Running along the state's western border, the Great River Road follows the course of the mighty Mississippi River, passing many interesting attractions along the way. This is a chance to trace the paths of the stern-wheelers Mark Twain wrote about, reliving a time when much of this nation's commerce depended on this river. You can generally follow state highways 133 and 35 along the Mississippi (the state has marked the route with signs depicting a steamboat's wheel).
Start your trip in Cassville, where you can visit Stonefield Historic Site. It includes the reconstructed home of Nelson Dewey, Wisconsin's first governor. The site also includes the State Agricultural Museum and a replica of an 1890s village that's operated by the State Historical Society. As you move north along the shoreline, your next stop can be at Prairie du Chien. Stay long enough to visit Villa Louis, the 1870s mansion built with the fortune of Wisconsin's first millionaire, Hercules Dousman.
In La Crosse, you can take a free tour of the City Brewery (formerly the G. Heileman Brewery). Don't miss the world's largest six-pack—actually, it's so big, it's a hard thing to miss. The La Crosse Queen stern-wheeler makes one- to three-hour sightseeing cruises of the Mississippi (May-October) and also offers lunch and dinner cruises. For a great view of the area, visit Grandad Bluff, which stands 600 ft/180 m above the city. In early October, the town continues its long-running Octoberfest celebration, which began in 1960.
North of La Crosse is Trempealeau, where you'll find Perrot State Park. It's worth visiting for its 500-ft/150-m river bluffs and its scattering of Native American burial mounds and petroglyphs. This is also where you'll find Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge—wetlands on the riverbanks that are home to waterfowl (ducks, geese, herons and egrets), white-tailed deer and the American bald eagle. North of town on Highway 35, you'll find the "Rock in the House." The tourist trap is exactly what its name implies: A huge boulder fell from a bluff, smashed into a home and was left where it landed. A bit farther north (5 mi/8 km), nearly 40 restored folk-art sculptures fill the Prairie Moon Museum and Sculpture Gardens, an outdoor attraction.
Continue north and you'll find yourself in the area around Lake Pepin—not an actual lake but a 3-mi-/5-km-wide stretch of the Mississippi River. After exploring a few of the quaint river towns, continue north to Hudson, where the Octagon House, an eight-sided structure from the 1850s, is now a museum. You also can tour several restored Victorian homes, many of which now operate as bed-and-breakfasts.
Farther north on Highway 35 (now following the St. Croix River), you'll reach Osceola. At the corner of Cascade Street and First Avenue, you can take a set of wooden stairs to Cascade Falls, a pleasant surprise in the heart of town.
You'll end your trek at St. Croix Falls. This is the gateway to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a vast preserve that extends far up the St. Croix River and its tributaries. It's a great area for fishing, camping and extended canoe journeys through the hardwood forests. You can also go canoeing, hiking, camping and rock climbing on lava rock cliffs at the beautiful Interstate Park near St. Croix Falls, a border park established by Wisconsin and Minnesota.
You may want to follow this itinerary south-to-north instead, and either way, you may want to include a stop in nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. The southern terminus of the Great River Road (Cassville) is 145 mi/233 km west of Milwaukee.
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