MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

15 great spring drives

When weather warms, the urge to hit the road is irresistible.

A barge on the Mississippi River.

Beth Gauper

In Iowa, the rolling Great River Road provides views of the Mississippi.

It's a beautiful spring day — finally. The trees are budding, the birds are chirping. What do you do?

Road trip! Somehow, the call of the highway is especially strong in spring. We want to feel the wind on our face and see something new and unusual.

There's a lot to do along the way: Walk through bluebells, spot birds, visit artist studios, sample cheese, watch a parade.

Here are 15 of the best spring drives around the region.

WISCONSIN

Wisconsin has four state scenic byways: the Great River Road between Prescott and Kieler; the Lower Wisconsin River Road between Lodi and Prairie du Chien;  the Door County Coastal Byway; and the new Wisconsin Lake Superior Scenic Byway around the Bayfield Peninsula.

It also has two national-forest scenic byway, the Great Divide Highway between Hayward and Glidden in Chequamegon National Forest; and the Heritage Drive in Nicolet National Forest east of Eagle River and Three Lakes.

Exploring Rustic Roads

Whenever I'm in Wisconsin, I check out whatever Rustic Road is nearby. They're scenic, lightly traveled roads, many of which preserve remnants of the past — lighthouses, one-room schoolhouses, country churches.

My favorites in spring are the wildflower-lined Rustic Road 51 near Maiden Rock and Rustic Road 21, which leads to the sandstone arch of Natural Bridge State Park near Baraboo. But they all give you a good excuse to go exploring.

Maps and descriptions of the 112 rustic stretches are online, and you can request a free glove-box copy of the Rustic Roads guide by mail or email.

A slice of cheese country

In southwest Wisconsin, three towns have maintained the Old World traditions brought by the first settlers.

This is a drive where you want to bring an appetite. Start in the Swiss village of New Glarus, half an hour southwest of Madison (beer, pastries, sausages, chocolate, cheese). 

The round Evanstad barn in Vernon County.

Beth Gauper

The Evanstad barn near Dell is one of Vernon County's last round barns.

Head west on Wisconsin 39, stopping just west of Hollandale to see the wonderful Grandview folk-art sculptures.

For more around the state, see Road trip: Wisconsin's concrete art.

Continue to the Cornish village of Mineral Point (pasties, figgyhobbin, saffron cake, cheese). Take Wisconsin 23 south to Darlington, then Wisconsin 81 east to the Swiss town of Monroe (cheese, beer, fruit). It's a totally delectable tour.

Around Horicon Marsh

In spring, the avian freeway to the north runs right over this Everglades of the North, southwest of Fond du Lac. On the ground, humans take the 50-mile Auto Tour around the marsh.

It passes state and federal visitors centers, hiking trails and overlooks with spotting scopes. Rustic Road 106 is off the northeast part of the marsh, and on the west side, the route parallels the Wild Goose State Trail. 

Go May 9-12 in 2014 and you'll catch the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, which includes tours, hikes and bird-banding demonstrations that are very beginner-friendly.

Nature along the Wisconsin River

In a mere half-hour of driving, you can see some of the environmental world's most historic landmarks – and spring is the best time to do it.

John Muir's family farm now is a county park north of Portage. From there, cross the river to Levee Road, much of it Rustic Road 49.

Drive west to the new Aldo Leopold Center and the naturalist's famous shack, the only chicken coop on the National Register. 

Then drive down Shady Lane to the International Crane Foundation and take a guided tour of the enclosures where at least one of all 15 of the world's cranes live. Then wander along the trails, which are lined with wildflowers in spring.

And for a bonus, head past  Baraboo and south to Parfrey's Glen, a spectacular little gorge that was Wisconsin's very first natural area.

The Viking in Spring Grove's park.

Torsten Muller

Viking Memorial Park is in full bloom during Syttende Mai in Spring Grove.

The Kickapoo Valley

In the coulee country southeast of La Crosse, unyielding rock dictates the famously crooked course of the Kickapoo River

This is the Driftless Area, and mile for mile, it's the most picturesque in Wisconsin. Here's a loop that takes in many of the highlights.

