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The Great River Road
Highway 35’s Journey to Lake Superior
A beautiful drive that’s easy to follow: just stay with the number “35”. Wisconsin’s Highway 35 runs up Wisconsin’s western edge, in many areas hugging the Mississippi River as part of America’s Great River Road, recently voted the “Prettiest Drive in the U.S.”
Once the Mississippi River ducks into Minnesota, Highway 35 heads into the North Woods of Wisconsin before reaching the Twin Port cities of Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota, an area that offers plenty of recreation, history, and beauty.
If you’re coming in from Illinois or Iowa, Highway 35 starts just east of Dubuque in Wisconsin’s southwest corner. It runs with U.S. 61/151 for several miles to Dickeyville, where it branches off with U.S. 61 at Exit 9. In Dickeyville, you’ll find the fascinating Dickeyville Grotto, one of the most noted and beautiful grottos in the country. The grotto was built between 1925 and 1931 and religion, patriotism, stones, glass pieces, seashells, and costume jewelry still mix in the grotto to this day.
Following Highway 35 (still coupled with U.S. 61) out of Dickeyville, you're in Paris. Well, the town of Paris, but still...anyway, you're running along high ridges on occasion, with the bluffs lining the Mississippi to the west and a vast view to the east. In fact, to the east on a clear day along this stretch, the world's largest "M" is visible, a historic monument completed by UW-Platteville engineering students in 1937.
It is constructed of rocks arranged 241 feet high and 214 feet wide and looks at the land from a 45-degree angle on Platte Mound – about 12 miles away. Ahead, though, is the "twin towns" of Tennyson (pop. 370) and Potosi (pop. 711), known as "Wisconsin's Catfish Capital.
Optional Loop: Highway 133 Through Potosi & Cassville
Potosi is one of several places claiming the "World's Longest Main Street Without an Intersection." St. John's Lead Mine is the oldest mine in the state and provides tours every day but Wednesday for $5.50 (608-763-2121). This mine dates back to the 1700s. The mine was a natural cave worked by Native Americans and then European immigrants, both before and after the "Lead Rush" of 1827. The mine is named after Willis St. John, who made a small fortune in the first twenty years of the lead rush.
Tours are available daily except Wednesdays, and you can see stalactites (those icicle-looking rock things hanging down in caves) and realize that, whatever your working conditions are, you have it great compared to 19th century miners.
Potosi has a history as a brewing town; this history and its beautiful setting helped it land the National Brewery Museum – which opened in 2008 in the former Potosi Brewing Company (which did its share of brewing from 1852 to 1972 and recently resurrected its brands). The former brewery's buildings were renovated for the museum, which also features a microbrewery, a restaurant with an outdoor beer garden and a gift shop (you knew there was a gift shop coming).
Ambling through Potosi for miles and miles, you descend toward the Mississippi River and then, shortly before reaching it, the road heads back inland a bit and parallels the river to Cassville (pop. 1,085), a pleasant yet remote burg on the Mississippi River. Cassville is considered one of the best sites in the Midwest for viewing eagles, as this is a prime area for their migration.
Cassville was originally settled in 1827 and was named after the Territorial Governor of the time, Lewis Cass (this was Michigan Territory at the time, by the way). The fledgling burg threw its hat in the ring to become the capital of Wisconsin Territory when it was first organized in 1836. While it failed in that regard, it attracted a new resident, Nelson Dewey. Drawn to Cassville from his native New York State, Dewey became Wisconsin's first Governor when it became a state in 1848.
Cassville is also home to Stonefield, a 2,000-acre historic site that was once the country estate of the aforementioned Nelson Dewey. When the house was completed in 1868, one Wisconsin newspaper described it as "the showplace of Wisconsin with its beautiful green lawns, gardens and orchards, stables, and other buildings, and miles of stone fences." The original home burned down in 1873, but it was rebuilt in the 1890s and still stands today where it houses a cornucopia of historical treasures, including the State Agricultural Museum. The museum houses Wisconsin's largest collection of farm tools, models and machinery detailing Wisconsin's agricultural history. There's also a railroad display and a recreated farming village.
