Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 35 is Wisconsin’s western backbone in most places, serving as the “Great River Road” along much of the Mississippi and a key connector route between western Wisconsin towns. It’s usually the westernmost route in Wisconsin, and runs the length of the state from Illinois to Duluth, Minnesota. In fact, it’s the longest route on Wisconsin’s state trunk system.
The Wisconsin Highway 35 Road Trip
The Drive (South To North): Highway 35 begins at the Illinois state line in East Dubuque, Illinois. It used to be the main route into Wisconsin from the Dubuque, Iowa area; now the U.S. 61/151 freeway takes care of that. Dubuque, by the way, is a beautiful Mississippi River town with bluffs a’plenty framing the Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin sides. If you decide to ride Highway 35 from the state line, hit the U.S. 61/151 bridge or the U.S. 20 bridge from East Dubuque and take in the views.
While you’re down in the Dubuque area (check out the lovely Iowa city), and then come back on U.S. 61/151 into Wisconsin via the (creatively named) Dubuque-Wisconsin Bridge. This bridge was built in 1982 and replaced the classic old Eagle Point Toll Bridge that stood just north of this location from 1902 until 1982. Highway 35 follows the U.S. 61/151 freeway for about 7 miles before exiting – with U.S. 61 in tow – for the ride into Dickeyville, Lancaster, and eventually the river towns hugging Wisconsin’s side of the Mississippi.
After hooking up with Highway 11, 35 jogs west onto the U.S. 61/151 Freeway as it comes in from Dubuque. At Exit 9, Highway 35 breaks off with U.S. 61 and heads into Dickeyville (pop. 1,043). Dickeyville is probably best known for the Dickeyville Grotto, one of the most noted and beautiful grottos in the country. The Grotto was built between 1925 and 1931 and religion, patriotism, stones, glass pieces, seashells and costume jewelry still mix in the grotto to this day.
Built in the 1920s with materials donated by parishoners, the Dickeyville Grotto was built to demonstrate the patriotism of Catholics – apparently in response to what some Protestants were saying at the time. A renovation in the mid-1990s restored many of the materials to their original splendor.
Following Highway 35 (still coupled with U.S. 61) out of Dickeyville, you’re in Paris. Well, the town of Paris, but still…anyway, you’re running along high ridges on occasion, with the bluffs lining the Mississippi to the west and a vast view to the east. In fact, to the east on a clear day along this stretch, the world’s largest “M” is visible, a historic monument completed by UW-Platteville engineering students in 1937. It is constructed of rocks arranged 241 feet high and 214 feet wide and looks at the land from a 45-degree angle on Platte Mound, about 12 miles away. Ahead, though, is the “twin towns” of Tennyson (pop. 370) and Potosi (pop. 711), known as “Wisconsin’s Catfish Capital.”
|Side Trip: Potosi
Highway 35 cuts through Tennyson, but a left on Highway 133 brings you into Potosi, along the “World’s Longest Main Street Without an Intersection.” Potosi will be home to the National Brewery Museum, now under construction in the home of the former Potosi Brewing Company, which did its share of brewing from 1852 to 1972. St. John’s Lead Mine is the oldest mine in the state and provides tours – it’s perpetually 50 degrees in there, so dress accordingly – every day but Wednesday for $5.50 (608-763-2121). This mine dates back to the 1700s.Beer is key in the history of Potosi (pop. 671), and will be key to its future. The National Brewery Museum and Library opened along Highway 133 last year. The Potosi Brewing Company busily brewed beer here from 1852 to 1972, and the former brewery’s buildings were renovated for the museum, which also features a microbrewery, a restaurant with an outdoor beer garden and a gift shop (you knew there was a gift shop coming.) We WILL be checking it out soon – and if you have and want to share details, let us know!
Highway 133 serves as a long, long main street for Potosi. Past the downtown area and the future museum, you pass St. John Mine. The mine was a natural cave worked by Native Americans and then European immigrants, both before and after the “Lead Rush” of 1827. The mine is named after Willis St, John, who made a small fortune in the first twenty years of the lead rush. Tours are available daily, and you can see stalactites (those icicle-looking rock things hanging down in caves) and realize that, whatever your working conditions are, you have it great compared to 19th century miners.
Highway 35 & U.S. 61 head past Tennyson and wind through beautiful countryside and increasingly high bluffs on the road toward Lancaster and eventually the Mississippi River.
Past Tennyson, Highway 35/U.S. 61 winds past British Hollow and makes a beeline to Grant County’s county seat, Lancaster (pop. 4,070). Known as the “City of the Dome” for its handsome Grant County Courthouse, Lancaster’s town square brings together Highway 35, U.S. 61, and Highway 81 around a series of stores, a park, and the big green dome made of glass and copper. The park surrounding the courthouse features one of the oldest Civil War monuments in the nation. Near Lancaster is one of the first African-American communities in Wisconsin, founded in 1849. It’s now called Pleasant Ridge and is outlined along with other area history at the local Cunningham Museum. A good overnight stop is Martha’s Hot Mustard & Bed & Breakfast (7867 University Farm Rd., 608-723-4711), which is exactly as it sounds: a B&B that also makes hot mustards.
