The Great River Road offers some majestic views of the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin.

The Great River Road offers some majestic views of the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Day trip: Eau Claire to Maiden Rock

Explore state natural areas, enjoy pizza in a pasture and more in southwestern Wisconsin.

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6:30 a.m. Set the tone for the day leisurely exploring Putnam Park State Natural Area (NE corner of U.S. Highway 12 and State Street), a 230-acre, isolated remnant of wilderness, home to hundreds of bird and mammal species, including deer and beavers.

Senses whetted, move westward on Highway 12 to Eau Claire's The Coffee Grounds (3460 Mall Drive) for early morning food and drink before traveling west on County Highway C to Downsville.

8:30 a.m. Stop by Dunn County Pottery (E4606 County Road C), an octagonal 19th-century schoolhouse that features handcrafted wares from local and international artisans.

Next, make your way to the Red Cedar State Trail, which passes through town. A recommended half-mile walk north leads to a trestle bridge over the Red Cedar River.

11 a.m. Make your way south on Highway 25 toward Durand. On the way, stop by the Eau Galle Cheese Factory (N6765 Highway 25) to taste and see Asiago, Parmesan and Romano cheeses being made.

In Durand, the Old Courthouse Museum (315 W. Madison St.) showcases the state’s last remaining wood-frame county courthouse. The building is on the state and national register of historic places.

Five miles south on Highway 25 at Thibodeau Road, find parking and trailheads for the Tiffany Wildlife Area, home to the state’s largest concentration of rare species and the largest intact floodplain forest in the upper Midwest.

1 p.m. Former riverboat-era boomtown and hometown of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pepin is the regional gateway to a foodie paradise. The “locally grown” mantra applies, particularly at the nationally recognized Harbor View Café (314 1st St.).

Afterward, head seven miles north on County Road CC to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Cabin and Wayside, a re-creation of the famous author’s birthplace.

3 p.m. Make your way back to Highway 35 and continue on to Stockholm, a tiny artists’ colony with more than two dozen galleries and shops. Visit Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery (W12266 King Lane) for a tour and samples of their six kinds of traditional European hard ciders and five wines.

For dinner, indulge in from-scratch creations outdoors at the colorful Gelly’s Pub and Eatery (W12128 Highway 35).

If you’re passing through on a Tuesday, don’t miss pizza from A to Z Produce & Bakery (N2956 Anker Lane). “The Pizza Farm” features outdoor brick oven-baked pizza made from ingredients grown on the farm.

7:30 p.m. Named for a tragic end to an arranged marriage, the limestone bluffs of Maiden Rock State Natural Area (Highway 35, one mile north of Stockholm) afford the most spectacular views of anywhere in the river valley and provide the perfect vantage for spotting nesting peregrine falcons and watching the sunset.

9 p.m. A former red brick and stone schoolhouse, the Maiden Rock Inn (County Road S, Maiden Rock) is the perfect place to rest your head after a busy day.

Joel Freeman, a Middleton resident who gladly left Texas eight years ago, remains convinced he has only scratched the surface when it comes to discovering Wisconsin’s many marvels.

Updated: March 13, 2014

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