Great River Road facilities offer sweeping vistas and opportunities to learn about everything from the area's history to galleries and wildlife.
Here's a pop quiz:
What outdoor education center in the Hastings area attracts about 16,000 visitors a year to see prairie wildflowers and watch some of the millions of birds that fly by?
It's the six-year-old Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center in Prescott, Wis., and it's had visitors from every state and 52 countries, including Russia, Namibia and Brazil in June.
Situated on river bluffs above town, the center offers glimpses of soaring eagles and an eagle's-eye view of Hastings and the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.
"It is a beautiful view. Whenever you get to see Hastings with a view like that it has to be good," said Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks.
With interactive exhibits, an art gallery, and butterfly and hummingbird gardens, the human aerie is a gem for bird watchers and gardeners. History buffs can learn about the industry that once harvested river clams to make pearl buttons or that Mississippi means "great river" in Chippewa.
As eagles and vultures soared on a sunny weekday morning, executive director Margaret Smith pointed from Amphitheater Point to the co-mingling rivers far below. The cleaner, darker St. Croix flowed beside the muddier Mississippi at Point Douglas, just downstream from Prescott's railroad bridge. The two hues began merging by Prescott Island, site of an eagle's nest.
Visitors "can come up here and really learn about the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers and see it all. We have fabulous, beautiful gardens," said Smith, a certified master gardener. The Great River Center also is a site for Watchable Wildlife and Audubon bird watching, Smith said.
Part of two national parks
The center works with the cities of Prescott and Hastings, the National Park Service and others to promote tourism and business in the region, Hicks said. The center is part of two national parks -- the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which runs 72 miles up the river through the Twin Cities to Dayton.
"I love it down there," said Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the recreation area. "So many things come together there ... There's a great view of the [rivers'] confluence from the bluff... It is one of the great features of our park."
Nearly 300 bird species have been seen at the center, and millions of waterfowl and other birds pass through during the spring and fall migrations.
"It is really world-class birding at that location because is gives you a great vantage point," Labovitz said.
A sign notes that 40 percent of all migrating waterfowl and shorebirds in North America, including loons, warblers, swans and pelicans, fly past the visitor center. In the spring they fly as far north as the Arctic; in the fall, south to Latin America.
The Great River Center also preserves two rare plant habitats. Goat prairie is a short-grass area on steep river bluffs, and oak savanna is a transition zone between forests and prairie, Smith said.
The center, which through June had logged 101,000 visitors, sits in Prescott's Freedom Park. The city provides 14 percent of the center's $150,000 annual budget, said Smith, a full-time director. She oversees about 60 volunteers, and two part-time workers.
Opened in 2006, the $2.4 million center was built with a $1.9 million federal scenic byway grant and $500,000 raised by the Prescott Foundation from businesses and residents and others, said Smith and Jim Shiely, a founding board member of the foundation and of Friends of Freedom Park, which manages the center.
The center gained a bit of Internet publicity this summer because it is the northern gateway of Wisconsin's 250-mile stretch of the Great River Road, running south through Mississippi River towns to Iowa. That scenic stretch received the most votes cast on huffingtonpost.com as "America's prettiest drive." Other contenders: the Road to Hana in Maui and the Big Sur Road along the California coast.
Jared and April Schmitz said they bring their two youngsters almost weekly to the three-acre center and park.
"We enjoy the scenery," said Schmitz, 30, sitting at a picnic table as the lush aroma of bluff woods wafted across Freedom Park's lawn. His kids played nearby on a slide and jungle gym.
"It's nice and quiet," he said, "except for the birds chirping, which is good noise."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283