Wisconsin’s picturesque, often gorgeous, Highway 35 sometimes winds between 500-ft.-high wooded bluffs, green woods and the Mississippi River. From the road you may see a white paddle wheel steamboat come into view like a ghost from the past, its large wheel pushing majestically through the water.
Highway 35, mostly two-lane, is Wisconsin’s portion of the Great River Road, which borders the Mississippi for more than 2,000 mi. from Minnesota to Louisiana.
Usually flanking the Mighty Miss, this roadway, Wisconsin’s Great River Road National Scenic Byway, stretches 250 mi. from Prescott in the North to Kieler in the South. Not only is this one of the most scenic roads in the Upper Midwest (and America), but it passes, or goes through, 33 river towns with names like Maiden Rock, Stockholm, Ferryville and Bagley.
The beauty of this road is what people rave about first.
The scenery is unmatched, says Michael Bie, a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association (AAA) of Wisconsin in Madison, WI. “Near La Crosse, for instance, the highway goes between towering bluffs and the Mississippi. This area is heavily wooded, and is really spectacular with its yellow, gold and red fall colors. There are also lots of bald eagles.”
The bluffs above the road are brown or grey stone, and carry lots of trees, including oaks and maple, which are verdant green in summer. In Winter, rocks, trees, and valleys may be under a mantle of white snow. Depending on the weather, the Mighty Mississippi may be green or grey-brown.
The road also goes through rolling farmlands and beautiful forested valleys and coulees. There are numerous scenic overlooks.
Wisconsin 35 is the largest single portion of Mississippi River roads which five states have identified as national scenic byways at the invitation of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). These national byways are in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Arkansas.
There’s another ingredient in this invigorating cocktail: the old river towns, some of which were stops for the early traders and then the famed river steamers.
“In this age of standardization, what I really like about our Great River Road is that you still find this local flavor, these little gems all along the road,” says Jane Carrola, Wisconsin’s scenic byways coordinator in Madison. “These towns often helped with the paddlewheels or the fur trade. They’re quaint. You can still see some of the different architectural styles — Italianate, Queen Anne mansions, some Greek Revival homesteads.”
Most of the river towns have populations of between 1,000 (or less) and 5,000 people. Some are as old as the earliest settlements, though many date from the Nineteenth Century when steamboats were in their heyday. People are often of German, Norwegian, Swedish, even French, ancestry.
From viewing platforms, you can look over a lock and dam system, built in the 1930s, at the towns of Alma, Denoa, Trempealeau and Lynxville.
“The Mississippi has been, and is, a workhorse of a river for anything too heavy to ship by truck or rail,” Carrola says. “The towns often support river traffic. The barges are fascinating.”
Along the road are 50 local parks and beaches, 12 state parks or wildlife areas, and three national recreational resources. Also on the road: the Doll Museum and the Museum of Modern Technology at La Crosse, Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum at Fountain City, the Historical Museum and Railroad Depot Museum at Pepin, the River Bluffs History Center at Bay City, the Passage Through Time Museum at Potosi/Tennyson, and the Onalaska Historical Museum.
La Crosse, the largest city on Highway 35, offers boat trips on replicas of paddle wheel steamers. You can also ski nearby, during the winter, on La Crosse Mountain.
The opportunity to see restored steamboats paddling the river will increase in 2004. The Grand Excursion celebration from June 25 to July 5 will celebrate the renaissance of the Upper Mississippi, including recreating an 1854 steamboat expedition.
Highway 35 is also something of a time-warp. You see reminders of a long history — the Native Americans, French fur traders and explorers, a lead-mining boom, the steamboat era and the lumber barons.
At Wyalusing, on the southern end of the road, are Indian mounds. This is one of 33 archeological sites such as Indian burial grounds at Holmen, which the National Register of Historical Places lists along Highway 35.
Prairie du Chien has Villa Louis, the mansion of an early resident, and the Fort Crawford Museum.
It is 15 mi. from the Kickapoo Indian Caverns. Victory is the site of the Battle of Bad Ax.
Down the River
The idea of a voluntary Mississippi River Parkway System goes back to 1938. States were asked to identify portions of roadways closest to the Mississippi. These portions were then designated as the Great River Road Parkway route, which goes through the 10 states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Wisconsin and the four other states later agreed to identify their sections as national scenic byways.