Wisconsin Only National Scenic Byway… The Great River Road Northern Route

September is Drive the Great River Road Month in all 10 of the Mississippi River states from Lake Itasca, MN to the Gulf of Mexico. Living just a few miles from the Wisconsin stretch of this American icon, I decided, last weekend, to ride the Northern Route from Prescott to Trempealeau.

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It was one of the last days of summer where the humidity is still present but temperatures have started to fall. It had been a stormy morning and I felt it would be a great day for a ride. As soon as I turn on highway 10, the rolling hills of the beautiful St Croix Scenic River Way made their appearance. Crossing the bridge over the river, I entered Prescott, the northern city to the Wisconsin’s Great River Road. The community dates back to 1839. I stopped at the Interpretive Center and from the park on the bluff took the view of the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. Well….at least I tried. The view was obstructed by dense vegetation.

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I continued my journey south driving through farmlands and cornfields when the scenery started to change. I reached Diamond Bluff, site of the Sea Wing Steamboat disaster of 1890. In this area, the road wander lodged between the bluffs and the river, and the land where the Oneota Indians had set up camps on the river for a 1000s year.

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I passed Hager City, mostly an island on the Mississippi with a large community on the water and drove to Bay City. From the highway Bay City is not appealing but it sits at the head of Lake Pepin that provided, in the years past, the community with a source of income.

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The stop at the overlook between Maiden Rock and Stockholm is a must. The view of Lake Pepin is magnificent. I had driven that portion of the road earlier this year when the ice was just breaking off the river and hundreds of bald eagles were looking for fish. Lake Pepin is the widest naturally occurring lake on the Mississippi river. The formation of the lake is caused by the backup of water behind the sedimentary deposits of the Chippewa River’s delta.

 

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I arrived in Stockholm (population 66 people), a small artist community. I heard that their annual one-day Art Fair in July draws over 10,000 visitors. I grabbed lunch at the one-and-only Stockholm Pie & General Store for, of course, a delicious Vegetable Quiche filled with yummy mushrooms, spinach and cheese.

After this delectable pause, I continued the drive to Pepin. I believe this portion of the road is one of the best. Watching the sun reflection on the water and sailboats on the Lake reminded me why this road is a natural treasure.

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The stretch of road between Pepin and Nelson is surrounded by flooded forest. Broken Paddle Guiding in Wabasha offers kayaking tours of the forest and takes you in the largest river ecosystem on our continent. (Strongly recommend).

At regular intervals along the road, you’ll find historical markers commemorating military battles, important events and significant features of the landscape.

Nelson, at the base of two twin-bluffs is a popular spot for ice cream and cheese curds.

The view of the power plant on the arrival into Alma is disappointing, but get into town and you’ll find an art community with many local artists and shops. The town is a designated National Historic District preserving over 220 acres. I missed the Alma Music & Art Festival by on day. It is held on Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

Cochrane was a disappointing stop.

Fountain City is a pretty community reminding me of a fishing village on the east coast and is the home of the US Army Corp of Engineers.

The last stop of the day was at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. I drove the loop around the refuge but did not see any wildlife. It is known for one of the best bird watching destinations on the entire Mississippi river. The only birds I saw were mosquitos. (I know they are insects). The observation deck overlooking the wetlands offers great opportunity to view waterfowl. It felt nothing could disturb the tranquility of the place, but after a couple of minutes enjoying the view I got eaten by these midge-like flies bloodsuckers, so I got back into my car and made the drive back home.

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