Travel close to home along Great River Road


The Great River Road National Scenic Byway offers travelers a tour along the Mississippi River all the way from Minnesota south to Louisiana.

Dennis Donath, Pierce County commissioner on the Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission, said in Wisconsin the Great River Road stretches 250 miles along Highway 35. Besides Wisconsin, the Great River Road goes through nine other states including Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Donath said the Great River Road was established in 1938 by an act of Congress and was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The original plan was to build a new road from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to Louisiana, but people realized there were already roads along this area. The decision was made to use existing roads and designate them as the "Great River Road."

"Our mission is to protect the assets of the road—archaeological, historical and recreational," Donath said.

Along the Great River Road, travelers can stop at any of the more than 60 interpretive centers that line the route. Donath said these are a great place to start your travels to gather information and learn what the area has to offer.

Each of the interpretive centers offers history and information about that portion of the Mississippi River. Donath said stopping at the interpretive center will allow visitors to get a map and help plan their road trip.

Of all the places to start on the Great River Road, Donath recommended starting in Wisconsin as it follows the Mississippi River; travelers can actually see the river as they are driving.

Donath said a few years ago the "Huffington Post" declared the Great River Road in Wisconsin to be the "prettiest" drive in the United States. He said this was due to the fact that people can actually see the Mississippi River as they drive. Farther south, dikes to prevent flooding prevent travelers from seeing the river.

In his travels on the Great River Road, Donath has been able to see many unique attractions. One of the most common questions people ask him is where can a traveler get right down to the Mississippi River.

People can get right down to the Mississippi River at Sea Wing Park in Diamond Bluff. Donath deemed the park one of the unknown treasures in the area.

"Since it's not well known, you are liable to find yourself all alone down there, which is kinda nice too," Donath said.

Sea Wing Park has an area where people can picnic and watch the river barges drift by.

Another highlight of his travels is the Lock and Dam in Alma. He said travelers can follow the signs along the Great River Road to the overlook high up in the bluffs and watch as tugboats and barges go through.

Travelers may also want to take in some Wisconsin favorites such as cheese, wine and beer. The village of Nelson offers a perfect place to stop. Donath said the Nelson Cheese Factory offers "every kind of wine and beer you can think of" along with cheeses from all over the world.

"It's [Nelson Cheese Factory] a great place to stop," Donath said.

For those wishing to see wildlife along their travels, one of the places to go is the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. People can drive through the refuge or walk through parts of it. A wide variety of birds are usually in the area that people can view; a viewing platform overlooks the marsh for people to enjoy the local wildlife.

Another area to see birds along the Mississippi River is at the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center at Freedom Park in Prescott. Donath said January and February offer a great time to see bald eagles. He said bald eagles mainly feed on fish so the open Mississippi River by Freedom Park offers a great place for eagles to gather as there is a nearby food supply all year. During these winter months not only are "resident" eagles feeding on fish. but bald eagles from up north where the river freezes come down to feed in Prescott where the river stays open all year.

Those interested in seeing eagles may want to go to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn. The center has both bald and golden eagles of which visitors can come within a few feet. Visitors will also be able to walk into a life size model of an eagle's nest.

Other sites to see along the Great River Road in Wisconsin are the Villa Louis Estate, a mansion in Prairie du Chien, the Stonefield Village in Cassville, and the Genoa National Fish Hatchery.

During his travels with his wife, Donath said they have both come to appreciate some of the more historic places along the Road.

"Favorite town for wife and I is in Missouri, St. Genevieve," Donath said. "One of the oldest towns along the Mississippi River, it dates back to the 1700s, has many of its original buildings."

The Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission continues to work to restore the natural beauty of the Great River Road. One of its current projects is the Monarch Butterfly Project. Donath was put in charge of the project last year and worked to promote and create butterfly gardens to attract monarchs to the area. Prescott has two of these gardens, but the commission wasn't able to get as many gardens in other parts of the state as it had wanted. This coming year, volunteers will use butterfly bombs made by Plantables LLC in Hudson to help create more butterfly habitat.

"[A butterfly bomb is] a little round piece of clay with seeds embedded; throw [bomb] out where you want seeds to germinate and let them grow," Donath said.

He said this will make it easier to grow new butterfly habitats in many areas. At the grand opening of the new Interpretive Center at Genoa National Fish Hatchery on June 1 they will be giving out boxes with butterfly bombs to those that attend.

Itasca State Park-Jacob Brower Visitor Center
36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, MN 56470

Forest History Center
2609 County Road 76, Grand Rapids, MN 55744

Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site
1620 Lindbergh Drive S., Little Falls, MN 56345

Oliver Kelley Farm, Minnesota Historical Society
15788 Kelley Farm Road, Elk River, MN 55330

Mill City Museum
704 S. Second St., Minneapolis, MN 55401

Historic Fort Snelling
200 Tower Ave., St. Paul, MN 55111

Minnesota History Center
345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102

The Science Museum of Minnesota
120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102

NPS Mississippi River Visitor Center
120 w. Kellogg Blvd., MN 55102

National Eagle Center
50 Pembroke Ave., Wabasha, MN 55981

Minnesota Marine Art Museum
800 Riverview Drive, Winona, MN 55987

Winona County History Center
160 Johnson St., Winona, MN 55987

Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center
200 Monroe St., Prescott, WI 54021

Riverside Museum
410 E. Veterans Memorial Drive, La Crosse, WI 54601

Villa Louis
521 N. Villa Louis Road, Prairie du Chien, WI 53821

Fort Crawford Museum
717 S. Beaumont Road, Prairie du Chien, WI 53821

Stonefield State Historic Site
12195 Highway VV, Cassville, WI 53806

Potosi Brewing Company
209 S. Main St., Potosi, WI 53820