The Great River Road + RECIPE: Leek & Pepper Pretzel Dip

I love discovering new parts of Wisconsin. I think our little part of the world is so endlessly beautiful. So lush and magical, with winding roads that swing through hills and valleys. So picturesque and varied, with historic towns, tribal lands, and shimmering lakes around every corner. So agrarian and rustic, with sprawling farm land, humble people, and red barns dotting the countryside.

It’s a wonderful place to drive without a destination, just meandering until you find something interesting. Because you always will.

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Back before we started farming, my Carrot and I used to do this all the time: pack up the dogs, pack up our camping gear and hit the open road. And now, every time the stars align and the weather keeps us away from our farm, we revel in the chance to do it again.

A couple weekends ago, we had one of these beautiful little adventures. The fields were too wet to work in and our souls were getting ansy so we headed west.

Wisconsin borders two of the world’s largest lakes as well as one of the world’s most powerful rivers. For some reason or another, we head to the lakes often–two of our favorite spots in the Midwest are Door County and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore– but we almost never head west to the much closer, equally beautiful Mississippi River.

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This time we changed it up venturing to Perrot State Park nestled along the sweeping Mississippi just north of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Our days were nothing short of magical. Winding up and down the grand Great River Road, we had the perfect balance of hiking, campfires, delicious food, silliness and stunning views. We climbed bluffs. We sipped cider. We watched barges crawl down the river and pass through dams. We explored the birthplace of Grumpy Old Men. We played cards. We sipped espresso and ate pie. We drove. And then we drove some more, watching the beautiful scenery fill up our windows.

I’ve outlined my favorite stops below in case you want to take a Great River Road trip of your own. Much of our trip was inspired by the lovely Annie D’Souza of The Midwestival.

Perrot State Park // This state park is a true hidden gem. Located right outside the charming town of Trempeleau, on Trempeleau Bay along the Mississippi River, you are not far from conveniences but feel truly surrounded by nature and wonder. The park roads wind through massive bluffs. There are beautiful, well-maintained trails and kayaks to rent. There is abundant firewood available from the park. And the 90 sites are lovely with more privacy than most state parks. Plus the infamous Trempeleau Hotel, Restaurant & Saloon is only a couple miles away if you don’t feel like cooking. Or I suppose, if you get rained out.

Stockholm // We could have easily spent the day in this quaint little town of 82 on the shores of Lake Pepin. Adorable shops, free bikes available for rent, art spaces, and excellent food are all just the beginning of what this tiny town has to offer. We ate burgers and chicken salad at Lena’s Lucky Star making sure to save room for some Maiden Rock Ciders. Then it was off to the Stockholm Pie & General Store for Triple Chocolate Pecan Pie buried beneath a scoop of ice cream and pile of freshly whipped cream. We sipped on espresso and mustered the strength to stay awake for our drive back to the campground. There is no shortage of outdoor spaces to explore in this area if you have more time. Next time, I’ll be taking the sailing lessons!

Alma // This riverside town stretches up the bluffs with some of the craziest and steepest roads I’ve ever seen. The homes are adorable and it’s a perfect little city for strolling. We sat at the Lock & Dam 4 viewing area for nearly an hour watching the barges and boats roll through before taking a nap at nearby Riecks Lake Park– a beautiful sprawling wildlife refuge for migrating birds.

Wabasha // My all-time favorite 90’s movies Grumpy and Grumpier Old Men were based on the adorable Minnesota riverfront town of Wabasha. Though almost none of the actual film was shot here, it was still so much fun to wander the streets of a place that inspired such Midwest hilarity. Plus I got to see Slippery’s Tavern in real life. And other actual Wabasha highlights like the National Eagle Center. Now I just have to get back during ice fishing season.

Mill Bluff State Park // If you are coming from Madison, or anywhere east really, you will pass a state park just off the interstate during your trip that is tiny but well worth the detour. Mill Bluff State Park has a petite campground and swimming hole, but why you really visit is for the short trail that takes you up to the top of a bluff where you can look out over a stunning landscape with four more epic bluffs off in the distance that were once under a massive glacial lake.

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The philosophy for eating on this particular trip was simple. We decided to be totally lazy about it. I’m over the mad rush to get food packed and ready for a short adventure. At some point, I know I’ll be a good camp chef again but for now I’ll settle for sandwiches, hot dogs, apples, smores, pretzel dip, and some day trips to fun food destinations to fill in the gaps.

This dip was inspired by a CSA member and worker share who brought something similar to a farm gathering. I grew up munching on pretzels and pretzel dip. These dips were usually some sort of combination of cream cheese, abundant mayonnaise, shredded cheese and perhaps a dried herb flavor packet or two. Those were all well and fine, but a bit too heavy on the dairy for my sensitive belly and certainly lacking in the vegetable department.

The dip my friend shared was different. It was so packed with vegetables that the cream cheese acted more like a glue holding the bright colors together than the main event. It’s packed full of flavor thanks to my favorite vegetable, the showstopping leek, and an array of peppers. Leeks lend an onion-iness and garlic-iness that is unmatched in any other single vegetable. The colored pepper brings a subtle sweetness and the jalapenos add some heat. I add a bit of mayonnaise just to season things and make the dip a bit looser and more spreadable. You could substitute Greek yogurt and a bit more salt if mayo isn’t your thing.

-Leek

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LEEK & PEPPER PRETZEL DIP

Takes 10 minutes
Makes 3 cups
Serves a crowd

8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 large leek, quartered and sliced
1 colored pepper, seeded and diced very small
2-3 jalapenos, seeded and diced very small
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

  1. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add leek, peppers, mayonnaise and salt. Stir to combine until uniformly mixed. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
  2. Serve immediately or chilled with pretzels. Dip lasts about a week.

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