Bike Trip 2001 - Rolling Down The River

Jim and Tom's 5th bike tour


The day before we leave Jim's brother is saying:

"Why are they doing this? Are they nuts? Driving makes more sense because you don't have to worry about the weather."

We know that biking vacations are a fringie thing to do. They're definitely not the right thing for most people. There's no explaining why we do this. All I know is that when we were having lunch in Cassville on our last day of riding, I asked Jim, if after all this rain, cold, and gnats, he still wanted to do another tour next summer. "Yeah!" he said without a moment's hesitation. Life is good.

There's a fair amount of preparation that goes into a self contained bike tour like this one. It starts with choosing a final destination. The final destination should be about 300 miles for four day's riding unless the terrain is so difficult that your average speed drops down below 12 mph. We decided to ride down the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. Following a river the entire trip would be a different kind of ride for us than in the past. Wisconsin's first designated scenic byway is called "The Great River Road" and runs from Prescott, WI to the southwest corner of the state. Across the river from that point is Dubuque, Iowa. This is our final destination.

The next part is to look over maps for a good route. A good route needs a place to stay each night, and a place to eat lunch during the day. If there are places of interest along the way, this is a bonus. One also needs a road that is good for cycling. The planning this time was simpler than most trips because we followed the Great River Road and there is a web site:

that provides a description of all the river towns along the way. The biggest problem planning the trip occurred when some new mapping software I used not only crashed, but lost all the stops I had entered for the trip. After the second crash I decided to just scan some maps, print them, and use a highlighter to mark the route. Also, the mapping software doesn't let you pick a route that follows a bike path along an old train track bed.

Last winter in Minnesota was very cold with lots of snow. This led to some serious flooding along the rivers. The spring was very wet, quite cool, and windy. It's one of those years that chases people away from Minnesota. Biking season started late and finding dry days for training rides was a challenge. All of this left us a little concerned about the weather we'd face during our four day ride.

Here is an overview map showing the route we followed on our tour.

Bike Trip Route

Monday, June 4, 101.2 miles, Avg. 12.7 mph

After a wonderful pancake breakfast we start riding at 8am.

At least the bikes look good

Today is a nice cool and mostly cloudy day for riding. There is a bit of a breeze out of the southeast, meaning we ride most of the day into the wind. We head straight east and get our first view of the Mississippi River from a bike path that heads to historic Fort Snelling - the first European establishment in Minnesota located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Our next view of the river comes almost 30 miles later at the historic river town of Hastings, MN. There is a nice bike path that runs along the river into the town. Unfortunately the bike path was closed when we arrived. We took a break by the river and watched a coal train go over a lift bridge and our first river barge go up the river toward St. Paul.

He's no Tom Sawyer

We rode out of Hastings along the river for several miles. We passed Prairie Island, home of Treasure Island Casino and a nuclear power plant, and then climbed away from the river as we headed toward Welch Village. It's a nice downhill ride into Welch. Welch Village is a small art community with one place to eat - the Trout Stream Cafe. They make a great sandwich in a quaint setting along the Cannon River.

The Cannon Valley Trail passes by here on its way to Red Wing. We pay the $3 fee to ride the trail and head toward Red Wing. Early on the path is a little crowded with riders.

We'll buzz them later

With all the rain this spring the trail is quite lush. Soon we come across a large snapping turtle. He (or is it she?) was walking along the path minding his own business when his worst nightmare appeared out of nowhere - Jim and Tom. That's right, it's picture time and Mr. snapping turtle does not appear to be a willing participant.

How about turtle soup

Soon we're in the pretty river town of Red Wing, MN. We ride up to Grandview Ave. and get a nice panoramic view of Red Wing and the Mississippi. There are some uniquely beautiful river bluffs by the bridge.

The wind just blew Tom's bike over

Then we catch a well deserved treat at the local DQ. After getting recharged on some DQ energy, we head through the historic part of Red Wing and toward the bridge that crosses the Mississippi. Crossing the Mississippi at this point takes us into Wisconsin for the first time.

Cheesehead country

Before getting on the Great River Road we take a road that goes through Hagar City, and looks like a short cut. Unfortunately it doesn't cross the railroad tracks and we have to carry our bikes across the rail road yard to a rough looking street on the other side. Fortunately this connects us with the Great River Road and we head toward Lake Pepin.

Jim decides to stop and visit every historical marker and scenic overlook along the way. I can't remember what they said but scenic overlooks often cover geology and vegetation, while many historical markers cover battles between soldiers and Indians. One can't help but notice the wildlife. There are turtles, herons, possum, squirrels, raccoons and deer. Most are still alive but too many are dead along the side of the road. The sheer quantity of road kill along the Great River Road is a surprise.

