This post is in partnership with Travel Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Great River Road or Wisconsin Highway 35 is the perfect road trip destination for leisurely travelers or families who like to explore roadside stops at their own pace. “It’s all about the journey, not the destination,” is the perfect quote for the Wisconsin Great River Road. In the fall, it’s a colorful destination with views of bluffs and the Mississippi River. Be sure to use the Wisconsin Fall Color Report to stay up-to-date with where you can find peak colors. The Wisconsin Great River Road is dotted with some of the friendliest, quaint and beautiful cities, towns and villages. It’s hard not to stop at every new town you come across. It was one of my favorite areas to visit when I lived in Western Wisconsin and now I’m able to share and discover some new stops along the Wisconsin Great River Road with my family.
The Wisconsin Great River Road is 250 miles long. This National Scenic Byway is considered nationally significant, one-of-a-kind and an exceptional traveling experience which ultimately led to its designation as “All-American Road” by the Federal Highway Administration.
Three days is hardly enough to explore the everything along the Wisconsin portion of the Great River Road, but it’s actually the perfect amount of time to pick and choose some amazing stops along this single stretch of road.
Here is the route we did on the Great River Road:
Have you packed up your bags yet? Let’s wind our way through several charming small towns on an iconic Wisconsin road. Here is my detailed itinerary for a 3-day getaway along the Wisconsin Great River Road.
Our first destination: Stockholm, Wisconsin. Stockholm is one of those villages you just cannot drive past without exploring. It’s full of sweet little businesses, art galleries, shops and dining options that are reminiscent of Stockholm’s original Swedish heritage.
If you’re looking for an outdoorsy overnight stay, check out Stockholm Village Park Campground. It’s a first come, first served campground with electric hook ups, a boat ramp and located directly on Lake Pepin. A heads up though, it is located near train tracks so pack some ear plugs. Traveling with friends and family? There are several rentals including Rivertown Landing and Maiden Rock Retreat – an event center and vacation rental. Want to taste fresh, local Wisconsin flavor? Then you need to add Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery to your list. You’ll find them right outside Stockholm and this family-owned business has been making ciders since before ciders were trendy. They’re also family-friendly with a straw maze, corn maze, hayrides and picnic areas.
Don’t leave without getting a sandwich, slice of pie or pie cookie at Stockholm Pie and General Store. We are all fans of the pie cookie which are mess-free mini pies that come in several different flavors like Nutella and blueberry. Be sure to check out Scandihoo, a Nordic boutique that pays ode to the Scandinavian history that is very evident in Stockholm. We got Harlan the cutest Nordic apron and a Viking ship ornament to hang on the Christmas tree this year.
What is more Wisconsin than Wisconsin cheese? Our next stop is Nelson, Wisconsin, another charming village along the Mississippi River. When I think of Nelson, I think of Nelson Cheese Factory (although there’s much more to to this village than the cheese). Nelson Cheese Factory made cheese for over 100 years, but these days they focus on serving up sandwiches, soups, pizza and ice cream to locals and travelers. There’s also a variety of wine and cheese for purchase in their shop.
The Stone Barn is also a great seasonal stop in town for wood-fired pizza, wine, beer, plenty of outdoor seating and an antique store.
There’s even a newer park in town. If you’re craving some outdoor time during your road trip, check out Thrive! Park which opened in 2016. It’s home to one of many outstanding overlooks along the Great River Road.
Less than an hour south of Nelson on the Great River Road is Trempealeau, Wisconsin – a memorable Mississippi River town with a variety of options for lodging, dining and sightseeing. Since it’s fall, we had to stop by Ecker’s Apple Farm which is much more than an apple orchard. We stopped at their Orchard Market and bought a bag of Honeycrisp apples and a six-pack of hard cider and enjoyed them while walking around the orchard. The view here is breathtaking. We absolutely loved the rows of apple trees with the backdrop of the bluffs. It felt like we were in Napa Valley or Sonoma. There’s even a beer garden which is open June-October.
Perrot State Park was a top recommendation among the people of Instagram, and for good reason. We were greeted by the views of 500-foot bluffs and the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers, plus the fall colors. It’s truly a scenic gem with hiking trails and interesting rock formations. There are shorter trails like Brady’s Bluff which is just a half-mile long and the River View Trail at 2.5 miles. We did part of the River View Trail and checked out Horseshoe Falls. The falls were totally dried up when we went but we heard it looks astounding in the winter when ice falls form. Canoeists, kayakers and anglers can explore Trempealeau Bay and cyclers can go from the campground to the 24-mile Great River State Trail.