For recreation, relaxation, hiking, or even camping, a great stop is Nelson Dewey State Park, which begins right across from Stonefield. The state park covers 756 acres of Stonefield's original 2,000 and offers bird watching, picnicking and six hiking trails. You can also find various Indian mounds. The park is just north of Cassville; follow County Highway VV just off Highway 133 and it will take you right to it.
From Cassville, Highway 133 heads back northeast and rejoins Highway 35 at Bloomington.
Past Tennyson, Highway 35/U.S. 61 winds past British Hollow and makes a beeline to Grant County's county seat, Lancaster (pop. 4,070). Known as the "City of the Dome" for its handsome Grant County Courthouse. The big green dome made of glass and copper, and the park surrounding the courthouse features one of the oldest Civil War monuments in the nation. Near Lancaster is one of the first African-American communities in Wisconsin, founded in 1849. It's now called Pleasant Ridge and is outlined along with other area history at the local Cunningham Museum.
Highway 35 breaks away from U.S. 61 and heads back towards the Mississippi, with the lovely Wyalusing State Park providing beautiful views and recreational opportunities where the Wisconsin River (often referred to as “the hardest working river in the world”) finishes its 400-mile journey to meet the Mississippi.
Prairie du Chien
Next up is Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest city (Green Bay is the oldest, in case you were wondering) which contains five National Historic Landmarks. The Fox and Sauk tribes were here for hundreds of years prior to French explorers arriving and saying "voila!" Early establishment began in 1673, with the first trading posts developed in 1685 by French explorer Nicholas Perrot. Fur trade, along with Prairie du Chien's natural location near the Wisconsin River and Mississippi River confluence, guaranteed the small settlement would prosper for years to come.
Prairie du Chien's history spans five centuries, including the only major Wisconsin battle in the War of 1812. PDC's first fort, Fort Shelby, was built by Americans built captured by the British in the War. By 1816, it had been replaced with Fort Crawford. The Black Hawk War, which took place in 1832, featured a commanding officer in the form of Colonel Zachary Taylor, who later became 12th President of the United States. A lieutenant during the same time named Jefferson Davis not only married Zachary Taylor's daughter (named Sarah "Knoxie" Taylor, proving cutesy nicknames existed in the 19th century), he later became President of the Confederate States of America. Neither worked out well; the future President Taylor didn't approve and poor Sarah passed away from pneumonia only months after their 1835 marriage; his new country in the 1860s didn't last very long, either.
Today, Prairie du Chien holds about 6,000 people and still bustles with Mississippi River traffic and travelers checking out the beautiful Driftless Area. Always a bit eclectic, the city embraces places like Pete’s, an iconic burger stand from 1909 that was featured on TV’s Burgerland show because they “poach” their burgers by cooking them in water and onions on the grill. Being along the great river, a Mississippi River Cruise is a terrific option to enjoy the beautiful scenery from the water. Back on land, historic Villa Louis lies on St. Feriole Island in the river and is one of the city’s National Historic Landmarks. Tours are offered daily and a variety of events take place there often.
Trivia: Prairie du Chien celebrates New Years’ Eve similar to New York City’s Times Square by dropping something as midnight approaches. The difference is, while Times Square drops an apple, in Prairie du Chien, they drop a carp. Seriously. And the carp’s name? Lucky.
The ride from Prairie du Chien northward is one of the most scenic drives in the Midwest. Part of the Great River Road (as much of Highway 35 is from Dubuque to Prescott), you get sweeping vistas of the river while steep bluffs often hug the other side of the road.
Portions of the Mississippi here are two to three miles wide, often dissected by island that form portions of the vast Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, a 261-mile stretch from Rock Island, Illinois to Wabasha, Minnesota established by an Act of Congress on June 7, 1924 as a "refuge and breeding place for migratory birds, fish, other wildlife, and plants." Settlements along this stretch are few, far between, and beautiful.
River towns like Lynxville, Ferryville, and DeSoto have interesting histories and great vantage points. Like downriver Cassville, these towns are all great places for bird watching, especially eagles.
The Black Hawk War factors in significantly here; the DeSoto area is where Chief Black Hawk and his Sauk and Fox followers were defeated on August 1-2, 1832 at the Battle of Bad Axe and subsequently slaughtered even though they were trying to surrender peacefully. The battle site is along Highway 35 about two miles north of DeSoto; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established a park at the battle site, near the intersection with Battle Hollow Road. The marker to the right describes the battle.
Just north of the battle site is the unincorporated community of Victory, followed shortly by the Genoa National Fish Hatchery. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it began raising bass and panfish but now raises cold, cool and warm water aquatic species of all kinds. They have 67 acres of rearing ponds – that's a lot of rearing. They also do things like "propagate 250,000 juvenile endangered Higgins' eye mussels." You can go on a self-guided tour if you'd like – about 5,000 others do every year. Beyond the hatchery lies the village of Genoa (pop. 263). Established in 1854, Genoa is one of the "lock towns", placed at Mississippi River Lock & Dam #8. It's always fun to stop and watch the locks at work, and you can't miss it from the highway!
Along the stretch north of Genoa, Highway 35 is almost constantly right along the river, including through the tiny hamlet of Stoddard (pop. 815), one of the few towns along this stretch that was not originally founded as a fur trading post. Stoddard was also originally located about a mile inland, but when the aforementioned Lock & Dam No. 8 was built in 1937, the river widened to a lake and suddenly, the town had plenty of waterfront property. Shortly after crossing into La Crosse County, U.S. 14 & U.S. 61 join in for the ride into La Crosse proper.
La Crosse (pop. 51,818) is Wisconsin's largest city on the Mississippi River and the largest along our tour. Originally named "Prairie La Crosse" by French explorers, the name came apparently not from the crossing of rivers (the Black and La Crosse Rivers meeting up with the Mississippi), but rather their witnessing of Native Americans playing a game with sticks along the riverbank that was similar to the game of lacrosse. The city was originally settled primarily for fur trading and then, owing to its terrific transportation location both on the river and along where railroads were connecting St. Paul with Milwaukee and Chicago, sawmills and breweries (slice some wood, have a drink...life was simpler back then).
La Crosse is a college town, home to Viterbo University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. By the way, Highway 35 goes through La Crosse’s east side; to see downtown and most of the attractions, follow U.S. 14/61 into town from the south and U.S. 53 to the north; it will meet up again with Highway 35 on the city’s north end, near the BBest Western PLUS Midway Hotel.
Situated on a rare piece of flat land amidst beautiful coulees and hills, La Crosse holds a number of "quality of life" accolades, often involving low crime or livable small city status. Granddad’s Bluff towers 550 feet over the city to the east and seems to keep watch on everything; it’s one of the highest bluffs along the Mississippi. USA Today also named La Crosse one of the "Top Ten Places Worldwide to Toast Oktoberfest" (more on that in a second).
Long known as a brewery town, La Crosse was home to G. Heileman Brewing Company for almost 140 years, cranking out a variety of brands, most notably Old Style. Today, the sprawling brewery complex lies about a mile west of Highway 35 and continues to hum as the City Brewery. The World's Largest Six Pack is indicative of La Crosse's fun style, and you can access it by following U.S. Highway 14/61 into downtown La Crosse, leaving Highway 35 for a brief spell.
Oh, and speaking of the World's Largest Six Pack, La Crosse also hosts one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States, perhaps the world, and has been doing so every year since 1961. For true animal behavior, La Crosse also has the Myrick Park Zoo, located adjacent to the UW-La Crosse campus. Several miles of hiking and nature trails are also accessible from the zoo. Other things to check out in town include Historic Pearl Street, filled with Civil War-era buildings, specialty shops, a microbrewery, galleries, antique shops, coffee houses and, at night, college students doing what they do best when they're not studying.
The Swarthout Museum features changing exhibits from prehistoric to Victorian and the Children's Museum of La Crosse has exhibits for our future leaders on three floors. All of this can be reached by your car, or you can hop the La Crosse Trolley in the warm weather months for a little "no need for the gas pedal" tour. If you prefer to stay in your car for driving and eating, head to Rudy’s Drive-In on La Crosse Street (Highway 16) just two blocks west of Highway 35 for the true drive-in experience. Rudy’s has been open continuously since 1966, features roller-skating carhops and a sheltered carport where you can pull up and order your probably-unhealthy-but-delicious food from the menu sitting right out your window. Car shows and "Cruise Nights" happen regularly throughout the summer.