From Ontario, follow the Kickapoo south on Wisconsin 131, past Wildcat Mountain State Park.

Turn west on rolling County Road P, which will take you through Dell and past the blue Evanstad round barn, which in spring is framed by flowering trees. Head north on County Road D to Old Country Cheese; stop and buy some curds.

Keep going driving north; you'll come out onto Wisconsin 33 near Cashton. Take it east back to Ontario, stopping to shop at the many Amish farms on the way (unless it's Sunday). 

You also can continue south on Wisconsin 131 to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, a green zone for fishing, hiking, canoeing, bicycling and bird watching.

Keep going past apple orchards and you'll come to Gays Mills, which holds a Spring Festival, May 9-11.

Rustic Road 51 in spring.

Torsten Muller

Spring ephemerals line Rustic Road 51, near Maiden Rock on Lake Pepin.

WISCONSIN/MINNESOTA

Continue through the Driftless Area and across the Mississippi River.

Two Norwegian villages

May is the biggest month on the Norwegian-American calendar, and May 17 the biggest day. That's Syttende Mai, the day in 1814 when Norway declared independence from Denmark and adopted the most democratic constitution in Europe.

Every Norwegian town worth its sandbakkels celebrates it. You can catch both Syttende Mai festivals May 16-18 in Westby, Wis., and May 16-17 in Spring Grove, Minn., and soak up the gorgeous scenery of the Driftless Area along the way.

It's an hour's drive between the towns. And from Spring Grove, it's only another 23 miles south to Decorah, Iowa, which celebrates on May 17.

Circling Lake Pepin

This wide spot in the Mississippi River is a perennial favorite. From Red Wing or Bay City, drivers on the road to Wabasha are never without a view of blue water, green hillsides and limestone bluffs.

It's only 70 miles around, but there are too many places to see in one day: the  bakeries and galleries of Maiden Rock and Stockholm, the National Eagle Center  in Wabasha, the warblers and wildflowers in Frontenac State Park.

It will be especially busy May 2-4 during the 100-Mile Garage Sale. And June 6-8, people can visit art studios and gardens on the Wisconsin side during the Fresh Art Spring Tour.

St. Croix River Valley

This river, which joins the Mississippi at Prescott, Wis., forms the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin and is less than an hour east of the Twin Cities.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at Grandview.

Beth Gauper

Snow White and her dwarves are among the concrete art at Grandview in Hollandale.

From Prescott, cross the river and head up the Minnesota side to Afton and Afton State Park. Next up, hillside Stillwater has as many shops and bistros as anyone could want.

In Marine on St. Croix, stop for pizza, coffee or ice cream, and hike around Lake Alice in William O'Brien State Park.

In Taylors Falls, weekend boat tours of the scenic Dalles start in May. Across the river, artists in and around St. Croix Falls open their studios for the Earth Arts Spring Art Tour May 3-4.

MINNESOTA

Minnesota has 10 state scenic byways, eight national scenic byways and three national-forest scenic byways. For more, see Minnesota's scenic byways.

Spring ephemerals and Northfield

Less than an hour south of the Twin Cities, this college town always is a good candidate for a drive. 

Trout lily at Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park.

Beth Gauper

Near Northfield, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is famous for its bountiful trout lilies.

There's an interesting assortment of shops on Division Street, and it's always fun to visit the Historical Society Museum and see the video re-enactment of the infamous Jesse James bank raid.

Spring is a good time to go a little farther to see one of the region's best displays of spring wildflowers, at Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. From downtown, take Division Street (Minnesota 246) south to County Road 40 and into the park.

Bluff-country byways

South of Rochester, the scenery starts. Hills sport outcroppings of golden limestone, roads wind up and down and Amish buggies mingle with other traffic.

May is a big month around Lanesboro, Harmony and Preston, as trout fishermen, turkey hunters, bicyclists and morel-mushroom pickers all converge on its picturesque countryside.

Artists throw open their studios during the Bluff Country Studio Arts Tour, April 25-27.

