HIghway 131 near Viola

Fall State Trunk Tour Drives: Highway 131 through the Driftless

Highway 131 mapWhy Highway 131 is one of the best rides right now

Mid-October is one of the best times to road trip around Wisconsin. The fall colors get amazing, especially on the crisp sunny days we frequently have this time of year. Pumpkins dot many farms, trees burst with a variety of colors, and towns celebrate with harvest festivals.

So many “State Trunk Tour” rides are fantastic right now. But we have go to give Highway 131 a shout-out in particular for its navigation of the beautiful Driftless Area, its frequent interaction with the Kickapoo River (it crosses it 11 times!) and the lovely little towns it traverses.

Highway 131 northbound start

Running about 80 miles from Highway 60 along the Wisconsin River up to Tomah, Highway 131 runs through the heart of Wisconsin’s incredible Driftless Area, a section of the Midwest that glaciers biffed on flattening thousands of years ago. Consequently, this area has few natural lakes; tons of beautiful rivers, streams, bluffs, and valleys make this relatively rugged terrain excellent for exploring, recreating, or just going for a drive to admire. Highway 131 primarily runs through Crawford and Vernon Counties, with a corner catch of Richland and ending in Monroe County – all in the Driftless.

Highway 131 looking towards Steuben

High points along Highway 131 can offer expansive views of the Driftless topography.

Gays Mills Antique Store, Highway 171 near 131

Charming shops offer unique items and antiques, like this one in Gays Mills where Highways 131 & 171 meet.

HIghway 131 Kickapoo River MuseumWe noted Highway 131 crosses the Kickapoo River 11 – 11 – times on its journey. The Kickapoo is sometimes referred to as the “Crookedest River in the World,” and it certainly has its twists and turns. Learn about some of them at the Kickapoo River Museum, which isn’t always open in October but it’s worth a try. The museum is located in Gays Mills at a dam on the river at Robb Park. For kayakers and canoers, an easy portage is available.

There’s also the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, which examines the area, its changing river, its tendency to flood, and more. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center is along Highway 131 a mile and a half north of La Farge. This 8,300 square foot facility – heated with geothermal and solar – offers beautiful views, educational galleries and interactive displays designed to show you more about this unique area of Wisconsin – and the country, really.

Highway 131 and 82 through La Farge

HIghway 131 connects with 82 – another beautiful Driftless drive – through the community of La Farge.

The towns Highway 131 goes through include Steuben and Gays Mills, which is Wisconsin’s “Apple Capital” and hosts a few of the aforementioned sites. There’s also Soldiers Grove, dubbed “America’s First Solar Village.” In 1979, the town was recovering from a massive flood – the Kickapoo isn’t always kind – and during reconstruction became the first incorporated town to require new buildings to obtain at last 50% of their energy from the sun. You can see it in the newer buildings. The original downtown location for Soldiers Grove is now a park – and it still floods on occasion. Soldiers Grove also holds the newer Driftless Brewing Company brewery and tap room, worth a stop if you’re traveling on the weekend.

Viola, where Highways 56 and 131 meet, has seen its share of flooding too. Some markers along the road cutting through parks downtown show just how high water has reached – and it will be higher than your vehicle! Some classic buildings downtown include stamped signs that show their original purpose, including a former opera house. La Farge hosts the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,500+-acre tract of land along the Kickapoo River leading towards Ontario. In the Reserve, you can explore sandstone outcroppings and a variety of native plants and animals in their habitat.

Canoeing the Kickapoo along Highway 131

Canoeing along the Kickapoo near Ontario.

Nearing Highway 33, Ontario is a popular town for renting canoes or kayaks to ply the waters of the Kickapoo. They also offer an interesting “historical walk” that features original structures and takes you past some ancient burial sites. Adjacent Wildcat Mountain State Park makes you feel like you’re in the foothills of a mountain range, with twisting side roads, excellent views, and great recreation and camping.

Highway 131 near Ontario in fall

Wildcat Mountain view, courtesy of the WI DNR

One view in Wildcat Mountain State Park, click for a larger view (photo courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR.)

Past Ontario, Highway 131 winds up to Wilton, a stop about midway along the famous Elroy-Sparta Trail. This lovely town has some cool murals, downtown shops, and a few B&B’s popular with trail riders. This area is also Amish country, so watch for slow-moving, horse-drawn vehicles along your path.