La Crosse is home to the La Crosse Loggers, one of the Northwoods League baseball teams. They play at Copeland Park (aka "The Lumber Yard"), which isn't along Highway 35 but can be accessed via the downtown option as you go up U.S. 53 before rejoining 35. The Loggers play a 70-game season from June through August. This is a good baseball town; it's where MLB players Damian Miller, Scott Servais, George Williams, and Jarrod Washburn all hailed from.
North of La Crosse, Highway 35 continues into Onalaska (pop. 14,839), named after a Thomas Campbell poem, The Pleasures of Hope. The 7,700-acre Lake Onalaska, an offshoot of the river, offers excellent fishing and bird watching. It's a major migratory stop for birds – and road-trippers, too! Onalaska is a major junction for Wisconsin’s extensive rail-trail system, great for both summer and winter recreation; the city lies at the trailhead of the Great River State Trail, with goes to Trempealeau, and the La Crosse River State Trail, which heads east to Sparta and connects with other state trails. Onalaska is known as the “Sunfish Capital of the World”… and a giant sunfish will remind you of that along Highway 35.
Past Onalaska and Holmen, Highway 35 heads due west about 8 miles into little Trempealeau (pop. 1,319). Named for the nearby river that flows into the Mississippi, it's the gateway to Perrot State Park. The "Perrot" refers to French explorer Nicholas Perrot, who spent the winter of 1686 along this area of the river. There's a marker further up Highway 35 that talks about a fort he had a role in, too. The park itself is two square miles of diverse ecosystems, migratory birds, hardwood forests and "goat prairies." The park has 12.5 miles of hiking trails, nine miles of cross-country skiing trails and a nice 3.4-mile canoe trail. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent.
Trivia: What’s a “Goat Prairie”? Goat prairies are essentially a variation of tallgrass prairie, but in the “Driftless Area”, the south-southwest-facing slopes receive considerable winter sun, causing a frequent freeze-thaw cycle. Bedrock generally lies not too far below, and they are subject to natural fire which rejuvenates the ecosystem more rapidly than surrounding terrain.
While this stretch of the Mississippi River area has plenty of mixed forests, the low moisture content of the slopes, the winter freeze-thaw cycle, and the thin layer of soil help to keep goat prairies free of trees.
In Trempealeau, the Trempealeau Hotel is an original restaurant and saloon, and has been since 1871. Out back toward the river, there's an area for relaxing outside and taking in the bluff views, as well as the activity around Lock & Dam No. 6. They also have a "world famous" Walnut Burger, a meatless burger patty that was ahead of its time when they introduced it in 1986 but now is so successful they sell frozen versions of it in stores around the region.
Highway 35 shoots straight north out of Trempealeau and meets up with Highway 54 for the ride past the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (referred to as a "prairie wonderland"), which can be accessed via Marshland Road right after you cross the Trempealeau River and enter Buffalo County. A few miles down at Bluff Siding (which wins the contest for the place that most closely sounds like the name of a building contractor), Highway 54 breaks west and heads across the river into Winona, Minnesota, home to Winona State University and the name inspiration for a Hollywood actress. But for this tour we'll keep going up 35 and stay on the Great River Road on the Wisconsin side.
Next up is Fountain City (pop. 983), which calls itself the "River Bluff Capital of the World." Part of the reason for that is Eagle Bluff towers over Fountain City, and at 550 feet above town – directly above the town – it's the highest point along the Mississippi River. It was originally called Holmes' Landing, after Thomas Holmes landed here in 1839. Nearby springs that were a popular source of fresh, clean water for passing riverboats led to the name change. Fountain City offers art galleries, some unique stores, and two museums: the Fountain City Historical Museum and for car buffs, Elmer's Auto & Toy Museum (608-687-7221), which features hundreds of car models through history (especially the 1920s, 30s, and 60s) including, as they say, "one of the largest pedal car displays in the country."
