“ Wisconsin Great River Road (Wisconsin, USA) „
Wisconsin Great River Road
We planned this latest trip of ours to the USA around the Great River Road (GRR) and seeing the Mississippi River at its source in Itasca State Park in Minnesota. After we decided what we were doing we caught Trevor MacDonald's three part series on the Mississippi and our journey sort of followed his third programme.
The Great River Road winds through ten states in total and covers 3,330 Km in total from Minnesota source down to New Orleans in the south. The Great River Road is America's oldest and most distinguished byway and was established in 1938 by Franklin Roosevelt. The section I am looking at in the review is in Wisconsin and this is a relatively short section of 250 miles from Prescott in the north to Kieler in the south.
We joined this road at Dubuque in Iowa so pretty much covered the entire length of the road in Wisconsin though we did keep crossing the river into Minnesota if we thought a town on that side looked more interesting. The road if you travel the full length in Wisconsin passes through some of the nicest scenery in the Midwest and 33 towns and small communities, some of which are the oldest in Wisconsin. In fact every town we passed through seemed to have a 'Historic Downtown' and many were pretty similar in my view. This road is one Wisconsin is proud of because it is Wisconsin's only designated National Scenic Byway.
One of the first little towns we passed through was the rather oddly named Prairie du Chien which is Wisconsin's second oldest city after Green Bay. It was founded by a Jesuit missionary Father Marie Joseph Dunand, who came up the river from St. Louis and settled here in 1817. The translation of the name is prairie Dog but apparently it isn't named after the little creatures of that name but rather after an Indian Chief whose name was Dog. Two former citizens of this city went on to bigger things Zachary Taylor became president of the USA and Jefferson Taylor , President of the Confederacy. The historic downtown looked pretty much like most of the others and as we didn't fancy the museum and ha other places further up we wanted to see we didn't stay long after taking a photo of a statue of Father Jacques Marquette who was supposed to be the first European to set eyes on the Mississippi river!
We spent the night in La Crosse which is the largest city on this part of the GRR. This is the home of the Paddle wheeler that we went on the La Crosse Queen. The city is also very proud of the fact it holds the record for the largest six pack in the world guarded by the nearby giant statue of the patron saint of beer, King Gambrinus probably because of the city's German heritage. We also drove to the top of Grandad Bluff where we got a magnificent view over the city and the river below. If you are travelling this road La Cross is a great place to stay as there is quite a lot to see and do around here. La Crosse downtown has a number of historic buildings which date back to the 1800s, when La Crosse was one of Wisconsin's most important centres for trade and commerce.
The road from La Crosse is very beautiful scenically as you have the river on one side and on the other these huge bluffs overlook the road. Many of these bluffs you can take side roads up to climb to the top for views over the river. As we drove along we also stopped at each of the locks and dams where you could get out and look over the dam or lock. Sometimes we were lucky enough to see one of the river boats going through a lock with its huge load of up to fifteen barges being pushed along.
Passing on up northwards we drove through the communities of Onalaska, known to be the 'Sunfish ' capital of the world, Midway, Holmen and Trempealeau all of which were pretty enough but didn't grab our attention. We stopped in Alma which is the home of lock and dam#4 and not a lot else so we moved on upwards towards Pepin which had attracted our attention as being the home of the children's author Laura Ingles Wilder.
We drove through Pepin missing the little museum with Laura Ingles Wilder artefacts completely as the sign in our minds looked like a rooster! We also missed the road to her reconstructed family home so after a few miles we turned back and did see the small sign from the other direction. Her reconstructed log home is quite some miles out of Pepin along a country road but we did finally find it and that was it. There was simply a reconstructed log home with a few signs and nothing else so we drove back through Pepin and found the little museum which once again was very understated. The entire visit took us less than half an hour in the museum. I was really surprised that more wasn't made of this author as she is quite well known for her stories about growing up in the mid west in the late 19th century as she was born on a farm near Pepin in 1867.
Strangely the next town we came to was called Stockholm and as the name suggests this was founded by Swedish immigrants. We liked this little town as it was full of little art galleries and cafes so we enjoyed a cup of tea in one of these and chatted to the owner or person serving us. people were all so friendly wherever we stopped along the route and wanted to suggest things for us to see that we might enjoy.
LakePepin formed as part of the Mississippi river that had almost got cut off as a lake was huge and ran
from Nelson just before Pepin right up to Maiden rock and Bay City. Maiden Rock has the huge population of 149 and is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Rush Rivers and rather sadly gets its name from the tale of an Indian princess who leapt from the 400-foot bluff rather than marry a man she didn't love.
Hager City is best known as a railroad town and was founded by the Chicago, Burlington & Northern Railroad in 1886. There is also a famous natural landmark known as 'The Bow and Arrow' which is a rock formation that was once used by traveller s and looks as though it is pointing towards Lake Pepin. We stopped and read the historic marker explaining this but I can't say the rock formation was that obvious.
Diamond Bluff was the next city and that gets its name from the huge limestone Bluff which were used as a landmark for the river boats. Rather sadly again this city is known for being the place where one of the most famous disasters along this route took place. In 1890, a 110-ton steamboat named the Sea Wing sank, killing 98 people and a plaque can be found in the local park of the same name.
Finally we passed through Prescott where the St. Croix River joins with the Mississippi River in we were able to see clearly where the waters of the two rivers met as the muddy waters of the Mississippi River were very easy to distinguish from the from the clearer waters of the St. Croix.
This is where we left the GRR in Wisconsin and made our way towards Minneapolis and St Paul and from this point we would be following the GRR in Minnesota.
We enjoyed our drive along this scenic byway and exploring these sleepy little towns and communities along the way. I loved the way they called themselves cities with a population of only hundreds. There was nothing that was on the 'Must See Before you Die' list but it was very mid town USA. The people were so friendly and so proud of their 'Historic Downtowns' heritage and really they were not that old, nothing in the USA is that old. The town centres were very similar, a bit like Deadwood with buildings that looked like they were straight from a Western film. The front was flat and brick while the side was rather unattractive and the roofs flat.
This was a pretty drive but there is nothing along the way that I would say to people 'you must see...' It was a gentle rather peaceful drive just meandering in and out of little places along the way. We did cross back and forth between Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin over the many bridges if we fancied some place on the other side we thought sounded interesting.
I would recommend this as a gentle rather relaxed drive but it doesn't compare to some of the places we went to last year in Utah, Colorado and South Dakota for amazing sights to see.
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