MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

River Towns

Road trip: Wisconsin River

The valleys and bluffs around Prairie du Sac draw paddlers, hikers and Sunday drivers.

At Prairie du Sac, the Wisconsin River finally breaks free.

Lined with so many dams and reservoirs it's often called the nation's hardest-working river, the Wisconsin devotes itself to play after it passes the town.

Then it becomes the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, beloved by canoeists, who like to play on its many sandbars.

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Wausau's liquid assets

In this sporty town on the Wisconsin River, just go with the flow.

In Wausau, water is power.

Sawmills were first to use the thundering rapids along the Wisconsin River, which have been working hard ever since.

But these rapids generate more than the electricity that lights a bulb – they also draw world-class athletes for thrilling tournaments, such the 2012 world whitewater kayak/canoe championships for juniors and under-23 paddlers, some of them Olympics-bound.

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Waupaca's Chain O' Lakes

In a historic Yankee town in central Wisconsin, visitors travel by water and by land.

In the middle of Wisconsin, the village of Rural is just far enough off the beaten path.

Founded by Yankees in the 1850s, it was the halfway point on the Stevens Point-Berlin trade route and once had a mill, an inn and a dry goods store.

But when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1870, the village eased into a slow, genteel decline.

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Winter in Wausau

There's skiing, dining and sightseeing right in this modest paper town.

The first time I saw Rib Mountain it was nighttime, and I was driving toward Wausau from the north.

Looming over the Wisconsin town was a massive hulk lined with white lights, rising from the surrounding plain like a landing strip set on edge. It was a spectacular sight — and still is, day or night.

This billion-year-old quartzite ridge, one of the oldest on Earth, was thought to be the highest point in Wisconsin until Timm's Hill, near Ogema, was surveyed at 12 feet higher.

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Drawn to Spring Green

Creative urges converge in Frank Lloyd Wright's hometown.

There's a story behind everything in Spring Green.

Frank Lloyd Wright's story begins in the 1860s, when his unconventional grandparents and their 10 children emigrated from Wales to settle this dramatic valley of the Wisconsin River, which came to be known as "the valley of the God-almighty Joneses.''

The story of Alex Jordan's House on the Rock, atop a limestone spire that overlooks the valley and Wright's beloved home, is rooted in spite. After his father traveled from Madison to show Wright blueprints for a rooming house, and was harshly snubbed, Jordan vowed to get even and "put a Japanese house up out there.''

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A vintage vineyard

More than 175 years after its founding by a Hungarian hustler, Wollersheim is basking in success.

In the wooded bluffs across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac, the Saturday before Thanksgiving is a red-letter day for wine drinkers.

That's when Wollersheim Winery releases its Ruby Nouveau and throws open its doors for a tasting party that always draws hordes of loyal fans.

The wine is good — better than good, according to judges at international competitions. But visitors also come for the atmospheric setting, on a hillside wrapped by massive oaks and frequented by bald eagles, and for the vineyard's colorful history.

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Wine walks on the Wisconsin

On a fall girlfriend getaway, we hike, eat and sip our way along the river valley.

For some people, “Wisconsin wine” is a puzzling concept, like “New York nice.’’

But grapes do grow in Wisconsin, primarily on the high ridges of the Wisconsin River, near its confluence with the Mississippi. There, vines bask in sunlight and frosts sink into valleys.

What vintners can’t grow they truck in from other states, adding a Wisconsin je ne sais quoi  to the grapes during blending, fermentation and aging.

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Wisconsin's birthday town

In laid-back Spring Green, any day is worth celebrating.

People converge on Spring Green, Wis., for many good reasons: To admire Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. To hear Shakespeare at American Players Theatre. To see world-class kitsch at House on the Rock.

But what brought me to Spring Green? Free stuff.

Spring Green calls itself "The Birthday Town,'' because people celebrating birthdays can go around to its businesses collecting free loot, like trick-or-treaters. It's like having another holiday, except you're the only one who gets to celebrate it.

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