Also in Fountain City, the Monarch Tavern & Public House (608-687-4231) has been serving travelers since 1894. The floor, the bar and the ceiling are all original and any updates done since then blend in beautifully. While they're technically not a brewpub, they are the primary source of Fountain Brew, the original beer from the old Fountain City Brewing Company, which operated here for eight decades before shutting down in 1965. They re-launched the beer using the original recipe, which was found three decades after the brewery closed. Some new brews have been added to the portfolio since, all brewed by contract up north in Dallas (Wisconsin) by the Viking Brewing Company.
The Monarch's restaurant offers a variety of tasty fare and if your timing is right, ask proprietor John Harrington to show you the basement. Once a coal storage room for steamboats in the 1860s, it has been reopened as a lower bar level. Marvel at the original rock floor and salvaged pieces from factories, ships, cars and even barber shops that adorn the room.
Not a beer lover? Fountain City also has Seven Hawks Vineyards, with seven wines that use locally-grown grapes and fruit, having cross-bred with European grape varieties to create cold-hardy vines and grapes that can handle the climate here. You can see part of their vineyards from Highway 35 as you approach the north side of town. Heading out of Fountain City, Highway 35 passes the Rock in the House, a house that had a 55-ton boulder amble off a cliff and crash into it in 1995. Fortunately, the owners weren't killed by this massive boulder, but they moved out the next day. It’s now a little museum, where you can see how nature can humble us all. Also just north of Fountain City, you'll find Merrick State Park, a marshy backwater area along the Mississippi popular with anglers and boaters. You'll find plenty of egrets, herons, muskrats and otters.
Nestled between the bluffs and the river, the next river town is Alma, which offers probably the best views of locks in action with a towering observation deck close to and above Lock & Dam No. 4. The metal bridge that serves as the observation platform spans the railroad tracks that line the Mississippi, which makes it all the wilder experience when a massive train rumbles underneath your feet. It's also a popular nesting place for bald eagles. The Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center is a great place to find out more about the bird migratory patterns, the natural wonders of the area, and to check out the works of local artists – this whole area, actually, draws artists from all over. You'll see why as you keep driving this stretch of Highway 35.
Next up is the little hamlet of Nelson (pop. 395), home to the the 100+-year-old Original Nelson Cheese Factory. Drawing visitors from far and wide, the Original Nelson Cheese Factory doesn't actually make cheese anymore, but they offer one of the best selections of everyone else's cheeses that you'll find anywhere. Their Creamery Room is also known for ice cream cones, sandwiches, soups and more, and a new Tasting Room offers great wines and sampling opportunities. They also have a pet-friendly patio and live music on warm-weather Saturdays. Nelson's location along the gorgeous bluffs lining the Mississippi River makes it a popular spot for hang gliders, so feel free to either partake or simply marvel at those willing to jump and glide over town.
Past Nelson, Highway 35 traverses the swampy, boggy delta where the Chippewa River empties into the Mississippi. It was quite a few years before a road could be built through here; decades ago, drivers had to head north about 10 miles and come back south on what is now a county highway. But now you can leapfrog the watery landscape that makes up the Tiffany Bottoms State Wildlife Area and head straight to our next locale, famous for an author and a lake.
That town is Pepin (pop. 878). This is where Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867, leading to a classic book in the 1890s and a TV series in the 1970s. A replica of the "Little House in the Big Woods" cabin lies right along Highway 35 in Pepin, as well as the Pepin Depot Museum and the Pepin Historical Museum. More than a river town, Pepin is also a lake town: the remarkably gorgeous Lake Pepin, the widest natural point on the Mississippi River and the place where Ralph Samuelson first demonstrated the sport of water skiing in 1922.
Lake Pepin is a natural lake on the Mississippi, formed by the backup water caused by sedimentary deposits from the delta of the aforementioned Chippewa River. Lake Pepin is 28 miles long and expands to a width of almost three miles in places. The vistas offered from Highway 35 can be breathtaking. Across the lake from Highway 35 at night, you might see the lighthouse at the entrance to the Lake City Marina, which is the only working lighthouse on the river.
