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20+ Fun Things to do Along the Wisconsin Great River Road

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A road trip along the Wisconsin Great River Road, recently designated an All-American Road, is something the entire family will enjoy! Here are 20+ fun things to do from Cassville to La Crosse along your journey.

Great River Road Wisconsin Mississippi river view from Wyalusing State Park

This post is sponsored by Travel Wisconsin, but all opinions are mine.

Fun Facts About the All-American Great River Road

The Wisconsin Great River Road is one of 184 national scenic byways and All-American Roads in the 48 lower states. To be designated either a National Scenic Byway or an All-American Road, a stretch of road must possess intrinsic qualities of archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and / or scenic importance. The All-American designation means it has more intrinsic qualities than a National Scenic Byway!

A Great River Road Journey will take you on an epic journey – over 3,000 miles through many small towns in 10 different states. It has been designated an All-American Road for many great reasons!

Wisconsin’s Great River Road portion comprises 250 miles weaving through 33 historic river towns along Highway 35. It would be a fun goal to drive the entire All-American Road, but taking in the historic sites along Wisconsin’s portion of the Mississippi River is a great place to start. You’ll get a real taste of small-town America when you explore the Great River Road, so you’ll definitely want to start planning. 

great river road wisconsin sign (1)

20+ Fun Things to do Along the Wisconsin Great River Road

We recently took a three day trip along the Mississippi River. We took off midmorning from our home in Eastern Iowa. Our first destination goal was Millville, Iowa where we caught the Cassville Car Ferry to Cassville, Wisconsin.

From Cassville, we meandered through backroads until we hooked up with Highway 35 and headed north to La Crosse. We spent one night in La Crosse and then drove back down Highway 35 to Prairie du Chien. After lunch on day three, we headed back over to Iowa.

In total, we spent parts of three days exploring a small portion of the Great River Road in Wisconsin. One day, we would love to explore more of it – driving further north in Wisconsin to see Pepin (birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder), Maiden Rock, Fountain City and more!

Traveling all the way to the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and down to the Gulf of Mexico is definitely a bucket list item! We highly recommend exploring the Mississippi River bluffs and towns along the Wisconsin portion of the Great River Road. You won’t regret this lovely drive!

Plan Your Road Trip on the Great River Road Wisconsin

As you plan, make sure to head to Travel Wisconsin. A wealth of information awaits you there!

Cassville, Wisconsin

We did not get to explore Cassville enough, but we did really enjoy taking the Cassville Ferry, driving around the town, and eating what we considered to be the best cheese curds we had on our trip. According to the Great River Road Wisconsin website, a Cassville resident (R.J. “Penny” Eckstein) was one of the earliest proponents of a scenic byway along the Mississippi River.

1. Take the Cassville Ferry

Taking a car ferry across the Mississippi is a real treat. This on-demand Cassville car ferry costs $15 per car or $2 per walk-on person (bring cash!) and connects the Iowa Great River Road with the Wisconsin Great River Road. 

My kids were excited to summon the ferry via a solar powered push button on the Iowa side. We were one of three cars and two motorcycles making the trip, but were told that in the high season in summer on a weekend to be prepared for an hour-long wait to make the trip.

2. Eat Wisconsin Cheese Curds

Nothing screams Wisconsin more than Wisconsin cheese. As the number one cheese producing state in the US, we decided to indulge in cheese – and my kids were delighted to eat cheese curds all along the trail. Their favorite cheese curds happened to be in Cassville – at the J & J Sand Bar so add a stop there on your way through Cassville.

Things to do in La Crosse, Wisconsin

With a population of around 50,000, La Crosse is the largest city on the Wisconsin Great River Road. It features a really vibrant scene – beautiful downtown, focus on local and the arts, lots of amazing recreation, and some of the best restaurants. You’ll want to spend a few days exploring all that La Crosse has to offer. Here’s what we recommend:

3. Take a River Cruise on the La Crosse Queen

Enjoy a brunch or dinner cruise the river on a modern day replica of a 1900s style paddlewheel boat! We were treated to the pizza cruise (Domino’s Pizza and beer) and enjoyed the views of the Mississippi River as we traveled from Riverside Park to Lock and Dam 7 and back.

4. Explore Pettibone Park

You’ll find a lot of fun activities at Pettibone Park – dip your toes in the Mississippi River at the public beach, rent a kayak and explore the waters, play a game of disk golf, or enjoy a lovely riverside dinner at Pettibone Boat Club.

5. Hike the Rim of the City to Watch the Sunset over La Crosse

We really enjoyed this evening hike. La Crosse is home to some of the biggest bluffs on along the Great River Road, so it makes total sense to explore one! The sunset is fantastic from the Rim of the City. The hike was short and easy and it seems to be a favorite spot for locals.

6. Stay at the Historic Boutique Charmant Hotel

The boutique Charmant Hotel is just fantastic. Located in an old candy factory, it has been converted into a luxurious hotel now. You won’t want to miss breakfast in their dining room! And the chocolates they hand out at check-in are just one example of the way they pay homage to their history.

7. Explore La Crosse’s Lovely Downtown Area

Downtown La Crosse is home to many independently owned businesses and restaurants. Some of our favorites for exploring include:

You can read more about our favorite things to do in La Crosse in this post.

A few of our favorite restaurants in La Crosse here!

Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center

Just 20 minutes outside La Crosse, you’ll find Norskedalen (Norwegian for Norwegian Valley) where you can step back in time and learn about the Norwegian immigrants who moved to the area in the 1800s. This amazing heritage center was one of the highlights for me. I loved visiting the period homes and learning how the area was settled and farmed. Here are a few things my kids really loved doing at Norskedalen.

8. Conquer the Labyrinth at Norskedalen 

This single, winding path is located near the Arboretum. Start at one side and meander your way to the center – no starts, stops, or confusing mazes – just a neat area that is meant for a bit of quiet reflection and a calm attitude.

9. Find the Trolls on the Troll Trail Scavenger Hunt

This is a short little trail (0.4 miles) your kids will love! It meanders behind the Bekkum Homestead and includes many hidden trolls – garden gnomes – to find! Your kids will have a blast finding these trolls.

If you plan to visit on a weekday, call ahead to make sure a tour guide is available. Guided tours are currently the only way to explore the homes at Norskedalen. Learn more about the Bekkum Homestead at Norskedalen here.

Highway 35 on the Great River Road Wisconsin – between La Crosse and Prairie Du Chien

10. Stop at an Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam

There are two lock and dams on the Mississippi River (Lock and Dam #8 near Genoa and Lock and Dam #9 near Lynxville) between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse. Their observations decks are great places to watch barges and look for eagles! Stop at one on your way by to see what you can see!

11. Get Ice Cream at Hood Scoops Ice Cream in Stoddard

You’ll want to stop at this cute ice cream shop located in an old gas station. The decor is really neat the ice cream is fantastic!

12. Stop at a Historic Marker

You’ll come across historic markers on both sides of the highway all along Highway 35. Stop at one or all and learn not only about the history of the Mississippi River, but also about the Native American history and more. We stopped at markers at Ferryville and outside Prairie du Chien. It’s easy to make a quick stop on to learn a bit the Great River Road.

Things to do in Prairie du Chien – Great River Road Wisconsin

Prairie du Chien (French for prairie of the dog) is located across the river from Pike’s Peak – an Iowa State Park – and is the oldest European settlement on the Upper Mississippi River. With a rich history that dates back to the late 1600s, you don’t want to miss a stop in Prairie du Chien when you drive Wisconsin’s Great River Road. Here are a few of the fun things we recommend checking out in Prairie du Chien.

13. Eat at a Wisconsin Supper Club

No trip to Wisconsin is complete without a stop at a supper club, and Prairie du Chien’s The Barn restaurant offers a fun place to explore. Supper Clubs harken back to an earlier time when families dressed up for the weekly broasted chicken dinner or fish fry. Make sure to take the kids and get them a Kiddie Cocktail. My kids thought the darker ambiance at The Barn was a lot of fun.

14. Explore the Lovely Downtown Shops & Restaurants

There are many historic buildings, shops, and restaurants to explore on Blackhawk Avenue. Here are a few places you shouldn’t miss:

15. Take a photo at the Welcome to Wisconsin Sign

If you like taking family photos at state welcome signs, Prairie du Chien has you covered. Conveniently located at the Visitor’s Center, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to explore inside too. The staff if helpful and friendly, and I learned a lot about the area by chatting with them!

16. Explore Saint Feriole Island

Saint Feriole Island was home to the first European settlement of Prairie du Chien. Repeated flooding by the Mississippi River meant that its inhabitants had to move to drier grounds in the 1960s. But it’s still a neat place to explore – home to several festivals including Prairie Villa Rendezvous, the Villa Louis, the Dousman House, and more.

17. Spend a Night at the Waterfront Hotel

Family owned and operated, the Waterfront Hotel is Prairie du Chien’s newest hotel. It’s conveniently located on Main Street within walking distance of Feriole Island, the Welcome Center, and the downtown area.

Wyalusing State Park 

An easy 15 minutes drive from Prairie du Chien, Wyalusing State Park is a treasure trove of lovely trails and history. It’s one of the oldest state parks in Wisconsin and it features amazing views of the Mississippi River, camping, boat rentals, and fun hiking trails with lots of ladders and stairs, we really loved Wyalusing State Park.

You will need an admission sticker to visit Wyalusing State Park which you can purchase at the visitor’s center or online.

18. Stop in at Point Lookout

Make sure to stop in a Point Lookout for amazing views of the Mississippi River valley below. The first photo in this post was taken from Point Lookout and it’s a great place to stop in after arriving at Waylusing State Park!

Find the Spot where Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet entered the Mississippi River and head out on several gorgeous hikes from Point Lookout!

19. Hike the Treasure Cave Trail

Our favorite hike during our morning at Wyalusing State Park was the Treasure Cave Trail. From Point Lookout, you’ll veer off to the right to find the trail. It’s full of stairs and ladders and since it was a bit wet from rain when we were there, we definitely had to be careful on this short hike. Make sure to wear good shoes, a hat, and have tick protection!

20. Boating on the Backwaters of the Wisconsin / Mississippi Confluence

If you’d like to go boating on the river at Wyalusing, you can bring your own boat, or rent canoes at the concession stand near the campground.

Now that you’re inspired to travel the Great River Road in Wisconsin, what will you do first? Have you driven this lovely national scenic byway before? Don’t forget to visit Travel Wisconsin for more information on this amazing All American Drive.

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About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long time green living enthusiast and rural Iowa mom of four. An avid traveler, Michelle has lived on three different continents and has driven all four kids across the entire USA (by herself!). She loves sharing farm-to-table recipes, their family travel adventures, and gardening and homesteading tips on her popular lifestyle blog, SimplifyLiveLove.com.

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