Elmaro Vineyard in Trempealeau is just a few minutes away from Perrot State Park. It’s one of the stops on the Great River Road Wine Trail and Wisconsin’s Winery of the Year in 2016. While the winery was hoppin’ over the weekend with live music and winos on the patio, we were excited to be a little more secluded with Elmaro’s Picnic Package. It’s a reservation-based private picnic that takes place in between the rows of grapes at the vineyard. When we arrived, I stopped by the winery and picked our bottle of wine (plus a second bottle for extra) and we were then taken into the vineyard where we had a picnic blanket, sun umbrella and a picnic basket with a baguette, crackers, gourmet cheeses and sausages, fruit, nuts, water and our bottles of wine + plastic wine glasses. It was the perfect space for Harlan to run around, Juniper to take a nap and the adults to enjoy a picnic.
*We actually visited Ecker’s Apple Farm on our first day going down to La Crosse. On the second day on our way up to Alma, we stopped by Trempealeau again to have our picnic at Elmaro Vineyard and hike at Perrot State Park.
Welcome to La Crosse, Wisconsin! This is our final destination on day 1. I’m actually pretty familiar with La Crosse. I frequently visited when I worked as a reporter at WEAU in Eau Claire. Their sister station is Fox2548 is in La Crosse where I covered several Coulee Region-based stories. You could probably spend a whole weekend in La Crosse and still have plenty to explore. It’s a bike-friendly city with lots of trails, restaurants, places to stay, a trolley tour, river boat tour, craft breweries and fun events like Oktoberfest USA.
Grandad Bluff’s observation deck was the number one recommendation I got from people on Instagram. It’s the largest bluff in the area at over 600 feet. From the observation deck, you can see a spectacular panorama of the Mississippi River Valley including views of both Minnesota and Iowa. There are several bluffside hiking trails, a shelter and restrooms. Since we had Harlan and Juniper with us, we did it the easy way and drove to the overlook. Serious hikers can start at Hixon Forest, then move onto Oak Trail followed by Bliss Road, which leads you to the summit.
Have you ever fished on a fishing float? This was my first time on the Best Dam Fishing Float in La Crosse and I was totally impressed! It’s a 100-foot long floating dock with over 400 feet of fishable rail, located just below Lock and Dam No. 7 on the Mississippi in La Crosse. To get there, we drove to the public boat launch in La Crescent, MN. At the launch, there’s a big wooden sign we flip up signaling Captain Tom to bring the pontoon to pick us up and go to the float. The float has 10 picnic tables, 25 chairs, very clean port-a-potties and a bait shop. Some people rent rods and others bring their own gear. I brought my Avid Spinning Rod from St. Croix Rods, another great company based out of Wisconsin and it helped us catch our walleye that day! We visited St. Croix Rods last fall while in Park Falls, Wisconsin and got a tour of how their rods are made. It was very impressive.
Captain Tom says anglers of all ages and abilities catch all sorts of fish from his dock including walleye, perch, northern pike, largemouth and smallmouth bass, white bass, crappies, sunfish, catfish, sturgeon, sheepshead, paddlefish and drum. You can spend the whole day on the Best Dam Fishing Float for $20 per adult or $5 per kid 12 and younger. I think this experience makes fishing accessible for people who don’t own boats or have access to docks of their own.
Shoutout to DSG Outerwear – yet another fabulous Wisconsin company that designs functional fishing clothes for women by women. Their UPF 50+ gear came in clutch on a very sunny afternoon on the fishing float.
Lovechild Restaurant in La Crosse was my favorite restaurant stop on this trip. It’s upscale which is a nice treat when we’re used to casual, family-friendly dining options. It reminds me of the 1920s and has a speakeasy vibe. But beyond the cocktails, the food was superb. I highly recommend the farro and roasted carrot salad as well as the braised lamb shank. One thing that really stood out to me was the service. Although we were probably the only table with little ones, they have an excellent kids menu with adult-like choices like the apple and manchego salad and flourless chocolate cake. The host was so considerate and brought out a bucket of toys for Harlan to choose from – to keep! He picked two containers of playdough and continued to play quietly through the rest of our dinner, which was amazing! And while there was no changing table on the wall of the bathroom, the host brought us a portable changing table with clean sheets. Overall, such a good experience!
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites in the historic district of La Crosse. It was a prime location and walking distance to most of the restaurants and businesses we visited in La Crosse. While we didn’t spend too much time hanging out at the hotel on this trip, it is refreshing to stay at a hotel like the Holiday Inn because we don’t need to go through a checklist of to-do items like we usually do at vacation rentals. Plus, there was an indoor pool and hot tub which we all enjoyed!