With Lake Pepin and towering bluffs hugging both sides of the highway, this is probably the most beautiful stretch of Highway 35 – and perhaps the entire Great River Road from Minnesota to Louisiana. If you need proof that this area was popular for Swedes to settle way back when, the next town is called Stockholm (pop. 97). Yes, there are fewer than 100 residents in this town, but it was named one of the "Best of the Midwest Small Town Getaways" by Midwest Living magazine. Beyond Stockholm is Maiden Rock named, after the 400-foot bluff from which a young Dakota Indian woman named Winona (we believe this is where the Minnesota town got its name) leapt to her death rather than marry the young brave her father had chosen for her. Her story is also told with the historical marker under Maiden Rock itself. No word on how the young brave reacted.
The topography here is fantastic, but requires alert driving. There are some rather blind curves and hills at times, and the river towns have low speed limits for a reason. Maiden Rock has also experienced runaway trucks that were coming down from the coulees toward Highway 35. In one instance in 1995, a runaway truck loaded with corn crashed right through what was at the time the only store in the village. It has since been rebuilt.
Highway 35 continues to Bay City, which essentially marks the northern end of Lake Pepin, and then Hager City, which could be described as an unincorporated suburb of Red Wing, Minnesota, just across the river at this point. Hager City is the site of a landmark "Bow and Arrow" on a bluff, as detailed with the marker.
For a stretch here, Highway 35 leaves the Mississippi shoreline and heads inland, climbing up and heading down a series of hills that characterize the area. A nice view is to be had from Diamond Bluff, which also features a memorial park to the famous Sea Wing disaster, where 98 people were killed when a vessel on the lake overturned in a violent storm. It remains one of the worst maritime disasters ever to have occurred on the Mississippi River. There is also an archeological site on the bluff.
Approaching the river again, Highway 35 heads into Prescott, which lies right right where the Mississippi River turns away from the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and heads straight for Minneapolis and St. Paul. Prescott itself (pop. 4,000) is Wisconsin's westernmost incorporated city and is an old river town dating back to 1839, named after its founder, whose first name was Philander (I believe they just called him "Phil" for short.) Prescott's location along the rivers just 25 miles from the Twin Cities means its future includes becoming a suburb.
A highly recommended stop on the south side of Prescott is the Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center, which offers tons of information about the river and the natural world around it as well as fantastic views looking south towards Lake Pepin and north toward the split where the St. Croix River meets the Mississippi, which is only about one mile away.
Downtown Prescott offers marinas, antique shops, a goldsmith shop with a walking tour of historic homes, and more. Several bars and restaurants are popular with locals and travelers alike, including the Muddy Waters, which offers a multiple decks with views of the river split. The Welcome & Heritage Center chronicles local history and features displays right at the junction with U.S. 10.
From Prescott, heading north as Broad Street (and U.S. 10), Highway 35 will bring you along the Kinnickinnic River, one of two Kinnickinnic Rivers in Wisconsin – the other being in Milwaukee. Kinnickinnic State Park offers swimming, boat mooring, fishing, cross-country skiing, panoramic views and good bird watching. Note to fishermen: this version of the Kinnickinnic River is a nationally recognized Class One Trout Stream. Incidentally, the word "Kinnickinnic" comes from the Ojibwa, meaning "what is mixed." Seems that Kinnickinnic deals with mixing various plant material, including tobacco. Highway 35 offers access to the river and park between Prescott and River Falls. You can "float the Kinni,” as local like to call it, with rentals from the Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters (877-504-9705).
Next up on Highway 35 is beautiful River Falls (pop. 14,015), "The City on the Kinni.” River Falls is definitely a college town, with about 14,000 regular residents and 6,000 college students. The city is home to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and served as the summer practice facility for the Kansas City Chiefs until 2009. Check out the downtown and campus areas, take in a show at the historic Falls Theatre, built in 1927 and still showing first-run movies and famously low prices (as of late, $3 to $4.) River Falls events include the annual Bacon Bash, during which time the town smells incredibly delicious, River Falls Days, and River Falls Roots & Bluegrass Festival.
As Highway 35 heads north from River Falls to Hudson, it joins up with I-94 and U.S. 12 for a few miles westward. In this view at the left, you can see the huge Interstate Bridge to Minnesota over the St. Croix River ahead. As you can also see by the overhead sign, Highway 35 veers off before the bridge and heads north into the heart of town and along the river.
