By Eric Paulsen
The most interesting topography in Wisconsin has to be the “Driftless Area,” a large swath of land that glaciers missed as they squished other parts of the Midwest 10,000 years ago. You’ll find few to zero natural lakes in this region, but streams, coulees and bluffs galore.
Try this loop out of and back to Prairie du Chien for a great cross-section of this gorgeous place.
Cruise Alongside the Mighty Mississippi
From Prairie du Chien, head north on the Great River Road/Highway 35, hugging Wisconsin’s “west coast” along the Mississippi. With its towering bluffs to the east and majestic river views to the west, this route is a favorite for drivers and bald eagles alike.
Small communities like Lynxville, Ferryville and De Soto offer historic buildings, refreshments and lovely photo ops, while scenic overlooks afford lofty views into Iowa and Minnesota. Portions of the river here are two to three miles wide, dissected by hundreds of islands that form the vast Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge.
Rest at the park near the intersection of Battle Hollow Road about two miles north of De Soto, where a marker describes the 1832 Battle of Bad Axe that ended in a bloody massacre for Chief Black Hawk's Sauk and Fox followers.
Stop in the little “lock town” of Genoa (pop. 263) to watch Mississippi River Lock & Dam 8 in action, or raise the flag just below the dam to alert Clements Fishing Barge if you’d like to throw a line into the river!
Trace the Topography of the Driftless Area
At Genoa, turn onto Highway 56 east, which takes you through town and over the hills, along the coulees, and through the stair-step terraced farm fields of the Driftless Area. There’s a small settlement called Romance at the crossing of the Bad Axe River’s North Fork, and the topography that follows includes names like Purdy Valley and Lars Anderson Hollow.
Shortly after going through the little burg of Bud, you reach Viroqua, a charming town of 4,500. The renovated, historic Temple Theatre and numerous coffee shops and galleries are just a hint of the growing arts community.
When you reach Viola, a town of 700 on the Vernon-Richland County border, don’t miss the old “Opera House” that now holds a tavern, then head south along Highway 131.
Chase the 'Crookedest' Kickapoo's Curves
Highway 131 closely follows the Kickapoo River, often called the “crookedest river in the world" and popular for canoeing and fishing. Though its source is only 60 miles from where it empties, the longest tributary of the Wisconsin River flows more than 125 sinuous miles.
South of Readstown, Highway 131 heads into Soldiers Grove, billed as “America’s First Solar Village” because the downtown was relocated to new energy-efficient, solar-heated buildings between 1979 and 1983 after devastating floods from the Kickapoo.
South of Gays Mills, it’s a beautiful meander along Highway 131, up and down, across the Kickapoo a few times and – south of Steuben – navigating tight turns only to emerge at scenic vistas.
Follow the Wisconsin River's Final Stretch
At Highway 131’s end near Wauzeka, turn west and follow Highway 60 along the Wisconsin River – with its wide, occasionally swampy banks and shifting sandbars – to head back into Prairie du Chien, the state’s second-oldest city.
Its location just north of where the state’s most important river merges into the nation’s most important river gave it strategic advantage, so Fort Crawford was established there, and you can see original buildings and artifacts at the museum just off Highway 60 in town.
Fur trader and real-estate investor Hercules Dousman was the first millionaire in Wisconsin, and in 1871 his son H. Louis built the Villa Louis mansion, now a National Historic Landmark and museum on St. Feriole Island.
Prairie du Chien offers shopping, lively bars and restaurants, access to plenty of fishing and outdoor gear, and (on weekends during warmer months) a tiny hamburger stand called Pete’s, which has been poaching patties in water and onions since 1909.
End your trip with the beautiful views from Wyalusing State Park just to the south, or re-explore the inland portions of the Driftless Area on Highway 27, which leads north out of town and across the crests of Crawford County. Any which way you go, this Driftless Area tour is one to savor!
Eric Paulsen has a knack for chattin’: Between trekking the state as one of the hosts of Discover Wisconsin and playing Milwaukee’s greatest hits on 95.7 BIG FM, he keeps busy while entertaining the masses. He’s also pretty obsessed with Wisconsin’s highways and rustic roads, managing his own Wisconsin road trip website, StateTrunkTour.com. Twitter: @ericpinmke