National Scenic Byway
Wisconsin Great River Road | Wisconsin’s National Scenic Byway
Throughout history, the Mississippi River has influenced many lives: the Dakota, Chippewa and Hopewell cultures; early French voyagers; and settlements of Swiss, German, French, Italian and Swedish heritage. Noted for this history, Wisconsin is one of 10 states along the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.
Traveling 250 miles along the Mississippi River and through more than 33 historic river towns & villages, the Wisconsin Great River Road still links resources, people and history today … this is Wisconsin’s National Scenic Byway.
250 miles along Wisconsin State Highway 35. The entire route is marked by a green & white pilot’s wheel and National Scenic Byway signs.
Great River Road Interpretive Centers
A network of 70 museums and historic sites in all 10 river states have been selected to showcase and connect the historic stories of the Mississippi River. Wisconsin offers 6 Interpretive Centers welcoming visitors traveling along Wisconsin’s corridor of the Great River Road. Here stories of the Mississippi River come alive and guests can learn more about river history as well as find travel information.
Every season offers spectacular recreational opportunities on the Upper Mississippi River along the Wisconsin Great River Road. Excellent boating and sailing, more than 50 local parks, beaches, recreational areas and water access sites. Driving the road itself is considered an experience not to be missed.
The entire Mississippi River region and Lake Pepin, the largest natural lake on the Mississippi River, offer boaters access to numerous boat landings, marinas and dockings. Fishing is a favorite activity because of the variety of fish species, ranging from catfish to walleye. The sandbars in the backwaters of the Mississippi River provide places for public camping and picnics.
Winter in Wisconsin provides ice fishing and bald eagle viewing. Many travelers prefer cross-county or downhill skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling through deep valleys and scenic bluffs. Spring, summer and fall are excellent for dinner cruises on the river, or you can rent a houseboat or pontoon boat and explore on your own. The river valley features hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, and camping opportunities in the numerous parks and campgrounds along the byway.
The varied past and present cultures of the Great River Road corridor are recorded and revealed in the 33 river towns and villages. Residents in these communities take pride in preserving their heritage, as evidenced by many festivals. 19th century architecture is scattered throughout the towns and cities of the byway; many of them reflect the varied architectural trends of the early days of settlement. Unique buildings and art forms continue to surface along the Wisconsin Great River Road.
Nearly 12,000 years ago Wisconsin was inhabited by people. The ancient cultures of the Great River left many artifacts and monuments to the past. Thousands of great mounds, effigy mounds of grand designs and animal shapes; pictographs and petroglyphs; and ancient villages have been found and documented along the entire route. Today these ancient cultures are researched and their artifacts are preserved and protected.
With the ancient cultures that lived along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin for 1000s of years they began to establish large, permanent villages where they farmed the river valley. By the time the first Europeans arrived these ancient cultures had disappeared. Native Americans from the Dakota and Chippewa greeted the French when they arrived in the 1600s.
In 1673 French missionary Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Jolliet were the first Europeans to explore the area sighting the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers where Wyalusing State Park welcomes visitors today. The area changed hands from the American Indians to the French to the British and finally to the Americans, but not without struggle. In 1848, Wisconsin became a state.
Wisconsin thrived as a state for lumbering and sawmills. The advantage of transportation on the Mississippi River allowed for the development of the steamboat industry. Wheat was brought to the River for shipping. Lead mining was centralized in Wisconsin’s southwest corner with easy shipping on the Mississippi. Remnants of this new Mississippi culture can be seen along the Great River Road. Sites of old forts and building ruins along with thriving communities from the day will take you back to the 19th century.
The visual experience of traveling along the Wisconsin Great River Road is why the entire 250-mile route was voted Prettiest Drive: Ultimate Summer Road Trip In The United States. The Mississippi River and its backwaters flanked by sandstone bluffs standing over 500 feet tall with the Great River Road winding between make for scenic opportunities around every curve. Sand prairies offer expansive views. River valleys from the many rivers of Wisconsin feeding into the Mississippi River offer beautiful views. The Great River Road runs through the Driftless Area from where the Chippewa River joins the Mississippi River down to the border with Illinois. This area is known mainly for its deep carved river valleys and remain today for our viewing pleasure because it was not covered by glaciers during the last ice age.
Many natural wonders are found along this byway. Foremost is the Mississippi River, derived from the old Ojibwe word misi-ziibi meaning ‘great river’, with a length of 2,340 miles from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi is the 4th longest river in the world. Over 40% of North America’s ducks, geese, swans and other waterfowl use the Mississippi River flyway during their annual spring and fall migrations. 300 or more species of birds have been spotted along the Wisconsin Great River Road.
Following the route of the Mississippi River, the Wisconsin Great River Road corridor incorporates several national features including the Mississippi River National River & Recreation Area, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and the Genoa National Fish Hatchery. There are 5 state parks, 5 state trails and 44 state-recognized natural areas waiting to be explored.