Lanesboro's Saturday-morning farmers' market, which features many Amish vendors, starts May 3. Preston celebrates Trout Days May 16-18 and Whalan puts on its famous Stand Still Parade May 17.

Follow Minnesota 16, also the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway.

A paddlewheeler on the St. Croix.

Beth Gauper

A paddlewheeler heads down the St. Croix River from Taylors Falls.

A hunt for giants

In northwest Minnesota, Otter Tail County has not only more lakes than any other county in Minnesota, but also the region's densest concentration of giant mascots.

Watch for a giant otter, a pelican, a warrior.

In the tiny village of Vining, a giant foot with an oversized big toe, a square knot, a 20-foot clothespin, a pliers gripping a cockroach and, our favorite, a coffee mug held up by a stream of molten java.

They're all stops on the Otter Trail Scenic Byway. You'll also find two state parks, the picture-postcard Phelps Mill and and Inspiration Peak, the state’s second-highest point.

ILLINOIS

Illinois has seven national scenic byways, including a 435-mile segment of the famous Route 66.

The view from Starved Rock.

Beth Gauper

Atop Starved Rock, a tourist looks across the Illinois River.

The Lincoln Highway

The 179-mile section that crosses Illinois is a national scenic byway, its route punctuated by historical murals in 30 towns. 

Linking New York's Times Square with Lincoln Park in San Francisco, it became known as "The Main Street Across America.''

From Chicago Heights, the route heads east to Joliet, then along the Fox River to Aurora, Batavia and Geneva. Then it heads west to DeKalb, Rochelle and Dixon, hitting the Mississippi River at Fulton.

Along the Illinois River

There's another great river road, and it's 291 miles in two sections. The northern section of the Illinois River Road starts in Ottawa and heads west along both sides of the river, passing Buffalo Rock, Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks before heading south to Chillicothe and Peoria.

A giant otter is Fergus Falls' mascot.

Beth Gauper

In Fergus Falls, a 22-foot otter is a stop on the Otter Trail.

This stretch of river is lined by natural areas and wildlife refuges. Starved Rock State Park is a must-stop. In May, waterfalls cascade over clifftops and canyons are filled with bluebells.

ILLINOIS/IOWA

Views of the Mississippi

A 50-mile loop along the Great River Road on both sides of the river will provide spectacular views of barges, stone outcroppings, islands and soaring eagles.

Stop to see the windmill in the Dutch town of Fulton, Ill., then head north to Savanna and Mississippi Palisades State Park, winding up the steep park road to the river overlook.

Then backtrack to Savanna (or head another 30 miles north to Galena) and cross the sloughs of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge to Sabula, Iowa.

Then head south along the river's Pool 13 to Clinton, and cross back to Fulton. If you can, catch Dutch Days Festival, May 2-3 in 2014.

A Lincoln Highway mural in Oregon.

Beth Gauper

The Lincoln Highway mural in Oregon, Ill., features a 48-foot-tall statue of Black Hawk.

IOWA

Iowa has eight state scenic byways and two national scenic byways, the Great River Road and Loess Hills.

Besides the northern part of the Great River Road, four byways are in northeast Iowa: River Bluffs, Driftless Area, Delaware Crossing and Grant Wood.

Great River Road

Drive along the Mississippi River from the Minnesota border to Dubuque, and you'll never again say that Iowa is flat. This is part of the Driftless Area, which the last four glaciers missed while scraping down the rest of the Midwest.

Most of the Great River Road hugs the Mississippi, but the parts that veer inland are just as gorgeous, swooping up and down like a roller coaster.

Stop in Lansing to take in the view from Mount Hosmer City Park and, on the bluffs above Marquette, walk the trails in Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Then you'll come to McGregor, a quirky little town at river's edge, and another great view 500 feet above it, from Pikes Peak State Park. Take County Road X56 to Guttenberg, then C9Y to Balltown, which is not on the river but has an astonishing view.

Continue on to Dubuque, where you can admire the view from the top of the Fenelon Place funicular.



Last updated on May 9, 2014
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