Highway 23 looking at the Wyoming Valley
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STH-023“Lead Mines. Water Parks. Houses on Rocks. Dells. Waterfalls. Brats & Cheese. Championship Golf. Let’s Go!”

WisMap23Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 23 connects a veritable plethora of sights in Wisconsin. From the beautiful hills and history of the Lead Mining Region and the Driftless Area to Frank Lloyd Wright (and Frank Lloyd Wright revenge-inspired) architectural sites; from the Dells and lakes of central Wisconsin to the booming golf and resort areas of Sheboygan, Highway 23 provides plenty of things to see and do along its route.

Wisconsin Highway 23 Road Trip

The Drive (North To East): You start in a relatively remote area: at the intersection with Highway 11 near Shullsburg in southwestern Wisconsin. This is an area of rich minig history and incredible beauty. A good start is actually just west of Highway 23: check out Shullsburg (pop. 1,226) itself, an old lead mining town that has preserved its older buildings well. The Badger Mine and Museum (279 W. Estey Street, 608-965-4860) features exhibits on lead mining, cheesemaking and lets you tour a more recent mine. The Brewster Hotel sign is an interesting artifact: check out the bullet holes from a 1927 robbery by Chicago mobsters. Plenty of food, stores, scenery, history and quaintness await in Shullsburg.

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Looking down Water Street in Shullsburg, now a National Historic Landmark. Filled with antique shops, boutiques, historic guest rooms and places to imbibe in food and beverage, this is a good place to start before heading east on Highway 11 for about six miles and hitting Highway 23.

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The beginning of Highway 23, looking north from Highway 11. A lot awaits you on this tour…

Once on Highway 23, you can begin with a stop at Roelli Cheese Haus, a longtime staple of the area (100 years +) that has moved deftly into the artisan cheese world over the past decade and has been walking away with plenty of national and international awards as a result. They have a retail store attached to their cheese plant, and you can pick up some serious specialties on the road with you.

Northward on Highway 23, you make your way north through Lafayette County toward its county seat. After hooking up for a spell with Highway 81, Highway 23 enters Darlington (pop. 2,418), which calls itself the “Pearl of the Pecatonica River.” The “pearl” part harkens back to the time when people harvested clams out of the river, apparently to produce pearl button blanks. The whole area is drained by the Pecatonica River and its many tributaries, which carve out the beautiful hills and valleys characteristic of Lafayette County. Author Sylvan Muldoon, who was big on writing about out-of-body experiences, hailed from Darlington.

Cardinal in Darlington along Highway 23Shark in Darlington along Highway 23

Some notable animals in Darlington: a cardinal on the south end of town along Highway 23/81 and a shark emerging from a gas station both catch your attention right in the downtown area. Darlington’s school mascot is the “Redbirds”; not sure why the shark is there.

 

Highway 23 & 81 in Darlington

Highways 23 & 81 through downtown Darlington; the main street is a pleasant little boulevard with plenty of parking, good architecture and shops to see on both sides. Highway 81 joins briefly through town..

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The Barber Shop Hotel, apparently in a former barber shop, is an example of Darlington’s small, inviting buildings that are being refurbished with historical touches.

Darlington’s restored downtown is a great place to stop and just walk around. Highway 81 hooks up with 23 briefly and proceeds as a little boulevard going through town, crossing the Cheese Country Trail – watch for plenty of ATVers and bikers – and providing plenty of parking for the boutiques, taverns and other points of interest in town. Pecatonica River Trails Park offers riverside camping. Downtown Darlington’s Main Street – which is Highway 23 & 81 – is lined with historic buildings and it’s worth a stop just to explore.

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Being the county seat of Lafayette County, Darlington sports a beautiful courthouse with a Tiffany glass rotunda on the hill above downtown along Highway 23, just north of Highway 81 and Darlington’s downtown.

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This house was spotted just past old Fort Defiance north of Darlington… it just kind of screamed “Amityville Horror”…

Highway 81 hooks up with Highway 23 for the ride south out of Darlington; it’s hilly and beautiful and filled with old haunts. Between Darlington and Mineral Point is the former site of Fort Defiance, built in 1832 in the wake of the Black Hawk War. It was one of the last garrisoned stockade forts built in Wisconsin, measuring 80 feet wide, 120 feet long, and 18 feet high with two blockhouses – and yet no trace of it remains, other than a marker.

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Weaving through the terrain further north brings you to Mineral Point (pop. 2,617), another town chock full of history. In fact, it’s the first town in Wisconsin to be named to the National Register of Historic Places. As gold was to California and gambling is to Nevada, lead made the Mineral Point area of Wisconsin a sought-after destination in the ’30s and ’40s… and we’re talking 1830s and 40s.

Lead and zinc mining was grueling work, and those who endured the brutal winters became known as “badgers” because they burrowed into the ground like the furry creatures. Their influence lives on as the state’s nickname and, of course, the UW-Madison mascot. Mining was so important to the state that in 1848 when the state seal was established, one of the four images on the seal was that of a miner’s ax.

Mineral Point claims the title “where Wisconsin began,” and the handsome buildings along High Street attest to the new wealth and impressive designs of the day. The city lost by one vote to Madison when the state’s capital was selected. While he waited for the capitol building to be established in Madison, Wisconsin’s first governor, Henry Dodge (who also has a county named after him), maintained an office in Mineral Point’s courthouse.

Mineral Point has many small shops offering antiques, galleries and artisan crafts. Highway 23 goes right past the downtown area, which is best accessed via High Street. The handsome Mineral Point Opera House (139 High Street, 608-987-2516) was built in 1914. It started as a vaudeville and performing arts house and continues to feature live performances from theater groups and world cinema brought by the Mineral Point Film Society.

A big attraction in Mineral Point is Pendarvis (114 Shake Rag St). Owned and operated by the State Historical Society, it’s a complex that shows visitors what life was like during the 1830s, including the day-to-day tasks of miners and their families as well as superstitions and traditions that influenced them. The Mineral Point Depot (13 Commerce St.) is the oldest surviving railroad depot in the state. Originally built in 1856 and restored in 2004 by the Mineral Point Restoration Society, it now hosts a museum.

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The Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts & Crafts (18 Shake Rag Street, 608-987-3292) features displays, workshops and classes on a 2.5 acre campus featuring gardens, trees and brick pathways. Shake Rag Alley was the original business district of Mineral Point and contains log cabins and other buildings dating back to 1828. Local lore says “Shake Rag” got its name because women would “shake rags” to let the men know it was time to eat. They were quieter than dinner bells, I guess.

Heading out of Mineral Point, Highway 23 heads north along what was also the “old” U.S. 151 highway for about two miles until it meets up with the “new” U.S. 151, an expressway that now runs complete from Dubuque, Iowa to Madison. This is the first of several segments where Highway 23 is four lanes and/or part of a freeway. This stretch multiplexed with U.S. 151 is quick, though: it only lasts about four miles. There are some cool rock cuts along the way, along with a mass of windmills to the west, part of a massive wind power generating farm.

U.S. 151 breaks off toward Madison and Highway 23 continues north into Dodgeville (pop. 4,220), the county seat of Iowa County and home to Lands’ End. In local lore, Dodgeville and Mineral Point went to “war” over which town should be the county seat, and supposedly some Mineral Point residents actually fired a canon toward Dodgeville. Either way, Dodgeville won the county seat and today has the oldest active county courthouse in Wisconsin; its cornerstone was laid in 1859. The Military Ridge State Trail, a popular recreational trail following an old military road dating back to 1855, starts in Dodgeville and runs 40 miles east to Fitchburg.

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Along Highway 23 in downtown Dodgeville is the Iowa County Courthouse, the oldest in the state of Wisconsin. Started in 1859, dedicated in 1861 and expanded or renovated four times since, the Galena limestone used in its construction was quarried just north of town.

Highway 23 runs through the heart of Dodgeville before crossing U.S. Highway 18 and approaching Governor Dodge State Park, one of the largest in the state at 5,270 acres (just to give you a sense of the size, one square mile is 640 acres). The whole area has many scenic bluffs, but Governor Dodge State Park is a great place to see quite a few of them. The Park also features two lakes, a waterfall, abundant wildlife, original spring houses built by early settlers, 267 campsites, 77 electric sites, winter camping, boat and canoe rental, programs, marked beaches, 2 miles of nature trails, 26.6 miles of hiking trails, 24.7 miles of horseback trails, 10.3 miles of off-road bicycle trails, 15 miles of snowmobile trails and 18.1 miles of cross-country ski trails. But that’s all.

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Above: This marker notes a former military crossing of the river during the Black Hawk War; the crew dismantled parts of a town to get the wood for raft-making. At right, a side road approaching Highway 23 tells you it’s U.S. 23 – which is wrong, because that road runs from Michigan to Florida.

springgreen_houseontherock01Just north of Governor Dodge State Park is the weird, quirky, legendary House On The Rock. What exactly is it? It’s a 200-acre complex with architectural wonders, eclectic art collections, gardens and yes, a Japanese-style house perched on what’s called Deer Shelter Rock, overlooking the Wyoming Valley. Its inspiration came from a feud between creator Alex Jordan Jr.’s father and the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright that dated back to the 1920s. Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright has some less-than-flattering comments about Jordan Sr.’s architectural talents. In 1945, Jordan Jr. began construction of the house on his favorite rock and by 1959, a stone marker placed along Highway 23 announced to travelers that The House On The Rock was open for viewing.

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The Infinity Room is quite a trip!

Financed by tour fees, a series of additions since then include 1968’s “Mill House”, which holds one of the world’s largest fireplaces; a “Streets of Yesterday” exhibit, introduced in 1971 and inspired by a similar exhibit in the Milwaukee Public Museum. The “World’s Largest Carousel” opened in 1981 and the “Infinity Room”, perhaps the most dramatic, came along in 1985. The Infinity Room literally projects 218 feet out over the valley; the walls are made of glass with reinforcements (3,264 windows in all), so visitors can walk out above the forest floor, which beckons 156 feet below. Quite visible from the surrounding area, it’s probably one of the more unique rooms in the world.

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House on the Rock includes several other buildings, centered around gardens, ponds, bridges, and walkways.

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Incredible art? Haunting vision? Psychedelic dream? The House of the Rock lets you view and interpret as you wish.

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The World’s Largest Carousel sits inside House on the Rock. It’s almost mesmerizing to watch.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The House of the Rock’s “World’s Largest Carousel” features over 20,000 lights, 269 animals, and – interestingly – 182 chandeliers. It’s 80 feet in diameter and weighs 36 tons.

The presence of House On The Rock adds to a very cool Scenic Overlook area along Highway 23 just north of the attraction’s entrance. Each direction of the highway has its own side access to an overlook, which connects via a pedestrian bridge over the road. The view of the House’s Infinity Room, the Wyoming Valley and all the surrounding terrain makes for a great stop.

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A view of Wyoming Valley, behind the ridge where Highway 23 runs. House on the Rock is just to the left in this picture; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin is a few miles ahead.

This area is a haven for artists and architects; it certainly was for Frank Lloyd Wright, who was born in Spring Green in 1867. He started building his summer house, called Taliesin after a Welsh bard, in 1911. It took decades to develop, including recovery from a devastating attack in 1914 where a chamber boy set fire to the house and murdered seven people with an ax while the fire burned. Wright himself was in Chicago on a project at the time, but his lover (a former wife of one of his clients), her two children, a foreman, a draftsman, a landscape gardener and the son of a carpenter were all victims. The living quarters were rebuilt, yet destroyed again by fire in 1925. The third incarnation of Taliesin was survived intact since. Taliesin is where many of Wright’s most famous structures, including New York’s Guggenheim Museum, were designed. In a nod to snowbirds everywhere, Wright also established a Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. But since that’s nowhere near State Trunk Highway 23, it’s not part of the Tour.

springgreen_taliesinvisitorcenterThe Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center is located just off Highway 23 on County C, across the Wisconsin River’s southern bank. Taliesin itself is on the other side of 23, about half a mile south. You take a shuttle bus from the Visitor Center to access Taliesin’s property. Tours are available May 1 through October 31 seven days a week, and Friday through Sunday in April and November.