There's a long and fairly steep climb to get to the bluffs that overlook Lake Pepin. The climb is worth it as the views of the lake are magnificent along this stretch of road, and it's mostly downhill or flat the rest of the way to Pepin.

God's country

We cruise through the small river towns of Bay City, Maiden Rock, and Stockholm and reach Pepin around 6pm that evening.

Our motel has signs all over the lobby warning you that if you even think of smoking you'll be charged incredible sums of money, arrested, and thrown out of the motel. There's no one behind the front desk. We search the entire motel looking for someone to give us a room. Jim finds someone finally. In the time it took us to find the front desk person we could have smoked an entire cigarette. We get our room, take showers, and head for dinner at the Harbor View Restaurant. We have a great meal and a nice view of the Lake.

Except for some head winds, today was a perfect biking day.

Tuesday, June 5, 84.2 miles, Avg. 13.6 mph

In the morning the roads are wet after an evening rain. The weather forecast is saying there's a 70% chance of rain that day. It's cloudy and the temperature is around 49 degrees Fahrenheit. There's another head wind but that wind is also drying off the roads pretty fast. Today's ride is pretty flat as our route hugs the Mississippi. After a continental breakfast, we start riding around 9am as the roads now seem dry enough.

Couldn't possibly rain

First we ride to the town of Nelson where we end up riding by a long line of cars that are all stopped for a passing train. When the train finally passes we continue on for another 2.5 miles only to discover we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. Up ahead is a bridge that crosses back into Minnesota to the city of Wabasha. We stop to check our maps and a cloud of gnats swarm around our heads. This unexpected five mile detour turns out to provide some of the prettiest parts of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge though.

There are many herons that seem to be enjoying the cool cloudy weather. I guess the gnats don't bother them.

We ride back to Nelson and get back onto the Great River Road headed toward Alma. One thing we've noticed is the number of trains that go by. There's at least a train every hour and sometimes as often as every 15 minutes. I never realized this was such an important rail corridor.

A light drizzle begins to fall from the sky.

Wipe away Jim - more spots will soon appear.

Alma is a pretty river town and the home of lock and dam number 4.

Lock and Dam #4

The town has a number of buildings with New Orleans style wrought iron balconies overlooking the river. We stop at an historical marker in Alma and a farmer pulls in to say hello. After asking us where we're from and where we're headed, he tells us we're probably going to get rained on. I tell him this morning's forecast says it'll get better tomorrow. He shakes his head and tells us they've changed it and now it's suppose to rain tomorrow too. Then he says, "this is the craziest spring - with all this rain you can't put in any corn, soybeans or make hay." The frustration is quite evident in his voice. Jim and I wish him well and ride on. I say to Jim, "everybody complains about the weather but no one does anything about it."

Shortly after leaving Alma it starts raining lightly. Really it's more of a drizzle. By the time we get to the town of Buffalo, it's a light but steady rain. We are getting soaked in the 48 degree temperatures. We stop at the Prairie Moon Museum And Sculptured Gardens and stand under a tree while looking at the sculpture gardens.

After staring at the sculpture gardens for several minutes, it becomes apparent that we are warmer riding than just standing under a tree in the 48 degree temperatures. We climb on our bikes and head to Fountain City.

We keep our distance from each other because it takes longer to stop and the back wheel is throwing up a nice rooster tail of water. The rain also seems to make it harder to enjoy the river.

We find the Holmes Landing Cafe and get a seat by the window overlooking the Mississippi. We're soaking wet but at least the rain has stopped. The worst part about being soaking wet is that cold squishy feeling of your feet in their soaking wet socks and shoes. I order hot soup, hot meatloaf dinner, and hot coffee. Jim and I amuse ourselves by watching each other shiver. I discover that people like to talk to two shivering guys who are soaking wet. Everyone in the restaurant wants to ask us how we're doing. A guy sits at the table next to us and wants to know how we're doing. He mentions that he has some cabins on top of a hill just outside of town that we can stay in tonight if we don't feel like riding anymore. We politely decline. It turns out getting to these cabins meant climbing 250 feet of vertical at a 10% grade. After eating we get some plastic bags from the restaurant and put them over our feet before putting on our shoes.

We stop at a bike shop across the street and get some chain lube and rags. They are wondering how the food at the Holmes Landing Cafe is, since the restaurant is brand new. I tell them that after 40 miles of cycling with 15 of it in the rain the food is simply fabulous.