It was actually pretty busy in downtown La Crosse on a Saturday morning. We didn’t have any breakfast reservations and didn’t want to wait long. Luckily, we were the first ones to arrive at The Crow so we got seated right away and served up strong, hot coffees along with tasty breakfast options fairly quickly. I am a sucker for breakfast potatoes. Why are they so good with hot sauce?! Our waitress was so sweet and recommended we hike the Grandad Bluff which we were originally on the fence about. Glad we did!
La Crosse is as south as we went on the Great River Road but I assure you, there’s so much more to see if you have time to explore.
Alma is a quaint town with the best overlook. There are only two streets in Alma but they stretch for seven miles along the Mississippi River. The main street is packed with historic buildings that now serve as hotels, shops and other businesses. It’s also home to Buena Vista Park – a must-visit vista with hiking, a picnic area and the largest natural balcony that overlooks the river. We seriously couldn’t get enough of this view!
Have you ever stayed at a hotel that had so much character that it was the highlight of your trip? That’s how I felt about Hotel de Ville in Alma. This place is worth a tour even if you’re not staying in town. Our 3-bedroom Fountain Suite had the most intricate Victorian/Parisian-style decor. The owner has truly designed everything intentionally in all six historic hotel suites. The most memorable feature is the Secret Garden just outside our suite with three fountains, bronze statues, a hobbit door and French music playing in the background. It felt like a fairytale. We loved having coffee and pastries in the morning while sitting on the patio above the garden.
We had a casual dinner at Alfresco Pizzeria (also operated under Hotel de Ville’s ownership) with pizza, salad and breadsticks followed by drinks at the Empire Room. The Empire Room is an art deco-styled restaurant and we heard they serve an excellent dinner and even more fabulous brunch. You can check out all of Alma’s dining options here.
Harlan and I also had a fun mommy-and-son Alma Bakery run – just 5 minutes from our hotel. We stopped by Water Lily Gifts on our way back and got a couple of cute wind-up toys as souvenirs to remember our Alma visit.
Pepin, Wisconsin is known for beautiful Lake Pepin which is actually a wide part of the Mississippi River. On most mildly windy days, you can spot sailboats cruising by on Lake Pepin. Pepin is also the hometown of author Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House in the Big Woods. The Wilder Museum is a neat stop for those who love history and Wilder books. There are outdoor opportunities like sailing on Lake Pepin and the Tiffany Bottoms State Natural Area for primitive camping, fishing and hunting.
The gorgeous Villa Bellezza Winery takes you to an Italian getaway while staying conveniently in Wisconsin. I love being in their Piazza while sipping on award-winning wines paired with Italian food at il Forno Ristorante.
On our way back home, we pulled over for lunch at Smoke-In D’s BBQ, kitty-corner from Villa Bellezza. Definitely go with the ribs. They were so good after all the travel. We also visited the Pepin Country Stop to do some shopping. There were plenty of pumpkins, mums, local meats and really cute yard decor. Both businesses are open seasonally and they’re hard to miss if you’re driving through Pepin on the Great River Road.
Maiden Rock, Wisconsin was our final stop on the Great River Road. It’s another small river town on Lake Pepin but it’s a standout with its views of Maiden Rock Bluff. The limestone cliff is right next to a wayside stop so we were able to pullover to get some aerial shots of the area. You can also get to the top of the bluff by taking a winding, narrow road on County Road E. The bluff is home to all sorts of raptors including eagles and falcons. There’s opportunity to hike to the top to check out the scenery of Lake Pepin and discover some of the native flora and fauna.
There are several unique shops in Maiden Rock including Cultural Cloth which features handmade products made by women from around the world and Limbo Records & Rarities where you’ll find used vinyl record, 8 track tapes, cassettes and CDs that brings you back to yesteryear. I still remember listening to Britney Spears on cassette in elementary school – ha!
Vino in the Valley is also a favorite for dining al fresco while enjoying live music down in the valley. They offer hayrides, a farmers market and a tree farm around Christmas time.
The Wisconsin Great River Road was perfect for our family. Whether you’re looking for a family getaway to explore each unique and charming town, a winery tour, a chance to see some of the best overlooks in all of the Midwest or a fishing vacation on all the river fishing floats, there’s something for everyone on the Wisconsin Great River Road. Check out this itinerary from Travel Wisconsin for other ideas along the Great River Road.