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The beauty of Taliesin and the surrounding landscape is definitely worth the price of admission.

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Crossing the river on Highway 23 brings you into Sauk County and Spring Green (pop. 1,444) itself. Along with the architectural wonders and natural scenic beauty, you can get Shakespearean in Spring Green at American Players Theatre, one of the most popular outdoor classical theaters in the U.S. Set in a natural amphitheater in the woods near the Wisconsin River, APT entertains audiences with rotating plays while working to educate students on theater in general. If you’re getting a way early start on a weekend jaunt, try hitting APT for “Skippeth-Out-Of-Work-Early” Thursday nights.

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A one-time gas station in Spring Green is indicative of the native stone and beautiful architecture of the area. This is right along Highway 23, just south of U.S. 14 and Highway 60.

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Wright’s influence in Spring Green is unmistakable. This is a bank in town.

Highway 23 comes to a junction with U.S. 14 and Highway 60 and hooks up with them briefly before, alas, the quickie is over and Highway 23 heads north by its lonesome again.

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North of Spring Green, it’s more of the Driftless Area’s beautiful bluffs and rolling hills. This is through Plain, on the way to Reedsburg.

The views are great as you zoom up and down hills and wind through valleys, past hamlets like Plain (pop. 792) and Loganville (pop. 276). Plain, interestingly, has been considering a name change since 1915, when a reader to the local newspaper wrote a letter to the editor. No rush, though.

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Reedsburg

Further north, Highway 23 heads into Reedsburg (pop. 8,704), where it hooks up with Highway 33 for the ride through downtown. The Museum of Norman Rockwell Art (227 S. Park St.) features almost 4,000 of the famous artist’s works. Speaking of artists, famous comic artist and cartoonist Clare Briggs hailed from Reedsburg. It’s also the starting point for the “400” State Trail, which runs to Elroy as part of the state’s increasingly-extensive rail-trail system for bicycles, hikers, cross-country skiiers and snowmobilers.

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This marker almost marks the exact spot of the 90th meridian, the halfway point between the Prime Meridian and the International Date Line. The actual spot is within a few hundred yards – but why don’t they just put it right at that spot??

Reedsburg sits on the 90th Meridian, which marks the halfway point between the Prime Meridian (which runs through Greenwich and London, England) and the International Date Line, marking the exact center of the Western Hemisphere. A marker in the median of Highway 23 notes the meridian’s location – actually, for some reason, it sits 325 feet west of it. The city once hosted a World War II POW camp and pioneered both the first Ford dealership and the first sanctioned Little League in Wisconsin. On the way out just east of the city, the Pioneer Log Village and Museum provides a first-hand look at log buildings, antique furnishings and a glimpse of what life was like in the 19th century frontier days. Tours are available from 1-4pm on weekends during the summer. Also in summer, Reedsburg holds its annual Butter Fest.

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Downtown Reedsburg, which Highway 23 goes right through as the main street along with Highway 33, extends for a while with storefronts on either side. It’s a wide street compared to most smaller towns’ main streets, and the views – especially of the Baraboo Bluffs – show the beautiful topography that beckons.

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Built in 1906, the Reedsburg Train Depot served passenger traffic until 1963. Today, it’s a popular stop along the “400” Bicycle Trail, which runs on the railbed of the former train between St. Paul and Chicago.

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We spotted this on a trailer sitting by itself in Reedsburg. What’s it about? We don’t know, but being sign geeks we liked it!

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Colorful sunflowers added to the beauty of the drive along Highways 23 & 33 just east of Reedsburg,

For several miles east of Reedsburg, Highways 23 and 33 hang together until 23 breaks to the northeast for a weaving 6-mile jaunt through portions of Mirror Lake State Park and a junction with I-90/94. And right away, you enter it: the Dells.

Taking Highway 23 past the I-90/94 interchange and you immediately come upon Lake Delton (pop. 1,982), which pairs with the city of Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418) to make up the gargantuan land o’tourism known at the Dells.

wisdells_welcomesign01Wisconsin Dells Area

Ah, Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World” and Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destination. Highway 23 comes into the area and immediately, the architecture changes. The vibe changes. And the amount of traffic changes. When people refer to “Wisconsin Dells”, they usually mean the whole area, including Lake Delton and the region up and down the Wisconsin River, whose gorgeous ‘dells’ and gorges give the area its name. Wisconsin Dells itself started out as Kilbourn City in 1857. It was named after founder Byron Kilbourn, who also played a major role in getting Milwaukee started as a city one decade earlier. Renamed Wisconsin Dells in 1931, the city set the state’s high temperature record of 114 degrees Fahrenheit five years later. But indeed, it gets cold here, too, which explains why so many waterparks offer indoor facilities.It’s also chock full of foreign workers, many of whom are college age from Eastern Europe and South America. Time magazine actually named it one of the “Best Places for College Students to Work during the Summer” in 2004, proving there’s a list for nearly everything.

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Highway 23 crosses over Spring Creek, giving a peek towards Lake Delton.

Highway 23 meets up with U.S. 12 and joins it heading northbound into a vast array of sights: the Crystal Grand Theater, roller coasters, mini golf courses, ferris wheels, waterparks, upside-down White Houses (a place called “Top Secret”), plastic pink flamingos, motels, hotels, ski jumps in bodies of water… it’s all along this stretch. The world’s largest Trojan Horse can’t be missed. I mean, it’s right there.

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Motels, pedestrians and stray beach balls line this stretch, with skywalks allowing pedestrians to avoid traffic and/or winter; and as you can see, traffic can get heavy on this stretch. Stop and go traffic much of the time on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer is not uncommon.

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It’s hard to miss the World’s Largest Trojan Horse along Highway 23. A ride passes through it; no word on if tons of soldiers – or anything else – are hiding inside.

Meanwhile, Highway 23 joins up with Highways 13 and 16, breaking east to hop over the Wisconsin River and enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).

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At the intersection coming up, U.S. 12 and Highways 13, 16, and 23 all converge. I-90/94 is less than a mile to the west via Highway 13.

In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin “Ducks” (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dells’ selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

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One of the Wisconsin Ducks in front of Ripley’s, believe it or not.

Along the main strip in the Dells (where Highway 23 is joined by 13 and 16), you’ll find Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, fudge and t-shirt shops, restaurants and bars, Wizard Quest, a Carr Valley Cheese Shop, and even the historic H.H. Bennett Studio, a photography museum named for the man whose pictures helped popularize the natural beauty and appeal of the Dells area.

This is truly a mecca of recreational vacation fun. Let’s take a look at some facts about the area around the Dells (thanks to the “Quick Facts” section of wisdells.com):

– There are 18 indoor waterpark/playground properties in the Dells, the highest concentration of such facilities in the world
– The first indoor waterpark in the nation, The Polynesian, opened here in 1989
– The largest indoor waterpark in the U.S. is the Kalahari Resort, with 125,000 square feet
– North America’s largest waterpark is Noah’s Ark, covering 70 acres, utilizing five million gallons of water and powering screaming people down three miles of waterslides
– The Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort’s indoor and outdoor waterpark space combined covers the space equivalent to six football fields. And if you want fudge shops, only Mackinac Island in Michigan can compete with the downtown strip along Highways 13/16/23. Mmmm… fudge. “The Strip” features t-shirt stores that seem to repeat every 100 feet or so. But there are also a ton of unique – or just not too common – things. Among them: Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museum; the Rick Wilcox Theater; and waterparks a’plenty. Feel like going extreme? Extreme World features a 130-foot high bungee jump, a skycoaster and for those who prefer to stay on the ground the whole time, a big selection of go-karts and tracks.

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Plenty of sights to see along Broadway, the stretch of Highway 23 where it goes through the heart of Wisconsin Dells. Highways 13 and 16 run with 23 here, too. Nig’s Bar, pictured at night just above, is one of those places advertising itself via t-shirts that people wear (“I had a swig at Nig’s”) all over the place… you’ve probably seem them.

wisdells-cyclesthru13-16-23Basically, Highway 23 goes through the Dells’ two main areas: through Lake Delton with U.S. 12 as Wisconsin Dells Parkway, and then with Highways 13 and 16 as Broadway on the main drag through Wisconsin Dells itself. This basically marks a change where Highway 23 stops bring a route through the Driftless Region on Wisconsin and becomes more of an east-west main road across east-central Wisconsin.

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This is part of the “dells” in Wisconsin Dells. A boat ride reveals all kinds of rock formations along this stretch of the Wisconsin River. These dells were formed about 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

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Club 23 along Highway 23 just east of the Dells – we love places named after our highways!

At the east end of Wisconsin Dells, you’re suddenly in the countryside again. Highway 16 breaks off southeast towards Columbus and Milwaukee; Highway 13 heads north toward Wisconsin Rapids and Ashland; and Highway 23 meanders east. This stretch deals with a lot of county corners; in about a 14-mile stretch, you go from Sauk County back in the Dells, to Columbia County on its east side, to a southeastern sliver of Adams County to the far southwestern corner of Marquette County. There, you reach the little town of Briggsville which, while unincorporated, is still the largest settlement between the Dells area and the freeway that lies ahead.

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Highway 23, going gently through the quiet town of Briggsville.

23at39-51Eventually, Highway 23 joins the “backbone” of Wisconsin, the I-39/U.S. 51 freeway. The highway heads north on it for about six miles. One exit brings to you little Packwaukee, which lies on Buffalo Lake, an elongated stretch of the Fox River as it heads up to Lake Winnebago. This is prime fishing and hunting country in the heart of Marquette County. At Exit 106 from I-39/US 51, Highway 82 begins to the west and goes all the way to DeSoto and the Mississippi River; meanwhile, Highway 23 continues east away from the freeway for the next leg, now as a more major artery across the eastern half of the state.

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Remember the Buffalo Lake we just mentioned? It parallels Highway 23 to the south; both end up in Montello (pop. 1,397), a very water recreation-oriented town considering its Fox River location wedged between Buffalo Lake and Montello Lake. There’s even a nice waterfall right at the main intersection downtown where Highway 23 meets up with Highway 22; it’s part of a larger park with exposed stone and multiple waterfalls developed from a granite quarry

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Highways 23 and 22 come together in downtown Montello, with rock formations and waterfalls making things much more interesting.

Speaking of granite, La Maison Granite (“Granite Mansion” in English) is an historic mansion at 55 Underwood Street just off Highway 23, built in 1912 from locally-quarried granite – the quarry where the waterfall-adorned park now sits. In the home’s front yard is Wisconsin’s largest tree, a cottonwood towering 140 feet with a 23-foot circumference… we shall dub it the “Cottonwood on Underwood.” Both are seen here:

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Montello’s downtown area, which runs along Highway 23 (and 22, since for about a half mile they’re combined) offers crafts from local artists and the numerous Amish communities in close vicinity of the town.

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Highway 22 breaks north for Waupaca, and we continue east on Highway 23 for the short ride to another shopping and antique destination, Princeton (pop. 1,214). Highway 73 joins in for the ride through town, where Highway 23 serves as Main Street. Much of the shopping action is a block south along Water Street, east of the Fox River crossing in a district called the Shops of Water Street. Both along Water Street and throughout town in “off-the-beaten path” areas, you’ll find boutiques and – amidst such a rural region – a number of urban flair shops with offerings from clever coffees to hand-blown glass, vintage arts, accessories, and antiques. Two larger antique malls are also in town – there’s likely something to find for everyone, no matter their taste. The Princeton Flea Market is the largest weekly outdoor flea market in Wisconsin, held April through October on Saturdays in City Park. Admission and parking is free and not only are the items for sale a lesson in interesting variety, so is the food offered by vendors – it goes beyond the typical fare.

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Muk Luks, baby!!

Along the Shops of Water Street, fans of comfy footwear might want to check out the Muk Luks Museum, an homage to the famous brand that originated in Princeton. A variety of the styles, artifacts, tools, shipping materials, and more from back in the day can be found. It’s open Saturdays, the peak shopping day in town.

While named after a town in Massachusetts as opposed to the prestigious university, don’t forget you can always come here, do some unique shopping, and then tell people you “went to Princeton.”