Highway 131 looking towards Tomah

A vast expanse of Wisconsin’s “Cranberry Country” comes into view as Highway 131 begins its descent into Tomah. Like The Who says, you can for miles, and miles, and miles..

Since the Kickapoo River rises in Wilton, Highway 131 becomes Kickapoo-free for its next leg. After briefly joining Highway 71, Highway 131 reaches a crest that overlooks its final destination: Tomah. This major crossroads city is where railroads, early highways, and eventually Interstates meet up. It’s no surprise that Tomah is a big destination for everything from hotels to logistical companies; with all this transportation, it’s also no surprise that Gasoline Alley comic strip creator Frank King grew up in Tomah.

Tomah water towerHighway 131 crosses I-90 and then ends near downtown at U.S. 12 and Highway 16. That’s 80 miles down, and plenty of cool stuff to see and experience. From Tomah, you can connect to nearby Warrens, which also holds the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center. Warrens can be reached by connecting to Highway 21 via U.S. 12, straight north past the spot where Highway 131 ends. Basically, from Tomah you can connect to wherever you want to go pretty easily!

And there you go: a great drive on Highway 131. It’s an easy ride for an afternoon – or make it a recreation-filled multi-day trip. It’s all up to you.

Spots To See along Highway 131:

Kickapoo River Museum, Gays Mills. Located in a former dam house on the Kickapoo, this historic structure holds displays on the various geographical and ecological aspects of the entire river valley. Robb Park, 608-735-4341.

Log Cabin Heritage Park, Gays Mills. Historic log cabins and other structures together on the site of a former sawmill. Open year ’round. 212 State Highway 131, 608-735-4341.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitors Center, La Farge. This recent creation anchors the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, uses geothermal and solar energy, and features exhibits a’plenty about the area. Those include an attempt in the 1970s to construct a massive dam that was halted; it would have altered the valley immensely.

Wildcat Mountain State Park, Ontario. Sandstone bluffs provide excellent views across this 3,600-acre state park, which is open for year-round recreation including hiking, canoeing, fishing, and cross-country skiing. 20 miles of trails and gorgeous vistas await, and you can rent canoes and kayaks in the park and in nearby Ontario.

Drifty’s Canoe Rental, Ontario. How crooked is the Kickapoo? It runs 130 river miles but only about 60 miles as the crow flies. That’s a lot of twists and turns – perfect for canoeing, kayaking, or just floating on a tube. Drifty’s can outfit you with equipment rentals, shuttles, pick-up service, and more. (608) 337-4288.

Elroy-Sparta Trail, Wilton. The first rail-to-trail conversion in the United States, the Elroy-Sparta Trail connects its namesake communities with a 32-mile bike and recreational trail that features three hand-bored tunnels, all built around 1870. Highway 131 intersects the trail in Wilton, a charming town between tunnels #1 and #2 that offers eateries, B&Bs, camping parks, and shops.

See more State Trunk Tour routes here, and enjoy how gorgeous and fun the roads in Wisconsin can be to explore!

Wisconsin Weekend: La Crosse Oktoberfest

Your Thanksgiving Wisconsin Weekend: heading into December, diving into winter, and exploring plenty to do and see

We’re in the holiday season, with Thanksgiving weekend here and plenty of holiday-themed events happening all over Wisconsin. Check out some of our Wisconsin Weekend picks, then “Pick Some Roads and GO!!”

Coon Valley: Ghoulees in the Coulees at Norskedalen

Wisconsin Weekend: Norskedalen Ghoulees behind State Trunk Tour's Eric Paulsen

Norskedalen hosts Ghoulees in the Coulees Friday and Saturday evening, providing a fun, yet scary and haunting, experience for the whole family. Take a half-mile walk through chilling and thrilling spook stations along one of their wooded trails lined by hundreds of carved, lit pumpkins. Earlier hikes around 5-7pm, hikes are less scary (the spooky things along the trail do not try to scare you, but may offer a high-five, handshake, or wave). Conversely, 7-10:30pm, hikes are SUPER SCARY. They mean it! Chilling ghost stories designed to give you goosebumps will also be told, fortune tellers will peer into your future, and once you regain your wits enjoy a treat and hot apple cider at Bekkum Homestead. Norskedalen’s Ghoulees in the Coulees Haunted Hikes take place Friday and Saturday, with start times from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Follow County PI off Highway 162 from the north or P to PI off U.S. 14/61 from the south to get there! More…

