To Mark Twain, who as a young man knew the Mississippi River as well as anyone, its upper reaches were “as reposeful as dreamland.” And anyone who travels this portion of the Great River Road (a mere 470 miles of its entire 6,000-mile length) would surely agree with him. For unlike the bustling commerce of the Lower Mississippi, the Upper Mississippi is a place of quiet splendor. Running up one side of the river and down the other, this magnificent roadway — marked by green — on-white signs featuring the image of a steamboat pilot’s wheel-is truly a worthy companion to America’s greatest waterway.
Nelson Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor, lobbied to make Cassville the state capital, but it lost to Madison and instead became a major steamboat center during the mid-1800s. At Nelson Dewey State Park, which contains five original buildings from the governor’s homestead, visitors can enjoy picnicking, camping, hiking, and lovely views of the Mississippi. Adjacent to the park is Stonefield Historic Site, where life of an earlier era is evoked in a reconstructed town from the 1890s. In midwinter Cassville is a good place to spot bald eagles, which roost there.
2. Wyalusing State Park
Perched atop bluffs 600 feet high, this riverside park affords sensational views of the Mississippi River valley. Sprawling over some 2,700 acres, the park has 20 plus miles of trails, including some that wind among curious rock formations, canyons, and prehistoric Indian mounds. A few miles south of the park’s entrance, the village of Wyalusing adjoins a riverfront beach.
3. Prairie du Chien
One of the oldest European settlements in Wisconsin, this town was a fur-trading post during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Among those who profited from the local trade was Hercules Dousman, whose 1870s mansion, Villa Louis, sits atop a 1,000-year-old Indian burial mound.
Leading north from Prairie du Chien to La Crosse is an especially scenic route — a 60-mile ribbon of roadway shadowed by towering bluffs. Stop at the Old Settlers Overlook (two miles north of Genoa) for a panoramic view of Old Man River.