A few miles east of Princeton, Highway 73 breaks away and heads south through a gap between Puckaway Lake to the west and Green Lake to the east. Green Lake is Wisconsin’s deepest inland natural lake; it averages 100 feet deep (compared with 15 feet for Lake Winnebago, for example) and a maximum depth of 237 feet. Green Lake isn’t only deep, it’s pretty big… 11.5 square miles. It’s one of the last lakes around to freeze in water and thaw in spring but it’s one of the best in the state for fishing. Joe Gotz pulled a 35-pound trout out this in lake in 1957 and everything from northern pike and walleye to crappier and perch can be found here. The lake has featured numerous resorts and hotels since the 1800s, although many of the early ones burned down – as hotels often did in the late 19th century. Golf courses have remained and thrived, with Tuscumbia dating back to 1896 and nationally-ranked Golf Courses of Lawsonia offering its Links and Woodlands courses that include lakeshore panoramic views.

The epicenter of the area’s vacation and recreation activities focus on the city of Green Lake (pop. 960), the seat of Green Lake County. Highway 23 skims the northern edge of town today but “Business” 23 brings you towards the center of town, and it’s worth exploring. Green Lake was for decades home to the iconic Heidel House Resort & Spa along the eastern banks of the lake southeast of the town center. The original Heidel House opened in 1890 and it became a resort in 1945; alas, it closed in 2019 and we’re still waiting to see if it gets resurrected at some point. Green Lake remains a popular meeting place with the Green Lake Conference Center, which was founded in 1943 by American Baptists. Its Judson Tower carillon provides some chimes for golfers on the Lawsonia courses, since they’re located on the same large grounds just west of town. Downtown Green Lake offers shops, bars, and restaurants, and lakeside parks that cater to vacationers and recreational visitors. Also downtown on Mill Street, the historic Thrasher Opera House opened in 1910 and hosted everything from vaudeville performances to (very) early movies into the mid-20th century before – as most performance venues did back in the day – close and fall into disrepair. A restoration brought Thrasher back to life, and today it’s once again a hub for activity in Green Lake. Many theatrical, comedy, and musical performers come through here now, including many national acts – not much opera, though. But in our minds, that’s perfectly fine; we’d be thinking about Adam Sandler as “Opera Man” on SNL anyway.

Ripon

At Green Lake, Highway 49 joins in from the north and Berlin (pronounced BER-lin) for the ride with Highway 23 east six miles into Ripon (pop. 7,733), a college town with a history of debate and cookies. Ripon was named after the English cathedral city of Ripon, North Yorkshire, in 1849 when it was first settled. The 1850s were busy for Ripon; in 1851 city founder David Mapes founded Brockway College, which evolved into Ripon College. Three years later, the Republican Party was founded in Ripon’s “Little White Schoolhouse” – which happens to be located right along today’s Highway 23/49. It’s all part of Ripon’s downtown, where Highway 23/49 wraps around the northeast side of the downtown square.

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The “Little White Schoolhouse”, where the Republican Party was founded on an anti-slavery platform in 1854.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Ripon influenced the Golden State when former Ripon, Wisconsin resident Amplias B. Crooks (names were rather interesting back then) moved to Stanislaus City, California and started a store. Unhappy with the town’s name, he had it changed to Ripon, California in 1874.

Ripon was also home of the NFL for many decades. Really! We’re talking the National Forensic League, an organization dedicated to training students in communication and debate skills. Founded in 1925, it’s the nation’s oldest and largest debate and speech honor society. Alums of this NFL include President Lyndon Johnson, Senators Russ Feingold and Bill Frist, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, Kelsey Grammar, Shelley Long, Jane Pauley, CSPAN founder Brian Lamb, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and more. They changed their name to the National Speech & Debate Association (less cool, but easier to interpret) in 2013. Either way, if you stop in town and get into a debate with someone, be prepared. There could be a speech and debate expert that’ll mop up on any topic.

Cookies & College in Ripon
Ripon College counts among its graduates and students people like actors Spencer Tracy and Harrison Ford, singer Al Jarreau and more recently Brittany “McKey” Sullivan, a recent winner on America’s Next Top Model. Ripon College students, like other area residents, generally revel in the fact that the town is home to Rippin’ Good cookies (now owned by ConAgra Foods, which is reducing production ) Ever had the Mint Creme Cookies? If not, you have yet to live to the fullest extent. The Rippin’ Good Cookie Outlet can be found just north and east of downtown Ripon, at 420 E. Oshkosh Street, which is also Highway 44 (920-748-0293 if you want to call ahead). It is generally open Monday-Friday 8am-4:30pm and Saturday from 8am to 1pm. Prepare for sugar and goodness.

Fond du Lac, Plymouth, Kohler, Sheboygan and everything in between has been toured and will be posted shortly!

CONNECTIONS

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 11
Can connect nearby to: Highway 78, about 6 miles east

East Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 28, Highway 42
Can connect nearby to: Highway 32, about 6 miles west; I-43, about 3 miles west

22

STH-022“Seed Spitting, Fishing, Four Wheel Drive, & Copper Culture”

WisMap22Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 22 is one of several state highways that meander a bit while changing direction. Running right up the center of Wisconsin at first, Highway 22 winds through a number of central and northeastern Wisconsin towns, providing access to lakes and rivers that offer some of the state’s best fishing, eventually providing access to the waters of Green Bay at Oconto.

Wisconsin Highway 22 Road Trip

The Drive (South To North, then East): Highway 22 starts out at a rural crossroads where U.S. 51 veers away from its journey due north of Madison and cuts towards Portage; the east-west crossroad is the “coast-to-coast” Highway 60.

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Highway 22 begins in a nondescript way as U.S. 51 veers westerly at Highway 60 about 20 minutes north of the Madison area.

The first ten miles of Highway 22 take you through wide-open spaces – for Wisconsin – and a series of “Ethanol YES!” signs, indicative of corn and politically active farmers in the area. Highway 22’s southern section traverses the Central Sand Hills, an ecological landscape influenced heavily by glaciers. Within close range of this area, you have the Dells are to the west and a close passing of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers nearby. Sandy soils, abundant small lakes and many streams created an environment favorable for good fishing and crop-raising.

Some good-sized hills emerge a few miles further north of where Highway 22 begins, including a pretty scenic one as you cross Rocky Run. The first town you enter is Wyocena (pop. 768), where Highway 16 crosses. They built an interchange for a “U.S. 16 bypass” decades ago, and the “old” 16 just north of it shows just how tiny some of the major routes used to be. Try following it; it’s a small side street that, prior to the 1950s, was the main route for Milwaukee-Minneapolis traffic. Makes one appreciate expanded bypasses sometimes!

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Just north of where Highway 22 crosses Highway 16 today is the marker showing the origin of Wyocena, founded by Major Elbert Dickason in 1843. His wife was named Obedience, which has sort of fallen off the “popular baby names for girls” list over the last century or two.

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For an area thought of as fairly flat, this part of central Wisconsin sports some sizable hills and nice views as you cruise. When the glaciers came down across the state many millennia ago, they formed ridges in this area that helped form lakes and rivers that provide great fishing today..

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Three miles later lies Pardeeville (pop. 1,995) and yes, it’s pronounced “partyville”. Not that it’s known for parties… or is it? You’ll have to find that out on your own. In the middle of a Saturday, things were pretty calm. Pardeeville was named for John Pardee, a Milwaukee merchant who owned the land here and sent agents to develop it. And develop it they did – at least to an extent. The town’s location along the Fox River gave it strategic importance, especially back when the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway system was considered the possible main boat route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River – though that ended up not happening.

Highway 22 at Highway 44, Pardeeville

Where Highways 22 & 44 meet in Pardeeville. This is, technically, the downtown crossroads.

Pardeeville’s downtown strip runs for only a few blocks; Highway 44 begins its run towards Oshkosh at this point, and 22 jogs past Park Lake and over the Fox River, the first of many crossings over that river.

Highway 22 serves as Pardeeville’s main street. While looking for a pardee of some sort, I came across an Everbrite factory that caught my eye because gas prices were even more shocking than usual. This wasn’t as a gas station, however; Everbite makes some of those digital signs that show prices at gas stations, and the examples they had out there weren’t pretty. If you want to see what $6 gas looks like, just check out the picture:

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Thankfully, those aren’t real prices (at least as of press time). Everbrite’s facility in Pardeeville makes some of the digital price signs gas stations use. It scared the heck out of me for a second.

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When a business uses the road number in its name, we include a shot of it on the State Trunk Tour!

Watermelon Seed-Spitting and Curling. Pardeeville is big on watermelons in summer and curling in winter. Every year, Pardeeville hosts the U.S. Watermelon Eating and Seed-Spitting Competition. One edition was visited by the State Trunk Tour, and featured here is Colton Ketter of Lomira. Spitters from all over came to Pardeeville for the chance to take home glory – and a ribbon. Creative decorations with watermelons, like the flower basket and the one puking here to the left, are also potential contest-winners.Pardeeville also has a very active curling club that has been at it since 1875; they’re just off the intersection of Highway 22 and 44 downtown. Curling Olympian Debbie McCormick hails from Pardeeville and still serves as the organization’s vice president.

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Watermelon art. Including one throwing up. Creative, if not appetizing.

Between Pardeeville and Montello, County F provides access to John Muir County Park, which boasts a broad array of diverse and rare plant species, lakes and wetlands. This area was the boyhood home of Sierra Club founder John Muir (hence the county park’s name) and also features a trail and boardwalk around 30-acre Ennis Lake.

Continuing along Highway 22, one notices many antique stores… and you gotta love the ones that, in addition to “classic” antiques, also sell a wide variety of live bait. The bait is popular, though, because there’s tons of good fishing in the area. Dotting Highway 22 are side roads to Fox River and area lake fishing and recreational trails. Marquette County alone has 60+ lakes and 15 trout streams, most of which have good public access.

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From the “You’ll Never Know What You’ll Find on the State Trunk Tour” department: lawn jockeys in their Packer gear, lighting the way in for these Green-and-Gold-worshiping residents.

This area is also home to a significant Amish population. Use caution in case you share the road with them, since their horsepower amount is usually one or two.

When you reach Montello (pop. 1,495), you’re about 35 miles from the southern end of Highway 22. Montello’s downtown spreads along Highways 22 and 23, and the aforementioned Amish sell many a craft in stores along the route. At the intersection with Highway 23, beautiful, rocky waterfalls greet you, all part of a transformed former granite quarry. Montello claims Wisconsin’s largest tree in front of Le Maison Granit, a historic mansion (oui, a French one at that) on Underwood Avenue, which requires just a short jog on adjacent Highway 23. Wedged between Montello Lake and Buffalo Lake, the city of Montello is very water- and water sports-oriented.

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Montello’s main crossroads at Highway 22 & 23 offer a nice waterfall.

The countryside meanders north of Montello; few towns or points of interest lie between in and Wautoma (pop. 1,998), which you reach about 56 miles north of Highway 22’s starting point. Wautoma features antique stores a’plenty and a nice shopping strip on the main street, which is along Highway 21 just after 22 turns back north to head out of town. Highway 73 also intersects here.

Once out of Wautoma, open spaces greet you for a while. You go through small burgs like Wild Rose, where you can sit atop the upper level balcony at the Duck Blind or enjoy coffee or tiramisu at Pumphouse on the Mill (430 Main St./Highway 22, 920-744-8499), a gastropub located in an old gas station along the mill pond in town. Just north of Wild Rose, Highway 22 enters Portage County and cuts the southeastern corner for literally about a mile and a half before heading into Waupaca County. At this point, you’re making a beeline for Waupaca itself; and yes, it sounds like Wautoma, but it’s Waupaca. You’d think they’d come up with a wider variety of name styles back in the 1800s when all these towns were founded (there’s a Waushara too, don’t get us started.)

Waupaca

Waupaca (pop. 5,750) is the central town in an area known as the Chain O’ Lakes. Waupaca’s name is also familar because of the former Waupaca Foundry – now known as ThyssenKrupp Waupaca – and its foundry locations in Waupaca and Marinette, with one each in Indiana and Tennessee. The Waupaca location melts over 9,500 tons of gray, ductile and compacted graphite iron castings. Actress Annie Burgstede, who played Willow Stark in Days of Our Lives and has also had roles in CSI, Smallville, Charmed, and Without A Trace, grew up in Waupaca.