Washburn: Zombie Days

Wisconsin Weekend: Zombie Days, Washburn

Zombie Days takes place in the Bayfield County seat of Washburn, and on the last full weekend of October, the town officially gets taken over by Zombies! Come join the fun and mayhem, because there will be plenty to see and do. Activities include a haunted house, dance, parade and various Zombie performances that range from Zombie Zumba to belly dancing. There will also be a Zombie pub crawl at night. Most of the activities will take place on Saturday. There will also be contests including pumpkin carving contests, spooky yard contest, undead tread scavenger hunt, Lions’ Club kids carnival, bike obstacle course, Library chili feed, bake-off & the zombie ball. To reach Washburn, just head up Highway 13 from U.S. 2 near Ashland. It’s a beautiful drive! More...

Belleville: UFO Day

Belleville UFO Day Beer Fest

Belleville, straddling Dane and Green Counties, is not only a pretty town but apparently a draw for UFOs. Numerous sightings were reported in and around town, particularly in the late 1980s. They celebrate these unidentified flying objects with UFO Day every year. This year, the 33rd annual UFO Day takes place on Saturday with a parade, a craft fair, a Fun Run, kids’ costume contest, games, and the Monster Costume Ball. And check out the Belleville UFO Day Beer Fest, which will feature over 20 breweries offering up over 80 craft beers to sample! Highways 69 and 92 bring you to Belleville, around the Dane-Green County line. More…

Green Bay: NEW Zoo Boo final weekend

NEW Zoo Boo

The NEW Zoo (NE Wisconsin Zoo, that’s what “NEW” stands for) northwest of Green Bay celebrates the NEW Zoo Boo during the Friday-Saturday weekends of October, and this is the last one of the year! Enjoy plenty of spooky Halloween fun, trick-or-treating, haunted hay rides, giant inflatables, and all the fun you can have regularly at the zoo are all included as part of the fun! Festivities run 3-8pm. As the NEW ZOO Boo celebrates 25 years, this weekend’s theme is “Masquerade & Carnival Weekend” with plenty of giant inflatables, children’s games, a dance party, laser light decorations around the Zoo, even costumed stilt walkers! The NEW Zoo is accessible via U.S. 41/141 just north of Green Bay; Highways 29, 32, 54, 57, and 172 are all close by. More…

Prairie du Chien: Villa Louis After Dark

Villa Louis After Dark, Prairie du Chien

Picture this on the Saturday evening before Halloween: the sun sets west over the Mississippi River while the long shadows of autumn cross the lawns of Villa Louis, conjuring spirits of the 19th century. Where Villa Louis sits, on St. Feriole Island, plenty of spooky tales await. And on Saturday, Villa Louis After Dark will let you explore this history and get some spooky tales (and treats) just ahead of Halloween as you explore the grounds in this lamplight tour. Costumed interpreters will hand out treats and spin spooky tales across the 26-acre site. The Villa Louis Visitor Center, easily identifiable since it sits on stilts, is where the tours begin and end. You can also enjoy a bonfire and S’mores (really, what’s a better fall treat than those??) This lamplight tour beckons visitors into close encounters with historic figures of long ago. Villa Louis After Dark begins at 6pm on Saturday and runs until 9pm. Tours will run continuously. U.S. 18 and Highways 27, 35, and 60 bring you to Prairie du Chien! More…

Racine: Lantern Festival at the Racine Zoo

Racine Lantern Festival at the Zoo

The Lantern Festival at the Racine Zoo is a spectacular nighttime event, covering the zoo with incredible works of art! From tigers, lions, pandas, exotic flora, and a colossal dragon, Racine Zoo will be transformed into a world of illumination with custom-made lanterns. To top it off, an array of food and drink options will make the Lantern Festival a truly unforgettable event. The Racine Zoo Lantern Festival covers more than just this Wisconsin Weekend: it runs 80 select nights through December 31, 2019! Hit Highways 11, 20, 32, or 38 to get into Racine; you’ll find the zoo just off Highway 32 right by Lake Michigan, just north of North Beach and Racine’s downtown. More…