Hudson (pop. 11,865) is a fast-growing city and the gateway city between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Hudson’s name comes from its similarity to the beauty of the Hudson River Valley north of New York City. Sawmills and steamboats were the order of the day until the railroad came through in 1871, when it became sawmills and trains.
One of the lumber industries decided to take advantage of all that sand and water and started to make windows; the Andersen Corporation lives on today as one of the largest makers of windows in the U.S., although now their primary facility is across the river and upstream just a few miles. Hudson’s downtown brims with shops, bars, galleries and restaurants. The Phipps Center for the Arts offers a variety of performances, exhibitions, theater and music, drawing people from all over the region; it's actually a significant player in the thriving Minneapolis-St. Paul arts community.
In the neighborhoods, look for the Octagon House, built in 1855 by a judge who liked eight-sided structures. The Octagon House (on 3rd Street, two blocks north of Vine, the old Yellowstone Trail) is open for tours and features a ton of both original and reproduced features from how the home was in the 1800s, right down to the chamber pots, dinner sets, washing "machine" and icebox. It's definitely worth a tour, and it's also work walking around that whole neighborhood – the whole area is very pleasant and filled with great old houses. Blocks away, the First Baptist Church holds an original pipe organ from 1872, and they play that thing frequently.
Most of Hudson’s attractions are also located along the famous Yellowstone Trail, plotted through Hudson in 1915. Yellowstone Trail stretched “from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound” and crossed on a classic old toll bridge for four decades. The old approach to that bridge is now a park in the riverfront area, easily found by the “Hudson, Wis.” arch under which cars and trucks passed from 1915 until a new bridge was built downriver in the 1950s. Hudson celebrates its Yellowstone Trail heritage with an annual festival and clear markings through town.
Trivia: The Old Hudson Toll Bridge. Originally opened in 1913, it consisted of a long causeway on the Wisconsin side that extended out into the St. Croix River and then angled upwards to a high steel truss bridge that ships could pass underneath – and then it reached the Minnesota side on a bluff. In the 1920s and 1930s, some motorists had so much difficulty with their cars navigating the steep ramps that they ran in reverse gear because their transmission could handle it better.
The bridge had a toll booth on the Wisconsin side that gave Hudson residents very low property taxes for years. The bridge used by millions of travelers for decades, including gangsters like John Dillinger, who used the bridge as means of state-to-state escape. The question is, did they pay the toll??
North of Hudson is, creatively enough, North Hudson (pop. 3,463), which grew out of Hudson in 1912. The city straddles the 45th parallel and celebrates its Italian heritage every year with Pepperfest, which is no doubt a spicy festival. Highway 35 is the main street through town. Northeast of Hudson and North Hudson is the beautiful, 3,000-acre Willow River State Park, accessible via County Highway A. It’s worth a stop to see the Willow River gorge and waterfalls.
Just a few miles ahead, Highway 35 meets up with Highway 64 and heads east to Somerset (pop. 2,300), a former logging town that also had the ideal terrain for growing cranberries and – during Prohibition – collecting water and making moonshine. Logging and bootlegging have since taken a back seat to being a bedroom community suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and a popular destination for concerts and floating down the Apple River. To follow the real Highway 35 through Somerset, exit the new freeway at County VV; this route is also marked "Business Highway 64", and go through town. You can hit 35 north again from the downtown area.
In the show Mystery Science Theater 3000, character Mike Nelson hails from Somerset; in an episode of Pinky and the Brain, the characters fly over a map of the U.S. with Somerset being the only city highlighted. On hot summer days, it is the only city that matters for many Twin Cities area residents, as thousands flock to Somerset to go tubing down the Apple River, which once floated logs cut from the forests to sawmills in Somerset for cutting and shipping; today, the river gently floats inner tubes filled with people (and inflatable coolers). The Somerset Amphitheater recently expanded and hosts a number of outdoor concerts throughout the summer, including some major concert tours.
North of Somerset, Highway 35 heads into more open farmland and enters Polk County. Through the small settlement of East Farmington, watch for Ken's Keyboard (301 State Road 35, 715-294-2876), a bar with a great sign out front. The next town is lovely little Osceola (pop. 2,728). A signature town along the 255-mile St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Osceola is home to the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway.