*** BYPASS ALERT ***
Now, officially Highway 22 goes around Waupaca on the same bypass that carries the U.S. Highway 10 expressway. You can join it and go around town, but what’s the point in that?? It’s worth the trip on the “Old” 22, past the bypass interchange on County Highway K into town. A leisurely drive past South Park (not to be confused with the TV show) on a nice summer day reveals local residents enjoying the beach nearby on Shadow Lake. You can’t see this on the bypass:

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Waupaca hosts a number of events throughout the year. One popular summertime treat is Strawberry Fest, which I could only assume celebrates strawberries. On a day when I visited, downtown was loaded up with berry, berry happy festival goers (sorry, I couldn’t resist), bands playing the park, and stores eager to serve the people visiting from other places. Being the county seat of Waupaca County and the largest town for about 20 miles, Waupaca bustles quite a bit for a city its size.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Clay Perry, the caver who first coined the term “spelunker”, was born in Waupaca.
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The Rosa Theater and part of Main Street in downtown Waupaca, which features a lot of places to shop, eat and yes, drink.

Following Highway 54 and/or Highway 49 east through the rest of Waupaca will bring you back to Highway 22 for the trip on northeastward – if that’s a word. Highways 22 and 54 combine for a while before 54 heads east toward New London. At this point, Highway 22 joins Highway 110 and heads for rodeo country in the form of Manawa.

Yes, it’s east-central Wisconsin, and I said rodeo country! Manawa (pop. 1,330) is home to the annual Manawa Midwestern Rodeo, which has been active for over 55 years – bring your boots. In winter, you can use the rodeo grounds to access the network of snowmobile trails, of which there are 165 miles in Waupaca County. There are 21 snowmobile clubs in just the county maintaining these trails.

After departing Manawa and the combo with Highway 110, Highway 22 heads east again. Dropping into a nice little valley over the Wolf River and through the town of Symco, I knew I was away from it all when the dominant station on my radio was called “Moose Country” – it’s AM 960, for all you country buffs.

Clintonville

Highway 22 reaches U.S. Highway 45 at a junction with Highway 76, which continues east. We head north with U.S. 45 for several miles into Clintonville (pop. 4,559), which is named after first settler Norman Clinton as opposed to the former president. This small city is home to Seagrave Fire Apparatus, the longest-running fire apparatus manufacturer in the nation. Its airport, Clintonville Municipal (CLI), is historically recognized as the birthplace of Wisconsin Central Airlines, which eventually became North Central and then Republic Airlines, which in 1986 was purchased by Northwest Orient Airlines. Today, it’s all part of Delta Air Lines. Clintonville is also a water city: along with recreation and fishing on Pigeon Lake and along the Pigeon River, Clintonville won the “Best Tasting Water in Wisconsin” contest in 2005, as sponsored by the WWA.

Four-Wheel Drive!

In terms of influencing the world, Clintonville is probably best noted for being the town where FWD – our Four Wheel Drive – was invented. Back in 1911, mechanics Otto Zachow and William Besserdich invented and patented the first successful four wheel drive concept automobile. As the Clintonville Four Wheel Drive Corp., the company used the first four-wheel-drive system installed in production vehicles in the United States. They proudly noted that the power, traction, and control of four wheel drive would allow vehicles to go “anywhere a team of horses can go.” Government interest in four wheel drive for military vehicles influenced the company’s decision to focus more on trucks, and its legacy upon the way the world travels can’t be underestimated. The original company merged with Seagrave. The original machine shop where the technology was invented housed the original museum exploring four wheel drive, and now the newer museum opened in a former Topp-Stewart Tractors factory, a labor of love project by Clintonville native and history buff Mark Thomas, along with other enthusiasts who got the current museum going. It’s now called the FWD Seagrave Museum, and it encompasses both the original Machine Shop and the FWD Seagrave main location, on 15th Street. Between the two, over 60 vehicles, many early models using the “new” technology, are on display and in exhibits.

22embras_smShortly after Clintonville is a town many have heard of when commercials or shows are pointing out interesting American place names: Embarrass, Wisconsin. Embarrass (pop. 487) is a small village, named after the river that flows through it. And they’re not ashamed to say it!

Shawano (pop. 8,298) is the county seat of Shawano County and is the largest town on Highway 22. Abutting Shawano Lake, it’s also the largest town between Green Bay and Wausau along Highway 29 and is a major point along the Mountain-Bay Trail, a great 83-mile rail-to-trail bike route that connects Rib Mountain in Wausau with the shore of Green Bay.

Highway 22 doesn’t exactly traverse tons of major cities, so Shawano seemed like a metropolis compared to most towns on the route. The cheapest gas on the route is here, as well as restaurants and hotels. The stretch of Green Bay Avenue lasts for several miles and combines State Trunk Tour Highways 22, 47, 55 and the old – now Business – 29. The mainline Highway 29 now runs south of town on a freeway bypass. At the junction of these highways downtown, this attractive statue illustrates the farming history – and hard work put in – of the area surrounding the city.

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This statue marks the downtown crossroads in Shawano.

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Four State Trunk Highways converge and go through Shawano’s main drag: 22, 47, 55, and “Business” 29, which was the mainline 29 until they built the bypass.

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From the “You Never Know What You’ll See on a State Trunk Tour” Dept: a camel grazes in the front yard of a home along the main drag downtown. The Shawano County Fair was in town at the moment – we can only assume there was a connection there.

shawanolk_lgShawano is considered by many to be “up north”, but its Native American name is actually “to the south.” At 6,100 acres, Shawano Lake was big enough to mark the southern border of Chippewa tribal territory. Highway 22 runs for over seven miles along the lake’s southern shore, passing a historical marker (pictured below) that tells you more. Meanwhile, you run into Cecil (perhaps a Shawano suburb? Maybe?) and make your way towards the highway’s final easterly push.

Past Cecil, you begin to weave over and past the Oconto River, a key stretch of running water that 22 will follow towards its terminus. Rolling hills line sections along the river, and evidence of the “old” 22 abounds:

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Rolling hills make the ride fun as Highway 22 crosses, and then parallels, the Oconto River…

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…and paralleling much of the way is the Old Highway 22, making us thankful for modern engineering.

Into Gillett (pop. 1,303), you meet up briefly with Highway 32. The town was named after Rodney Gillett, an early settler in the 1860s. Gillett is home of the Earthaven Museum, an earth sciences museum a few miles north of town up Highway 32 just down Valley Line Road. The Earthaven Museum features thousands of rocks, minerals and fossils with extensive collections of early human tools and artifacts. It’s a rockin’ time. Get it? Okay, we’ll move on…

Gillett ATV Capital along Highway 22

ATV Capital of the World

Gillett bills itself as the “ATV Capital of the World,” owning the trademark and everything. While a tall order to claim, Gillett backs it up with over 18 miles of maintained ATV trails just within their small city limits and the adjoining towns of Underhill and Maple Valley. A popular starting point is at Zippel Park, which is also home to the Oconto County Fair every summer.

From Gillett – via car, truck, motorcycle, or ATV – Highway 22 more or less follows the Oconto River into Oconto Falls (pop. 2,843), a lovely town where a dam expands the river into a more lake-like recreation setting. The dam, of course, replaced the “falls” part of Oconto Falls in 1883, but they chose to keep the original name. Built on sawmills and solidified on papermaking, Oconto Falls continues to be a source for tissue and other paper products that get shipped all over the world, some of which have to perform very unenviable tasks.

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Rising like a wooden dinner fork, this tree provided a nice foreground subject with the dammed (not damned, dammed) Oconto River in the background.

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A nice day at the riverside beach in Oconto Falls.

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Built in 1885, the Caldwell House hosted new workers and visitors to the pulping operations of the time. They came often by railroad, which came to Oconto Falls two years earlier.

Highway 22 dips into Oconto Falls’ downtown area and then heads back out, pushing east to the railroad – and now highway – stop at Stiles (not named after Julia, although I think of her every time I drive past), you cross U.S. Highway 141, a four-lane expressway letting travelers speed ever faster go get “up north.”

From Oconto Falls to Oconto – the end of the line
The last eight or so miles of Highway 22 is a pleasant, peaceful drive on the way to its eastern end. Right before it ends, though, you approach the outskirts of Oconto and some fascinating history at Copper Culture State Park. This park contains artifacts over 5,000 years old, is a former Native American burial ground – the oldest cemetery site in Wisconsin – and one of the oldest metal use archeological sites in North America. The park is free to visit, although you are encouraged to make a donation at the Werrenbroeck Museum, which takes care of the area and also chronicles the area’s extensive Belgian history. No, they do not make waffles.

Highway 22 comes to an end at the western edge of Oconto (pop. 4,513), which is now bypassed to the west by an expressway upgrade of U.S. 41. Highway 22 technically ends at the highway, but used to continue east to the “old” 41, where more of the activity is. Oconto is the seat of Oconto County and shares a similar history with Oconto Falls in that lumber, sawmills, and papermaking were all important industries.

Oconto

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Old-school beer drinkers may recall Oconto Beer, and signs sporting the brand are still up in various parts of town.

Oconto borders the waters of Green Bay, however, as serves as a port city between Green Bay and Marinette. Consequently, it’s where they build Cruisers Yachts, a luxury pleasure boat manufacturer established here in 1953. Oconto also has a long history of producing gloves – not surprisingly, considering the winter climate – and during the 1930s Oconto’s Holt Company was the largest producer of maple flooring in the United States. The city is the main town between Green Bay and Marinette, has a view of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula across the bay, and it’s where we reach the eastern end of Highway 22 on the State Trunk Tour.

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For those who imbibe too much, the lovely Oconto County Courthouse is not far away.

 

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 60, U.S. Highway 51

East Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 41
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 141, about 7 miles west

HIghway 21 Tank Crossing
21

STH-021“Bikes To B’Gosh”

 

WisMap21Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 21 cuts across much of central Wisconsin, joining Sparta and Fort McCoy with Oshkosh and the Fox Cities. Used as a primary route for cross-state traffic, it’s the main street for several key towns and provides access to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, as well as both the Wisconsin River (which flows into the Mississippi) and Lake Winnebago (which flows into Green Bay to Lake Michigan and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.)

Wisconsin Highway 21 Road Trip

The Drive (West To East): Highway 21 begins in the Bicycling Capital of America, Sparta (pop. 9,522). Sparta is the western host of Fort McCoy, the eastern terminus of the La Crosse River Trail, and the northern terminus of the world-famous Elroy-Sparta Trail. It’s also childhood home of a famous astronaut and current home of the World’s Largest Bicyclist (more on that below.) I-90 and Highways 16, 27, and 71 also meet in Sparta.

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Sparta’s traditional downtown runs along Highway 21, with shops and bikers lining the street.

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Ben Biken, Sparta’s bicyclin’ mascot, looks over Highway 21’s western start. He was manufactured locally by FAST Corp., which we’ll get to in a second.

The town’s enthusiastic support of bicycling extends to street name signs that bear bike symbols. Numerous motels and B&B’s cater to the cycling crowd while downtown establishments offer supplies for your bike and sustenance for your tummy.

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The Sparta Depot serves as a trailhead for the La Crosse River and Elroy-Sparta Trails. Here, a group of bikers begin the 32-mile trek toward Elroy.

On top of bikes, Sparta has a number of attractions. Some kids who grow up in Sparta leave for big cities; Deke Slayton left for Earth’s upper atmosphere. The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum honors the astronaut, native son, and head of NASA Operations from 1963 to 1972.

Deke Slayton Museum, Sparta

An out-of-this-world statue of Sparta son Deke Slayton adorns the Space & Bicycle Museum that bears his name.

