Here are 16 suggestions for stops along a stunning stretch of hills, valleys, and the mighty Mississippi.
Editor’s Note: Contributing food and travel writer Mary Bergin provides periodic updates on Wisconsin destinations that are still open –though often in modified form to ensure the safety of diners, shoppers, and guests.
One of the more captivating drives in Wisconsin is the state’s 250-mileshare of the Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway that shadows the Mississippi from its Minnesota point of origin to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s 3,000 miles, through 10 states.
The journey is, and isn’t, all about the river. Our chunk of the route – Wisconsin 35, primarily – cuts through hamlets with charms more extraordinary than they might appear at first glance.
Who would expect Castlerock Museum’s array of medieval and other weaponry in Alma, population 781? The carefully curated collection of historic arms and armor started as a hobby for a now-retired circuit court judge.
One of the rare public ferries still crossing the Mississippi is Pride of Cassville, whose Wisconsin-Iowa shuttles take 17 minutes. Catch it in Cassville, population 928.
In Potosi, population 688, is the National Brewery Museum. The little town beat out Milwaukee and St. Louis for the honor.
Culinary excellence shows up in the smallest of places too:
A two-time James Beard semifinalist and her partner specialize in fine dining without fussiness at Chef Shack in Bay City, population 500.
Trempealeau Hotel walnut burgers are so popular, beyond the community of 1,527, that they are sold in grocery stores in three states.
Then there’s the scenery, a gentle rollercoaster of hills and twists on two lanes. Past farmland, blufftops, tidy towns and historic landmarks. A drive meant to be done leisurely, and that means lingering along the way.
Social distancing may be a challenge at popular stops like Monarch Public House in Fountain City, serving beer since 1894, and – 25 miles north – Nelson Cheese Factory, where the ice cream line would stretch out the door, even without a pandemic.
So, venture off the highway. Within 10 miles of Wisconsin 35 is more elbow room, truly rural spots to break up the drive:
Vino in the Valley, Maiden Rock: An open-air restaurant and patio bar in the Rush River Valley is as rural as it comes. Expect a serious menu of Italian food, bruschetta, and antipasto skewers to pastas and pizzas. Wines are local and from around the world. Take a seat or bring a blanket and claim your own riverside nook. Ten miles west: Ellsworth Creamery, the state’s leader in cheese curd production, which has a retail shop.
Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery, Maiden Rock: Near Wisconsin’s Great River Road is a 10-stop wine trail, including hard cider production with locally grown apples. Scrumpy, a dry cider, and Crabby, a sweet heritage cider, are international award winners. Also for sale: products to make your own hard cider, mead, or wine.
Danzinger Vineyards, Alma: Blufftop views are widespread on the roomy patio of this business on the outskirts of town and within view of the Mississippi. Danzinger’s sweet wines win state fair awards in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Cold-climate varietals – Midnight Voyage, King Cranberry – earn international honors.
Suncrest Gardens Farm, Cochrane: The working farm sets aside two evenings weekly to top pies with locally harvested ingredients, then bake them in an outdoor, wood-fired oven. Think picnic and bring lawn chairs or blankets. Classic combos are creative too (on the Farmstead: roasted tomato sauce, slow-roasted sweet onions, roasted sweet peppers, sausage, cheese). Another excellent and picturesque pizza farm is The Stone Barn, Nelson.
Vino Over the Valley, Arcadia: Take in the pastoral beauty of Doelle Valley farms – the view extends 20 miles, to Minnesota, on a clear day. It’s no coincidence that the menu seems similar to Vino in the Valley – same owner, with 65 miles between businesses. At Larry’s Lookout, atop the same steep Buffalo County hill, is a more casual burger-beer-biker vibe.