It was a warm slice of homemade apple pie that lured Lavon and Angela Jalonack of Woodbury to a window seat at the Stockholm Pie Company in tiny Stockholm, Wis. (pop. 97), but it was the crisp autumn air, the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot and fiery hillsides that drew the mother-daughter duo to their annual fall tour along the Mississippi River. Their routine is always the same: Follow the river south along Wisconsin's Hwy. 35, then head home along Minnesota's Hwy. 61. It's the route most leaf-peepers in this area follow, pausing along the way to explore the quaint river towns that seem to survive on their rustic charm and incomparable views alone.

Far fewer venture beyond those main roads onto narrow country lanes that follow the rural valleys and pastoral ridgetops of this area. It's a shame. This is where fall comes to the Rush River Valley in the way of fresh-picked red apples and piles of pumpkins at Maiden Rock Apples, and to the hills of Cream, where tundra swans follow the inky wanderings of the Buffalo River to their fall resting waters at Rieck's Lake.

Worried you won't find your way back to the bakeries, cheese shops and farm stands along the main roads? Check out these looping, back-road routes.

The Maiden Voyage

The Rush River spills into the Mississippi River just north of Maiden Rock, a town that's perched along a hillside overlooking Lake Pepin. Along this stretch, Hwy. 35 is lined with aged fishermen's cottages that look as if they're going to slip into the lake. Be sure to stop at the newly renovated Smiling Pelican Bakery, which has expanded its porch seating and serves some of the best pies and cakes east of the Mississippi (it reopens the last weekend in September). Across the street, a couple of new art galleries are worth a look.

Stretch your legs: Visit the Maiden Rock Bluff Natural Area, a milelong 300-foot-plus bluff overlooking the Mississippi River that is owned by the West Wisconsin Land Trust. It's a great place to see rare plants, prairies and limestone bluffs and to watch nesting peregrine falcons and other raptors as they make their way along the Mississippi Flyway. The area is between the villages of Stockholm and Maiden Rock. To get there while driving the route detailed below, turn south on County Road E from 272nd St.; follow E to Long Lane and head west. Alternatively, from Hwy. 35 in Stockholm, take County Road J three-quarters of a mile north to County Road E (follow E to the left at the fork in the road), then west on Long Lane.

The Stockholm Stomp

A good place to start this tour is Stockholm. The town has interesting boutiques where you'll find high-end local art (Abode Gallery), fresh-baked bread (Stockholm General) and exclusive custom table cloths from France (the Palate). There's a tiny historical society (next to Bogus Creek Cafe) and an all-local pottery shop, too. Grab some food and have a picnic in Stockholm Park, where you can sit under cottonwood trees and watch sailboats glide by.

For pure viewing pleasure, take a side trip to Elk Creek Road, which offers spectacular valley views just off County Road SS. There's good hiking and viewing, too, at the Five Mile Bluff Prairie State Natural Area, which you'll find by going north on County N from Pepin. Turn right (east) on Big Hill Road, which becomes Sand Road. Follow that to 16th Creek Lane (stay to the left) into the natural area.

The Buffalo Roam

The Buffalo River finds the Mississippi River just north of Alma, a town that sits between tall bluffs and the Mississippi River. With trains zipping by and barges moving through locks, there's no better place to see what a real working river town must have been like before the nation discovered truck freight and air transport, but there are also several modern newcomers, including art galleries (don't miss the Commercial) and watering holes (there's a new winery, Danzinger Vineyards, on the bluff).

Alma is also the departure point for the one of the best views in the river valley. It's called Buena Vista Park, and you'll find it by following the signs off Hwy. 35 on the south end of Alma. With swings, a picnic pavilion and grills, the seemingly mile-high park is a perfect place to bring kids, or to quietly watch puffy clouds cast shadows onto the river.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376