The Hawaiian island of Maui has the twisting Hana Highway. California claims the breathtaking Route 1 down the Big Sur coastline. And Maine boasts the sublime Acadia National Park Loop along the rugged Atlantic Ocean.
But Wisconsin’s Highway 35, the Great River Road – a National Scenic Byway – bested them all last year in a Huffington Post poll that asked readers to choose the “prettiest drive” in the United States.
Spanning 250 miles from Prescott in the north past Potosi to Kieler in the south, this route is marked with green signs bearing a steamboat wheel. It runs down Wisconsin’s western flank through dozens of sometimes quirky and artsy little towns, offering stunning views of tree-clad limestone bluffs, soaring eagles and, of course, the Mighty Mississippi rolling slowly down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938, the 2,500-mile-long Great River Road is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. And no section of it is lovelier than the section that runs through the Upper Midwest.
I first traveled along this laid-back gorge – which is 600 feet deep and one to three miles wide in some sections – in the early 1960s, driving north from eastern Iowa with my family (five kids and parents) packed into our red Ford station wagon. We stopped at overlooks or picnics, vis ited state parks filled with effigy mounds and bought rounds of Swiss and cheddar at “cheese factories” that were key parts of small Wisconsin dairies.
Those trips left an indelible impression, one I’m reminded of each time I cross the Highway 151 bridge at Dubuque on my way to visit my elderly mother in the Hawkeye State.
Called the misi-ziibi by the Ojibwe, this mighty stream slices through the Driftless Area, a rumpled section of the Upper Midwest that – unlike much of the region – escaped being flattened by glaciers that receded 10,000 years ago.
As the ice to the north melted, huge lakes spanning hundreds of miles were formed. When what was left of the glaciers at the southern ends of those lakes collapsed, floods of biblical proportions resulted, helping to create the Upper Mississippi along the Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois borders.
Al Lorenz, chairman of the Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission, grew up near La Crosse and has driven Highway 35 hundreds of times.
“I never tire of it,” said Lorenz, 72, who worked around the state but retired back to his old stamping grounds.
He said residents of the Twin Cities have long known of the beauty of the Great River Road, while many residents of central and eastern Wisconsin have only been to explore it in the past decade.
“I think it was something of an underappreciated slice of our state for people from around Madison and especially Milwaukee,” he said. “Obviously, the Twin Cities are a lot closer.
“And while I’m biased, I truly think it’s well worth a visit. In some of these towns, it’s like stepping back 50 years. We’re fortunate they didn’t put a big freeway down the river and left it pretty much the way it was.”
When it was founded, the commission’s goal was to preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River, Lorenz said.
“Rather than build a new continuous road, they decided back then to embrace the existing rural roads and network of highways meandering and crisscrossing the Mississippi River,” he explained.
“So the concept of a federally owned right of way was abandoned, but the preservation of historic travel routes was still achieved.”
Lorenz said the commission is planning a number of events this summer to commemorate the Great River Road, building on the festivals that the cities and little towns on Highway 35 hold every year.
Erik Pueschner, manager at Smith’s Cycling and Fitness in La Crosse, said Highway 35 is also popular with cyclists who can do day trips or multiday spins, camping at parks or staying in B&Bs or hotels along the route.
“It’s got great scenery, and we have groups from all over doing long tours. Because the road sticks to the Mississippi, it’s not that hilly. But if you turn off and go up into the bluffs for better views, you can climb 500 feet.”
Gary Knowles, who leads OpenAir Tours for convertible enthusiasts, has also driven portions of the Wisconsin section of the road many times.
He calls it “one of the greatest undiscovered drives in the Midwest because people are so used to heading west and crossing the river and not exploring up and down it. You have to intentionally go there and then you’ll realize how spectacular it is.”
Knowles, of Madison, recommends starting in La Crosse and splitting the trip into northern and southern loops, heading up or down the Wisconsin side and then making the return jaunt in either Iowa or Minnesota to get better views of the Wisconsin bluffs.
“I think spring is a great time to go because the leaves are just budding out so there is a green haze on the hills, but you can still see the land forms underneath,” he said.
“Moreover, I really like the roads over there with curves and hills, so you really feel like you are moving over the landscape. Then, there’s the small communities, eagles, lots of history and good food, especially the catfish,” Knowles said.
Knowles said one of the “can’t miss” spots on the road is the Stockholm Pie Co., N2030 Spring St. in Stockholm, a burg of 60-plus people about 40 miles south of Prescott.
“It has, by far, some of the best pies in our state,” said Knowles. “That’s saying something. And it’s right next door to a cool art gallery. There’s also a nice used book store, jewelry-maker and some other neat shops and antiques stores nearby. It’s an enclave full of artists.”
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