The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River generally from New Orleans to Minnesota. For long stretches, the road is a wonderful panoply of river, bluffs, and picturesque small towns. For other long stretches, the road is too far from the river for travelers to see the river and the towns are less than picturesque.
In addition, it is impossible in a short article to cover this great drive and stop adventure in one fell swoop. So, we will concentrate here on the Wisconsin leg of the Great River Road from Galena up to La Crosse and we will take the travel writer’s liberty to venture “off track”, in this case into Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois.
A Caveat about Casinos
There are a couple of land based casinos along the way that will try to attract you to visit and play their casino games, stay in the hotel, and use their spa facilities. We suggest that to fully appreciate the beauty of the Great River Road, you should avoid all hyper-modern facilities which include casinos, fast food restaurants, and clearly tourist attractions. Every place you will stay will have free WIFI so you can play on your favorite online casino if you feel the need to spin a few reels and play a few hands.
Local Restaurants and Markets
Restaurants come and go so you will need to do some research in order to decide where to stop for meals and where to shop. Local stores and markets offer colorful flavor and you never know when you’ll see a product that you just have to have. We have taste several different types of homemade bread, sauerkraut, beer and wine, cheese, sausages, and much more. Homemade can be simply wonderful. All you need is the willingness to do a little research and stop as often as practical along the way. One highlight of a trip to Pennsylvania was finding ground yak in a local market!
Ulysses S. Grant House
We begin in the beautiful Illinois town of Galena in the far northwestern corner of the state where Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin meet. The US Grant house offers short tours for small groups Wednesday through Sunday. The house was donated by General Grant’s children in 1904 and was ceded to Illinois when maintenance proved too expensive for the family.
A restoration project was begun in the 1950’s and today the house appears as it did when it was relatively new in the middle of the 19th century. The tour highlight for many people is the hidden room I the basement where runaway slaves would sleep by day and continue travelling north by night.
Many people have forgotten how divided the United States was on the matter of slavery. This room is indicative of the powerful abolitionist movement: that even a renowned general and future president would offer shelter to runaway slaves who in fact were breaking the law by trying to escape slavery.
In the 1990’s, a log cabin was moved onto the grounds of the US Grant house. Visitors can see the one-room cabin during scheduled hours.
There is a nice local brewery that dates from the mid-19th century in Potosi where the road turns south towards the great river.
There are several towns on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi that are just one or a very few streets wide. Cassville is the first such town you will encounter. This is a great place to stretch your legs and feel the Wisconsin hospitality all around you. Just past Cassville is Nelson Dewey State park with trails and historical markers. This state park is one of the highlights of many trips to Wisconsin. You can easily spend several hours there. Keep in mind that you’ll have to backtrack a little to get back on the Great River Road.
Wyalusing State Park
You can follow the Great River Road away from the river here or stay on county roads for a few miles through the small towns of Bagley and Wyalusing to the huge state park. You’ll cross the Wisconsin River here to stay on the Great River Road.
Prairie du Chien
This town is ten to twenty times bigger than the very small towns you have been passing yet, with a population of about 6000, it is still a small town! It is also a fine place to stop for the night. The next day, you’ll cross into Iowa and go to Effigy Mounds National Monument.
Effigy Mounds is a Native American burial ground. We find that even young kids find it fascinating. This is a side trip that is well worth the time.
Prairie du Chien has a lot of historical significance in its own right. You can easily make a full day here combining hiking, museums, historical sites, Effigy Mounds, and relaxing in the pool. Keep in mind that in the last twenty years, Prairie du Chien has become a fast food haven. There are still fine local restaurants so do a little research before going and you’ll be richly rewarded.
As you can imagine, La Crosse was settled by the French and is the main place where settlers crossed the wide Mississippi. The road from Prairie du Chien to La Crosse covers 60 miles and hugs the river for almost the entire length.
If you drive straight through the drive will take about an hour and a half but we suggest you get out of the car and walk a bit in the several towns along the way. On the way to La Crosse, you’ll pass through some very tiny hamlets such as Lynxville, Ferryville, De Soto, Wheatland, Genoa, and Stoddard all of which have permanent populations less than 1000.
Also along the way to La Crosse are many places to stop and enjoy the view of the river. There are local and state parks and green everywhere.
After La Crosse
Most people stay in Wisconsin but some cross into Minnesota here. The roads continue to go through small, picturesque towns but we like to stay in Wisconsin as it makes it easier for us to pass around the giant twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. We have found that these cities are simply too big for a small town riverside excursion.
All in All
We have run out of space for this blog. We can only conclude by saying that the Wisconsin side of the Great River Road is decidedly not a drive-through road. Every town, however small, has something to offer the slow moving traveler. You can stay in chain hotel or motel complexes or find a few family-owned treasures in the little towns.
The people of Wisconsin are open and friendly and know how to make travelers feel at home.