So, you know that fiberglass hippo? The one whose mouth you putt golf balls into while playing mini-golf? Chances are it was made in Sparta at the FAST Corp. (FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks.) FAST does business all over the world, and few companies like it exist. A drive into their lot yields a sprawling field filled with fiberglass fun: large cows, alligators, elephants that double as childrens’ slides… the list goes on. You may traverse the field and marvel at their creations, as long as you behave and don’t climb on anything. Their lot can be found by following Highway 21 to the northeast edge of town, at the junction with County Highway Q. Look for giant fiberglass things.

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Fiberglass animals of all kinds, including this elephant hanging out in the pasture, dot FAST’s lot on the northeast side of Sparta. You are welcome to wander around and check out all the fascinating pieces, just be careful. Watch for wasps, which sometimes make nests inside the displays. Nobody needs somebody getting hurt, stung, or whining off to their lawyer. It is forbidden on the State Trunk Tour.

Highway 21 into Fort McCoy

Highway 21 crosses a stretch of Fort McCoy between Sparta and Tomah. They encourage you to just keep driving…

HIghway 21 Tank Crossing

Now HERE’S a “crossing” sign you don’t see that often…

Northeast out of Sparta, Highway 21 follows the La Crosse River and then beelines it across Fort McCoy, a military reservation in service since 1909. Amidst a beautiful setting with valleys, coulees and hills, about 100,000 members of the military are trained here every year.

Tomah

After a 5-6 mile straightaway, Highway 21 winds past Tunnel City and across the northern end of Tomah (pop. 8,419), which holds the Monroe County seat. Tomah itself sits right where the Driftless Area gives way to cranberry bogs and forests. Transportation has long been a hallmark of Tomah; it holds an Amtrak station for the Empire Builder and is where roads going through Wisconsin from Illinois to Minnesota tend to split. Pre-Interstate days, it’s where then-main roads U.S. Highways 12 and 16 split; when the interstates were built in the 1960’s, they decided to split Interstates 90 and 94 here as well. Highway 131 also starts here and makes a trek south through Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, an incredibly beautiful drive. Even shows of power congregate here: the Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull is one of the largest in the country and takes place every June at the Monroe County Fairgrounds. Not coincidentally, lots of hotels, truck stops, warehouses and transport companies are located here. In keeping with the transportation theme, Gasoline Alley comic strip creator Frank King grew up in Tomah. The city’s downtown is south of Highway 21; just follow U.S. 12 south and when you reach downtown, it’s a pretty cool main street boulevard. Meanwhile, along Highway 21,you’ll find a plethora of gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and more at the busy junction with I-94.

Tomah water towerIn addition to transportation, Tomah is known as one of America’s cranberry capitals. The world’s largest cranberry festival is held during late September in nearby Warrens, which also holds the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center. Warrens can be reached by heading north on I-94 to County E, about 8 miles north of Highway 21.

You can see cranberry bogs for yourself along Highway 21 just east of the intersections with U.S. 12 and I-94.

East of Tomah, it gets more forested. Just past the junction with Highway 173, an angled road that sends you up towards Nekoosa and Wisconsin Rapids, you enter a busy area – for wildlife.

The massive Necedah National Wildlife Refuge covers 43,696 acres in the largest wetland bog in Wisconsin. Established in 1939, the Necedah N.W.R. hosts many rare or endangered species; the Refuge played a key role in the reintroduction of the whooping crane and the gray wolf. Over 110 species of migratory birds and 44 species of butterflies (did you even know there were 44 species of butterflies??) along with a variety of reptiles, amphibians, and several threatened species like the Blanding’s turtle all get to hang out here. Hiking, fishing and berry-picking are just some of the activities one can participate in at Necedah.

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The Necedah National Wildlife Refuge can be accessed right off Highway 21.

Necedah NWR guide signs

Necedah is known as the “Land of the Yellow Water” due to the Yellow River flowing through (and no, it’s not a book by I.P. Daily.)

Further along Highway 21 at the southeast end of the National Wildlife Refuge is the village of Necedah (pop. 916). Founded as an early lumber town on the banks of the Yellow River near Petenwell Rock, a popular climbing bluff, Necedah hosts a number of visitors from the National Wildlife Refuge as well as water lovers wishing to recreate on nearby Petenwell Lake. Petenwell Lake is a wide area of the Wisconsin River formed by a dam in 1948; it’s now the second largest lake in Wisconsin. The dam itself is just east of town along Highway 21, just past the intersection with Highway 80 downtown. Despite Necedah being home to NASCAR drivers Jim, Jay, Johnny, Tim and Travis Sauter, remember to obey the local speed limits. For something slower and more reflective, the Necedah Shrine (W5703 Shrine Road, 608-565-2617) is a Marian shrine officially called the “Queen of the Holy Rosary Mediatrix Between God and Man Shrine.” They welcome visitors with free admission and an Information Center that is open from 10am-4pm daily.

While plying the beautiful farmland and forests that characterize much of the drive from Necedah eastward on Highway 21, you will cross the occasional curious landform such as Ship Rock, described by some as “an isolated pinnacle of Cambrian sandstone” and as a “cool rock formation” by others.

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Ship Rock, one of the most eastern outposts of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Area” and a fun place to go rock climbing.

It’s a beautiful outcropping, marred in places by graffiti for no good reason whatsoever. But check out the angles, because from many of them the rocks do resemble a “ship-shape.”

Coloma

Further east on Highway 21 we approach Wisconsin’s spine, the I-39/U.S. 51 highway. It tends to mark an unofficial boundary between the western and eastern halves of the state, and right where these two highways cross you’ll find little Coloma (pop. 450). Through history, Coloma has shifted to where the action is; it began four miles west of its present location where the stagecoach route once came through; when a railroad connecting Stevens Point to Portage was built in 1876, Coloma shifted over to where the rail was – its present downtown. U.S. 51’s original route came through on Main Street; today’s U.S. 51 & I-39 run through within a mile of Coloma’s main crossroads now, meaning the town could stay put. The original location four miles west is now known as “Coloma Corners.”

Glover Bluff Meteor Crater

A little-known, under-studied but significant feature on the landscape a few miles south of Coloma is the Glover Bluff Meteor Crater. This impact crater, estimated to be less than 500 million years old (you know – give or take), is five miles wide and is exposed at the surface. However, natural plant and tree growth coupled with quarrying for dolomite rock means the crater itself tends not to be uber-noticable. However, scientists and researchers are starting to recognize the need to study this crater in more detail, and we’ll keep you posted if becomes something where a visit will reveal something cool.

Highway 21 entering WautomaContinuing east from Coloma on Highway 21, you angle through Marquette County into Waushara County, heading east-northeast through the “sand hills” into Waushara’s county seat, Wautoma (pop. 2,218). The city bills itself as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” due to a major tree-growing farm that established in Wautoma in the 1950s. Highways 22 and 73 also converge here; Highway 21 joining 73 for a brief ride north into the city’s downtown before angling southeast. A brief offshoot is Highway 152, which runs for seven miles to Mount Morris and the Nordic Mountain Ski Area.

** Drive-In Alert **
On the east side of town along Highways 21/73, Wautoma offers an old fashioned drive-in, the Milty Wilty. Open since 1947, the Milty Wilty (920-787-2300) is known for delicious old-school burgers, hearty yet light milkshakes, ice cream, and just all-around fun.

The rest of Highway 21 from Wautoma to Oshkosh is coming soon!

West Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 16, Highway 27Highway 71
Can connect nearby to: I-90, about 2 miles east via Highway 16

East Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: I-41, Highway 76, U.S. Highway 45
Can connect nearby to: Highway 26, about 4 miles southwest; Highway 44, about 3 miles southwest

13

STH-013“From The State’s Largest Vacation Spot To The World’s Largest Freshwater Lake”

Southern terminus: Sauk County, at I-90/94’s Exit 87 in Wisconsin Dells

Northern terminus: Douglas County, at the U.S. 2/53 freeway near Superior

Mileage: about 340 miles

Counties along the way: Sauk, Columbia, Adams, Portage, Wood, Marathon, Clark, Taylor, Price, Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas

Sample towns along the way: Wisconsin Dells, Adams/Friendship, Wisconsin Rapids, Marshfield, Abbotsford, Medford, Phillips, Park Falls, Ashland, Bayfield

Bypass alternates at: Marshfield

WisMap13Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 13 connects the Dells with Wisconsin’s rugged Lake Superior shores. Along the way, you hit touristy areas like the Dells and Bayfield, run through mid-size Wisconsin cities like “da Rapids” and Marshfield, wind through the North Woods, scoot just to the west of Wisconsin’s highest point, and then hit the state’s northernmost areas along the lake Gordon Lightfoot sang about – for better or worse.

Wisconsin Highway 13 Road Trip

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Highway 13 begins as a ramp off I-90/94 going past the Dells; it runs right through the heart of downtown before making its way north through the state.

The Drive (South To North): Highway 13 begins along a busy interchange with I-90/94 (Exit 87) as it whizzes past Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World” and Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destination. In fact, I caught the local “vacation station”, WDLS (AM 900, which since unfortunately flipped formats), playing “Holiday Road” by Lindsay Buckingham, which served as the opening theme to National Lampoon’s Vacation. It was the perfect accompaniment to rolling through the bustling main street strip filled with shoppers and tourists on a beautiful summer day.

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Almost immediately, Highway 13 intersects with all the main roads in the Dells area: Highways 16 and 23, and U.S. 12

Wisconsin Dells

Past roller coasters, mini golf courses, waterparks, and hopping over the Wisconsin River, you enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418), which actually is a city. However, when people refer to “Wisconsin Dells”, they usually mean the whole area, including Lake Delton and the region up and down the Wisconsin River, whose gorgeous ‘dells’ and gorges give the area its name. Wisconsin Dells started as Kilbourn City in 1857. It was named after founder Byron Kilbourn, who also played a major role in getting Milwaukee started as a city one decade earlier. Renamed Wisconsin Dells in 1931, the city set the state’s high temperature record of 114 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius.) five years later. But yes, it gets cold here, too – hence a lot of indoor waterparks. In fact, it’s the “Waterpark Capital of the World.” It’s also chock full of foreign workers, many of whom are college age from Eastern Europe and South America. Time magazine actually named it one of the “Best Places for College Students to Work during the Summer” in 2004, proving there’s a list for nearly everything.

In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin “Ducks” (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dells’ selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

South of Highway 13 into Lake Delton via U.S. 12/Highway 13 reveals a vast array of sights: the Crystal Grand Theater, roller coasters, mini golf courses, ferris wheels, waterparks, upside-down White Houses (a place called “Top Secret”), plastic pink flamingos, motels, hotels, ski jumps in bodies of water… it’s all along this stretch. The world’s largest Trojan Horse can’t be missed. I mean, it’s right there.

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Motels, pedestrians and stray beach balls line the stretch south of Highway 13 in Lake Delton via U.S. 12 and Highway 23, with skywalks allowing pedestrians to avoid traffic and/or winter; and as you can see, traffic can get heavy on this stretch. Stop and go traffic much of the time on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer is not uncommon.

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It’s hard to miss the World’s Largest Trojan Horse along U.S 12/Highway 23, just south of Highway 13. A ride passes through it; no word on if anything else is hiding inside. It could be a trick!

Meanwhile, Highway 13 joins up with Highways 16 and 23, at the main intersection, continuing east to hop over the Wisconsin River and enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).

In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin “Ducks” (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dells’ selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

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One of the Wisconsin Ducks in front of Ripley’s, believe it or not.

This is truly a mecca of recreational vacation fun. Let’s take a look at some facts about the area around the Dells (thanks to the “Quick Facts” section of wisdells.com):

– There are 18 indoor waterpark/playground properties in the Dells, the highest concentration of such facilities in the world
– The first indoor waterpark in the nation, The Polynesian, opened here in 1989
– The largest indoor waterpark in the U.S. is the Kalahari Resort, with 125,000 square feet
– North America’s largest waterpark is Noah’s Ark, covering 70 acres, utilizing five million gallons of water and powering screaming people down three miles of waterslides
– The Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort’s indoor and outdoor waterpark space combined covers the space equivalent to six football fields

And if you want fudge shops, only Mackinac Island in Michigan can compete with the downtown strip along Highways 13/16/23. Mmmm… fudge. “The Strip” features t-shirt stores that seem to repeat every 100 feet or so. But there are also a ton of unique – or just not too common – things. Among them: Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museum, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming); the Rick Wilcox Theater; and waterparks a’plenty. Feel like going extreme? Extreme World features a 130-foot high bungee jump, a skycoaster and for those who prefer to stay on the ground the whole time, a big selection of go-karts and tracks.