Highway 35 splits off U.S. 61 at Lancaster (they cross again in La Crosse, French for “The Crosse”) and joins Highway 81 for 7 miles. Highway 81 then breaks off toward Cassville while 35 turns north again, is joined by Highway 133 again, and hits U.S. 18. Here, you approach the Wisconsin River and Wyalusing State Park. Wyalusing features beautiful, abrupt bluffs and cliffs overlooking the point where the Wisconsin River blends into the Mississippi. This is a prime spot for camping and hiking, just south of the PDC.
And “the PDC” on the State Trunk Tour is Prairie du Chien (pop. 6,018), Wisconsin’s second oldest city (Green Bay is the oldest, in case you were wondering) contains five National Historic Landmarks. The Fox and Sauk tribes were here for hundreds of years prior to French explorers arriving and saying “voila!” Early establishment began in 1673, with the first trading posts developed in 1685 by French explorer Nicholas Perrot. Fur trade, along with Prairie du Chien’s natural location near the Wisconsin River and Mississippi River confluence, guaranteed the small settlement would prosper for years to come. Prairie du Chien’s history spans five centuries, including the only significant Wisconsin battle in the War of 1812. PDC’s first fort, Fort Shelby, was built by Americans built captured by the British in the War. By 1816, it had been replaced with Fort Crawford. The Black Hawk War, which took place in 1832, featured a commanding officer in the form of Colonel Zachary Taylor, who later became 12th President of the United States. A lieutenant during the same time named Jefferson Davis not only married Zachary Taylor’s daughter (named Sarah “Knoxie” Taylor, proving cutesy nicknames existed in the 19th century), he later became President of the Confederate States of America. Neither worked out well; the future President Taylor didn’t approve and poor Sarah passed away from pneumonia only months after their 1835 marriage; his new country in the 1860s didn’t last very long, either.
A statue of French explorer Father Marquette towers above the Wisconsin Welcome Center in Prairie du Chien, facing his university about 160 miles due exactly to the east. The view from the base looking up brings a whole different perspective.
The fur trade may have kept many warm, but it made a few millionaires on top of it. Local resident Hercules Dousman was the first millionaire in Wisconsin, and in 1871 his son H. Louis Dousman built Villa Louis, a National Historic Landmark on St. Feriole Island. The plot of land upon which Villa Louis stands once held Hercules Dousman’s original house, as well as Fort Crawford and Fort Shelby. Today it’s a museum operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the first historic site for the organization.
Did school ever feel like prison? Well, Prairie du Chien has a prison that was once a highly-regarded Jesuit boarding school. Campion Jesuit High School operated from 1880 to 1975 and counts among its alumni the likes of Vicente Fox, Mexican president from 2000 to 2006; George Wendt, Norm of Cheers fame, a number of movies and noted Superfan Bill Swerski; noted sportscaster George Blaha; former Wisconsin governor Patrick Lucey; and politician and prankster Dick Tuck (yes, his real name.) As long as we’re name dropping, Pat Bowlen, longtime owner of the Denver Broncos, was born in Prairie du Chien – one of the few Wisconsin natives who liked Super Bowl XXXII.
A new carp-droppin’ tradition. Perhaps the newest tradition in Prairie du Chien deals with New Years’ Eve. In 2001, they started lowering a carp via crane to coincide with the ringing in of the new year. Similar to the apple in New York City or the peach in Georgia, residents count down the last minute or two of the year while the carp – a 30-pound female named “Lucky” for the 2010 New Years’ – gets lowered via crane from about 110 feet high. Now called the “Droppin’ of the Carp”, it’s certainly one-of-a-kind.
The ride from Prairie du Chien northward is one of the most scenic drives in the Midwest. Part of the Great River Road (as much of Highway 35 is from Dubuque to Prescott), you get sweeping vistas of the river while steep bluffs often hug the other side of the road. Portions of the Mississippi here are two to three miles wide, often dissected by island that form portions of the vast Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, a 261-mile stretch from Rock Island, Illinois to Wabasha, Minnesota established by an Act of Congress on June 7, 1924 as a “refuge and breeding place for migratory birds, fish, other wildlife, and plants.” Settlements along this stretch are few, far between, and beautiful.
Two examples of more bluffs that line Highway 35. These are both near Lynxville, about 15 miles north of Prairie du Chien.
Just past Ferryville (pop. 174), Highway 82 comes in, fresh from a bridge over the Mississippi coming over from Lansing, Iowa. Highways 35 & 82 run together for about three miles north to the little town of DeSoto (pop. 366). It was originally called Winneshiek Landing (the area was founded as a settlement in 1820), but it was renamed after Hernando DeSoto, the Mississippi River explorer, in 1854. Interestingly, thought it’s named for an Italian explorer, the town is known for its Norwegian heritage. Like downriver Cassville, DeSoto is a great place for bird watching, including eagles. You also cross from Crawford into Vernon County immediately after Highway 82 breaks away and heads east. As for you, you’ll be continuing north.
The DeSoto area is where Chief Black Hawk and his Sauk and Fox followers were defeated on August 1st and 2nd, 1832 at the Battle of Bad Axe and subsequently slaughtered even though they were trying to surrender peacefully. The battle site is along Highway 35 about two miles north of DeSoto; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established a park at the battle site, near the intersection with Battle Hollow Road. The marker to the right describes the battle.
