1,000 Places; sample Wisconsin entries
Bluffs, birds and barges along America's greatest river
Upper Mississippi Bluffs
Prairie du Chien to Prescott, Wisconsin
Wis. 35 slaloms between the Mississippi and towering bluffs, stringing together dozens of sleepy river towns and wildlife preserves. It is part of the Great River Road, an amalgamation of roads that stretch from the river's "source to the sea." Wisconsin came up with the idea of a scenic byway running the length of the Mississippi, and built the first stretch of the (then-named) Mississippi River Parkway near Trempealeau in 1953.
From the mouth of St. Croix River near Prescott to the mouth of Wisconsin River near Prairie du Chien, this portion of the route provides a glimpse of the culture and nature along America's greatest river--somnolent towns, busy barge traffic, braided backwaters and birds, birds, birds.
The Mississippi Flyway ranks as one of the world's great migratory bird routes, an aerial highway followed by hundreds of species traveling between their summer nesting grounds in the north and warmer wintering spots. More than 40 percent of the nation's waterfowl and shorebirds migrate through the Upper Mississippi River Valley each year, including thousands of tundra swans. Eagles, osprey and other raptors winter here, often fishing in the open waters below the dams.
Tiny Tempaleau (pop. 1,039) could be a movie set for a romantic old river town. Tucked among high sandstone bluffs, it looks a bit run down, which is part of its charm. The Historic Trempealeau Hotel is the centerpiece of town, an 1871 restaurant and saloon with creaking wood floors and a big screened porch overlooking the river. Refurbished as a tiny inn and restaurant, it features local specialties like blackened catfish and vegetarian walnut burgers, as well as a fish boil on Fridays.
For wildlife viewing, visit the nearby 6,200-acre Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, which locals call one of the state's best-kept secrets. The refuge features a five-mile wildlife drive and observation deck overlooking the river bluffs and marsh. It's a good place to spot the refuge's population of bald eagles, which winter up and down this river valley. Nearby is Lock and Dam No. 6, one of the primary navigation locks on the Mississippi. A observation platform lets visitors watch the barges loaded with grain, coal and other raw materials as they head for ports downriver.
The largest community in the region, tidy La Crosse (pop. 51,003) was once singled out by Mark Twain as a "choice town." It's a port of call for the magnificent Mississippi Queen paddlewheeler (sister of the Delta Queen), and home to the Julia Belle Swain, a steam-powered riverboat reminiscent of the steamers that plied the river more than a century ago. It churns up and down the river on day tours and two-day trips to Prairie du Chien.
One of Wisconsin's many rail-trails (abandoned railroads converted to trails), the Great River State Trail passes through town and winds 24 miles along the Mississippi.
The French name of Prairie du Chien signals its long history as a French fur-trading post. Descendents of Wisconsin's first millionaire, fur-trader Hercules Dousman, built the opulent Victorian mansion Villa Louis here, now open for tours. The town also hosts an 18th-century fur-trader rendezvous in June. Nearby, Wyalusing State Park crowns a 500-foot limestone bluff, offering a lovely eagle's-eye view of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. Marquette and Joliet stood here in 1673--where they first spotted the Upper Mississippi.
Upper Mississippi Bluffs: Wisconsin Great River Road, www.wigreatriverroad.org. La Crosse Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 410 Veterans Memorial Dr., tel 800-658-9424 or 608-782-2366; www.explorelacrosse.com. Prairie du Chien Area Chamber of Commerce, 211 S. Main St., tel 800-PDC-1673 or 608-326-8555; www.prairieduchien.org.
Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge: W28488 Refuge Rd., Trempealeau, tel 608-539-2311; www.fws.gove/midwest/trempealeau.
Historic Trempealeau Hotel: 150 Main St., Trempealeau, tel 608-534-6898; www.explorewisconsin.com/historictrempealeauhotel
Boat trips: Mississippi Queen, tel 800-543-1949; www.deltaqueen.com. Julia Belle Swain, tel 800-815-1005; www.juliabelle.com. Best Times: March-May and Oct for bird migration. Early Feb for Prairie du Chien's Bald Eagle Appreciation Day, mid-June for Prairie Villa Rendezvous. Late Sept for La Crosse's rollicking Oktoberfest celebration.