We ride out of Fountain City enjoying the dry but cloudy weather. The river bluffs rise above us on our left in spectacular fashion. It's easier to appreciate them now that the rain stopped. We notice the herons and other wildlife more without the rain. It still looks like rain though. We stay a little more focused on riding than usual because we'd just as soon miss as much rain as possible, and whenever we stop a cloud of gnats swarms us in no time. We pass lock and dam number 5 and then miss our turn off to Perrot State Park. This adds a few miles onto our trip and takes us away from the river. We stop for a short break in Centerville and then turn toward the river. Soon we reach the town of Trempealeau. In Trempealeau we stop and eat a power bar while we enjoy looking over this pretty little town, and watching the sky turn darker ahead of us.

We climb back on our bikes and head out of town. Soon we leave the highway and head into the town of Onalaska. Just as we reach Onalaska it starts raining lightly again.

Something's fishy in Onalaska

We stop at a DQ to wait out the rain. Fortunately all it takes is a single DQ treat and the rain stops again. The young girls working at the DQ can't believe we rode our bikes from Minneapolis.

We ask these girls how many miles to La Crosse and how many miles to Market St. They tells us one mile to La Crosse and four miles to Market St. It turns out it's seven miles to Market St. It's kind of fun to ask people how far away various places are, because you rarely get an accurate answer.

While leaving the DQ parking lot we have our first bike collision, as Jim bumps into me from behind just as I say "I'm stopping to let that large RV pass" - boom - down goes Jim. Fortunately, no road rash.

The streets are wet again as we ride into La Crosse. We arrive at our motel at 6:30pm We clean our bikes, take long hot showers, and walk through downtown La Crosse to the Freight House for dinner. The Freight House is an old train depot turned into a restaurant. We have another great dinner. After dinner we wander over to Riverside Park and view the Mississippi at night.

Is this politically correct?

We walk back to our motel using a different route in order to see more of La Crosse.

Wednesday, June 6, 71.2 miles, Avg. 13.1 mph

In the morning there is a mist and the streets are wet. We have a leisurely breakfast in motel's restaurant, reading the newspaper and watching the mist. We start riding about 10:30am when the streets dry out some. Our first destination is Riverside Park again for some pictures.

I see Mark Twain

The pretty river town of La Crosse.

River architecture

There are some very nice neighborhoods to ride through as we head out of town. We pass a large Trane facility as we near the southern outskirts of La Crosse. It must be a major employer of the area.

The Great River Road is busy as we first leave La Crosse but it quiets down the further south we get. There are great views of the river and lakes, and the river bluffs are still spectacular. The locals refer to the high river bluffs as "coulees."

Nice legs

The river is still full of herons and the side of road is still littered with roadkill. The trains still pass by regularly. These are prevalent throughout the ride.

It's time once again to start visiting historical markers. Several are about Chief Black Hawk and the Battle of Bad Axe. Hard to stay focused on the historical markers when several million gnats are pounding away at your head. The sheer quantity of gnats that invade our psychological space is too much. It's an incentive to keep riding.

Numerous barges are traveling up the Mississippi. We stop at Lock and Dam number 8 in Genoa for an hour and watch a barge pass through the lock. Unfortunately, the pictures do not turn out very well.

Barge coming

Must be the cameras fault. Couldn't possibly be operator error.

Barge leaving

We meet a recently married couple on their honeymoon, she's from Wisconsin and he's from the Netherlands. Her mother-in-law is also there. Some honeymoon that must be.

We stop for lunch in DeSoto and have a Mississippi river catfish dinner at the Bright Spot Tavern and Restaurant. Everyone in the dining room is complaining about the weather. Too cold and rainy for this time of year. Our server tells us the river is running so fast it's hard to catch fish and to avoid the barges. It's an unusual spring. We do see a lot of fishermen though.

After lunch I discover my back tire is flat. I get to put in a new innertube with gnats swarming around my head. While putting in the new tube I find water inside the wheel. These new Rolf Vector wheels will leak water in the rain. They even have a small air hole in the side to let water evaporate. I pump up the tire and we head on our way.

Shortly after we start riding it starts misting. It's definitely a mist or perhaps a light drizzle. But it's definitely wet. Fortunately we're wearing plastic bags over our feet. After twelve miles of mist we stop at a covered picnic table and wait for the rain to stop. Of course the gnats are all over us. Sometimes you can't win.

We see a barge headed up the Mississippi. Since the misting stopped, it must be time for a picture. Jim is standing in the middle of the road trying to take my picture, but I keep looking at this car headed right toward Jim.

I think Jim's about to die

Fortunately the car missed him. OK, let's try this picture again.