Just north of the battle site is the unincorporated community of Victory, followed shortly by the Genoa National Fish Hatchery. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it began raising bass and panfish but now raises cold, cool and warm water aquatic species of all kinds. They have 67 acres of rearing ponds – that’s a lot of rearing. They also do things like “propagate 250,000 juvenile endangered Higgins’ eye mussels.” You can go on a self-guided tour if you’d like – about 5,000 others do every year. Beyond the hatchery lies the village of Genoa (pop. 263). Established in 1854, Genoa is one of the “lock towns”, placed at Mississippi River Lock & Dam #8. It’s always fun to stop and watch the locks at work, and you can’t miss it from the highway! Highway 56 heads east from Genoa too, if you want a beautiful detour into the Driftless Area away from the river for a bit.
Along the stretch north of Genoa, Highway 35 is almost constantly right along the river, including through the tiny hamlet of Stoddard (pop. 815), one of the few towns along this stretch that was not originally founded as a fur trading post. Stoddard was also originally located about a mile inland, but when the aforementioned Lock & Dam No. 8 was built in 1937, the river widened to a lake and suddenly, the town had plenty of waterfront property. Shortly after crossing into La Crosse County, U.S. 14 & U.S. 61 join in for the ride into La Crosse proper.
La Crosse (pop. 51,818). La Crosse is Wisconsin’s largest city on the Mississippi River and the largest along Highway 35. Originally named “Prairie La Crosse” by French explorers, which apparently came not from the crossing of rivers (the Black and La Crosse Rivers meeting up with the Mississippi), but rather their witnessing of Native Americans playing a game with sticks along the riverbank that was similar to the game of lacrosse. The city was originally settled primarily for fur trading and then, owing to its terrific transportation location both on the river and along where railroads were connecting St. Paul with Milwaukee and Chicago, sawmills and breweries (slice some wood, have a drink…life was simpler back then). Today, La Crosse hosts the corporate headquarters of Kwik Trip, the Trane air conditioning company, and FirstLogic. This is where journalist Chris Bury got his start before moving on to Emmy Awards and little shows like Good Morning America, Nightline and World News Tonight. Model and actress Alexa Demara hails from La Crosse; FHM magazine called her “the hottest thing to come out of Wisconsin since Brett Favre’s spiral.” A century earlier, actress Minnie Dupree came out of La Crosse to a prominent career in New York theatre. Young actor Brandon Ratcliff also hails from the city. La Crosse is a college town, home to Viterbo University, Western Wisconsin Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Situated on a rare piece of flat land amidst beautiful coulees and hills, La Crosse holds a number of “quality of life” accolades, often involving low crime or livable small city status; I note USA Today also named La Crosse one of the “Top Ten Places Worldwide to Toast Oktoberfest” (more on that in a second.) Long known as a brewery town, La Crosse was home to G. Heileman Brewing Company for almost 140 years, cranking out a variety of brands, most notably Old Style. Today, the sprawling brewery complex lies about a mile west of Highway 35 and continues to hum as the City Brewery. The World’s Largest Six Pack (pictured below) is indicative of La Crosse’s fun style, and you can access it by following U.S. Highway 14/61 south for just a few blocks after they branch off Highway 35.
Once Heileman and the home of Old Style, the “World’s Largest Six Pack,” which holds enough beer to fill 7.3 million cans, lives on as the storage tanks for the City Brewery, founded in 1999. City Brewery brews about a dozen of its own beers as well as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and several flavors of Arizona Tea. This is located about one mile west of Highway 35; Highway 33 westbound or following U.S. 14/61 northwest will bring you there.
Oh, and speaking of the World’s Largest Six Pack, La Crosse also hosts one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States, perhaps the world, and has been doing so every year since 1961. Other things to check out in town include Historic Pearl Street, filled with Civil War-era buildings, specialty shops, a microbrewery, galleries, antique shops, coffee houses and, at night, college students doing what they do best when they’re not studying. The Swarthout Museum (800 Main St.) features changing exhibits from prehistoric to Victorian and the Children’s Museum of La Crosse (207 Fifth Avenue S.) has exhibits for our future leaders on three floors. All of this can be reached by your car, or you can hop the La Crosse Trolley in the warm weather months for a little “no need for the gas pedal” tour.
Rudy’s Drive-In is one of the great ones in Wisconsin. Built in 1966, Rudy’s features roller-skating carhops and a sheltered carport where you can pull up and order your probably-unhealthy-but-delicious food from the menu sitting right out your window.
Car shows and “Cruise Nights” happen regularly throughout the summer. You can find Rudy’s two blocks west of Highway 35 along Highway 16 (La Crosse Street).Highway 35 basically bypasses downtown La Crosse, instead going right through neighborhoods. You have good access to downtown via U.S. 14/61, Highway 33 or Highway 16.
The Downtown La Crosse Option.
Being the largest Wisconsin city on the Mississippi, and the third largest metropolitan area along the river from Minneapolis/St. Paul to St. Louis (the others being Dubuque and the Quad Cities), La Crosse is able to support a pretty healthy downtown. Once you take Highway 35 into La Crosse and U.S. 14/61 meet up, continue on U.S. 14/61 towards downtown. Eventually, you will reach the beginning of U.S. 53, which will bring you north to meet up again with Highway 35. Here are some highlights of the downtown La Crosse area.
