The Great River Road

Highway 35: Main Street USA

At Maiden Rock, about 50 mi (81 km) southeast of St. Paul, Hwy-35 enters the heart of the Driftless Region, picking its way between steep bluffs and the wide Mississippi. Small towns, populations numbering only in the hundreds, cling to the margin, competing for the distinction of having the longest Main Street in the nation, if not the world; for some of these long hamlets the GRR is nearly the only street.

These towns wear their age well, too busy with fishing or loading up barges to make themselves pretty for tourists, or to tear down every old building that no longer seems useful. Most of these towns have at least a gas station, open late, and a roadhouse with Old Style or Pabst neon in the windows, open even later. Along with the riverside scenery, most also have a single tourist attraction: Amish crafts in Stockholm, a cheese factory in Nelson—and Alma has an observation platform and a small café overlooking Lock and Dam No. 4, where you can watch river traffic “lock through.”

view of river landscape from alma wisconsin
Overlook from Buena Vista City Park above Alma, WI. Photo © Joe Ferrer/Dreamstime.

In Pepin, midway between Maiden Rock and Alma (and roughly midway between Minneapolis and La Crosse), there’s a replica of the log cabin where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was set here, though it’s hard now to imagine that this was still the wild northwestern frontier back then.


At the sleepy hamlet of Trempealeau (pop. 1,630), the GRR would have you zigzag right through town, but detour a block down toward the river’s edge to find the Historic Trempealeau Hotel, Restaurant & Saloon (608/534-6898, $50 and up), sole survivor of an 1888 downtown fire—maybe that’s why the whole joint is smoke-free. The hotel dining room offers a surprisingly eclectic menu, from steak and seafood to burgers and vegetarian dishes; just head for the neon sign reading “Delicious Food.” The rooms are nice (and cheap).

The hotel also hosts concerts throughout the summer including Reggae Fest. There are more than 100 mi (161 km) of paved bikeways and rail-trails that pass from town to nearby Perrot State Park, which has lodging to rent or even canoes and kayaks for hardy souls desiring to relax along the nearly 5 mi (8 km) Long Lake Canoe Trail.

Travel Map of Wisconsin

Map of the Great River Road through Wisconsin.
Map of the Great River Road through Wisconsin.

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