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Driving the Scenic Great River Road in Wisconsin

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The Great River Road in Wisconsin is one of the most scenic portions of the entire trip down the Great River Road. Wisconsin’s portion of this great American road trip down the Mississippi River is chock full of great history, beautiful views, and fantastic food! While not necessarily as long as other portions of the trip, it is perfect for a weekend trip. So let’s make the most of those couple of days with an excellent guide to the Great River Road in Wisconsin!

From Prescott to La Crosse on Scenic Wisconsin Highway 35

The Great River Road in Wisconsin starts where the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers meet. The town of Prescott is located at this convergence. It is also where the Great River Road first splits into two portions which will continue all the way to the end of the Mississippi River. You’ll be taking State Highway 35 down the river from Prescott. While the initial portion doesn’t stick right on the river, once you reach Lake Pepin the breathtaking views begin.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder cabin is a must see along the Great River Road in Wisconsin
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Cabin north of Pepin was an awesome stop!

The first must stop portion of this trip is the Laura Ingall Wilder Museum in Pepin. This wonderful museum features artifacts from her life and others from the time period. The people who run it are extremely friendly, so stop in and say Hi! Just outside of town you’ll also be able to visit a replica of her childhood cabin. This is the spot featured in Little House in the Big Woods. It was such a neat experience visiting it. These are also two perfect family stops, especially for kids reading the Little House books.

You’ll also find a number of quirky road side attractions along the road. The Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden is a quick stop with odd sculptures. For car lovers, Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum is perched on one of the highest points on the Mississippi. You’ll pair great views with an awesome museum. When you make it to La Crosse, don’t miss a chance to get a picture with the World’s Largest Six Pack!

The World's Largest SIx Pack is located right on the Great River Road in Wisconsin
Imagine trying to drink all that beer!

South of La Crosse to the Illinois Border

La Crosse serves as the natural mid-point of the Great River Road in Wisconsin. Assuming you’re splitting the trip into at least two days, it also is perfect to stay and spend some time. The downtown area is pretty walkable. We took the opportunity on our trip to grab coffee then walk down to Riverside Park. This is a nice little park along the river. Its exactly the kind of place that is great for letting kids run around and get some energy out. In fact, La Crosse has numerous parks along the river worth visiting when in town.

Might have been cloudy when we went, but the riverfront is still great in La Crosse

After you leave La Crosse, State Highway 35 will hug the river closely. Keep your eyes open for scenic overlook signs or moments to pop off and enjoy the view. You’ll pass through a number of small towns as you head towards Prairie du Chien. When you reach Prairie du Chien, you’ll want to explore at least one of the town historic offerings. I recommend the Villa Louis Historic Site thanks to the beautifully restored mansion and grounds. You can also walk right down to the river from here as well, always a bonus to me!

The final portion of the trip doesn’t stick right on the river. It’ll take you onto both some bigger highways (like US 61) and smaller ones like Wisconsin 133. It’s important to keep your eye out for the signs or have your directions ready. You can also be on the lookout for a number of different wineries on this portion like Whispering Bluffs or Sinnipee Valley. Eventually you’ll reach the end of the road where it passes into Illinois. From here you can continue into Illinois, or head into Dubuque, Iowa.

Where to Stay on the Great River Road

If you choose to make your trip along the Great River Road in Wisconsin a multi-day journey, you’ll need to find a few places to stay. Prescott, La Crosse, and Prairie du Chien are all obvious cities to spend the night. However, there are a couple gems along the way as well if a city centric hotel isn’t for you.

Maiden Rock Inn is a quaint and small hotel which is begging for a stay along the Great River Road in Wisconsin
The Maiden Rock Inn is in a lovely little building!

