A fall travel itinerary along the National Scenic Byway through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa
There’s fall eye candy everywhere you look on the Great River Road — Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin
Fall is one of the best times of year to drive the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, nearly 3,000 miles of roads and highways that hug the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana.
September celebrates Drive the Great River Road Month with festivities, fall foliage, and other autumnal sights and bites throughout all 10 states. Just look for the green and white pilot’s wheel signs, and you’ll know you’re on the right road.
The green and white pilot’s wheel sign means you’re on the Great River Road — Photo courtesy of Jacky Runice
Driving a loop through the northern section of the Great River Road through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa promises landscapes ablaze in amber, copper, and scarlet. This is a great place for fall travel when parks and overlooks offer gorgeous views, trees show their vibrant fall colors, and eagles soar above you. And there’s just enough of a chill in the air to enjoy comfort food in charming river towns.
What to see and do on the Great River Road in Wisconsin
Check out the weirdly wonderful outsider-art Grotto in Dickeyville, Wisonsin — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Wisconsin’s Great River Road, the only designated national scenic byway in the state, stretches along Wisconsin Highway 35 and winds through more than 30 historic river towns.
Start in the Southwestern corner of the state near Kieler. Some local attractions include the quirky Dickeyville Grotto & Shrines, an outsider-art cave festooned with found objects, shells, and stones. In nearby Hazel Green, dine at the 3 Mile House Supper Club for old-timey Midwestern specialties like Brandy Alexanders, fried walleye and catfish, and chargrilled steaks.
Before driving north, make sure to peruse the Gile Cheese Factory Outlet in Cuba City for goods by award-winning Wisconsin cheesemakers, including squeaky cheese curds (great for snacking on the road).
Sip beers and learn some Great River Road history at the Potosi Brewery — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Head north on the Great River Road to Potosi, also known as the “Catfish Capital of Wisconsin.” Here you’ll find the Potosi Brewing Company, a working brewery founded in 1852. Not only is there a brewpub for sipping seasonal beers and grabbing lunch, the complex also houses the Great River Road Interpretive Center and Transportation Museum, and the ABA National Brewery Museum.
Stop in Cassville to visit Nelson Dewey State Park, which sits on a 500-foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Then on to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest community after Green Bay, to visit Villa Louis, a 25-acre National Historic Landmark with over a dozen buildings to explore, including a stunning Victorian mansion, a sculpture park, and remnants of Fort Crawford.
Pick up hickory smoked fish and fine Wisconsin cheese at Valley Fish & Cheese in Prairie du Chien — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
While in town, peruse Valley Fish & Cheese, a funky little shop for everything from catfish bologna to turtle meat. The fried cheese curds at Blackhawk Tavern are hand-dipped, airy, and flavorful. If staying overnight in Prairie du Chien, the River District Hotel and Waterfront Hotel are close to St. Feriole Island Park, a battle site from the War of 1812.
Continue driving along the Great River Road towards La Crosse, and keep the camera ready for the carved river valleys and towering bluffs that are characteristic of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. It’s spectacular.
When you get to La Crosse, check out Grandad Bluff for an eagle-eye view of fall colors across the city (and bits of Minnesota and Iowa, too). Then it’s time for cocktails at La Crosse Distilling Co., a geothermal-powered distillery that uses ingredients from local farms. For accommodations, The Charmant Hotel, a former candy factory turned boutique hotel, has contemporary vibes and a rooftop bar for a nightcap.
Camp among the trees at Perrot State Park — Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin
Head north to Trempealeau, where Perrot State Park offers hiking, camping, strolling, and canoeing. The steep climb to reach the 500-foot cliffs is worth it for the view and glorious northern Midwestern fall foliage.
Fountain City, resting at the base of towering bluffs along the Mississippi, is an interesting stop for oddities like Elmer’s Toy & Antique Museum and The Rock in the House, a 55-ton boulder that crashed through the roof of a small house and landed in the main bedroom. Just up the Great River Road, tip a pint at The Legendary Monarch Public House, the oldest continually operating tavern in Wisconsin (open since 1894).
Plan a stop at one of Wisconsin’s pizza farms, which is exactly what it sounds like: local farms that feature pizza made with fresh ingredients plucked straight from their fields every summer. Suncrest Gardens Farm in Cochrane (about a half-hour north of La Crosse) harvests produce and meat from the farm for appetizers, pizza baked in a hand-built oven, desserts, and drinks all enjoyed picnic-style on the farm. AtoZ Produce and Bakery in Stockholm and The Stone Barn in Nelson are two others on this route—just be sure to make reservations.
Prior to renovations, the Great River Lodge was formerly known as the Viking Motel — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Birders flock to Buffalo City to watch tundra swans, herons, and pelicans, while anglers fish the backwaters of the Mississippi. Here the Great River Lodge features modern, comfortable cabins with outstanding views of the river.
Head north to Alma, a town built right into the limestone bluffs. The 19th century waterfront buildings house shops, restaurants, and lodging. Good vittles are waiting at the Alma Hotel restaurant, which offers affordable comfort food and daily specials like broasted chicken.