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Plenty of sights to see along Broadway, the stretch of Highway 13 where it goes through the heart of Wisconsin Dells. Highways 16 and 23 run with 23 here, too. Nig’s Bar, pictured at night just above, is one of those places advertising itself via t-shirts that people wear (“I had a swig at Nig’s”) all over the place… you’ve probably seem them.

wisdells-cyclesthru13-16-23Basically, Highway 13 goes through the heart of the Dells with Highways 16 and 23 in tow. Wisconsin Dells is a great starting – or ending – point for any trip. You could spend a whole summer here and not run out of things to do. Since this is a road trip, it’s also about the journey. At least ’til we come back to the Dells.

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This is part of the “dells” in Wisconsin Dells. A boat ride reveals all kinds of rock formations along this stretch of the Wisconsin River. These dells were formed about 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

So, onward!

Onward from the Dells

After the intersection where Highway 16 breaks southeast toward Columbus and Milwaukee and Highway 23 continues east toward Green Lake and Sheboygan, Highway 13 turns north. Northward from the Dells, Highway 13 is a pretty straight shot through the tree cutaways, past smaller lodging camps and some access points that lead you back to the Wisconsin River. Beyond the junction with Highway 82 and over the interestingly-named Risk Creek lie the twin towns of Adams-Friendship.

fmound2Adams (pop. 1,914) is the larger of the two, due to the railroad’s new depot location in 1910; its twin city Friendship (pop. 698) remains the county seat and sits under Friendship Mound, which dominates the north view as you drive through the towns.

It gets quite mound-y here. Just on the other side of Friendship Mound is Roche-A-Cri State Park, which features a steep mound of its own… called, interestingly enough, Roche-A-Cri. The mound is 300 feet high and can be scaled via a 303-step wooden stairway that offers interpretive signs and two rest stops on your way to a gorgeous view from the top.

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The top of a long, steep 300-foot climb has its rewards on Roche-A-Cri Mound.

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The rock formations and views from above or below are great in Roche-A-Cri. Birds overhead only add to the enjoyment of a hike, a picnic, or – perhaps – bird watching.

While there, I saw a guy who made me think that Carrot Top and Owen Wilson had a kid. And by the way, this stairway provides quite a workout. Note that this climb is equivalent to scaling almost halfway up Milwaukee’s tallest building and you’ll know why the sounds of huffing and puffing are audible at the lookout point.

Back to ground level, we see that even the early Native Americans wanted to carve their initials in something – some left rock carvings in the rocks called petroglyphs. They’re deep carvings, considering they’ve survived the weather and elements for all these years. In fact, the earliest decipherable markings date back to about 100 A.D. More recent carvings from European settlers date to the 19th century.

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It’s 19th century – and before – graffiti, well before the invention of spray paint.

Buttes like Roche-A-Cri, and nearby Rabbit Rock, were islands in a glacial lake that once covered the area Highway 13 goes through today. Continuing north past Highway 21, which to the west crosses the Wisconsin River at man/dam-made Petenwell Lake (Wisconsin’s 2nd largest), you enter the town of Rome, where “Picket Fences” was set – alas, no Lauren Holly sightings. Motorcycle enthusiasts, however, can find the Dyracuse Motorcycle Recreation Area (yes, like “Syracuse”, but with a D.) Named after Dyracuse Mound, another major Adams County landmark, DMRA offers eight miles of trails for motorcycles, motocross, ATVs and an Enduro Loop. Full facilities are offered in the recreation area, which is operated by both the Town of Rome and the Rapid Angels Motorcycle Club. So get your motor runnin’/ head out on the highw… well, you know the rest.

In the Lake Arrowhead area, a newer golf resort with its eye on big national things has emerged. Sand Valley Golf Resort opened its first course in 2017 with more under construction. Sand Valley was established to take advantage of the natural sand hills and dunes in this area of Adams County, once the bottom of a glacial lake. The sprawling complex covers over 1,700 acres and looks to become of the premier destinations for golf in the nation and beyond – stay tuned!

Continuing north into Wood County, Highway 13 junctions with Highway 73, which goes west to Nekoosa; we’ll see 73 again before too long. Next up is the Rapids.

Wisconsin Rapids

Wisconsin Rapids (pop. 18,435) isn’t a big city, but it is big enough to be its own “micropolitan” area, which has almost 50,000 people. “Da Rapids” – as some locals call it – used to be two cities on opposite sides of the Wisconsin River, Centralia and Grand Rapids; they merged in 1900. Then, in 1920 when locals were fed up with getting mail misdirected to Grand Rapids, Michigan, they changed the city’s name to Wisconsin Rapids. The “rapids” refers to a 45-foot drop this “hardest working river in the world” made at this point, which provided some good acceleration to boats and canoes. Dams have since changed this – there are five from Stevens Point down to Nekoosa – but this stretch of the river still provides hydroelectric power and makes it convenient to pound wood into pulp so we can eventually have something to write on.

Consequently, Wisconsin Rapids is a major hub for papermaking and also serves as the shipping point for a lot of cranberries you saw in the bogs getting here. Wisconsin grows more cranberries than any other state – over 300 million pounds per year – and Wood County (of which Wisconsin Rapids is the county seat) is pretty much the center of it all. It’s home to a major educational software company, Renaissance Learning, Grim Natwick, creator of Betty Boop (and to salute that, the city has an annual Betty Boop Festival) and the hometown of the driver with NASCAR’s coolest name ever, Dick Trickle – even though he’s technically from Rudolph, which we get to next!

Hey, tours aren’t just for highways, breweries and museums. Tour the Stora Enso North America papermaking plant at 4th Avenue and High Street (715-422-3789) or, if you want to see paper in its original form, check out the Griffith State Nursery (473 Griffith Avenue, 715-424-3700), the largest forest nursery in Wisconsin.

During the summer months, you can take in a baseball game at Witter Field, a nice old-school ballpark that hosts the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, a Northwoods League team that plays opponents from all over the Midwest. If you like BMX biking, check out the nearby Central Wisconsin BMX track (715-572-2075), which has competitive racing on a 1,075-foot sealed track surface built into a natural amphitheater. I’ve raced on it, and you’re off to a good start with the 10-foot start hill and some serious jumps you can make once you get going.

Highway 13 is clearly the main commercial strip as it heads into town at 8th Street South. At the junction with Highway 54, 13 jogs west and bypasses downtown to the south and west as the Riverview Expressway. If you’d like to head downtown, stay north on “Business” 13 (which is also today’s Highway 54) to Avon Street, then turn left. You’ll jog onto Jackson Street for the river crossing before re-joining Highway 13 and head north out of town.

On the west side of Wisconsin Rapids, Highway 73 breaks west; Highway 13 followed that route for decades but was recently re-routed north along Highway 34, which begins at the same intersection where 73 leaves. Around the north side of town, Highway 66 begins and heads towards Stevens Point; we continue north into little Rudolph (pop. 439), where thousands of holiday greetings are sent each year to the postmaster for a special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer postmark.

Rudolph is the actual town where racing legend Dick Trickle grew up, a huge part of Wisconsin’s legacy in racing. The state’s legacy in cheese is also well-represented in Rudolph: this is where Dairy State Cheese (715-435-3144) makes a variety of fantastic cheeses and curds, whey protein concentrates, and brings in ice cream so everyone has something to enjoy. It’s right along Highway 13/34 in town.

Grotto Alert.
Fans of the remarkable collections of stone, glass and rock that make up Wisconsin’s fascinating grottos will want to check out Rudolph Grotto & Wonder Cave, located about nine miles north of Wisconsin Rapids via Highway 34. Red gossan rocks dominate much of the grotto, ranging from pebble-sized to a 78-ton boulder. The Wonder Cave itself is something to see.

13caronsiloRight: Yep, you’ll never know what you’ll find on the State Trunk Tour. We found this near Marshfield along what WAS Highway 13 back in the day. Now it’s part of Highway 80. Not sure if it’s still there, but it sure was eye-catching when we went past!

Marshfield

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After the junction with U.S. Highway 10 freeway and heading west at expressway speeds for about 15 minutes, you reach Marshfield (pop. 19,201), which is perhaps best-known as a medical destination for patients from all over the world. That’s because it’s the headquarters of Marshfield Clinic, a sort of Wisconsin counterpart to Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic. Founded in 1916, the clinic has expanded across the state and into upper Michigan with satellite centers and remains at the forefront of medical research, technology, development and treatment.

The medical research may come in handy, given what people will eat in Wisconsin at events like the Central Wisconsin State Fair, also held annually in Marshfield (deep-fried Twinkie on a stick, anyone??). Another Marshfield claim to fame is on these fairgrounds: the World’s Largest Round Barn. Recognized in places like Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, this huge red superlative at 513 East 17th Street is 150 feet in diameter and holds up to 1,000 people for a variety of events, many of them livestock-related. Built in 1916 without the use of scaffolding, it is 70 feet high.

Marshfield, World's Largest Round Barn near Highway 13

The World’s Largest Round Barn in Marshfield. Built in 1916, it anchors the grounds of the Central Wisconsin State Fair; you can’t get much more central in Wisconsin than Marshfield.

The annual Dairyfest is also held here, as is a 10K road race called the Cheese Chase. They also have Hub City Days, a fun festival saluting the city’s original nickname. Marshfield was a major hub of early railroads and its location very close to the geographic center of Wisconsin made it a hub of transportation long before it became a hub for medical care.

With a large medical anchor and associated businesses, Marshfield ably supports a local orchestra, the Foxfire Botanical Gardens and the Wildwood Zoo (608 W. 17th Street, 715-384-4642), a beautiful and free zoo covering 60 acres. The zoo features everything from cougars and lynx to bison and prairie dogs. Of particular interest are Kodiak bears, unique in a city this size and a harkening back to the zoo’s 1904 origins, when city utility workers started caring for two black bears in town. Another nice break from your road trip at Wildwood Zoo is the Sensory Gardens, featuring a wide variety of flowering and non-flowering plants designed to enhance your senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch amidst a tranquil setting.

Marshfield, like many Wisconsin cities, also supports locally-brewed beer. The Blue Heron Brew Pub (108 W. 9th Street, 715-389-1868) boasts over 16 varieties of beer and ales that are quaffed all over Central Wisconsin. They’re located in Parkin Place, an old dairy processing plant with a history all its own. Getting a parking place at Parkin Place usually isn’t too much trouble, so stop in!

Hub City Days

How wide is Central Avenue in Marshfield? Wide enough to accommodate crowds like this during Hub City Days. This is Business Highway 13 through the city.

In Marshfield, “Business 13” follows 13’s original route: Central Avenue. Downtown offers a wide variety of shops that cater more to the city itself than tourists. When increasingly busy roads through cities cause congestion, the solution is often to build a bypass way around the city; not Marshfield. They built a “through-pass”, essentially an upgraded version of Highway 13 (known also here as Veterans Parkway) that also cuts right through town but kind of juts in from a different angle. It stays multi-lane all the way through Marshfield.

Out of Marshfield, you follow the CN (Canadian National) train line, often witnessing long trains carrying loads of lumber. The next town is Spencer (pop. 1,932), which is somewhat of a suburb for Marshfield.

colbymarkerShortly before going through Unity (pop. 368), Highway 13 begins straddling the Clark-Marathon County line and continues as the divider into the small town of Colby (pop. 1,616), which is famous for – you guessed it – the birthplace of Colby cheese! Colby is similar to cheddar cheese, but is milder and softer because it is produced though a washed-curd process. In fact, it takes more than one gallon of milk to produce just one pound of Colby cheese (I’m dying to try producing it with chocolate milk!) The 1885 development put Colby on the map, where it remains as a little dot.

In Unity, by the way, I saw a bar so shacky it made the Boar’s Nest in “The Dukes of Hazzard” look like Tavern On The Green in Central Park. I almost stopped in for a Blatz. I will next time.