La Crosse is home to the La Crosse Loggers, one of the Northwoods League baseball teams. They play at Copeland Park (aka “The Lumber Yard”), which isn’t along Highway 35 but can be accessed via the downtown option as you go up U.S. 53 before rejoining 35. The Loggers play a 70-game season from June through August. This is a good baseball town; it’s where MLB players Damian Miller, Scott Servais, George Williams and Jarrod Washburn all hailed from.
On the north end of La Crosse, where Highway 35 meets up with U.S. 53 and I-90, you’ll find Riverside Amusement Park, which features go karts, batting cages, mini golf, an arcade and more. It’s a good stop, especially if you have restless kids with you. The park opened in 1990 and operates from May 1 through Labor Day.
At I-90, U.S. 53 cuts east before heading north as a freeway; meanwhile, Highway 35 continues into Onalaska (pop. 14,839), which is actually on the Mississippi. The city was named after a Thomas Campbell poem, entitled “The Pleasures of Hope.” The city, originally settled in 1851, now has two namesakes: Onalaska, Washington and Onalaska, Texas. The 7,700 acre Lake Onalaska, an offshoot of the river, offers excellent fishing and bird watching. It’s a major migratory stop for birds – and road-trippers, too! Onalaska is at the trailhead of the Great River State Trail, with goes to Trempealeau, and the La Crosse River State Trail, which heads east to Sparta and connects with other state trails, most notably the Elroy-Sparta. You can find out more about all those trails here.
Heading north from Onalaska, Highway 35 meets up with U.S. 53 for a brief spell. You can follow “Business 35”, the former route, through Holmen (pop. 8,146), another rapidly-growing bedroom community of La Crosse. Unlike many cities and towns whose histories date back to the mid-1800s, Holmen became a village in 1946. Much of the town is new and they celebrate corn with an August festival each year, which they spell Kornfest.
Just north of Holmen, U.S. 53 continues on north and Highway 35 heads due west about 8 miles into little Trempealeau (pop. 1,319). Named for the nearby river that flows into the Mississippi, it’s the gateway to Perrot State Park. The “Perrot” refers to French explorer Nicholas Perrot, who spent the winter of 1686 along this area of the river. There’s a marker further up Highway 35 that talks about a fort he had a role in, too. The park itself is two square miles of diverse ecosystems, migratory birds, hardwood forests and goat prairies. I had no idea what “goat prairies” were, so here’s the Wikipedia entry for it. The park has 102 campsites, 12.5 miles of hiking trails, 9 miles of cross-country skiing trails and a nice 3.4 mile canoe trail. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent.
A great place to check out after a stroll along the river is the Trempealeau Hotel (608-534-6898), a restaurant, saloon and place to stay since 1871 – when most guests arrived by steamboat. The suites with Jacuzzis aren’t part of the original rooms, but they’ve updated well in those suites while also keeping antique-style rooms available. The original charm abounds in the eating and salooning areas. Out back toward the river, there’s an area for relaxing outside and taking in the bluff views, as well as the activity around Lock & Dam No. 6. There are also plenty of concerts and festivals held at the Trempealeau Hotel, too. They also have a “world famous” Walnut Burger, a meatless burger patty that was ahead of its time when they introduced it in 1986 but now is so successful they sell frozen versions of it in stores around the region.
Highway 35 shoots straight north out of Trempealeau and meets up with Highways 93 and 54 at unincorporated Centerville, where it joins Highway 54 for the ride west again. For a few miles, you’re in relatively flat, fertile farmland and then suddenly you’re amongst big bluffs again – it all depends on how close you are to the river. The Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (referred to as a “prairie wonderland”) can be accessed via Marshland Road, right after you cross the Trempealeau River and enter Buffalo County. A few miles down at Bluff Siding (which wins the contest for the place that most closely sounds like the name of a building contractor), Highway 54 breaks west and heads across the river into Winona, Minnesota, a nice college town and the largest city on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi. But we’ll keep going up 35 and stay on the Great River Road on the Wisconsin side.
Next up is Fountain City (pop. 983), which calls itself the “River Bluff Capital of the World.” Part of the reason for that is Eagle Bluff towers over Fountain City, and at 550 feet above town – directly above the town – it’s the highest point along the Mississippi River. It was originally called Holmes’ Landing, after Thomas Holmes landed here in 1839. Nearby springs that were a popular source of fresh, clean water for passing riverboats led to the name change. Fountain City offers art galleries, some unique stores, and two museums: the Fountain City Historical Museum and for car buffs, Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum (608-687-7221), which features hundreds of car models through history (especially the 1920s, 30s and 60s) including, as they say, “one of the largest pedal car displays in the country.”
