by Sara Heaser
The Buffalo City Loop is one-day road trip that begins in La Crosse, travels north on the Great River Road (Hwys 53 and 35) to Buffalo City, and returns on the Minnesota banks of the Mississippi, features charming small towns and their shops, wineries, waterfront dining options, and unique attractions. There’s no shortage of epic scenery, wildlife, great eats, and photo ops on this loop!
Holmen, WI: Meat & More
A great road trip has great snacks. First, head north on Hwy 53 to Holmen, WI (pop. 10,000) to check out one of the most popular local shops in the La Crosse area, the Holmen Locker and Meat Market, which features artisan cheeses, homemade jerky, local wine, and other yummy gifts for sale. Also in Holmen: The Wine Sitter Brew House stocks wine and beer making supplies, locally-produced wine, has a knowledgeable staff, and offers wine tasting as well.
Trempealeau, WI: Photo Op Stop
After Holmen, the scenery takes it up a notch in Trempealeau, WI. Take a very short detour off the route to drive on 1st street and stop at the river for beautiful views of rolling bluffs on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi. A quick drive through Perrot State Park also offers a few scenic overlooks worth stopping for. If you’re up for a hike, there’s also trails in the park that lead to the top of the bluffs for stunning vistas. Hungry? Stop by Sullivan’s Supper Club were you can watch the beautiful Mississippi River roll by or try the carry-out menu and keep driving.
Centerville, WI: Elmaro Winery
After Trempealeau, more scenery options abound at Elmaro Vineyard in Centerville, WI, which is nestled amongst rolling farmland. Taste wine, sample some cheese plates, and relax outside on their outdoor patio that overlooks their vineyard and beyond. Be sure to check their events calendar, as they regularly feature live music, food trucks, painting classes, yoga, and more
Fountain City, WI: Charming, Historical, and Delicious
Between Trempealeau and Fountain City, WI, right off the road, is the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. Enjoy a short, flat walk through Mississippi marsh for bird-watching and (even more) photo opportunities. In Fountain City, The Monarch Public House, founded in 1894, has indoor and outdoor seating (with views of the river, of course), an Irish-inspired dining menu, a tavern that serves their own house brew, and a unique history that shines through its original furnishings.
Enjoy free wine tasting in a historic building at Seven Hawks Vineyard’s tasting room in downtown Fountain City, or stop at Elmer’s Auto and Toy Museum for a look at hundreds of antique toys, dolls, tools, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. Kinstone, a Permaculture site, features a Megalithic Garden (tours available) overlooking the Mississippi.
Buffalo City, WI: A Walk on the Water
The Cochrane and Buffalo City area, tiny towns on the banks of the Mississippi, have even more opportunities to stretch the legs and take in the views. Foelsch Riverside Park (at S. River Road and County OO) has walking trails right along the river, and River Ratz Saloon (356 W 16th St) or The Cove (175 S River Road) are both riverfront dining options. The Ye Olde Schoolhouse Shoppe, (8th and Humbolt streets) a one-room schoolhouse turned resale shop, features clothing, knick knacks, books, and more.
Winona, MN: Art and Scenery
After heading south and crossing into Minnesota via the Winona Bridge, you’ll find yourself in Winona, Minnesota, a small town (pop. 30,000) on the river known for it’s scenery, arts scene, and outdoor recreation. The Minnesota Marine Art Museum boasts collections from around the world that, not surprisingly, focus on all things water. If art isn’t your thing and you’re itching for something more active, the Great River Bluffs State Park, just south of Winona, has winding walking and hiking trails through the bluffs that, once again, boast spectacular vistas. For history buffs, the Historic Pickwick Mill (open May-Oct), once a sawmill and flourmill in the mid-1800s, is a working model still today.
La Crescent, MN: Markets, Vineyards, and Cheese Curds
The drive south from Winona to La Crosse on the Minnesota side is largely argued by locals as more picturesque, as the road is closer to the river, so keep your eyes peeled for those scenic overlook signs and photo opportunities. About 30 miles south, La Crescent, MN, is sometimes overlooked by tourists due to its close proximity to La Crosse, but that’s a mistake, as the city has shops and wineries all its own, like the La Crescent Flea Market and River View Vineyard and Winery. River View Winery is located on Hwy. 1, an incredibly scenic drive also known as Apple Blossom Drive Byway–the journey to River View at the top of the bluff is worth it for the drive alone.
La Crosse is home to one of the most popular local hangouts for boaters, day-trippers, beach-goers, and locals alike: the La Crosse Pettibone Boat Club, on Barron Island on the Mississippi. Recently remodeled, the eatery features riverfront dining, an outdoor patio, a tiki bar, and of course, Wisconsin Cheese Curds on the menu.
La Crosse, WI: Downtown Stroll
Whew! If you’re still hungry for more food, thirsty for more drink, or curious for more Mississippi life, downtown La Crosse has all of the listed and more. After crossing the bridge and merging into downtown, you can easily park anywhere (most spots are free) on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th street blocks and find yourself within walking distance to bars, restaurants, art museums, gift shops, coffee shops, historical museums, or pottery and paint studios. And of course, there’s Riverside Park, with plenty of green space for that one last look at the river.
Associate Lecturer of Composition at UW-La Crosse & Freelance Writer
Sara has been living in La Crosse since 2003 and prefers to explore the area on foot and by bike.