Nice barge

Fortunately no more misting as we ride to Prairie du Chien. When we start riding into town from the north along the river, we notice that there are trailer homes everywhere. As you approach the center of town more houses appear. We ride into town on Main Street, which isn't at all like you'd picture a Main Street. It's just a residential area close to the river. There are signs of flooding here. Apparently the papers had printed that Main Street in Prairie du Chien was flooding and this kept tourists away. Now they are thinking of changing it's name just so tourists do not think the entire town is under water. I'm going to recommend they change the name to "Insignificant Nothing St."

Good view of the bike

As we ride around town we see a curious sight that neither of us had ever seen before. Several places around town there were yards where people had the tops of old houses stored. It was like they were being saved for something?

We reach our motel at 6:30pm Today was warmer than yesterday with less rain. We clean our bikes, take long warm showers, and have dinner at the Hungry Horse Restaurant. We are the last ones to leave as they lock the doors behind us.

Thursday, June 7, 78.9 miles, 13.3 mph

We have a continental breakfast at our motel. This one is a little strange in that there is no place to sit down - you have to eat sitting up. I guess you eat faster that way.

The highway is busy as we leave Prairie du Chien at 9am meaning we have to watch our step. Soon we come to nice downhill stretch that leads to a beautiful gorge that crosses the Wisconsin River.

At this point the Great River Road starts following some local county roads. It's nice to get off the highway and onto some back roads. Quickly there is a 300 foot vertical climb that gives our legs a good workout. Of course the nice part of a long climb like that is that the three mile downhill that follows is great fun.

Nice back country road

We get back to the Mississippi river and notice the gnats are still with us when we stop. After we ride through the river town of Glen Haven we ride up a 200 foot vertical hill. At the top of the hill I get another flat tire. Gnats Gnats Gnats!

We ride down another three mile hill and approach the Mississippi again. The trains are still chugging along. Our lunch stop today is the Town Pump Restaurant in the quaint river town of Cassville.

Cute guys

Today is much nicer. The weather is improving -- It's actually getting warm and the gnats are finally disappearing. This is turning into a great biking day. Nice weather, back country roads, and no more gnats.

After lunch we climb uphill again and away from the Mississippi. We miss a turn because we thought a road would be labeled differently, but fortunately this road heads to the same place, just farther away from the river. We come to another nice downhill that ends in the river town of Potosi (Pa Toe See). Here we toured the old St. John Mine where they used to mine lead. It's little unusual in that from the road you have to climb up to the entrance. Our guide is Harry Henderson, a retired agriculture engineering professor. He's very friendly and shows us the process used to mine lead ore from the mine. The lead ore is called "galena."

Leaving Potosi means you ride the longest main street without an intersection. The entire town is like a shoe string that winds up a hill, and there are no intersections with other roads until you reach the highway outside of town. Now it's sunny and getting hot.

We climb back onto a busy highway that leads to Dickeyville. Dickeyville has one of the most, shall we say 'unique' local attractions I have ever seen. It's called the Dickeyville Grotto and is, very random, captivating, and, well, just look:

What is this place?

Read all about it!

Early chaos theory

Read even more - you just can't get enough of this place.

Alien abduction clue

See a bird's eye view of grotto.

Perhaps you should read about Holly Ghost Park too.

It was built by a priest over a five year period starting in 1925. With certain things in life there is a goal associated with them. There is a definite goal here, somewhere. Makes me realize how little I've accomplished in my life.

We bumped into some guy in the grotto area who started telling us he was looking for permanent work and how kids today would rather hit you in the head and take your money than work, and that there are killers everywhere. He asks where we are from and I tell him I'm from Minneapolis. "Minneapolis, aren't there a lot of killers there?", he asks.

We were relieved when we finally broke away from him and headed out of Dickeyville toward Dubuque. We did some white knuckle riding on US 61 in rush hour traffic. Anything to get away from Mr. 'Killers everywhere'. We focus on maintaining speed and direction.

Just outside of Dubuque we bump into some local cyclists that tell us the best way to cross the Mississippi River and ride into Dubuque. We ride through Dubuque and find our motel about 6pm "You both stink" she says to us. We take that as a compliment. We clean the bikes, take a long refreshing shower, and find a nice place for dinner to celebrate.

Nice view

The view of the Mississippi River Valley below the restaurant as the sun sets in the west is spectacular.

We made made her be in the picture

On this tour we rode a total of 335.5 miles in four days.


After our 2001 bike tour the weather turned hot and humid. Soon there are very dry conditions and watering bans go into effect in some communities. Everyone forgets about the floods and cold wet spring. Instantly it becomes air conditioners, brownouts, and dry lawns. For the whole summer, though, you remember the trains, the river, the barges, all the perched herons, the high river bluffs (coulees), three mile downhills and shivering in the Holmes Landing Cafe. There's no way that it can't be a great summer.