A State Trunk Tour favorite is the Monarch Tavern & Public House (608-687-4231), which has been serving travelers since 1894. The floor, the bar and the ceiling are all original and any updates done since then blend in beautifully. While they’re technically not a brewpub, they are the primary source of Fountain Brew, the original beer from the old Fountain City Brewing Company, which operated here for eight decades before shutting down in 1965. They relaunched the beer using the original recipe, which was found three decades after the brewery closed. Some new brews have been added to the portfolio since, all brewed by contract up north in Dallas (Wisconsin) by the Viking Brewing Company. The Monarch’s restaurant offers a variety of tasty fare and if your timing is right, ask proprietor John Harrington to show you the basement. Once a coal storage room for steamboats in the 1860s, it has been reopened as a lower bar level. Marvel at the original rock floor and salvaged pieces from factories, ships, cars and even barber shops that adorn the room. It’s pretty awesome.
The Monarch Tavern & Public House is easily accessed right from Highway 35, where you can enter through the backyard patio at left, or through the front doors along Main Street one block north – and one level up. The small sign hanging above the entrance reads “Your typical Green Bay Packers, hunting, fishing, antique collecting, great food, damn cold beer, best bloody mary on the river, friendly neighborhood 100 year old beautiful bar. Welcome! (All Irish & Packer fans especially welcome.)” However, if you’re Swedish and a Vikings fan, that’s okay, too.)
Fountain City’s a drinkin’ town. If you prefer wine over beer, you’re covered with the Seven Hawks Vineyards, which operates just a block off Highway 35, where Highway 95 begins. Their seven wines use grapes and fruit grown locally, having cross-bred European grape varieties with local ones to create cold-hardy vines and grapes that can handle the climate here. You can see part of their vineyards from Highway 35 as you approach the north side of town.
Heading out of Fountain City, Highway 35 passes the Rock In The House, a house that had a 55-ton boulder amble off a cliff and crash into it in 1995. Fortunately, the owners weren’t killed by this massive boulder, but they moved out the next day. A investor named John Burt bought the house and made it into a little museum, where you can see how nature can humble us all. Read the background story here. Also just north of Fountain City, you’ll find Merrick State Park, a marshy backwater area along the Mississippi popular with anglers and boaters. You’ll find plenty of egrets, herons, muskrats and otters (based on experiences at the zoo, otters are sometimes willing to put on quite a fun little show.) Shortly after that, you pass the southern end of Highway 88, which twists and winds north through valleys toward Cream, Gilmanton and Mondovi.
The small towns of Cochrane and Buffalo City lie off the beaten path of Highway 35 and can be accessed via County O or OO if you want to check them out. Buffalo City has just under 1,000 people, making it one of the smallest “cities” in the U.S. Sloughs a’plenty are to your west along the river, with historical markers like this one at right to tell you more about it.
Nestled between the bluffs and the river, the next river town is Alma (pop. 942). Established in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state, Alma’s motto is “Step into living history.” Alma offers probably the best views of locks in action with a towering observation deck close to and above Lock & Dam No. 4. The metal bridge that serves as the observation platform spans the railroad tracks that line the Mississippi, which makes it all the wilder experience when a massive train rumbles underneath your feet. It’s also a popular nesting place for bald eagles. The Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center is a great place to find out more about the bird migratory patterns, the natural wonders of the area, and to check out the works of local artists – this whole area, actually, draws artists from all over. You’ll see why as you keep driving this stretch of Highway 35.
This view of Alma, the bluffs above the town, the tracks where trains rumble up and down the Mississippi (in this case, under your feet) and the close-up view of Lock & Dam No. 4 (below) can all be had from the observation deck. The train tracks were completed from La Crosse to St. Paul in 1886; Lock & Dam No. 4 opened in 1935.
Just north of Alma is the start of Highway 37, which heads north-northeast to Mondovi and eventually Eau Claire. Highway 35 continues over the Buffalo River and heads into the little hamlet of Nelson (pop. 395). Nelson’s big claim to fame, in true Wisconsin fashion, is the 100+-year-old Original Nelson Cheese Factory. Drawing visitors from far and wide, the Original Nelson Cheese Factory doesn’t actually make cheese anymore, but they offer one of the best selections of everyone else’s cheeses that you’ll find anywhere. Their Creamery Room is also known for ice cream cones, sandwiches, soups and more, and a new Tasting Room offers great wines and sampling opportunities. They also have a pet-friendly patio and live music on warm-weather Saturdays. Nelson’s location along the gorgeous bluffs lining the Mississippi River makes it a popular spot for hang gliders, so feel free to either partake or simply marvel at those willing to jump and glide over town. Castleberg Park in Nelson is also a popular spot for picnicking.
Highway 25 heads north to Menomonie, and we continue along 35, which spends the next few miles crossing the swampy, boggy delta where the Chippewa River empties into the Mississippi. It was quite a few years before a road could be built through here; decades ago, drivers had to head north about 10 miles and come back south on what is now a county highway. But now you can leapfrog the watery landscape that makes up the Tiffany Bottoms State Wildlife Area and head straight to our next locale, famous for an author and a lake.
That town is Pepin (pop. 878). This is where Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867, leading to a classic book in the 1890s and a TV series in the 1970s. A replica of the “Little House in the Big Woods” cabin lies right along Highway 35 in Pepin, as well as the Pepin Depot Museum and the Pepin Historical Museum. More than a river town, Pepin is also a lake town: the remarkably gorgeous Lake Pepin, the widest natural point on the Mississippi River, abuts the town. Pepin offers a marina, courtesy dock and a municipal swimming beach.
