I JUST GOT BACK FROM THE WEST COAST.
The west coast of Wisconsin, that is — a drive along Highway 35, aka the Great River Road — voted by mapmaker Rand McNally (and me) as one of the most scenic in the land.
The route on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi — prettier than the one on the Minnesota border, gotta admit — meanders between the river and forests that climb stunning limestone bluffs.
Lucky us: They were missed by an Ice Age glacier which flattened every last molehill in its path. Today charming small towns with roots in the 1800s beckon visitors to pull over and savor life along Main Street.
The full Great River Road National Scenic Byway — which starts near Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana — is a whopping 3,000 miles long and takes 36 hours (or 10 days) to drive.
We explored just a small (three-hour) section of the route from south to north, starting in Prairie du Chien and ending in Maiden Rock. Get there by traveling four hours southeast on Minnesota Highway 52 from the Twin Cities.
You can do this route in reverse if you like, of course. Either way, do it soon and you’ll spot fall colors galore on those hovering, rocky bluffs.
Prairie du Chien
Real-estate speculator Hercules Louis Dousman arrived here in 1820 and became the wealthiest man in town. (He’s often called Wisconsin’s first millionaire.)
His son inherited his ultra-ornate Italianate mansion, Villa Louis, and added a racetrack and stables to fuel his horseracing passion.
Today the home is a historical site with every last inch of the interior decorated in intricate patterns, and it boasts heating by an ultra-modern device — the radiator! Those ornate trappings are nearly all original, unfolding the upstairs versus downstairs drama via guided tours.
But history started even earlier in this town of 6,000 folks: Fort Crawford was designed by explorer William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) to house the Missouri volunteers called into action in the War of 1812, when soon-to-be-president Zachary Taylor led troops against the British here. Reenactments occur every July.
Pete’s Hamburger Stand came along a little later. Since 1909, the Main Street shack has sported lines down the block — or head to Rowdy’s D&D Bar & Grill, whose sign promises the “2nd-Best Burger in Town.”
Continue to Valley Fish & Cheese, run for 40 years by Mike Valley, who does most of the fishing and all of the smoking of catfish, gator, turtle and more. Valley says he cleans 1,000 pounds of fish per day, checks turtle traps and lines for mussels, whose shells provide “pearl” buttons, and still has time to create cheeky signs like “Approved by the Sturgeon General.” Shelves of impulse purchases contain treasures such as muskrat skulls.
Fun fact: Though Prairie du Chien translates in French to mean “prairie of the dog,” the name isn’t referring to prairie dogs, but rather the name of a Native American chief who lived in the area.
Continue north to the brand-new — started in 2013 and completed in 2018! — Great River Road Interpretive Center at the at Genoa National Fish Hatchery. It’s not only an aquarium where you can view prehistoric-looking sturgeons, but it also details the cruel story of the Battle of Bad Axe after white settlers chased Natives off their land, and the surrender of Black Hawk to save his tribe’s women and children. (It didn’t work: They were all slaughtered.) Other exhibits describe the Mississippi as a trading route since pre-Columbian times, the locks and dams that tame the river and conservation efforts.
This vibrant river town, driven by three colleges and a major medical institution, is worth a visit, too.
Navigate the corkscrew road to Grandad Bluff for a dramatic overview, then visit the historic, brick-clad downtown, featuring intricate architectural details.
Primed by a jolt of caffeine at Grounded Patio Café (wine bar, too), pop into Finnottes Nuts & Chocolate Shop to satisfy those two basic food groups. Best seller? Turtle-like alligators and “anything with sea salt,” says its proprietor of 37 years.
If it’s cold and sweet you’re craving, head to The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor and join the line, longer than airport security, for one of its two dozen flavors. Step into Painted Porch for contemporary twists on furnishings, such as a kitchen scale painted baby blue. The nearby Antique Center of La Crosse boasts finds such as beaded moccasins, a bandolier complete with bullets and Kennedy campaign buttons.
