The Mississippi is a grand river, and along its length is a truly American road trip: the Great River Road. Wisconsin’s portion of this scenic byway covers 250 miles and passes through 33 towns along the way. From where the Mississippi exits Minnesota and meets the St. Croix to become the state border, the driving route continues south, primarily on State Highway 35 until a turn on WI-133 in the final stretch. Natural beauty abounds with scenic overlooks, parks and preserves spread throughout, and there’s no shortage of good eats, local crafts and cozy accommodations. And to top it all off, September is Drive the Great River Road Month. So, what are you waiting for?
Day 1: Prescott to Pepin (44 miles)
Perk up for the journey in Prescott at The Twisted Oak Coffee House and gather intel about the trip ahead at the Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center. Get views of Lake Pepin, a dammed portion of the river, as you pass Bay City.
Whether you prefer custard pies, lavender ginger sugar cookies or just a loaf of sourdough bread, Smiling Pelican Bakeshop is worth a visit in Maiden Rock. For breakfast or bar food, Ole’s Bar & Grill will fill you up. The 400-foot-high Maiden Rock Bluff offers a one-mile out-and-back trail amid 250-year-old cedars and nesting eagles. Near Stockton stop at the hilltop orchard of Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery for apples, cider and wine tastings. Stay the night in Pepin at Harbor Hill Inn or various vacation rentals.
Day 2: Pepin to Fountain City (33 miles)
Pepin is home to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum; learn about that life on the prairie. Taste more wine or an Italian meal at the lovely Villa Belleza.
Next stop: Nelson. Hit up Nelson Cheese Factory for ice cream, soups and salads, and a selection of Wisconsin cheeses, or for a fuller menu, go to Beth’s Twin Bluff Café. Next up is Alma where you can see barges passing through Lock and Dam #4, and view trains from a bridge over the tracks. Drive or hike up to Buena Vista Park for the best view of the day. The unexpected Castlerock Museum displays antique armor and weaponry. Nature lovers should check out Wings Over Alma, for both art and nature viewing. Hiking at nearby Merrick State Park offers two miles of trails with river views. Stay the night in cottages overlooking Fountain City at Hawk’s View, or at their lodges outside town near the affiliated Seven Hawks Vineyards.
Day 3: Fountain City to La Crosse (41 miles)
For an odd roadside attraction, visit The Rock in the House or Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum. For a meal and a craft beer, visit The Monarch Public House, the oldest operating tavern in Wisconsin.
Down the river lies The Trempealeau Hotel, which offers a place to eat, drink and stay the night. Their meatless Walnut Burger is legendary. But campers should consider riverside Perrot State Park and its trails and scenic overlooks.
For stylish digs in La Crosse, check into The Charmant hotel, an 1898 candy factory turned boutique hotel in one of the largest historic downtowns in the state. Walk to shops and browse for a good read at Pearl Street Books. Craft beer lovers have three breweries to visit—Turtle Stack, Pearl Street and 608 Brewing; and the giant six-pack at City Brewery is a typical photo stop. Find a fish fry or weekend brunch on the river at The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern. A cruise on the La Crosse Queen is an excellent option for getting on the water (until late October). Classic cars await at the Dahl Auto Museum, and sunset and city views from 590- foot Grandad Bluff are a must.
Day 4: La Crosse to Prairie du Chien (59 miles)
Just south of La Crosse up in the bluffs is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a stately neoclassical church and pilgrimage site. South of Genoa, pass Lock #8 on the river. Keep your eyes open for eagles. Ferryville Cheese is a good place to stop and fill up—both your gas tank and your cooler. Watch for Spring Lake Inn, as you are approaching Prairie du Chien; an unassuming roadhouse with great food and a good crowd.
In Prairie du Chien, on St. Feriole Island, visit Villa Louis, the 19th-century estate of a successful frontier entrepreneur. For more history, there’s the Fort Crawford Museum. Foodies should stop at Valley Fish & Cheese for excellent smoked fish (or salmon jerky!) and more. Dinner is recommended at The Barn; watch for weekly fish fry and prime rib specials. Stay the night in any of number of properties, including River District Hotel and several chain hotels.
Day 5: Prairie du Chien to Potosi (39 miles)
Just south of Prairie du Chien, Wyalusing State Park lies where the Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi. Camping and hiking are great options here, but at the very least stop for the perfect scenic overlook from atop the park’s western bluffs.
Just before Bloomington, the Great River Road turns west on WI-133, but it’s worth your time to continue into town to Ma’s Bakery for fresh bread and donuts, and their breakfast and lunch menu. Nelson Dewey State Park borders the river and offers views from its 500-foot bluff. The house of the governor for which the park is named is here, as is Stonefield, a re-creation of a 19th-century village. (The latter, however, closes for the season at the end of September.) The state park has no river access, but Riverside Park in Cassville does. Also in town is J&J Sandbar, a good bar and grill stop.
Potosi is home to the National Brewery Museum, a fantastic collection of classic brewery items from across the country. The museum shares the building with craft-beer Potosi Brewery and its excellent restaurant, plus a Great River Road Interpretive Center. Drive out on the point at Potosi Recreational Area south of town for one last close-up look at the river and a bit of wildlife viewing. The Potosi Inn offers a nice stop for the night. The last stop on this tour, before connecting into US-151, is Dickeyville and its quirky 1930 grotto fashioned with an assortment of buttons, stones, bottlecaps and more. Consider Katina’s Kitchen for breakfast and a stop at Hauber Brand Meats to stock up on meats and cheeses.
Great River Road Annual Fall & Winter Festivals & Events
- Villa Louis Carriage Classic, Prairie du Chien, Sept. 6-8
- Prescott Daze & Classic Car Show, Prescott, Sept. 6-8
- Art on the Kinni, River Falls, Sept. 7
- Bacon Bash, River Falls, Sept. 14-15
- Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, Pepin, Sept. 14-16
- Fall Fest, Ferryville, Sept. 21
- Great River Road Fall Fest, Stonefield at Cassville, Sept. 21
- Driftless Area Art Festival, Soldiers Grove, Sept. 21-22 Oktoberfest, La Crosse, Sept. 26-29
- Apple Festival, Gays Mills, Sept. 27-29
- Fall Fresh Art Tour, Pepin & Pierce Counties, Oct. 4-6
- Flyway Film Festival, Stockholm, Oct. 10-13
- Oktoberfest, Prairie du Chien, Oct. 19
- Driftless Area Film Festival, Vernon County, Oct. 31-Nov. 3
- River Dazzle, River Falls, Nov. 29
- Rotary Lights, La Crosse, Nov. 29-Dec. 31
- Carp Fest, Prairie du Chien, Dec. 26-31
- Kickapoo Valley Reserve Winterfest, La Farge, Jan. 11, 2020 Bald Eagle Appreciation Days, Prairie du Chien, Feb. 22-23, 2020 Bald Eagle Day, Ferryville, Mar. 7, 2020
- Roots and Bluegrass Festival, River Falls, Apr. 17-19, 2020
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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