History abounds in Pepin, with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (top) and the Pepin Historical Museum (center), which has a lot of cool trinkets in Pepin Village Park. You can also read the historical marker detailing the author’s birth and childhood here (click on the picture above so you can actually read what it says.)
About Lake Pepin
Lake Pepin is a natural lake on the Mississippi, formed by the backup water caused by sedimentary deposits from the delta of the aforementioned Chippewa River. Lake Pepin is 28 miles long and expands to a width of almost three miles in places. The vistas offered from Highway 35 can be breathtaking. Lake Pepin is also the site of the Sea Wing disaster, where 98 people were killed when a vessel on the lake overturned in a violent storm. It remains one of the worst maritime disasters ever to have occurred on the Mississippi River. Across the lake from Highway 35 at night, you might see the lighthouse at the entrance to the Lake City Marina, which is the only working lighthouse on the river.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|Ralph Samuelson first demonstrated the sport of water skiing in 1922, on Lake Pepin. Since we lived on the Minnesota side, Lake City, Minnesota claims to be the birthplace of water skiing. But it happened on the lake named after a Wisconsin town. So there.|
With Lake Pepin and towering bluffs hugging both sides of the highway, this is probably the most beautiful stretch of Highway 35 – and perhaps the entire Great River Road from Minnesota to Louisiana. If you need proof that this area was popular for Swedes to settle way back when, the next town is called Stockholm (pop. 97). Yes, there are fewer than 100 residents in this town, but it was named one of the “Best of the Midwest Small Town Getaways” by Midwest Living magazine, and Travel Wisconsin named Stockholm one of the top five shopping destinations in Wisconsin. So there’s definitely something here.
Beyond Stockholm is Maiden Rock (pop. 130) which was originally called Harrisburg when it was first settled in 1854. The town changed their name to Maiden Rock, after the 400-foot bluff from which a young Dakota Indian woman named Winona (we believe this is where the Minnesota town got its name) leapt to her death rather than marry the young brave her father had chosen for her. Her story is also told with the historical marker under Maiden Rock itself.
The topography here is fantastic, but requires alert driving. There are some rather blind curves and hills at times, and the river towns have low speed limits for a reason. Maiden Rock has also experienced runaway trucks that were coming down from the coulees toward Highway 35. In one instance in 1995, a runaway truck loaded with corn crashed right through what was at the time the only store in the village. It has since been rebuilt.
Highway 35 continues to Bay City, which essentially marks the northern end of Lake Pepin, and then Hager City, which could be described as an unincorporated suburb of Red Wing, Minnesota, just across the river at this point. U.S. 63 comes in from Red Wing and crosses 35 here, on its way up to Spooner, Hayward and Ashland. Hager City is the site of a landmark “Bow and Arrow” on a bluff, as detailed with the marker at right.
For a stretch here, Highway 35 leaves the Mississippi shoreline and heads inland, climbing up and heading down a series of hills that characterize the area. A nice is to be had from Diamond Bluff, which also features a memorial park to the aforementioned Sea Wing disaster and an archeological site, also known as the Mero Mound Group. Dig it! (Couldn’t resist…) The town was founded by a guy named Monte Diamond, which explains the bluff’s name.
Highway 35 heading north into Prescott. You get a long view of the Mississippi, including where it splits toward Minnesota with the St. Croix River becoming the new state line. The view changes significantly between afternoon and evening.
Approaching the river again, Highway 35 heads into Prescott, which lies right at the spot where the Mississippi River turns away from the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and heads straight for Minneapolis and St. Paul. Prescott itself (pop. 4,000) is Wisconsin’s westernmost incorporated city and is an old river town dating back to 1839, named after its founder, whose first name was Philander (I believe they just called him “Phil” for short.) Prescott’s location along the rivers just 25 miles from the Twin Cities means its future includes becoming a suburb.
A highly recommended stop on the south side of Prescott is the Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center, which offers tons of information about the river and the natural world around it as well as fantastic views looking south towards Lake Pepin and north toward the split where the St. Croix River meets the Mississippi, which is only which is only about one mile away.
The Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center, on Monroe Street just off Highway 35 in Prescott’s Freedom Park, offers plenty of resources for travelers and great views of the river and surrounding area from high atop one of the bluffs.
Diving into the downtown area up and down Broad Street (which is Highway 35) are marinas, antique shops, a goldsmith shop and a walking tour of historic homes, and more. A great place to start (and a State Trunk Tour favorite) is at Muddy Waters Bar & Grill (715-262-5999). The decks out back that overlook the St. Croix, with the Mississipppi River junction in easy eyeshot just under a rail bridge; railroads have been spanning the St. Croix at that location since 1886. You can also view barges being flanked by boaters and jet-skiers – whom I assume aren’t present in the winter. In this picture view, Wisconsin is on the near side; the Mississippi continues to the top left into Minnesota. The St. Croix River flows into the Mississippi at this point and begins forming the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There’s also the Welcome & Heritage Center, which chronicles local history and features displays, which sits next to Muddy Waters at the U.S. 10 bridge crossing into Minnesota.
From Prescott, heading north as Broad Street (and U.S. 10), Highway 35 will bring you to the technical start of Highway 29, about one mile north of downtown. Once 35 joins with 29, you head off into open – and picturesque – countryside. For the 11 miles to River Falls, the road winds around, up and down hills and valleys that characterize the area close to the St. Croix River.
