THE Great River Road

Looking North from Mount Charity Overlook at John A Latch State Park, Minnesota

The Great River Road spans about 470 miles along the Mississippi River starting from  Prescott, WI and Hastings, MN (just southeast of Minneapolis, MN) to Dubuque, IA.  We only had a weekend to explore this scenic drive in mid-October 2022 and made it as far south to La Crosse, WI.

We started our journey from Prescott, WI going south on WI Hwy 35 until we made it to La Crosse,  WI.  Then we crossed the Mississippi River and traveled north on MN Hwy 14 and 61.  We essentially had two full days of explorations. 

Though our time was limited, we were glad that we were able to sample some of the attractions on this wonderful road trip.  This short trip could have easily been stretched to four or more days in exploring the small towns and state parks along the Mississippi River.

Wisconsin Hwy 35

Prescott, WI

As soon as we crossed the MIssissippi River bridge from Minnesota, we turned south on Hwy 35 and drove through Prescott’s business district.  At this point, Hwy 35 is just a two lane undivided town road.  The business district is just a couple blocks long lined with restaurants and stores.  Diagonal parking is  available on both sides of the highway.  There were some people walking around.  Unfortunately we did not have time to stop so we only drove through.  

Further down the road, we turned into Freedom Park as we saw a sign that said “Great River Road Visitor Center ”.  The park and the visitor center sits on a bluff and offers a high vantage point to see the great river.  Inside the visitor center are printed information of what to see and do.

Stockholm, WI

The attendant at the Great River Road Visitor Center recommended that we stop by Maiden Rock just north of the town of Stockholm.  Maiden Rock supposedly offered sweeping views of the Mississippi River as it is on a bluff.  However, we were not able to find it as we drove down Hwy 35.  We later found out that you have to hike to get to the vantage point.  Oh well, maybe next time.

Just like Prescott, Stockholm is also a small town where the highway runs across its business district.   However, as we drove through, we noticed that it was more lively as there were more people enjoying its shops and restaurants.  Again, another place that could have been explored if we had time.

Nelson, WI

The town of Nelson is a few miles south of Stockholm.  Driving through Nelson was really uneventful until we noticed an old one story building with some people sitting outside having ice cream on that cold gloomy October afternoon.  Adjacent to the building was a big parking lot that had a lot of cars.  Hmmm, the place must be busy.  So we decided to check it out.  

Walking from the parking lot to the building, we saw the “Nelson Creamery” sign hanging on the side of the building (wonder why they did not put the sign facing the road?).  The creamery had all kinds of cheese, New Glarus Brewery beer, ice cream and a restaurant.  The place was almost packed.  And we understood why after sampling their ice cream.

Inside the Nelson Creamery restaurant

Perrot State Park

This state park is about five or so miles from Hwy 35 just before the town of Trempealeau, WI.  The park is small, about 1,200 acres.  We decided to stop by this state park because of Horseshoe Falls.  Unfortunately, it is a seasonal waterfall and it was dry during our visit.  Nonetheless, we had a good time at this park as the trees were at their peak autumn colors.

Fall colors at Perrot State Park, WI

La Crosse, WI

West of La Crosse’s town proper is Grandad Bluff Park.  As the name implies, the park sits on a bluff, about 600 feet above the town.  The road ends at the park with limited parking spaces.  Though the place was busy on a Sunday morning, we did not have to wait long to get a parking spot.

View of La Crosse from Grandad Bluff Park viewpoint

The park offers 180 degree views of the town below and the river beyond it.  Within the park are several hiking trails.  The trees’ autumn colors were so vibrant that we could not resist going for a short walk despite our limited time.  And we were glad that we did.  Unfortunately, our walk was cut short by rain when the clouds rolled in.

One of the many trails at Grandad Bluff Park

Onalaska, WI

Onalaska is a small town adjacent to La Crosse and home to Sunny the Sunfish – a roadside attraction.  Sunny is a sunfish replica that measures 15 high by 25 feet long.  It’s perched at the south end of the parking lot.  The parking lot offers sweeping views of the Mississippi river. 

Sunny the Sunfish

Minnesota Hwy 14 and 61

Apple Blossom Overlook Park

On the west side of the Mississippi River across La Crosse is the town of La Crescent, MN.  About three miles north of town on Apple Blossom Drive Scenic Byway is Apple Blossom Overlook Park. The park is about 55 acres and sits about 500 feet above the river.  Closer to the road, the park is mainly tall grass but views of the river valley below are visible because the park slopes down towards the river.  Closer to Highway 14 which is below the park, the tall grass transitions to woodland.  There are a couple of trails to explore in the park.  We decided to hike down to the overlook which is a short third of a mile walk to the edge of the bluff.

Hiking down to the bluff at Apple Blossom Overlook Park

Great River Bluffs State Park

Continuing north on Apple Blossom Drive Scenic Byway, we stopped by the 3,000+ acre Great River Bluffs State Park.  The entire park sits on a bluff.   There are several hiking trails leading to overlook points facing the river valley.  The longest hike is King’s Bluff Overlook.  The park map shows 1.5 miles one way from the trailhead parking lot.  However, Internet articles, including AllTrails clock this out and back trail at around 2.5 miles.  Either way, it’s a leisurely walk through the forest to the overlook point.

View from the South Overlook at Great River Bluffs State Park

John A Latsch State Park

North of Winona and Minnesota City just off Hwy 61 is the 450 acre John A Latsch State Park.  The park has a small designated parking lot, probably enough room for 10 vehicles.  There are no entrance gates.  The park’s main attraction is the Mount Charity Overlook and its 592 (give or take a few) heart pumping stepped stairs (it’s stairs all the way!).  At the top, it offers a 180 degree view of the highway below and the river and the land to the east.  It’s probably the next best viewpoint after Grandad Bluff Park, and you get a workout!  Allow an hour to tackle this leg strengthening and lung busting attraction.

Looking south from Mount Charity Overlook, John A Latch State Park


We only did part of the Great River Road and ended up longing for more.  We passed by but were not able to explore the small towns of Red Wing, Lake City and Winona on the Minnesota side and wished we had more time to stop by Prescott and Stockholm on the Wisconsin side.  There are also other state parks scattered along this scenic drive that are probably worth the stop.

The Mississippi River, MN Hwy 61 and WI Hwy 35 being blessed with forested bluffs.  It was just perfect to be explored during the fall when the temperature has a certain chill and the leaves are at their most vibrant colors.