Prescott has the fewest options, with pretty much just one hotel. However, the rooms at The Port are excellent. It’s also a very small hotel meaning you’ll be one of the few people there. Another option for staying near the start is the Hastings Country Inn in Hastings, Minnesota. Alternatively, if you wanted a spot along the shores of Lake Pepin, look no further than the Maiden Rock Inn. It’s in a gorgeous, historic brick building just blocks from the Lake. When you reach Alma, there is a string of small hotels right on the Great River Road that you can choose to stay in as well.

The most logical stopping point to overnight on the trip is in La Crosse. There is no better hotel in La Cross than The Charmant Hotel. Another hotel right off the river, it’s also an easy walk to Riverside Park. It was built in an abandoned candy factory, meaning staying here is a pretty sweet choice! The Charmant is a grand hotel in La Crosse, but is a touch expensive. A cheaper and still great option would be the GrandStay Hotel. Still close to the park, downtown, and river but quite a bit cheaper.

The Charmont Hotel is the best hotel you can stay in along the Great River Road in Wisconsin
How could you not want to stay in a room like this at The Charmont Hotel?

Options as you get towards the end of the trip become more basic and limited. Hotels in Prairie du Chien are your standard offerings, but mostly cheap. However, this is one standout option towards the end of the trip. Upper Mississippi River Lodging in Cassville is located in a tiny town on the river. You’ll likely be one of the few people staying here depending on when you make your trip which is definitely a plus.

Extending Your Trip Beyond the Great River Road

While the Great River Road in Wisconsin isn’t the longest stretch of this 3,000 mile journey, you can certainly extend your time in Wisconsin if you wanted. There are two ways of doing this that will incorporate the entire length of the GRR through the state but as part of a bigger Wisconsin road trip.

It is possible to follow the St. Croix River along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border north. Starting in Prescott, you’d be able to follow Wisconsin State Road 35 north. This will take you through towns like River Falls, Hudson, Somerset, Osceola, and St. Croix Falls. Beyond this point, State Road 35 permanently leaves the river as it continues north all the way to Superior, Wisconsin (and Duluth, Minnesota). While this is definitely an option, the most scenic portions are long behind you.

Alternatively, you can leave the Great River Road before it makes it to Illinois. This departure would have you follow the Wisconsin River beginning just south of Prairie du Chien. You’ll follow State Road 60 until its terminus in Prairie du Sac. From there pick up State Road 78 through to Portage, Wisconsin. This side trip gives you access to one of Wisconsin’s most popular spots: The Wisconsin Dells. It also serves as a great way to start a trip if you’re heading north and coming from cities like Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, or anywhere else in the Midwest.

A final option outside of Wisconsin, is simply heading into Minnesota at La Crosse. Then you can drive the opposite side of the river north to the headwaters in Minnesota!

Closing Trip Planning Thoughts

A trip along the Great River Road in Wisconsin is a perfect fit for so many different trips. You can just do the GRR itself. You can link it with the other roads in Wisconsin or neighboring Minnesota. It would be a great trip for camping along the river. Overall, driving the Great River Road is very much about the experience you make of it. I loved the idea of a road trip down the Mississippi River. Getting the opportunity to travel along such a scenic stretch of road, even for just a couple days, was a fantastic time. I honestly hope you enjoy your time along the Great River Road in Wisconsin as much as I did.

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9 Responses

  1. I love reading about new road trip routes to follow. Especially if the Great River Road through Wisconsin gets me great views and fantastic food too. Great to know there are a few good places to stay along the route so we can move at a slow pace if we want. They all sound quite charming.

  2. I just spent 5 years living in Chicago and only made it to Wisconsin a handful of times. I wish I had visited more, it is so beautiful and now I want to explore all the small towns along the GRR! Hopefully I will be back to Wisconsin to experience it.

  3. Potosi, WI is a wonderful little stop, about 25 minutes from Dubuque, IA. They have brewery tours, the National Brewery Museum (awesome stuff here!), great beer and a delicious menu. We stopped here on our way back home from Dubuque one weekend and enjoyed the food, beer, history and artifacts!

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