Can you believe there are two Kinnickinnics??
I guess it stands to reason: Wisconsin has more than one Fox River, more than one Wolf River… but more than one Kinnickinnic River? Indeed. One is in Milwaukee, draining the city’s south side into Lake Michigan. The other flows through western Wisconsin into the St. Croix. Kinnickinnic State Park, located along the latter, offers swimming, boat mooring, fishing, cross-country skiing, panoramic views and good bird-watching. Note to fishermen: this version of the Kinnickinnic River is a nationally recognized Class One Trout Stream. Incidentally, the word “Kinnickinnic” comes from the Ojibwa, meaning “what is mixed.” Seems that Kinnickinnic deals with mixing various plant material, including tobacco. Highway 29 offers access to the river and park between Prescott and River Falls.
You can “float the Kinni” with rentals from the Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters (877-504-9705), which also offers cabins and features a B&B. They’re located along Highway 35 just north of where Highway 29 turns east in River Falls.
Next up on Highway 35 is beautiful River Falls (pop. 14,015), “The City on the Kinni”, as it calls itself. River Falls is definitely a college town: about 14,000 regular residents and 6,000 college students. The city is home to UW-River Falls, and served as the summer practice facility for the Kansas City Chiefs until 2009. River Falls is also increasingly a Twin Cities suburb. Highway 29 branches east to head towards Chippewa Falls; we turn north on Highway 35, which is in the process of becoming a four-lane expressway for the ride north toward I-94 and our next destination: Hudson.
As Highway 35 north heads to Hudson, it joins up with I-94 and U.S. 12 for a few miles westward. In this view at the left, you can see the huge Interstate Bridge to Minnesota over the St. Croix River ahead. As you can also see by the overhead sign, Highway 35 veers off before the bridge and heads north into the heart of Hudson.
Hudson (pop. 11,865) is a fast-growing city and the gateway city between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Hudson was originally called Willow River and then Buena Vista before being renamed Hudson in 1852, for the bluffs that reminded the city’s first mayor of the beauty of the Hudson River Valley north of New York City (you have to admit, there’s a nice resemblance.) Sawmills and steamboats were the order of the day until the railroad came through in 1871, when it became sawmills and trains. One of the lumber industries decided to take advantage of all that sand and water and started to make windows; the Andersen Corporation lives on today as one of the largest makers of windows in the U.S., although now their primary facility is across the river and upsteam just a few miles. Today, Hudson thrives on transportation, lumber and tourism, as well as serving as one of the fastest-growing areas for Twin Cities workers to live and commute. For a long time, Hudson’s bars and restaurants took advantage of the 2am closing time in Wisconsin, which pulled a lot of business from Minnesota establishments that dealt with 1am closings. Though the law on the side of the State That Elects Wrestlers and Comedians to Political Office changed a few years back, Hudson remains a favorite place for nightlife along its bustling downtown, which also features a variety of shops, galleries and restaurants. Highway 35 goes through the heart of downtown as 2nd Street, where 1st follows the river closely and 3rd goes through neighborhoods one block above (and with bluffs, each progressive street inland is above the other.) Along the river front is parkland, boat rides and rentals, and plenty of parking. Restaurants like Pier 500 and fun little places like Dick’s Sports Bar are within close proximity. It gets classy too, with the Phipps Center for the Arts serving as a venue for a variety of performances, exhibitions, theater and music, drawing people from all over the region; it’s actually a significant player in the thriving Minneapolis-St. Paul arts community.
Hudson’s long history means a lot of historical buildings. Like our travels in Watertown, we encountered an Octagon House, built in 1855 by a judge who liked eight-sided structures. The Octagon House (on 3rd Street, two blocks north of Vine, the old Yellowstone Trail) is open for tours and features a ton of both original and reproduced features from how the home was in the 1800s, right down to the chamber pots, dinner sets, washing “machine” and icebox. It’s definitely worth a tour, and it’s also work walking around that whole neighborhood – the whole area is very pleasant and filled with great old houses.
In 1915, the newly platted Yellowstone Trail, which stretched from Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to Puget Sound in Washington state, was designated through Hudson. Coming into town from the east on Vine Street, the trail zigzagged a bit through town to approach the classic toll bridge which connected Hudson with Minnesota for four decades, right when the automobile era began.
Hudson celebrates its Yellowstone Trail heritage with an annual festival and clear markings through town, including this shot (left) at 3rd & Vine, where this 1866 church hosts an organ from that era that still plays today, with many of the original parts. The Trail itself, like the former route of U.S. 12, headed down to the entrance arch for Hudson that either greeted visitors coming from Minnesota, or reminded travelers through Wisconsin heading west of where they just were. There’s a picture of that arch further below!
