There’s something about a fall road trip that brings out the uniqueness of Wisconsin. Maybe it’s the state’s 16 million acres of brilliantly colored forests, or the seasonal farmers’ markets and roadside stands that seem to be around every corner. Perhaps it’s the harvest festivals like La Crosse’s Oktoberfest, Prairie du Chien's Oktoberfest or the Warrens Cranberry Fest. Or maybe it’s the fascinating, one-of-a-kind attractions and charming, history-filled villages that dot its scenic byways and rustic roads.
Whatever the reason, fall color touring in Wisconsin is an experience that can’t be duplicated in any other state. Here are two of the state’s best auto and motorcycle driving tour itineraries for the fall season, tracing two of the state’s signature rivers – the Wisconsin River and the winding Mississippi, along the Great River Road.
Wisconsin Scenic Byway: State Highway 60
The first corridor to be designated a Wisconsin Scenic Byway, Highway 60 takes travelers 100 miles along the Lower Wisconsin River from Lodi to Prairie du Chien in the heart of southwest Wisconsin’s rural Driftless Area. Be sure to visit the Lower Wisconsin River Road Scenic Byway website for additional information.
Day One: Prairie du Sac, Spring Green
Beginning 40 minutes northwest of Madison near Prairie du Sac, this scenic route in fall starts travelers on their journey with a tour and tasting at the Wollersheim Winery. Founded in 1972 by the Wollersheim family, the winery continues to expand and grow the winery’s operations. They have won numerous awards for wines such as the top-selling Prairie Fume as well as seasonal fall wine favorites. Visitors may taste Prairie Fume and other wines during one of Wollersheim’s daily tours.
About 40 miles west on your scenic fall road trip is the artsy enclave of Spring Green, where travelers will find the sprawling estate of America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s Taliesin, a national historic landmark, is often called his “self-portrait.” The site of several fires (including one during which his mistress and several others were murdered), Taliesin was continuously rebuilt and expanded by Wright well into his final years. Tours of Taliesin and several other estate buildings are available throughout the fall and fill up fast. Call in advance to book your tour.
Just down the road from Taliesin is the equally and weirdly fascinating attraction known as House on the Rock – a must see during any scenic tour in fall. Built by the eccentric Alex Jordan, the Japanese-style home is both an architectural attraction and a museum complex of strange and unrelated collections. The house’s 218-foot suspended “Infinity Room” is particularly spectacular in the fall with the trees of the Wyoming Valley, ablaze in fall color, 165 feet below the room’s glass floor. House on the Rock offers several self-guided tours which take guests past displays of antique weapons, dolls and dollhouses, a million-piece miniature circus and the world’s largest indoor carousel.
Located between House on the Rock and Taliesin is the House on the Rock Resort. Another stunningly designed building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence is seen throughout, particularly in the two-room suites that offer panoramic views of the countryside in full fall color. While at the resort you’ll want to take advantage of the Grandview Restaurant, known for its American regional cuisine. Have a little extra time during your scenic fall road trip? Check out the Resort’s top notch spa or golf course.
While on your scenic fall road tour, visit a nationally renowned summer-stock theater specializing in Shakespeare. American Players Theater is home to both a outdoor amphitheater and a 200-seat indoor theater.
Day Two: Boscobel, Wauzeka & Prairie du Chien
Traveling west from Spring Green during your scenic fall drive, Boscobel is just forty miles down the road. Stop at the Boscobel Heritage Depot Museum, a reconstructed railroad depot that combines railroad-related artifacts with booth-sized historic facades of buildings that once lined Boscobel’s main street, including a manual telephone switchboard.
Like many of the towns along the picturesque, sandbar-filled Wisconsin River, Boscobel is home to a canoe and kayak outfitter. Located in a refurbished 1840’s feed mill, Wisconsin River Outings is one of the best in the region and regularly arranges river excursions lasting from several hours to several days. In addition to guided outings throughout the fall season, they also provide a livery service, rent canoes and kayaks for visitors to use sans guide, and are happy to share local knowledge on everything from river currents to sandbar locations.
State Highway 60 ends just north of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers at Prairie du Chien, a town recognized as the state’s second-oldest community – its origins go back to the nineteenth century fur trade. Consider camping 500 feet above the rivers’ confluence at Wyalusing State Park. One of Wisconsin's oldest parks, Wyalusing features spectacular river vistas, as well as Indian burial mounds, a canoe trail, bird watching, fishing and boating. The setting is absolutely picturesque for fall travelers.