Get your cardio in by hiking the gentle Mossy Hollow Trail, or climb the Stair Step Streets, a whopping 788 steps that connect two streets in town. If you want something less heart-pounding, drive to the top of Buena Vista Park to reach the largest natural balcony overlooking the Mississippi River, approximately 500 feet above the river town. Spot birds and other wildlife from the Wings Over Alma nature and art center.
Keep heading up Highway 35 to the Nelson Cheese Factory for fine Wisconsin cheeses, snacks, and sandwiches. Or maybe a wine experience near Pepin (10 minutes north of Nelson on the Great River Road ) at Villa Bellezza Winery. There’s a tasting room and Italian restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining.
Live your wildest “Little House” dreams at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Pepin, Wisconsin — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Pepin is also the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Here you’ll find the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and replica house. Show up any second weekend in September and you’ll run into Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, a festival with fiddle contests, wagon rides, spelling bees, square dances, and chicken dinners.
Before leaving Wisconsin, stop in tiny Stockholm (population 78), a river town that attracts artists and craftspeople who display their work in local shops, galleries, lodging, and restaurants. After taking photos of the river and bluffs from Village Park, saunter over to Stockholm Pie & General Store for a slice of freshly baked blueberry peach, pumpkin pecan, double lemon, or peanut butter fudge pie. There are gluten-free pies, small pies, and savory ones, too.
Or head to Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery to pick your own fruit for pie-making back home, or just have a flight of cider, wine, or mead in the tasting room.
What to see and do on the Great River Road in Minnesota
Take in the fall colors at Minnesota’s Frontenac State Park — Photo courtesy of Paul Vincent
Spanning 565 miles, Minnesota’s Great River Road, a designated All-American Road, offers a bounty of experiences and river towns that tell the story of the Mississippi River.
After crossing the river from Hager City, Wisconsin, drive south along Highway 61 towards Iowa. First stop is Red Wing to stroll Main Street shops, and snap a picture of the size 638 (and a half!) work boot at the Red Wing Shoe Company flagship store and museum. Pick up a new pair of hiking boots there and break them in at Frontenac State Park, where birds migrate every fall along the Mississippi Flyway, one of America’s great avian superhighways.
Snooze at the oldest hotel in the state, St. James Hotel, and enjoy a home-cooked breakfast at Bev’s Cafe before driving 28 miles to Wabasha, the oldest city in Minnesota on the west side of the river. You can learn all about the national bird at the National Eagle Center, and watch eagles soar from an outdoor observation platform. Take a load off at Turning Waters Bed, Breakfast & Brewery for hoppy suds and a snack.
View the Mississippi River Valley in fall colors from a scenic overlook near Winona, Minnesota — Photo courtesy of Paul Stafford
In Winona, sailors and boaters will appreciate the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, where all of the art is water-themed. Take in local views at Great River Bluffs State Park or from Garvin Heights Vineyards, which makes wine from bluff-grown grapes above Winona. Since it’s a college town, there are plenty of pubs and eateries with affordable menus. Be sure to order the Minnesota favorite, a cheese-stuffed Juicy Lucy burger at the riverfront Boat House.
What to see and do on the Great River Road in Iowa
Wind through bluffs, prairies, and scenic overlooks of the Upper Mississippi River Valley — Photo courtesy of Travel Iowa
The Great River Road begins in New Albin in the Hawkeye State, but your first stop should be Lansing, Iowa, just a bit south. The Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center offers spectacular views of colorful bluffs along the Mississippi River, plus exhibits about Native Americans, European settlers, and regional wildlife. Chow down at The Safe House Saloon, a local favorite offering a ton of craft beers and homemade thin-crust pizzas.
Harpers Ferry is home to more than 200 earthen mounds, many in the shapes of animals, built more than 1,000 years ago by American Indian tribes. The Effigy Mounds National Monument is a sacred space surrounded by beautiful woodlands.
Yellow River State Forest and Pikes Peak State Park are great for hikes and leaf peeping. If you haven’t done much shopping on the trip, a stop at Paper Moon in McGregor is a must. It’s known nationwide as a one-of-a-kind indie book and gift store just a block from the river.
Balltown, home to Iowa’s oldest restaurant, is less than an hour from McGregor on the Great River Road. Breitbach’s Country Dining has been operated by the same family since 1852. Iowans travel for miles for the fried chicken and homemade pies at the James Beard America’s Classic award-winner. Walk it off with a stroll to one of the best overlooks of the Mississippi River valley.
In nearby Dubuque, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is the nation’s largest museum and aquarium dedicated to the Mississippi River and its watershed.
Learn about preserving river life at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa — Photo courtesy of Travel Iowa
For one last autumn view before crossing a bridge back to our starting point of Kieler, Wisconsin, take a ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator Company funicular railway. Often called “the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway,” you have beautiful views of the river and three states from the top of the rail line.
For a stay overnight before continuing on, check into the historic Hotel Julian Dubuque. It’s rumored to have been one of Al Capone’s old haunts, and also hosted Mark Twain and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, but today sits as a stylish boutique hotel in the heart of Dubuque’s Old Main District.
If you can’t do the drive in fall, consider a spring trip when there’s 70 miles of vintage sales during Rummage Along the River, May 17-18, 2024.