Straight out of a time when the kids piled into the station wagon for a Sunday drive, the Wisconsin Great River Road -- yes, that "great river," the Mississippi -- wholesomely winds its way through 33 river towns over 250 miles of terrain.
This stretch of pavement is what road trip dreams are made of. There are no billboard-filled lengths of straightaway. Rather, the road curves gently along the river and each new town offers foods to try, shops to browse through and scenic vistas to photograph.
We started our Great River Road journey at the northernmost Wisconsin stop, Prescott, where we took in the views at the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center at Freedom Park. This is the point at which the muddy waters of the Mississippi merge with the clear blue waters of the St. Croix River. You can clearly see them beginning to mix. Complete with a playground and interactive exhibits inside, this was the perfect start to our journey. Be sure to pick up a free Junior Ranger Activity Booklet from the National Park Service here. It will keep the kids coloring until your next stop.
A quick 30 minutes down the road is Bay City, where you'll want to stop and say hi to Jim at Flat Pennies Ice Cream. Ask him why it's called Flat Pennies (hint there's a rail track across the street). Not only does Flat Pennies serve amazing ice cream, but there is a caboose to explore and -- if you're lucky -- a canine greeter.
Once we filled our bellies with delicious green apple ice cream with caramel sauce we continued the drive onto Pepin. If the name sounds familiar, it probably means you are a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The "Little House on the Prairie" author was born in Pepin. A replica of her house is located in the city park here on the land once owned by Ma and Pa Ingalls; and a museum is located right along Great River Road. Geared toward older children and adults, the museum is a great place to immerse yourself in history.
Across the street from the museum is the perfect resting point for your first night, the Great River Amish Inn. Despite cracking jokes about candlelit rooms with no TVs, the rooms came fully equipped with TVs, phones and Wi-Fi. The extremely clean rooms were outfitted with handmade Amish quilts on the bed and hand-hewn rocking chairs. Value-wise, the price was definitely right at this well-located property where the rooms came with family-friendly mini-fridges and microwaves.
We started our second day along the historic Great River Road with a hearty breakfast at Gelly's Pub in Stockholm, just eight minutes down the road. This eatery goes by the motto "May all who enter as guests, leave as friends" and they mean it. Stop in to get the scoop on the area.
After our power breakfast, it was time to put our bodies to the test and cross an item off my bucket list. We met up with Riverland Outfitters in Alma and paddled out onto the backwaters of the Mississippi. Kayaking on the Mississippi with a gentle breeze rippling the water as I paddled toward floodplain forests was akin to meditation. That is, of course, until a child yells out "butt" at the duck facedown in the water looking for food. Also spotted were herons, beavers and the countless eagles that call this stretch of road their home.
For a unique experience, paddle out to the railroad bridge and wait under it in your kayak for a train. Don't worry -- they come by very frequently. It was the first time I had ever experienced a train from underneath. After paddling back to shore and grabbing a quick bite to eat we were off to test one of the Great River Road's onshore activities in Onalaska.
After getting fitted for helmets and bikes by Kevin at Blue Heron Bicycle Works we were off to ride a small portion of the 101 miles of bike path that comprise the Great River State Trail. We set off down the easy-to-navigate bike trail, stopping along the way to take our pictures with Sunny, the official Sunfish ambassador of Onalaska. At 15 feet tall and 25 feet long, it is a photo op that you don't want to miss.
Other highlights of the trail were some intact older railroad bridges and a hand-driven water pump. The beauty of this trail is that it suits all skill levels. Those who want to can do a long ride and families with young children can do a quick jaunt. The path is level and easy.
After working our bodies, it was time to work the kids' minds. Our last stop was at the Myrick Hixon Ecopark in Lacrosse. Herons, eagles, ducks, woodpeckers and turtles appeared before our eyes as we walked the well-maintained trails. Back at the atrium there were dozens of hands-on activities for children of all ages. It was staffed by volunteers, many of whom are retired teachers, and the learning that I saw taking place there was a kind that could spark a lifelong passion in the sciences. In the future, we hope to return to see the completed playscapes devoted to water, forest, farm and prairie.
Exhausted after a packed two days, we returned to the Amish Inn with imaginations in full swing as we planned a return trip to explore more of the Great River Road.