Just north of Colby and the junction with the new expressway bypass of Highway 29 lies Abbotsford (pop. 2,000). Holding claim as “Wisconsin’s First City”, it’s “first” in terms of the alphabet, not in population or age (those distinctions go to Milwaukee and Green Bay, respectively).

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hawkeyecone_225hiHighway 13 goes right through town and intersects with “Business” (read: Historical) Highway 29 at the main crossroads. This portion of 29 is also the old Yellowstone Trail, by the way.

Abbotsford features plenty of old-school businesses to check out, including Duke’s for Italian beef, antique shops and taverns. Right: Between Old 29 and Now 29 along Highway 13 is the Hawkeye Dairy, which features a wide variety of cheeses, sausages, and ice cream – it’s hard to miss the massive cone!

Crossing the 45th parallel (halfway point between the equator and the North Pole) at Dorchester, you end up in Taylor County. Going through Stetsonville (pop. 563), I noticed no Stetson hats; then the next place you reach you find people curiously asking you what you want on your tombstone.

Don’t worry, it’s just Medford (pop. 4,350), home to Tombstone Pizza (now owned by Kraft) and Pep’s Pizza. Basically, it’s the frozen pizza capital of Wisconsin, indirectly serving thousands of college students at 3am every night. Astrologer/psychic Jeane Dixon was born in Medford before moving to California and becoming a famous for her syndicated astrology column, predicting the Kennedy assassination and advising President Reagan’s wife Nancy during his term.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Tombstone Pizza started in 1962 as the bar pizza served at Medford’s own Tombstone Tap, a tavern whose name was inspired by the graveyard across the street.

After Medford and the junction with Highway 64, increasing evidence of the North Woods comes into play. Chequamegon National Forest is accessible on either side; you climb higher and higher, too, as Timm’s Hill, the highest point in the state, lurks just off Highway 13 about five miles east of Ogema, along Highway 86 and County C.

Timm’s Hill (elevation 1,951 feet) is a fairly low “high point” for a U.S. state, but standing atop the lookout tower, over 2,000 feet above sea level, you can easily tell it’s the highest point around. Many nearby hills are visible; all are clearly below you. If you want to do the Leonardo DiCaprio/Jack Dawson/Titanic “I’m king of the world!” shout from the top of the tower, well, that’s up to you.

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The views from Timms Hill, the highest natural point in Wisconsin, is remarkably expansive. You can truly tell you’re at the top!

Near Prentice lies an expressway junction with U.S. Highway 8, and then you reach the town of Phillips (pop. 1,675). County seat of Price County, Phillips offers several in-town lakes, a Wildlife Museum featuring a variety of wildlife mounts by taxidermist Martin Ribnicker, and Wisconsin Concrete Park, a crazy array of sculptures and folk art figurines using concrete, broken glass, shells and other materials. Some of them reflect both the relative dullness of concrete and the sparkle of multicolored glass, especially if it’s a sunny day.

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Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips, chock full of stone-based works of art.

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Highway 13 blazes right through downtown Phillips, county seat of Price County.

On the north side of town in the parking lot of the R Store gas station, see if Lola’s Lunchbox – one of our favorite food trucks – is parked and cooking up stuff. They grill up phenomenal burgers, tacos, and sandwiches with a unique menu. They also make puffed corn in a dizzying array of flavors, including Oreo, caramel, and much more. It makes for incredible road food!

Fifield (“a little town in northern WI with more cars than people”) provides a junction with Highway 70, one of the last main east-west highways left in the state as you head north; shortly thereafter, you cross the Flambeau River and enter Park Falls (pop. 2,793) Park Falls was originally called Muskellunge Falls, but it turns out “Park” was much easier to spell.

Park Falls boasts two stoplights, which is significant only in that they’re in the only two in Price County; the next set of stoplights is about 40 miles away in any direction. So yes, I’d say you’re officially “away from it all” by this point.

Fishing enthusiasts, of which there are many here, note Park Falls as the home of St. Croix Rod, known worldwide for its equipment. Along with a Pamida sighting, I took note that Park Falls is the “Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World”. Alas, I did not see any ruffed grouses on my way through town.

From Park Falls, Highway 13 forges northward through towns like Butternut (pop. 407), home of the “Best Tasting Water In Wisconsin.” (Water is supposed to be tasteless, though, right?) The high school team name is the Butternut “Mighty Midgets”, evoking thoughts that their offensive line doesn’t need to crouch at the line. The players are probably regular-sized, though. Another town is Glidden (no relation to the paint), the “Black Bear Capital of the World,” meaning it’s the place where you least likely want to go camping and leave food out.

77greatdivideHighway 77 joins in for ride, fresh off its route as the Great Divide National Scenic Highway. You do indeed cross the “Great Divide” (I call it the “subcontinental divide”), where south of the divide water flows southward toward the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico; north of it, water flows north and east into the Great Lakes and to the Atlantic Ocean. At this point, you’re 950 ft above Lake Superior, 1,550 feet above sea level. That means from there to Ashland, you’re dropping about 950 feet.

Mellen (pop. 935), Highway 77 heads away and shoots northeast towards Hurley. Mellen itself sports a charming city hall building, constructed the same year the largest tannery in North America opened here (1896). It would be seven more years before the telephone would come to town. Mellen peaked in population around 1920 when it had almost 2,000 people, but in 1922 the tannery closed and since then it’s been a small, pleasant burg that considers itself the Gateway to Copper Falls. Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man was filmed here in 1962, when the town welcomed the likes of Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy. Today, it welcomes recreational seekers of all kinds… but you can also catch a movie here if you want.

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Mellen City Hall, featuring a charming bell tower on its corner. This at the intersection of Highways 13 and 77.

Copper Falls State Park is accessible north of Mellen right off Highway 13 via Highway 169. Considered one of the most scenic of all Wisconsin’s state parks – a tall order, indeed – Copper Falls features ancient lava flows, deep gorges, and some serious waterfalls. Brownstone Falls is one of the best in the state, as is its namesake, Copper Falls. Campers have their choice of 54 sites, with additional group camping and backpack campsites. You’re in the midst of “snow country” here, with over 100 inches annually being the norm, so it’s generally safe in the winter months to assume the 8 miles of cross-country ski trails are maintained and ready.

Beyond Mellen and Highway 169, Highway 13 climbs to vistas where you can sense the coming of Lake Superior (especially in winter, when the lake effect snows can be relentless.) Past small towns like Highbridge and Marengo, The Big Lake They Call Gitchigumee (sometimes it’s hard to get Gordon Lightfoot songs out of your head) finally comes into your view as you drop down into Ashland.

Home to a shipping port, Northland College and a beautiful view of Chequamegon Bay, Ashland (pop. 8.620) serves as a gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (more on this later). A great place to stop and stretch after your long trek northward is the Northern Great Lakes Center, which offers interactive exhibits, displays, a boardwalk, an observation tower, and information about everything from historical events to best places to stay. It’s located west of Ashland along U.S. 2, just after the Highway 13 turnoff northward.

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It’s been a while since Highway 13 had boulevards and traffic lights; the drive into Ashland as Lake Superior becomes visible in the distance.

ashlandchBack in town, Ashland hugs the Bay and buildings for several blocks heading back from the shore offer nice views of the water. Highway 13 couples with U.S. Highway 2 here, but another, parallel route is Main Street, one block south. You pass a J.C. Penney Department store – one of the few times you won’t see one as a mall anchor store, the beautiful Ashland City Hall, the city’s main downtown shopping district and the South Shore Brewery before Main becomes just another side street in the neighborhoods.

One of the cool things to check out in Ashland comes from the increasing plethora of artists residing in these parts. On the sides of a number of downtown buildings, formerly drab brick facades have given way to vibrant, colorful murals depicting everything from streetscapes to people to simple extensions of how each building looks on its more “detailed” sides. You’ll find one on the north-facing side of the building along Highway 13 and Main as you approach U.S. 2; others lie along Main and its side streets downtown. Check out 4th, 5th, and others for evidence of these murals.

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After that, check off another brewery tour and imbibe in a cold one at the South Shore Brewery. Makers of the popular South Shore Honey Pils, the South Shore Brewery also brews up a Nut Brown Ale, a Pale Ale, and the new Rhoades’ Scholar Stout, their first “named” beer. South Shore Brewery offers tours, some on a regular basis and some by appointment. Bo Belanger, the head brewer, will happily show you around and let you sample a variety of brews.

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It’s probably the most hoppin’ place in town, no pun intended. The brewery is connected to the Deep Waters Grille and a bar so you can enjoy their freshly-brewed products with a variety of food, sports, and conversation with locals and visitors; there’s also a view of Lake Superior out of the front window. What else do you need? You know it’s a small, interconnected world when fresh grilled mahi-mahi with mango-tomatillo sauce is the special in a restaurant in Ashland, Wisconsin. It’s not like they pull mahi-mahi out of Lake Superior.

To be a good Sconnie, I partook in the Walleye fish fry, which ironically enough was not beer-battered. It was really good, though, as was the interesting combination of “cream of wild rice, ham and mushroom soup.” For my beers, the Brewers’ Choice was the Blonde Bitter (which I’ve dated a few), and was terrific. Others in my sampler included the Golden Lager, Nut Brown Ale, Rhoades’ Scholar Stout, the Cream Ale and the South Shore Honey Pils, a personal favorite of mine back in Milwaukee. Since I spent the whole evening there, dessert consisted of pizza. Bar manager Merri, who originally hails from Colorado, was managing that night. Since I wasn’t hungry enough for a whole pizza, we split one – chorizo with four cheeses (five if you count the parmesan sprinkled on top.) Everyone there was fun and interesting to talk with, and I was hardly the only out-of-towner in the place. Lots of Northland College students work there, and they come from all over the country.

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Ashland’s waterfront features a marina and the railroad pier, once used for exporting lumber and iron ore at a breakneck pace. In 1899, Ashland was the second largest iron shipping port on the Great Lakes. The Soo Line Iron Ore dock, pictured here, was the largest in the world until it was demolished in 2011.

Ashland features an array of lodging, since it’s the largest city between Duluth-Superior and the Ironwood-Hurley “microplex”. Of the notables, Best Western The Hotel Chequamegon is the most gracious, and a recent addition to the Best Western family. Victorian-style rooms overlooking the city or the water beckon to the days of the classic 19th century hotels that once served cities coast to coast.

Just west of Ashland into Bayfield County, Highway 13 veers off U.S. 2 and begins its final push into Wisconsin’s northernmost territory.

Bayfield’s county seat of Washburn (pop. 2,285) is the first town that greets you. Located along the Bay, Ashland is visible across the water. Highway 13 is the main downtown street and shops line the road. Several places that specialize in quilting adorn Washburn, as does Chequamegon Books, a great bookstore featuring stacks upon stacks of new and used books – and wireless Internet. I had a nice chat in the bookstore with proprietor Carol Avol, who reminded me that “Chequamegon” is pronounced without the “Q”.

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The Washburn Historical Museum and Cultural Center. Which also offers quilting essentials; the obelisk to the right is a memorial to Washburn’s nickname, “The Monolith City.”

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Chequamegon Books, pronounced, please, without the “q”…

Proceeding north, Mount Ashwebay provides a tree-filled backdrop to your view while approaching Big Top Chautauqua, a 900-seat entertainment venue that manages to combine “state of the art” with “all canvas tent theater” in one sentence – and mean it. Located at the base of Mount Ashwabay between Washburn and Bayfield, artists including Willie Nelson, Keb’ Mo, John Hiatt, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Robert Cray have complimented the already bustling line-up of orchestras, singers and performance artists that cover over 60 dates every summer from mid-June through mid-September.

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Mount Ashwebay dominates the landscape between Washburn and Bayfield.

