By Eric Frydenlund
If there's a more relaxing way to take in the scenery of southwest Wisconsin than from a boat on the Mississippi River, you'd be hard-pressed to find it. Towering bluffs and sheer limestone outcroppings rise from the river's edge like cathedrals that frame the Driftless Area topography.
A variety of river craft cruise by – from powerful tugboats pushing their products to market, fishing boats headed to secret fishing holes and pleasure boats gliding to the beach. You can make your own party. Islands and a number of sandbars located along the riverbank make for a scenic spot to set up a grill or build a campfire.
And you needn't roll down the window to see the bald eagles soaring overhead – the entire river opens wide over the bow of your boat. As Mark Twain once said, "Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play – delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play – and I loved it."
So let's begin our adventure with play, along with some good food along the way. Heading downstream from La Crosse, make Stoddard your first stop. The friendly village has a boat dock from which you can access the eateries along Main Street, all within walking distance.
Visit the Thirsty Turtle, a traditional small-town tavern with a big-flavor menu. Try the turtle burger, a local treat served with grilled onions and green peppers. For the less adventuresome, ask for their Italian beef, a staple of their Chicago-born owners.
Just downriver at De Soto, take a break at Blackhawk Park, named after the renowned Sauk chief who encountered a major battle with the U.S. Army near here. The park features a boat launch, nearly a dozen campsites, picnic area, and a concession stand and bait shop where you can pick up lures to entice those walleyes, bass, catfish and panfish that the Mississippi is famous for.
About a half-mile south, accessible from the beach across the highway, you'll find the Great River Roadhouse. Their pizzas are as big in taste as they are in size.
Ferryville is a small village tucked against the river bluff known for its famous son, Patrick Lucey. The former governor of Wisconsin and ambassador to Mexico now has a historic marker in his honor at the observation deck overlooking the wide expanse of the river.
Dock at the landing and walk to the Wooden Nickel, favored by motorcyclists who love their charcoal burgers, but a welcome respite for motor boaters, too.
At Lynxville, pull over at the boat landing and enjoy a "world-famous" Chicago-style hot dog at The Dawg House. They also serve corn dogs, burgers, tacos, fresh Mississippi catfish and "Dawg Curds," some of the tastiest in the state.
Just below the Lynxville dam, the Falling Rock landing is a spot prized among locals for walleye fishing. The nearby Mitchell's Liquor Box Tavern & Tackle is a favorite haunt for anglers sharing their fishing stories along with a beer and burger.
Prairie du Chien
Prairie du Chien's St. Feriole Island is a must-stop for history buffs. The island hosts the annual Prairie Villa Rendezvous in June, a historical reenactment of the fur trade rendezvous that occurred in centuries past. It's also home to the famed Villa Louis, an 1870 mansion billed as the most authentically restored Victorian house museum in America.
Pull up to the boat dock on the south end of Lawler Park and quench your thirst and appetite at The Depot, a bar and grill located in a restored 1860s railroad depot.
The stretch of river along the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin never ceases to amaze – from a distance or from the seat of your cruiser. Launch your boat and let the river take you places you'll never forget.
Looking for more ways to experience Mississippi River life in Wisconsin? Check out our eating tour of the Great River Road.