Explore the Parks and History Around Prairie du Chien

By Julia Richards | Photo courtesy Matt Tschirgi

The confluence of Wisconsin’s largest river with the granddaddy of them all, the Mississippi, has been regarded with reverence for centuries. The dozens of ceremonial mounds, both round and animal-shaped, created over a thousand years ago along the shorelines are enduring evidence of this.

The drive west on Highway 18 from Madison to Prairie du Chien is just over two hours, through rolling farm fields and forests stretching to the horizon under a wide-open sky. You can take in the view of the meeting of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers from several different vantage points on the surrounding bluffs. My friend and I stopped first at Wyalusing State Park, just south of Prairie du Chien. As we stood 500 feet above the waterways a turkey vulture soared overhead. The quiet was only broken by a train passing below, reminding us, along with the river barges, that this major corridor connects the Midwest to faraway regions.

The overlook is a short walk from the parking lot, but for those looking to trek the park more extensively there are hiking and mountain biking trails, and even a canoe trail to explore the sloughs.

Next, we crossed into Iowa for a picnic lunch at Pikes Peak State Park. It similarly offers an easily accessible lookout over the mighty rivers. A short hike takes you to Bridal Veil Falls, which gets its name from its appearance in winter when the small creek freezes over the limestone ledge.

We decided to extend our hike from there and picked a modest route that ended up being much more extensive due to a wrong turn or two over challenging, hilly terrain. We didn’t mind the extended walk though, as being immersed in the forest was invigorating. In the glory of fall color it must be even more so.

The entire area bordering the rivers is scattered with effigy mounds, but if you want to make them a focus of your visit, Effigy Mounds National Monument is just north from Pikes Peak on Iowa’s Great River Road. There you can go on an interpretive tour and learn about the people who created these mounds in the shape of bears, birds and other animals.

The weather cooperated with us, but our rain plan was to visit Villa Louis Historic Site. This authentically restored mansion was the family estate of Hercules Louis Dousman, but for many years was managed by his widow, Nina. “Nearly 90% of the objects once belonged to the family,” says Susan Caya-Slusser, site director. The house is open for tours through late October. Besides offering a glimpse of life in a wealthy Victorian-era household, the tour includes a visit to the servant’s quarters. You can even sign up for a workshop to learn how to cook on a wood-burning stove.

The site is an entry point into a broader look at regional history as well, from the fur trade to Native American history and the area’s role in the war of 1812. “Prairie du Chien is the oldest European settlement on the Upper Mississippi,” Caya-Slusser says. From the view, you can see why.

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