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Bucket list: Travel the Great River Road

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Summer road trips are a right of a passage for the average American. Cruisin' the highways and byways of the good ol' USA with an open mind, a map and an itinerary has been a quintessential part of our culture, blossoming in the late 1930s upon the completion of Route 66.

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As the automobile industry boomed in the 1950s, cars became a part a tool of leisurely activity. Add the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System into the picture and the summer-vacation-road-trip pandemic was born.

The interstate system was originally commissioned in a Bureau of Public Roads report to Congress, "Toll Roads and Free Roads," in 1939, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Initial designations were made in 1947 after it was authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 and completed in 1955 under the 40,000-mile limitation imposed by the act. Currently 46,876 miles connect the nation.

Using the highways as gateways for exploration, present-day road warriors can scan the countryside, coasts, deserts and plains for interesting off-the-beaten trail routes in search of beauty, adventure or even the unknown.

But with so many miles, where do you begin?

Your search can stop right across the Mississippi River. The Great River Road Scenic Byway in Wisconsin just won the Huffington Post's "Prettiest Drive in America" contest.

"We are very excited that so many Americans voted for the Great River Road Scenic Byway," noted Alan Nugent of the Stockholm Merchants Association. "We all know its beauty, but to have America recognize it is amazing."

Beginning with four pairings, the Great River Road beat South Carolina Route 17, then the Big Sur Coastal Drive and finally the "competitor to beat" Hana, Hawaii. Many were surprised and some were upset, the magazine staff told Stockholm residents, that Big Sur and Hana fell to the Midwest route.

"This wasn't just an award," Nugent added. "It was a competition. This was a big-time nationwide contest, representing every section of the country. It is kind of amazing that this won, not that I doubt it, but it is very cool."

Locally, the stretch of the road also known as State Highway 35 is traveled as a daily commute for some and a common route for pleasure by others.

In fact, many admit to go out of their way to make a more picturesque drive toward a destination.

"It is an incredibly scenic drive," Red Wing resident Jan Reese said. "If I'm going to Wabasha, I go the Wisconsin side: It reminds me of Highway 101 on the West Coast."

Others take advantage of the entrancing novelties along the way.

"We travel on there every couple weeks," Judy Hinrichs of Red Wing said. "I'm 60 years old and we take my 93-year-old mother, stopping to shop in Stockholm, eat at the Pickle Factory in Pepin and get ice cream in Nelson. It's a multi-generation road for us."

Nugent said it's easy to promote the Stockholm area.

"It is an utterly charming little village, a breathtaking drive with soaring bluffs making it unbelievably easy to market," he said. "People don't believe or understand the sheer beauty ... there is some magnetic magical draw, something about the area that is just different."

The Great River Road Scenic Byway is 250 miles, stretching from Prescott to Kieler with 33 river towns. Two-thirds of the byway runs through the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, which Congress established in 1924 to protect wetlands and river-bottom forests.

With some from as far back as the 1600s, the communities along the road are some of the oldest in the Midwest. Burial and effigy mounds from Native Americans can be found nearby.

Although the entire road is named as the winner, Nugent adds with a sincere laugh, "We are claiming our area is the prettiest part of the drive."

The "Prettiest Drive in America" is the latest recognition of the area. Lavender magazine called Stockholm "belle of the ball" in a recent road-tripping article. Yahoo cited Stockholm as one of the fall's "Ten Fantastic Towns in America." Midwest Living dubbed Stockholm one of the "Five Midwestern Towns You'll Love."

According to writer and longtime editor of the New York Evening Post William Cullen Bryant, the Lake Pepin area "ought to be visited in the summer by every poet and painter in America."

Evidently, Americans feel that vacationers ought to visit, too. So the question now is this: With the "Prettiest Drive in America" pretty much planted in your backyard, when will you go?

For more information, maps and directories on the Wisconsin Great River Road visit www.wigrr.com.

Top Ten road trippin' songs

• "Highway 61 Revisited" by Bob Dylan

• "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding

• "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson

• "The Way" by Fastball

• "I've Been Everywhere" by Johnny Cash

• "King of the Road" by Roger Miller

• "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meatloaf

• "Route 66" by Bobby Troup

• "Mustang Sally" by Wilson Pickett

• "Slow Ride" by Foghat

Top Ten scrumptious stops

• No Name Saloon & Monkey Bar 114 N. Broad St. Prescott 715-262-9803

• The Nauti Hawg Bar & Grill W29852 290th Avenue Diamond Bluff 715-792-2297

• Flat Pennies Ice Cream W6442 State Road 35 Bay City 715-594-3555

• Smiling Pelican Bake Shop W3556 State Road 35 Maiden Rock 715-448-3807

• Stockholm Pie Company N2030 Spring St. Stockholm 715-442-5505

• Crazy Cat Candy Shoppe N2055 Spring Street Stockholm 715-273-4374

• Pickle Factory 205 First St. Pepin 715-442-4400

• Harbor View Café 314 First St. Pepin 715-442-3893

• The Original Nelson Cheese Factory S237 State Road 35 Nelson 715-673-4725

• Fire and Ice 305 North Main St. Alma 612-423-3653

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Stacy Bengs-Silverberg
Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.
(651) 301-7880
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