The Upper Mississippi Great River Road
McGregor & Marquette, Iowa and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and North
Whichever Mississippi State Great River Road route you take (Iowa or Wisconsin) north of Dubuque/East Dubuque, when you arrive at either McGregor, Iowa or Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin you’ve got to take the time to explore the communities on both sides of the river.
On the Iowa side, historic McGregor has loads of interesting shops, restaurants, taverns and a fine historic walking district tour. The McGregor Fall Arts & Crafts Festival is one we like to catch for a fun time in McGregor and fall color along the Mississippi River Road. In the hills above the town is Pikes Peak State Park. There are some fantastic scenic lookouts at this park and a nice little hiking trail that takes you by a waterfall. The park has 77 campsites, 60 with electric service, a modern bathroom/shower facility, dump station, and a park store and pavilion. Half the sites are held out for first come, first served and the other half can be reserved in advance.
A few miles north of McGregor is Effigy Mounds National Park, excellent hiking and walking trails, excellent scenic lookouts over the river, and interesting exhibits and naturalist trails covering the history of the Mound-Builder Native culture. The town of Marquette Iowa also has a few interesting shops, including a winery.
On the Wisconsin side in Prairie du Chien, attractions include Villa Louis, a historic settlement offering tours operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Lawler Riverside Park, on St. Feriole Island, Cabela’s Outfitters huge Outfitters/Sporting Goods Warehouse Store, and some interesting shops like the Cannery Antique and Gift Shop, worth spending at least a half hour browsing around nooks and crannies of their 30,000 square foot shop, plus sample their homemade ice cream. Their June Prairie Villa Rendezvous is probably Prairie du Chien’s most popular annual event.
Going North of McGregor & Prairie du Chien
Here we have a decided preference for the Wisconsin Great River Road over the Iowa side. The Wisconsin road (Hwy 35) is more consistent in running adjacent to the river, offering many scenic views. On the Iowa side the road runs more often away from the river and we think the scenery is not quite as nice.
The Wisconsin Great River Road from Prairie du Chien (Hwy 35) hugs the river, running through the tiny burgs of Lynxville and Ferryville on the way north. Ferryville is a quaint, riverside town whose Wooden Nickel Saloon is a popular stop for travelers. About 11 miles up the road is Blackhawk Park Recreation Area, a Corps of Engineering Campground and Park. Has some excellent RV facilities for overnight travelers and some decent day use facilities as well: fishing, canoeing, boating, and swimming.
La Crosse, Wisconsin is about 30 miles up the road from Blackhawk Park. On the way you go through Genoa and past the extensive Genoa National Fish Hatchery and then through Stoddard, Wisconsin. Before you get to La Crosse, you’ll pass the entrance to Goose Island County Park, another decent RV and camping facility.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
It is worth spending at least a few hours in La Crosse, enjoying their River Walk and gardens, walking around their downtown historic district, sampling a few restaurants and pubs, and driving up to the Grandad Bluff scenic overlook. La Crosse also has several interesting golf courses. Their most famous festival is the La Crosse Oktoberfest that runs the last week in September into the first part of October. In 2015, it celebrated its 55th year. Another popular La Crosse event is RiverFest, a five day festival celebrated during the 4th of July week. La Crosse is home to the famous G. Heileman Brewing Company (Old Style Lager and Special Export) founded in 1858. While the G. Heileman brands were sold the facility continues to operate now as the City Brewery. But the most popular brewery for tourists and craft beer aficionados is the Pearl Street Brewery, located in the historic La Crosse Footwear building.
Going north of La Crosse, it is a toss-up as between the Wisconsin side of the River Road (Hwy 35) and the Minnesota side (Hwy 61). If you stay on the Wisconsin side you go through Trempealeau, Wisconsin a neat little town whose historic Trempealeau Hotel is a favorite for their food, ambience and their music festivals. Nearby Perrot State Park offers some excellent hiking trails and scenic bluff-top lookouts over the river valley. If you stayed on Wisconsin side, there is a bridge you can cross to visit Winona and then return to the Wisconsin side to continue you travels.
If at La Crosse you cross over the river to La Crescent, Minnesota, their Great River Road (hwy 61) offers more scenic views of the river than the Wisconsin side. But not much else until you get to Winona, Minnesota.
See our complete Upper Mississippi River Road Map here.
North of Winona we continue to favor the Wisconsin Great River Road, although the Minnesota side has some worthwhile attractions. In fact a popular River Road loop for day travelers from the Twin Cities is to do the route between Red Wing, Minnesota and Winona on both sides of the river.