I combined my desire to camp on or near bodies of water with my preference for Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds and camped at three parks on the Mississippi River. I started in NW Illinois and ended up in the lower middle edge of Wisconsin. Not many miles, so travel days were easy. I stayed three nights at each park and poked around nearby cities.
Blanding Landing Campground and Day Area
A few miles south of Galena, IL, this was a throwback park. All the sites were grass. ACE parks typically are precision oriented with very level sites and sometimes concrete pads. Not so here. The sight I reserved was a disaster. Over a ridge and in a dip, I knew I wouldn’t get out if I got in! Luckily, I was the only scheduled camper so the camp host pointed me in the direction of a more level site and I had a fully unobstructed view of the River. I knew from the online reviews that the trains were close to the park and loud. I’m great with train noise. I grew up a block from the train tracks and the noise, especially at night is soothing to me. These rail lines are strictly for freight haulers. The rails were about 30-40 yards (yes, yards) from my campsite. There is a rail crossing at the entrance to the park. The engine horns were LOUD. And the rumble was mighty. But when I was inside the Airstream, it didn’t bother me.
Galena is the star attraction in the neighborhood, unless you fish and have a boat – then you would be using the boat ramp at the park and fish all day. I went to see the historic sites in this charming city that looks like it’s right out of the Music Man movie. Bunting is everywhere on the 1800s houses and in the historic buildings that make up the downtown that sits along the Galena River. The claim to fame is US Grant’s home that sits on a hill and is a simple two story wood frame home. It, along with many homes, has a white picket fence. The view from the porch is Grant Park with a lifesize statue of the General and President. Shops in town were open with a few tourists. Restaurants had outdoor dining on picnic tables and under umbrellas in the pedestrian avenue, arranged thusly because of the pandemic.
While the charm of the city is nice, I was more interested in the ancient geologic mounds in the region. I headed up to the top of Horseshoe Mound – a hidden gem with fantastic views of Iowa across the Mississippi and Wisconsin to the north. I could see Sinsinawa Mound in Wisconsin. Galena church spires can be seen from this perch and there are walking and hiking trails. Be prepared for the climb up the road. Four wheel drive is suggested, but any vehicle can make it as long as you punch it. It’s worth it for the views.
Grant River Recreation Area and Campground
Just over the border in Wisconsin is the popular Grant River campground. It’s actually on the Mississippi River. This is a true ACE location with great sites in two separate loops. The large park provides for plenty of walking opportunities. Sunsets on the water are spectacular and there are plenty of benches and picnic tables on the riverfront to enjoy the show. The trains are omnipresent here as well. This rail line runs the length of the Mississippi and parallels the Great River Road the runs from the top of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. I actually drove a bit of it in Louisiana last year. This time my site was on the end closest to the tracks – about 20 yards. Where there was a nice tree buffer at the prior campground, no such luck here. The ground rumbled as the train passed and the horns were ear splitting when sitting outside. I just put my fingers in my ears and it was fine. I rarely was disturbed by it at night inside.
I visited two places from this post. One is Potosi, WI that boasts a brewery and the National Beer museum. That’s pretty much it in this town, although a vintner is present along with an ice-cream shop. The other town I visited is Prairie du Chien. It’s a town filled with lots of chain retail and some lovely old houses. The French influence is from trappers and fishers. There also is a strong Native American history. One of the more interesting spots is the St. Feriole Island that borders the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers and the backwaters of each. It looks as if everything there was torn down, making way for park land. There are a couple of historic structures that can be toured. It’s an odd space to encounter.
I did find a quirky fish and cheese place in Prairie du Chien called Valley Fish and Cheese. It was the very eclectic exterior that caught my eye. Huge fish statues that kids can sit on and a garage sale vibe! I stopped at a wonderful farmstand on the way back to Grant River. It was in Bagley, called The Pharmacy – locally grown vegetables that were awesome!
Blackhawk Park – A Hidden Gem
My final destination is a true hidden gem campground, about 90 minutes north, deeper into bluff country. Blackhawk Park sits between the Mississippi River and the Great River Road with the omnipresent train tracks in between. Fortunately, the campground is about 1/2 mile from the trains, so the noise was pleasantly in the background. While not as modern as Grant River, this was a spectacular park. Gravel roads inside the first and older loop where I stayed, led to perfectly level and elevated gravel sites. Towering old growth trees provided wonderful shade. I had relatively unobstructed views of the river as the park was not too crowded and every third space was not used due to Covid precautions. I saw an eagle flying around the river island just offshore and saw boats that pushed barges upstream through the lock and dam.
This out of the way spot is about 35 minutes south of La Crosse. In between lies a US Fish Hatchery and the Great River Road Interpretive Center. Wisconsin also does a good job with historical markers on the roads. There were Indian wars in this part of the country and Blackhawk was a major Native American figure. Numerous markers attest to battles with US Cavalry and Army troops. Many of the markers are carved on local limestone rock that make them look like headstones. Unfortunately, weather and wear have made some markers tough to read.
La Crosse is an unusual city. It used to have a lot of factories that have now been converted into loft apartments. UW has a large campus and there are numerous retail outlets catering to students and staff. I saw lots of mid-century and older housing in the city center. A cathedral caught my eye for its F.L. Wright architecture motiffe and modernness wrapped in one lovely structure. Other parts of town have fallen on hard times and show the ravages of industrial decline.
For me, the parks were the highlight of my trip. The small towns held a passing interest. Being on the river for 10 days was marvelous. This part of the river is considered the Upper Mississippi with headwaters farther north in Minnesota. The river does not seem as industrial as it does in St. Louis or Louisiana. It seems to appear as it must have 100 years ago with very little development on the banks. In some regard it is because of the massive bluffs that line the river in many places. In other spots, it’s just undeveloped – not enough people are present to spoil it.
I highly recommend Blackhawk and Grant campgrounds with Blanding being a distant third. However, access to the city of Galena was the most worthwhile. I enjoyed my stay at each and glad I got to experience the river up close.