National Scenic Byway: Great River Road
Wisconsin Highway 35, paralleling the Mississippi River from Kieler to Prescott for 250 miles, is part of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, voted one of America’s “10 Most Scenic Drives” by the Society of American Travel Writers. In Wisconsin, the route is marked by steep, forested valleys and coulees, as well as soaring limestone bluffs providing amazing views for fall color drives.
Day One: Potosi, La Crosse & Onalaska
Fall travelers can start their scenic journey by visiting the National Brewery Museum in Potosi. Located in a restored 1852 brewery, Potosi’s unique history helped it beat out famed brewing cities such as Milwaukee and St. Louis to host the museum. The Potosi Brewing Complex features an operating brewery, brewpub restaurant, Great River Road Interpretive Center, and the museum. The museum showcases the collections of members of the American Breweriana Association. Exhibits include brewery history and advertising-related memorabilia such as posters, print ads, lithographs and signage from the days when nearly every small town in America had a brewery.
Scenic drives in fall can include Prairie du Chien - the oldest European settlement on the Upper Mississippi River. Located just above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, this great river town has many frontier stories to tell. Tour Villa Louis, a Wisconsin Historical Society site, where you can see the furnishings and Victorian lifestyle of the Dousman family, one of the state’s first millionaire fur traders.
After a busy day of brewery and frontier history, travelers can enjoy a restive and bucolic evening in Onalaska, just north of La Crosse, with a stay at the Travel Green Wisconsin-certified Rainbow Ridge Farms B&B. Rainbow Ridge Farms is a charming turn-of-the-century working farm nestled in a peaceful valley that explodes with fall color.
Day Two: La Crosse & Trempealeau
What better way to experience the romance of the Mississippi River and the beauty of the fall color season than aboard an authentic paddlewheel river boat? The La Crosse Queen, a modern-day replica of the grand river boats that plied the Mississippi in the 19th century, offers sightseeing and dinner cruises. The Queen is one of the few authentic Mississippi River paddlewheel river boats still in operation. Tours board at Riverside Park in historic downtown La Crosse.
Another area highlight is the city’s famous Oktoberfest, one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations outside of Germany. Held each year from the last weekend of September through the first weekend of October, the festival attracts nearly 150,000 people with German music, entertainment, ethnic food, arts, parades, boat rides, and of course, beer.
Sixteen miles north of La Crosse while on your scenic fall road trip, stay overnight at The Historic Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau. The 1871 building was extensively restored in the mid-1980s by owners Jim and Linda Jenkins. The hotel offers European-style rooms, Jacuzzi suites, a sun deck, beer garden and a restaurant featuring a vegetarian walnut burger that has become a regional legend. Made of ground walnuts mixed with Wisconsin cheeses, onions, tamari, eggs and various spices, the burgers have become so popular they are now distributed at grocery and natural foods stores throughout Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.
Day Three: Alma, Pepin & Stockholm
Follow Highway 35 north another 45 minutes to the quaint river town of Alma. So many of the community’s historic buildings have been restored, the entire town is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sandwiched between the Mississippi River and the 500-foot limestone bluffs behind the town, Alma is seven miles long, but just two blocks wide. It draws national attention from birdwatchers every fall during the Alma Tundra Swan Watch. Throughout late October and early November, birders gather at the Rieck’s Lake Park Wildlife Observation Platform where the majestic swans make one of their only stops during their annual migration from northern Canada to the Chesapeake Bay area.
Fifteen miles north of Alma, Pepin is the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the noted author of the “Little House” books. The village honors the writer’s life and works with a Wilder Museum and a replica of her log cabin. Once there be sure to check out the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.
Pepin is a regional draw for sailors, water skiers and other boating enthusiasts, many of whom dock at Dan’s Pepin Marina on this two-mile-wide stretch of the Mississippi. Transient boaters and locals alike swear by The Pickle Factory restaurant; located next to the marina and overlooking the lake, it’s an ideal place to enjoy homemade onion rings and BBQ pork ribs while taking in the scenic fall colors.
Downtown Stockholm - Stockholm
Seven miles further north on Highway 35, travelers will find the artsy village of Stockholm. Although it has a population of less than 100 people, it boasts an impressive Main Street of original art galleries and culinary attractions that rival large cities. Don’t miss the made-from-scratch Wisconsin Cherry Pie at the Stockholm Pie Company or learn how to cook (and find) wild morel mushrooms at the Palate Gourmet and Kitchen Store. The town is also home to a number of eclectic artists and artisans, whose works are featured in the Antique Future, The Purple Turtle Artisan Collective and Northern Oak Amish Furniture.