This heritage railroad that offers 90-minute excursions from April through October through the beautiful scenery along the St. Croix and surrounding areas. You can also check out the St. Croix ArtBarn (715-294-2787), a restored century-plus old dairy barn that now includes an art gallery and 180-seat performance theater. Each year, Osceola hosts events like Rhubarb Days and Wheels & Wings, very popular with bikers. Cascade Falls is a beautiful 25-foot waterfall where Osceola Creek drops on its way into the St. Croix River, right downtown near Highway 35. This is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
From Osceola, Highway 35 skims St. Croix Falls and then heads into more remote areas of Wisconsin’s North Woods. What was a river theme becomes more of a forest-and-lake theme for this stretch of Highway 35, with both coming together most in Siren. Siren was founded by Swedish settlers, who named the two “Syren”, the Swedish word for “lilac”, as the colorful scented flowers grew wild in abundant numbers – and still do to this day.
Along with lilacs, Siren has several lakes for fishing, swimming, and boating; the surrounding woods have plenty of recreational and snowmobile trails and hunting grounds are abundant. One trail, the Gandy Dancer Trail, is a former rail line that cuts through Siren and goes all the way north to Lake Superior. The Best Western Northwoods Lodge is right at the main crossroads, where Highway 35 meet Wisconsin Highway 70. Siren is also home to many festivals throughout the year.
It’s a more remote ride continuing north on Highway 35. One more crossing of the St. Croix River happens north of Danbury and then it’s pretty much wilderness for the next 40 miles or so. This area, which is in Douglas County, holds hundreds of miles of recreational trails designed for ATVs and snowmobiles.
Inside Pattison State Park you’ll find Big Manitou Falls, Wisconsin’s highest waterfall at 165 feet.
The final destination on our Highway 35 Tour is Superior, the Wisconsin twin of the “Twin Ports” – the other twin being Duluth, Minnesota. The two cities mark the western end of Lake Superior as well as the Great Lakes. Superior is the smaller, low-lying sister to Duluth, which is visible across the bustling, still-major international port. Much of the water activity can be viewed along the recreational Osaugie Waterfront Trail and Harbor View Park.
Superior embraces its maritime heritage. The SS Meteor was built in Superior in 1896 and is the sole surviving ship with the “whaleback” design. She sailed until 1969 and today is docked in Superior, serving as a museum. Those ships made some people a lot of money back in the day; the Fairlawn Mansion went up in 1891 for lumber and mining baron Martin Pattison (who has that state park further south named after him). Fairlawn is a 42-room Queen Anne Victorian with a four-story turret and restored interior rooms available for tours. Gilded murals and original furniture can be viewed on the inside; in season, colorful gardens can be enjoyed on the outside. Perhaps in the winter snowball fights are permissible on the grounds, but we have yet to ask.
Trivia: Superior was the last port of call for the Edmond Fitzgerald, a massive Great Lakes freighter which tragically – and famously – sank in a Lake Superior storm on November 10, 1975.
Superior knows how to party; a fair number of regional residents on the Minnesota side of the border head this way for nightlife and festivals. Superior’s annual Dragonboat Festival is one of the largest Dragonboat races in North America; it runs the last weekend in August and draws thousands of participants from all over the U.S. and Canada. The Twin Ports Bridge Festival runs every June, the annual Gitchee Gumee Brewfest happens in April, and the Amsoil Northern Nationals are just one of the events taking place at Amsoil Speedway, a raceway located right along Highway 35.
Highway 35 is Tower Avenue in Superior. Along the avenue if hunger pangs are hitting, try a stop at the Anchor Bar which offers, despite a gritty look on the outside, a remarkable collection of nautical and historical memorabilia on the inside, along with burgers that have had a national reputation since the 1940s.
So after over 400 miles, we come to the end of our Highway 35 Tour. Right where 35 ends, you can angle back southeast on U.S. 2/53 to dive back into everything Wisconsin has to offer, or duck over the I-535 bridge for a taste of Superior’s sister city, Duluth, Minnesota. Either way, the Best Western Bridgeview Motor Inn is there to serve you. From there, feel free try some of the other tours!