The Old Hudson Toll Bridge
At the State Trunk Tour, we’re fascinated by the old roads, bridges, buildings, and more that our parents, grandparents, etc. enjoyed – or tolerated – as they traveled around. The Hudson Toll Bridge is one of those things we like to explore. Opened in 1913, it consisted of a long causeway on the Wisconsin side that extended out into the St. Croix River and then angled upwards to a high steel truss bridge that ships could pass underneath – and then it reached the Minnesota side on a bluff. In the 1920s and 1930s, some motorists had so much difficulty with their cars navigating the steep ramps that they ran in reverse gear because their transmission could handle it better. The bridge had a toll booth on the Wisconsin side that gave Hudson residents very low property taxes for years. The bridge used by millions of travelers for decades, including gangsters like John Dillinger, who used the bridge as means of state-to-state escape. The question is, did they pay the toll??
The new and the old: Hudson’s old toll house (nothing like the cookie) stood at the end of the causeway (above) and the steep steel bridge was a challenge for some cars, especially in winter; below, this is what that area looks like now. You’re looking at some of the original bridge pillars that held up the steep steel ramps. Below, the causeway still exists, with much of the original concrete in place. On the Wisconsin side, the classic arch has welcomed people to Hudson since it was erected in the 1930s.
North of Hudson is, creatively enough, North Hudson (pop. 3,463), which grew out of Hudson in 1912, right around the time the big toll bridge opened. The city straddles the 45th parallel and celebrates its Italian heritage every year with Pepperfest, which is no doubt a spicy festival. Highway 35 is the main street through town. Northeast of Hudson and North Hudson is the beautiful Willow River State Park, accessible via County Highway A. The Willow River gorge and waterfalls are a great setting for camping, picnicking. The park in total covers about 3,000 acres, almost five square miles.
For a while north of North Hudson, you head through farmland and, approaching unincorporated Houlton, meet up with Highway 64. Heading west on 64 takes you across the St. Croix River on a classic 1931 bridge to Stillwater, Minnesota, which although across the state line, is nonetheless a very cool place to check out. Highway 35 joins Highway 64 eastward for a while. A recent expansion has put Highways 35 & 64 on a new freeway bypass around Somerset (pop. 2,300), a former logging town that also had the ideal terrain for growing cranberries and – during Prohibition – collecting water and making moonshine. Logging and bootlegging have since taken a back seat to being a bedroom community suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and a popular destination for concerts and floating down the Apple River. To follow the real Highway 35 through Somerset, exit the new freeway at County VV; this route is also marked “Business Highway 64”, and go through town. You can hit 35 north again from the downtown area.
In the show Mystery Science Theater 3000, character Mike Nelson hails from Somerset; in an episode of Pinky and the Brain, the characters fly over a map of the U.S. with Somerset being the only city highlighted. On hot summer days, it is the only city that matters, as thousands flock to Somerset to go tubing down the Apple River, which once floated logs cut from the forests to sawmills in Somerset for cutting and shipping; today, the river gently floats inner tubes filled with people (and inflatable coolers). For camping, concerts and tubing fun, check out Float Rite Park (715-247-3453), located right along the traditional Highways 35/64 through town. It holds the Somerset Amphitheater, which expanded in 2011 and hosts a number of outdoor concerts throughout the summer, including some major concert tours.
North of Somerset, Highway 35 heads into more open farmland and enters Polk County. Through the small settlement of East Farmington, watch for Ken’s Keyboard (301 State Road 35, 715-294-2876), a bar with a great sign out front – and yes, it hosts musical performances, including those using a keyboard. You’re a few miles inland from St. Croix River during most of this stretch until the river bends to get close to Highway 35 again, which becomes your next chance to cross over into Minnesota.
Next up is lovely little Osceola (pop. 2,728), a signature town along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a 255-mile federally protected corridor. Osceola is home to the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway, a heritage railroad that offers 90-minute excursions from April through October through the beautiful scenery along the St. Croix and surrounding areas. You can also check out the St. Croix ArtBarn (715-294-2787), a restored century-plus old dairy barn that now includes an art gallery and 180-seat performance theater. Each year, Osceola hosts events like Rhubarb Days and Wheels & Wings.
The bridge to Minnesota & Highway 243
An interesting – and very brief – side trip for the State Trunk Tourer is to follow Wisconsin Highway 243, which lasts for about 3/10 of a mile before crossing the St. Croix River and entering Minnesota, where it becomes Minnesota Highway 243, a connector to their Highway 95. It’s just an attractive side road with great views of the river, and it’s always fun to hop across a state line.
While in Osceola check out Cascade Falls, a beautiful 25-foot waterfall where Osceola Creek drops on its way into the St. Croix River. This is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Several signs and markers offer up the area’s history
Further north, through St. Croix Falls, Siren and Superior, we’ll take care of as we head into summer!
Just before the St. Croix becomes part of the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, Highway 35 crosses over just north of Danbury. Recent straight-line winds have clearly affected the area in these photos from August, 2012. This crosses the narrow strip of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Events on this Tour
Check out historic Villa Louis, right along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin's second oldest city of Prairie du Chien, from top to bottom. "Behind the Scenes" at Villa Louis offer extended tours of the mansion, giving visitors a glimpse into the life of a historic house museum. Highlighting the care and upkeep of a unique object from the Dousman collection, tours include visits to the nooks and crannies of this historic and beautiful restored mansion. Prairie du Chien lies just north of where the Wisconsin River flows into the Mississippi in one of the most beautiful areas of Wisconsin. U.S. 18 and Highways 27, 35, and 60 all bring you there. For full Villa Louis information, check out their website!