BY MIKE TERRILL
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — There’s nothing like a leisurely drive during the fall, especially if the payoff at the end is a 250-mile meandering road that winds through 33 towns along the Mississippi River.
Wisconsin’s Highway 35, the Great River Road, is a National Scenic Byway that follows the Mississippi River for 250 miles from Prescott on the north end to Kieler on the south. It’s the route Huffington Post readers chose it as “America’s Prettiest Drive” in a reader’s poll last year.
And it’s only a day’s drive from Traverse City.
Four days of travelling about 200 miles of it from Bay City, Wis., down to Prairie du Chien, Wis., recently are proof it should be on your “bucket list.”
Along the way visitors experience some of the most incredible scenery in the Midwest and pass through dozens of small, unique communities — some of the oldest in Wisconsin. Enjoy views of tree-lined limestone bluffs, soaring eagles and, of course, America’s longest river, the Mississippi, as it rolls slowly down to the Gulf of Mexico.
The road is nestled between the mighty river and the towering bluffs, which you often can climb in various state parks to gain jaw-dropping views of the river valley and surrounding area. Nearly two-thirds of the Great River Road passes near or through protected natural areas.
Bluffs rise as high as 700 feet above the river. Historical markers, museums and visitor centers tell the story of the region and the people who settled it and continue to live and work along the great river.
The region, known as the Driftless Area, escaped the glaciers that flattened much of the Upper Midwest leveling peaks and filling river valleys with “drift,” hence the name of the area. Flood waters, created by the melting glaciers about 10,000 years ago, helped to create the Upper Mississippi River valley which lays as wide as three miles in some sections.
And there are plenty of dog-friendly accomidations along the way for visitors who want to bring along company.
On the north end, the TansyHus in Stockholm, a quirky, artsy little town of 60-some people, offers a late Queen Anne house over a century old. The two-story home, completely renovated, retains much of its original appearance.On the south end the Stoney Creek Inn in Onalaska near LaCrosse serves as a good last night. The modern accommodations offer walk-out lower level rooms that lead to a network of trails through a natural area. The two locations offer good positioning for day trips along the river.
Highlights of Great River Road
A stop at Flat Pennies Ice Cream in Bay City is a must for those who travel with a dog. The pooch-friendly place serves homemade soft serve ice cream that will please your sweet tooth and that of your dog. If art is your thing make sure to visit the Abode Gallery and the Widespot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm. Both showcase regional talent and exhibits.
Heading south Little House on the Prairie fans may want to make a quick stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Pepin. It’s the birthplace and childhood home of the author.
The village of Alma is the Great River Road’s only National Historic District, and offers self-guided walking tours of more than 200 preserved buildings. The 19th century waterfront village is built into the bluffs European-style. You can hike or drive up to Buena Vista Overlook, perched on a 500-foot-tall crest overlooking the town, river and Lock Dam No. 4.
The views are outstanding. The foot trail begins in the village and breakfast at Pier 4 Café & Smokehouse is a treat.
Down the road is Trempealeau where visits to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge — 6,226-acres of wetland and prairies attracting migrating birds on the Mississippi Flyway — and Perrot State Park, offer breathtaking views from 520-foot Brady’s Bluff.
It’s a rugged hike up the bluff, but the panoramic views are worth the effort. Lunch at Hungry Point Bar & Grill yields wonderful views of the river and Lock & Dam No. 6. Cyclists can enjoy a 24-mile ride on the Great River State Trail that travels through two National Wildlife Refuges.
Grandad Bluff rises more than 600 feet up above LaCrosse offering stunning views of the river and city. And the good news is that you can drive up to the top and walk out on the bluff to enjoy the panorama.
The park was opened in 1912. The city is known for some of “the best built trails in Wisconsin.” Dinner at Seasons by the Lake in Onalaska rewards travelers with beautiful views and tasty steaks while dinner at Piggy’s in LaCrosse offers fine food and wonderful views of the great river. Piggy’s is considered one of the state’s top restaurants.
Catch a guided wildlife eco-tour with Mississippi Explorer’s Backwater Cruises in Prairie du Chien, the oldest European settlement on the Upper Mississippi River. It’s a great place to see eagles. Enjoy panoramic views of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers from the bluffs of nearby Wyalusing State Park, one of the Badger State’s oldest parks. Native American Effigy Mounds lay along the bluffs.
It’s a wonderful drive, relax and enjoy the scenery; it’s not meant to be hurried.For more information you can go to Wisconsin Great River Road’s website, www.wigrr.com, and Wisconsin Department of Tourism, www.travelwisconsin.com.