To troll the city’s streets, hop aboard a trolley at the riverside visitors center for a narrated tour of La Crosse’s many opulent mansions, with styles ranging from Queen Anne to Prairie and beyond.
The La Crosse Queen beckons with paddleboat tours of the Mississippi to spy wildlife, beaches and locks. Sunset is the time to linger at the riverside promenade, watching the sun sink into Minnesota.
Eats? Hackberry’s Bistro calls on local growers to fuel its menu with creative wonders like ratatouille toast, an heirloom tomato plate built upon a cheddar biscuit and its famed beet salad, starring watermelon and mint crème fraiche.
The city’s new Charmant Hotel — a lavishly refurbished candy factory — serves wood-fired pizzas on its see-and-be-seen rooftop. Across the street, the brand-new La Crosse Distilling Co. has partnered with Minneapolis James Beard chef Jorge Guzman, formerly with Surly Brewing Co., to run the show, which includes lunch and dinner served in the tasting room.
A longtime D’Amico chef, Jay Sparks, moved here to open Lovechild, a destination dining spot for the fare he loves to cook and eat — lamb spiedini with harissa yogurt, watermelon and feta salad and a hearty pozole verde, to name a few.
Pasta favorites include pappardelle in savory gorgonzola cream, and maltagliati topped with carnitas, poblano crème and Manchego. Continue (if still upright) with the Catalan halibut or Moroccan lamb shank.
Or revisit the speakeasy era at Digger’s Sting, all dark and cushy, for steak or ribs and hooch. Speaking of alcohol, the city now boasts half a dozen craft breweries. One of the leaders is Pearl Street Brewery, offering tours of its converted-factory site.
Continuing our drive, we entered the stretch known as the artists’ region, according to Daniel Kordiak, who owns the mittel-European coffeehouse called Fire & Ice, dominated by a behemoth brass machine.
Out back is a walled garden, featuring fountains, topiaries, a reproduction Prague clock and more.
Kordiak also owns the Hotel de Ville across the street, determined to outdo the Grand Hotel Budapest in décor.
Alma boasts 14 galleries, according to Kordiak, along with the newly reopened Big River Theatre.
Steer next to this little burg, where the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum stands on the side of the road. A country road leads to a reproduction of the log cabin where she was born in 1837, site of the Little House in the Big Woods. As we peeked in, we were joined by visitors from Amsterdam.
Folks swarm to Pepin for the iconic Harbor View Café, going on 38 years serving frikadeller (Danish meatballs), cassoulet, halibut and a lot more. No reservations are taken, so follow the drill and grab a glass of wine to sit outdoors and watch the trains streak by as sailboats bob in the waterfront marina.
Seven miles away, this hamlet (population 62, mostly artists) explodes with visitors on the weekends. The town’s sole crossroad holds eateries like the Stockholm Pie Company, offering hearty sandwiches plus dozens of pies by the slice — a life-changing butterscotch meringue to tangy triple berry. Lena’s Lucky Star (under the sign of a former Texaco station) features burgers, beer and music. Bogus Creek Café & Bakery, with a garden setting, is all about locavore fare.
Peer into the tiny museum, to see “Mabel Johnson’s rolling pin” and a map bristling with pins marking hometowns of Swedish visitors, then hit the top shops, including The Purple Turtle Artisan Collective (elite crafts), Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace (all things Swedish), Abode Gallery & Design (outfit your home) and Northern Oak Amish Furniture (cutting boards, too).
Then take a break at the waterfront for a bit of eagle-spotting.
Our grand tour finished in this village (population 119), where a quartet of classy shops await — Smiling Pelican Bakeshop, Cultural Cloth (imports from 25 countries), Green Queen (accessories) and Sacred Heart Gallery (Mexican tin).
Got extra time? Enjoy a two-for-one trip to Maiden Rock Apples, Winery & Cidery (5 miles inland), where this time of year you can taste wine and/or cider AND pick your own eating apples in a picture-perfect orchard.
Plan your trip!
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.