fascinating lodging, dining, entertainment and shopping options along its main street (Highway 35), as well as four campgrounds just minutes away. Visitors to downtown Alma should make sightseeing stops at Alma General Store, Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center, Big River Theatre and Fire & Ice Coffee & Ice Cream Shop, which also serves as the lobby for the historic Hotel de Ville. Other nearby attractions include Castlerock Museum, Alma’s Buena Vista Overlook and the award-winning Danzinger Winery, once named Wisconsin’s Winery of the Year. Among the notable upcoming community events are Bird is the Word which celebrates World Migratory Bird Day on May 4, Fire in the Shire June 8, the third annual Renaissance Festival, Swiss Heritage Days July 27-28 and in October, the Flyway Film Festival.
Bounded by the Mississippi River to the west and Merrick State Park to the north, Fountain City is the oldest settlement in Buffalo County. Despite its population of 983 residents, this charming community offers several noteworthy attractions that visitors might want to enjoy beyond just a brief rest stop. Among the most visited attractions are Elmer’s Auto and Toy Museum featuring one of America’s largest pedal car displays, Prairie Moon Sculpture Gardens, the literally named Rock in the House Museum, auto racing at Mississippi Thunder Speedway and the must-see Kinstone megalithic garden, which features what’s known as the largest privately owned stone circle in the world.
With a population of more than 50,000, La Crosse is by far the largest city along Wisconsin’s Great River Road. Home to three colleges, most notably the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as well as a flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic, visitors may wish to take more time to explore all of the wonderful attractions this historic city has to offer. Suggestions include a riverboat ride on the Mississippi with La Crosse Queen Cruises, kayaking with Island Outdoors, Riverside Museum, Copeland Park, home of the La Crosse Loggers collegiate baseball team and Grandad Bluff Park with its spectacular views of La Crosse and the Mississippi River Valley and even the quirky road attraction the World’s Largest Six Pack, with six enormous beer can-shaped barrels that can hold enough beer to fill nearly 7.5 million cans. Dining and lodging recommendations include Fayze’s Restaurant and Bakery, Pearl Street Brewery, Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern, Charmant Hotel, Stoney Creek Hotel and Prairie Inn and Suites. As the largest city in western Wisconsin, La Crosse will host several upcoming events, including the Driftless Music Festival, Country Boo, Fest July 11-13, Riverfest July 4-7 and La Crosse Area Labor Day Weekend Bicycle Festival August 30-September 2.
Travelers looking for another rest stop along Highway 35 might want to pull over at the Great River Road Interpretive Center, a part of the National Fish Hatchery three miles south of Genoa and one of a network of informational centers along the Great River Road. Just opened last June, the admission-free Great River Road Interpretive Center at the National Fish Hatchery features several educational exhibits on two levels that focus on the natural resources of the Upper Mississippi River, as well as public restrooms and plenty of free parking spaces. In Genoa, travelers can either stay for just a few hours to visit places like Old Tool Shed Antiques and Clements Fishing Barge or stay at suggested spots like the Big River Inn or Genoa Motel.
Prairie Du Chien
The last stop might be the most important stop along this suggested trip along Wisconsin’s Great River Road. Established as a French European settlement in the late 17th century, Prairie du Chien (Prairie of the Dog) is the second only to Green Bay as the oldest city in Wisconsin and the oldest on the Upper Mississippi River, strategically located near the confluence of the Wisconsin River. With a population of about 6,000 Prairie du Chien is one of the larger communities along the Scenic Byway and the setting for several points of interest, five of which are National Historic Landmarks and many more on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the most notable are the restored 19th century Dousman House Hotel on St. Feriole Island, Villa Louis, an extravagant 19th century Victorian estate and Fort Crawford Museum, located on a former U.S. Army military installation and also serves as a Great River Road Interpretive Center. Other suggested activities include a boat ride with Mississippi Explorer Cruises and possibly a stop to the quirky Valley Fish Shop. For lodging and dining, there are several popular places that may be of interest, such as River District Hotel, Country Inn and Suites by Radisson, Jones’ Black Angus, Fort Mulligan’s Grill Pub and the famous Pete’s Hamburger Stand, where there always seems to be a line of customers and where many more say serve the best burgers in the State of Wisconsin.