Day 1 Summary – July 31, 2005
Brainerd, MN to Downers Grove, IL
My 2005 vacation began bright and early on Sunday morning. After waking up at approximately 5 in the morning, we were all packed and ready to leave Brainerd at about 7:00 AM. I knew that if everything went exactly according to plan, by the end of the day, I would be about 20 miles west of Chicago in the suburb of Downers Grove.
So, I believe it was actually about 7:20 AM by the time we left Brainerd. For the third year in a row, I would be starting my vacation out by heading in a southerly direction from Brainerd. This year, the decision was made to take MN Highway 371 until it met up with U.S. Highway 10 in Little Falls.
We stayed on Highway 10 right up to where it meets up with Interstate 35W in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Blaine. The first leg of the trip from Brainerd to the Twin Cities was largely uneventful, and since I assume most – if not all – readers of this blog have seen this area of Minnesota at least once before, I’m not going to say much about it at all.
Instead of taking an interstate all the way down to the Chicago area – largely because I had already done so the last time I was in Chicago in 2003 during my trip to Washington D.C. – I decided to take a much more scenic trip along Wisconsin Highway 35 from Prescott to La Crosse.
Getting to where highway 35 goes through Prescott, WI from highway 10 in Blaine wasn’t all that of a straightforward process, however, since it required traveling through downtown St. Paul by way of, first, Interstate 35W, then Interstate 694, followed by Interstates 35E and 94, respectfully. It was a Sunday morning, though, so there wasn’t much traffic on any of the roads and we were able to make it onto U.S. Highways 10 and 61 heading south through the bluffs along the Mississippi River rather quickly.
After going through the southeastern portion of St. Paul as well as the suburbs of Newport, St. Paul Park, and Cottage Grove, we remained on Highway 10 right up to where it splits apart from Highway 61 north of Hastings, MN and takes travelers up to and across a drawbridge that spans the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The city of Prescott, WI is also located at the end of this drawbridge.
Once we got to Prescott, we turned to leave Highway 10 and take the aforementioned Highway 35.
After leaving the very lovely, yet very touristy city of Prescott, we headed south. Highway 35 almost immediately became very hilly, making it clear that we would be spending a good portion of the day traveling up and down amongst the grand bluffs that span the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin and ultimately for most of the river’s journey down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Besides numerous scenic overlooks and pullouts along the highway from Prescott to La Crosse, there were also numerous lovely small towns nestled snugly within the rocky and tree-filled bluffs that surround the River. All of the cities have clearly formed a strong legacy with the river, starting undoubtedly in the era of the steamboat. Some of the cities, like Alma, continue to have a strong relationship with the river, thanks to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-operated locks and dams. The city of Alma, in fact, has a large elevated viewing platform right in its downtown where people can stand and watch the local lock & dam operate. As luck would have it, just as we were pulling into Alma, a barge carrying wheat was pulling into the lock. We ended up staying in Alma for about a half an hour to watch the slow, tedious process involved in bringing a barge through a lock.
We finally made it into Onalaska, a city that could be considered a northern suburb of La Crosse, at sometime around 1 in the afternoon. After getting some gas and lunch, it was time to get on Interstate 90 heading east out of La Crosse. After all was said and done, although the trip along highway 35 took a bit longer than I thought it would, it was a very scenic and enjoyable journey. I got to see a whole new area of Wisconsin/Minnesota that I had never seen before.
Once we got on the interstate, it was pretty much a 70 mile per hour race to get to the suburbs of Chicago. The plans for a race were dampened, however, after traffic thickened and eventually came to a standstill near Wisconsin Dells, WI. From this point up to more than 100 miles away in Rockford, IL, traffic was pretty bad. The 3-in-one interstate of 39/90/94 near Madison, WI was backed up bumper-to-bumper and down to a crawl. Actually, I don’t think the average speed in the more than 100 miles between Wisconsin Dells, WI and Rockford, IL ever topped about 55 miles per hour. The portions of roadway where you could go that fast were short-lived and only came about once every 20 miles.
Based on the fact that I saw so many vehicles with Illinois license plates purchased at dealers in the greater Chicago area, I suspect the primary culprit in making the traffic so bad through central and southern Wisconsin was the enormous amount of people trying to get back to the Chicago area after spending the weekend having fun in the sun in Wisconsin.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally did make it into Illinois and onto the Northwest Tollway. Traffic lightened up a bit after Rockford, but traffic going into the far western suburbs of Chicago along Interstate 90 was still hectic. I noticed that the tolls had been raised since the last time I was in Chicago; 80¢ seems to be the norm now, whereas two years ago, it was either 60¢ or 75¢. Oh well, I guess you’ve got to keep up with inflation. That, and the extra monies probably help pay for the convenient signs that tell motorists how long it will take to get to areas within the Chicago area, such as O’Hare Airport or downtown.
After getting on the North-South Tollway by way of the Eisenhower Expressway, we finally made it to our hotel in Downers Grove at about 7:00 PM. And that was pretty much the end of the first day of my vacation.
The drawbridge for the railroad tracks crossing the Mississippi from Minnesota into Wisconsin
A view of the Mississippi looking into Minnesota
Another view of the Mississippi between Minnesota and Wisconsin
Downtown Alma, WI
A wide-angle shot of downtown Alma, WI
Looking down at the lock & dam in Alma, WI
While stuck traffic near Madison, WI, I took this picture
The skyscrapers of downtown St. Paul, MN
Warning sign for the drawbrige crossing the Mississippi into Prescott, WI
A Minnesota "visit again" sign
I didn't see any welcome to Wisconsin sign in Prescott, but I did see this welcome to Prescott sign
The scenery of Wisconsin Highway 35
Downtown Trempealeau, WI overlooks the Mississippi
The first highway sign with the city of Chicago on it
The bridge overhead marked the Wisconsin/Illinois border; the words "thanks for visiting" are visible in this photo
"The people of Illinois welcome you" sign
You've got to choose whether you want to get in either the manual, automatic, or I-pass lanes pretty quickly once you get up to the toll booths
In the manual lane to pay the toll
One of the toll plazas we passed through was the Elgin one
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