Bayfield: Fall Brew Weekend

Fall Brew Weekend in Bayfield

Need a reason to hit Bayfield this weekend? Perfect! The Fall Brew Weekend is happening at the Old Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield Friday & Saturday. The Old Rittenhouse Inn partners with South Shore Brewery to present a weekend of great regional beer and pub fare with a gourmet flair. Over the weekend you can celebrate the joy of fresh micro-brewed beers and delicious food. The schedule includes a beer tasting with appetizer buffet on Friday, an afternoon brewery tour and tasting on Saturday, and a 6-course dinner on Saturday night with craft brews selected to match each dish. Just follow Highway 13 north from U.S. 2 at Ashland or east from U.S. 2/53 east from Superior. More…

Hales Corners: China Lights at Boerner Botanical Gardens final weekend

China Lights at Boerner Botanical Gardens

Boerner Botanical Gardens hosts “China Lights: Panda Mania” and the Chinese Lantern Festival for the final weekend this year, through Sunday! China Lights brings stunning illuminated sculptures to select venues around the world. Now, it floats into Milwaukee for an after-sundown celebration of Asian life and culture. The 9-acre Gardens transform into a magical paradise of enchanting illuminated displays. Dragons, glowing pagodas and iridescent pinwheels add color, vibrancy, and excitement. Check out a backstage tour of the lanterns and participate in the nightly parade. Or simply enjoy wandering through the thrilling spectacle, which includes live performances of music, juggling and other arts. Enjoy a variety of Asian and Western cuisine from numerous local vendors, celebrate Asian culture with entertainment and live performances and a bustling marketplace. The entertainment continues through Sunday, 5:30pm-10pm. Admission includes a link to the official festival tour mobile guide, which will provide fascinating insight about the wonders all around you as you stroll with your cell phone. Parking is free for China Lights; simply follow the signs along 92nd Street – one mile east of U.S. 45/Highway 100 – to find the lots. More…

Check out the latest State Trunk Tour Podcasts on the Wisconsin Coastal Food Trail and the Blues history in Ozaukee County!
State Trunk Tour founder Eric Paulsen got to talk with Jason Ring of the Manitowoc CVB about the new Wisconsin Coastal Food Trail that offers pathways for exploring everything from farms and cheese factories to breweries, bakeries, wineries, and distilleries in and around the Manitowoc and Two Rivers area, as well as with Kris Raymond of the Paramount Music Association, about the amazing and little-known history of early Blues and Jazz records being made in Grafton and Port Washington – recordings that helped shape music ever since. Check them both out below:

More for your Wisconsin Weekend

There are MANY more events to check out on this Wisconsin Weekend. Explore history, enjoy parks, experience shops, bars, and restaurants, and have FUN! In true State Trunk Tour fashion, Pick Some Roads and GO!!!

Explore Wisconsin’s Colorful Fall Season!

October is Wisconsin’s most colorful month. Fall in Wisconsin means autumn harvests, cooler weather, changing leaves, pumpkin patches and more all make this a fantastic month to explore the state.

Fall in Wisconsin includes river rapids and leaves changing color

Check out the Fall Color Report from Travel Wisconsin, then enjoy a barrage of fall events or scenic points of interest like the fourth highest waterfall in the country east of the Rockies, or Timms Hill, the highest natural point in Wisconsin – the view looks awesome during fall colors!

Fall colors from Timms Hill in Wisconsin

Visit attractions like the unique Johnson Wax Research Tower in Racine, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (Wisconsin Highways 11, 20, 32, 38, I-41/94; the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward (Wisconsin Highways 27, 63, 77); the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan (Wisconsin Highways 23, 28, 42, I-43); beautiful Willow River State Park just outside of Hudson (Wisconsin Highways 12, 35, 64); or the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc, home of the S.S. Badger, which runs across Lake Michigan up through this coming Sunday, October 13th.

This is just a start to fun of fall in Wisconsin – there’s 54,000+ square miles of the state to explore. Pick Some Roads and GO!!

Check out our articles too, including 10 Quirky Street Names We Found in Wisconsin, 6 Cool Stops along I-94 between Milwaukee & Madison, and more!