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Galena ablaze with color. For more photos, check out the gallery »
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO: 165 MILES
The first thing you need to know about the Great River Road, the more than 3,000-mile route that follows the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, is that it isn’t a single road but a complex network of local byways. The next thing to know is that the portion of the route twisting through the tricornered intersection of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa displays some of the area’s prettiest fall foliage, as well as some of its most idiosyncratic sights.
Establish a base in Galena, the Illinois town that Ulysses S. Grant briefly called home, where you could easily spend an enjoyable weekend doing the circuit of museums, trolleys, and antique shops. But then you would miss the quirky wonders of a region that offers mole traps and jars of catfish blood bait along with your midafternoon slushie at the local minimart. Head north from Galena along the Great River Road toward Cassville, Wisconsin, and you will wind through a connect-the-dots route of singular stopping points. (To stay on track, follow the green and white signs in the shape of a steamboat’s 12-spoked pilot’s wheel.)
We first pulled over in Dickeyville, Wisconsin, halted by the vision of a sparkly alfresco Jesus looming over an otherwise deserted Main Street. Built between 1925 and 1930 by Father Matthias Wernerus, a pastor of the town’s Holy Ghost Catholic Church, the Dickeyville Grotto is a jaw-dropping outdoor shrine—think Liberace meets the Vatican meets Henry Darger—fashioned from seashells and costume jewelry. Nine miles up the road is Potosi, home to the National Brewery Museum. At the last census, the town had a population of 711, yet somehow tiny Potosi beat out Milwaukee in landing this museum/ brewery/restaurant combo. (The Snake Hollow India pale ale goes for $3.25 a pint, making the beer a better bargain than the flasks of holy water sold in the grotto’s gift shop.) And so to Potosi go events such as the Potosi Brewery Great River Road Bike Tour (September 25th), where you can sign up to ride 100, 45, or 25 miles—though all routes ultimately lead back to the brewery.
From Potosi, it’s a short and lovely jaunt to Cassville; you will know you have entered town when you pass the homemade billboard trumpeting “Jack Buschbom Lives Here—Three-Time World Champion Bareback Bronco Rider.” Cassville is also home to Stonefield, a re-created Victorian-era village built on the former estate of Nelson Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor. The place is Our Town, minus the actors. Among other marvels, you will find a 19th-century corpse cooler, the meticulously maintained hearse that carried Dewey to his final repose, and a brief primer on the uses of goose grease. Adults without kids may want to skip the historical village and head straight for Nelson Dewey State Park; viewed from atop the park’s towering bluffs, the Mississippi River is a silver slash cleaving a wilderness ablaze in color.
For an Iowa view of the river, try the overlook about 100 yards from Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown (about 17 miles northwest of Dubuque). Breitbach’s has been serving “country dining”—the buffet is a wonderland of chicken-fried steak and bratwurst—since 1852. Come suppertime, the dining room is packed with tourists, and the bar is shoulder to shoulder with locals. Mike Breitbach, the great-great-grandson of the first Breitbach to own the place, is a fixture in both rooms, pushing pie on everyone. Resistance is futile, since the pie is as heavenly as the Balltown Road overlook.
But beware the urge to pedal away a mealtime splurge. Bicycling in Three Corners country can be a lesson in hubris. The rolling roads are glorious when you are zipping down them, grueling when you are on the ascent. The 38-mile Sinsinawa Mound Loop (in Wisconsin’s Grant County) and the 17-mile trek to Pilot Knob (in Illinois’s Jo Daviess County)—indeed, almost all of the bike routes along the Great River Road—will make you earn the gorgeous views they offer.
The marvelously flat exception is hidden in downtown Galena, a three-and-a-half-mile crushed limestone track running between the Galena River and Grant’s Park. The trail ends abruptly at a train depot abandoned for more than a century, a place of woodsy seclusion. If the bluffs of Cassville offer an eagle’s- eye view of the fall colors, the Galena River Trail provides the close-up—though either vista speaks to the power of the Great River Road.
For maximum scenery, take the Great River Road north from Galena. Stay on the east side of the Mississippi River through Dickeyville, Potosi, and into Cassville. Take the Cassville car ferry ($13/car; runs continually from 8:20 a.m. to 8:40 p.m.) over to Iowa and take the Great River Road south on the west side of the Mississippi. Return to Galena via the Julian Dubuque Bridge.
Fever River Triathlon 17-mile bike, 6-mile paddle, 3.1-mile run (September 18th); feverriveroutfitters.com
Potosi Brewery Great River Road Bike Tour potosibrewery.com
Sinsinawa Mound Loop cyclesouthwestwisconsin.com/loop_pages/sinsinawa-mound-loop.html
Casper Bluff Land and Water Preserve 870 S. Pilot Knob, Galena; 815-858-9100, jdcf.org/casper_bluff.aspx
Nelson Dewey State Park County Hwy. VV, Cassville, Wis.; 608-725-5374
Old Train Depot Visitor Information Center 101 Bouthillier St., Galena; 877-464-2536, galena.org
LODGING & DINING
Breitbach’s Country Dining 563 Balltown Rd., Balltown, Iowa; 563-552-2220, breitbachscountrydining.com
DeSoto House Hotel 230 S. Main St., Galena; 815-777-0090, desotohouse.com
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa 444 Eagle Ridge Dr., Galena; 815-777-5000, eagleridge.com
Goldmoor Inn 9001 W. Sandhill Rd., Galena; 815-777-3925, goldmoor.com
Dickeyville Grotto 305 W. Main St., Dickeyville, Wis.; 608-568-3119, dickeyvillegrotto.com
Ulysses S. Grant Home 500 Bouthillier St., Galena; 815-777-3310, granthome.com
Photograph: Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB)