The Upper Mississippi Bluffs
Watch for swans, eagles and ospreys along a scenic byway
In the early 1950s, the idea of a scenic byway running the length of the Mississippi River was born. Today, the Great River Road does just that in Wisconsin, slaloming between the Mississippi and its towering bluffs from the mouth of the St. Croix River near Prescott to below Prairie du Chien and the mouth of the Wisconsin River. The 250-mile route (primarily along Wis. 35 and part of the greater 2,069-mile-long Great River Road) provides glimpses of everything from sleepy river towns and busy barge traffic to braided backwaters, wildlife preserves and birds, birds, birds.
The Mississippi Flyway ranks as one of the world’s great migratory bird routes. More than 40 per cent of the nation’s waterfowl and shorebirds pass through the Upper Mississippi River Valley each year, including thousands of tundra swans. Eagles, ospreys and other raptors winter here, often fishing in the open waters below the dams.
Tucked among high sandstone bluffs, Trempealeau, with a population of just over 1,000, could be a film set for a slightly dilapidated and charming old river town. The Historic Trempealeau Hotel is the centrepiece of town, an 1871 restaurant and saloon with creaking wood floors, a big screened porch overlooking the river, and specialties like blackened catfish and a traditional fish boil on Fridays.
The nearby 6,200-acre Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge features a five-mile wildlife drive and an observation deck overlooking the river bluffs and marsh—a good place to spot bald eagles. At nearby Lock and Dam Number 6, an observation platform lets visitors watch barges loaded with grain, coal and other raw materials as they head for ports downriver.
The largest community in the region, La Crosse (population 51,003) was once singled out by Mark Twain as a ‘choice town’. It’s now home to the Julia Belle Swain. This riverboat is reminiscent of the steamers that plied the river more than a century ago and now offers both sightseeing and overnight cruises.
In Prairie du Chien, descendants of Wisconsin’s first millionaire, fur trader Hercules Dousman, built the opulent Victorian mansion Villa Louis, which is open for tours. Nearby, Wyalusing State Park crowns a 500-foot limestone bluff, offering an eagle’s-eye view of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet stood at this very spot in 1673—where they first spotted the Upper Mississippi.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.