Popular Bayfield (pop. 611) is well-known to tony vacationers around North America. Its charming shops, picturesque, sweeping views of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, access to the islands and interior recreation, and wide variety of B&B’s, hotels, motels and restaurants make this a popular destination for relaxers and adventurers alike. The Chicago Tribune called it the “Best Little Town in the Midwest” and numerous presidents and Hollywood stars have made Bayfield a regular stop on their “get away from it all” itineraries. It’s not rare to see autographed pictures of familiar people and historical figures adorn the walls of some shops and restaurants. Like Ashland and Washburn, Bayfield is a very popular place for artists to set up shop. whether just for the summer or all year ’round. Bayfield is noted as one of the “best 100 artist towns in the U.S.”, and you’ll find more galleries here than perhaps any other town with a population of 611 people. Bayfield is also the access point for cars wishing to visit Madeline Island and the Apostle Islands.

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Along Highway 13, a trio of flags wave in front of a hotel overlooking Chequamegon Bay, with Madeline Island in the distance.

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Highway 13 through downtown Bayfield.

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Boats and yachts a’plenty in the marina around Bayfield, prepping to navigate around the Apostle Islands.

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Cars boarding the ferry to Madeline Island, the only island in the Apostles with roads.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, designated in 1970, is a series of islands dotting Lake Superior, as well as a 12-mile slice of the shoreline itself – most if along Highway 13 from Bayfield north and west. Only one of the Apostle Islands – Madeline Island – is accessible by car. In Bayfield’s downtown, the Madeline Island Ferry is located right off Highway 13 and heads 2 1/2 miles from the mainland to the island. In the winter when the ice is thick enough, you can simply drive across to Madeline Island and its sole town of La Pointe, which receives both the ferry and the ice road on the island side. Madeline Island is the only inhabited one of the twenty-two Apostles and therefore the only island not part of the official National Lakeshore. Others include Stockton Island, the largest one at over 10,000 acres; Oak Island, which has the tallest elevations (almost 500 above the water); Sand Island, furthest to the west and the only island other than Madeline to once have enough settlement to warrant a post office; Raspberry Island, with a popular lighthouse now undergoing restoration; Devils Island, the northernmost one and therefore the one giving ships in the busy Lake Superior shipping lanes the most trouble; and two of the islands, Eagle and North Twin, the only two completely off-limits to campers, hikers and the like, because they are proetcted areas designated for preservation and study. Other islands are available for non-motorized recreation and camping… if you can get to them.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The Apostle Islands have the highest concentration of lighthouses anywhere in the United States (take that, Maine!) and its largest island, Stockton, has the highest concentration of black bears in the U.S. (don’t leave your food uncovered if you’re camping there.)

madelineismarker_500Madeline Island’s original name? Moningwunakauning. Meaning “Home of the golden-breasted woodpecker”, the island was renamed for the daughter of an Ojibway chief who married a French settler. This marker right along Highway 13 tells the story. Had the original name been kept, Moningwunakauning would have replaced Oconomowoc for the trickiest name in Wisconsin to pronounce on the first try.

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This curve over Saxon Creek is the northernmost point on Highway 13; Lake Superior is just to the north and the next paved road to your north is in Canada.

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The vista as you head west in the Bayfield Peninsula approaching Cornucopia.

Cornucopia is “Wisconsin’s Northernmost Village”… also, not coincidentally, with Wisconsin’s Northernmost Post Office. From the Latin Cornu Copiae, Cornucopia means “horn of plenty” or “harvest cone”; it’s actually the town’s symbol, clearly visible on signs as you drive through. With two marina facilities on Lake Superior and a beach called Corny Beach (I was wondering what kind of jokes beachgoers were telling on the sand), Cornucopia sports a large array of boat-oriented seasonal visitors, many of whom visit Ehler’s General Store, right next to the state’s northernmost post office. Ehler’s has been around since 1915 and is still operated by descendents of one of the original founders. Squaw Bay, just northeast of Cornucopia, features a series of sea caves that are quite a sight, especially if you can kayak. If you have a kayak or can rent one, definitely check out the bay; it’s accessible off Highway 13 via a series of small side roads, including Squaw Bay Road, Meyers Road and Squaw Point Road.

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Ehler’s is a good stop in Corncopia for supplies; and it’s always fun to mail something from Wisconsin’s “Northernmost Post Office.”

Herbster (part of the Town if Clover, and perhaps the only place that didn’t entirely hate Burger King’s “I’m Not Herb” campaign from the ‘80s), Port Wing had “Wisconsin’s largest fish boil” going on when I passed through.

Somewhere along here in the depths of winter, you can check out the Bayfield Sea & Ice Caves when conditions are right. You can kind of see them from hiking trails in the non-frigid months on land, but when Lake Superior freezes over enough you can walk out directly to them and check out the crazy works of Mother Nature when she’s cold. When are conditions right? This link will tell you, or you can call (715) 779-3397.

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This is how cool the ice caves can look. In places they look even cooler. Thanks to State Trunk Tourer Erin Uselman for this shot!

Side note: Now here’s the wild thing about Bayfield County: it’s the largest in the state by area, covering 2,042 square miles – larger than Rhode Island and only a little smaller than Delaware. It has 962 lakes, varies by almost 1,100 feet in elevation, contains a number of tourist sites and offers a ferry service to nearby Madeline Island; and yet, there isn’t a single traffic light in the whole county. Not one. Which in a way is good, because there’s no way you can get a ticket for running a red light; just a stop sign here and there.

In the distance, Minnesota is visible, usually about 40-50 miles away. Interestingly, a majority of the cars heading eastbound sported Minnesota plates, reiterating how popular these reaches are as a vacation spot for out-of-staters. You see, in the “south” (of Wisconsin), out-of-staters are usually Illinois people – going about 90 mph.

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Along with U.S. 2, Highway 13 carries the Lake Superior Circle Tour route through Wisconsin. The ride through the Brule River region is hilly and filled with forest.

13lsctsignJust inside Douglas County, Highway 13 stops hugging Lake Superior and heads straight south for a few miles. At County H, 13 turns west again (you can access Highway 27 by heading about 9 miles south on County H to Brule), heads through a narrow swath of the Brule River State Forest, and makes a beeline for the final stretch, a straight shot towards the final terminus just south of Superior in the Town of Parkland.

Just inside Douglas County, Highway 13 stops hugging Lake Superior and heads straight south for a few miles. At County H, 13 turns west again (you can access Highway 27 by heading about 9 miles south on County H to Brule), heads through a narrow swath of the Brule River State Forest, and makes a beeline for the final stretch, a straight shot towards the final terminus just south of Superior in the Town of Parkland.

Less than five minutes up U.S. 2 & 53 from Highway 13’s end is Superior (pop. 27,368), Wisconsin’s northwest corner and one of the Twin Port cities (the other, of course, being Duluth, Minnesota) that together have one of the busiest ports in the world. Superior basically runs along the western end of Lake Superior’s shore. The drive up U.S. 2 & 53 runs you right along Superior Bay, protected from the rough lake waters by Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point. Native Americans settled here not only for its proxoimity to the lake, but portage access to the St. Croix River, just south of Superior near Solon Springs. Superior is the county seat of Douglas County (named for the Illinois senator famous for being the “D” side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates) and features the second largest municipal forest in the United States. The UW system has a Superior campus and counts bodybuilder, actor and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger among its alumni. The economy here has had its up and downs, as has the city itself; the population peaked at just over 46,000 back in the 1930s, more than currently live in all of Douglas County. Lately, though, things have been on the upswing; traffic at the Port is up, manufacturing and transportation business is growing again, and the city is drawing more tourists than ever before.

Superior offers a look at the “World’s Largest Whaleback” at the S.S. Meteor Museum. Originally named the Frank Rockefeller, it was one of only 44 whaleback ships ever built. It’s a 366-foot long vessel launched in 1896 as an iron ore carrier. In 1927, many many years before the TV show, it was renamed the South Park, where it carried automobiles and hauled sand and fill for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. During World War II it was sold and renamed the Meteor, where it continued service until running aground near Marquette, Michigan in 1969. It was retired and by 1973 became the museum it is today in Superior. Tours are available from mid-May to mid-October; admission prices vary: it’s free for kids under 6, $5 for students and seniors, and $6 for adults. The Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center (305 Harbor View Pkwy., 715-392-7151) salutes the United States’ highest-scoring air ace and Medal of Honor recipient. He’s the same Bong who has a Recreation Area in Racine County named after him – a place originally slated to be an Air Force base – as well as the namesake of one of the bridges from Superior to Duluth (the one carrying U.S. 2), a bridge in Townsville, Australia, an Air and Operations Center on Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, and even a theatre in Misawa, Japan. The Heritage Center celebrates all who dealt with World War II, from frontline fighters to those who kept things running at home. It’s located right along Superior Bay.

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Superior’s harbor, well protected from Lake Superior’s waves by Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point, offers a popular marina and anchoring place for not only large ships, but plenty of pleasure craft. The hills towering above Duluth, Minnesota across the way form a nice backdrop.

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The northern end of Highway 13 at the edge of Superior, more than 340 adventurous miles from the start in Wisconsin Dells.

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Looking back at the start of southbound Highway 13. It’s just as fun the second time around!

Alas, after 340+ miles, Highway 13 comes to an end. Just as Highway 13 begins at a freeway junction with I-90/94 in Wisconsin Dells, it ends at a freeway junction with U.S. Highways 2 & 53 on the southern outskirts of Superior.

Big Manitou Falls and some of the spectacular rock formations near it.

Beautiful Big Manitou Falls and the splendor of Pattison State Park, not far from the end of Highway 13.

Just Beyond, State Parks Edition: At the end of Highway 13, you can also head straight west on County Z, then south on County A and right on Weinstein Road to hook up with Highway 35, where you can head south and check out Big Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park. At 165 feet, it’s the highest waterfall in Wisconsin and the fourth highest east of the Rocky Mountains. The Park and waterfall is about 13 miles south of Superior and about 15 miles from the end of Highway 13.

Just Beyond, Food Edition: While Highway 13 ends at the U.S. 2/53 interchange, food lovers might want to head straight on County Z, hang a left on County E at Parkland, then right on County K a mile or so to Kounty Quarthouse (4119 S. County K, South Range, 715-398-5582), a self-proclaimed “Five-Star Dive Bar” which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. Also, straight north from 13 on U.S. 2/53 in Superior you’ll find Gronk’s Grill (4909 E. 2nd Street/U.S. 2 & 53, 715-398-0333), a souped-up log cabin dishing up bar-b-que and some excellent burgers, including their soon-to-be-famous “Upside Down” Gronk’s Burger… which is exactly like it sounds. Finally, Shorty’s Pizza & Smoked Meat (1015 Tower Avenue/Highway 35, 715-718-0889) was also featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, where Montreal-style smoked meats and specialty pizzas and sandwiches are the norm. You drove a long way – EAT!

From the Dells to the southern outskirts of Superior, you encounter tourist towns, logging towns, paper- and cheese-producing villages, medical center cities, shoreline burgs, beachside hamlets and miles of forest. It’s a truly huge cross-section of Wisconsin and a great way to spend a few days road-tripping on one of the Wisconsin’s longest State Trunk Highways – a must route on the State Trunk Tour!

CONNECTIONS:
North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 2, U.S. Highway 53
Can connect nearby to: Highway 35, about 4 miles west; Highway 105, about 5 miles west

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: I-90, I-94, Highway 16, Highway 23, U.S. Highway 12
Can connect nearby to: Highway 33, about 9 miles southwest via I-90/94 & Highway 23

Arrowhead in Winneconne
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STH-116“Across the Fox and through the land of secession – and once to Berlin”

 

Quickie Summary: Highway 116 runs from the U.S. 45 freeway just northwest of Oshkosh by Lake Butte des Morts, across the Fox River into Winneconne – a town with an interesting history based on a state map snub! You then head south through Omro to Waukau, where the road ends but you can follow its historic route west into Berlin.

The Wisconsin Highway 116 Road Trip

The Drive (North to South): Highway 116 begins at the U.S. 45 freeway about six miles northwest of Oshkosh. County GG continues east to connect with Highway 76, but since we’re following 116, we go west.

Westbound Highway 116 beginning at U.S. 45

Highway 116 begins at the U.S. 45 freeway northwest of Oshkosh near Butte des Morts. Heading back east, County GG connects with Highway 76.

A side road – once Highway 110 – will take you to tiny Butte des Morts, which lies along the shore of its namesake, Lake Butte des Morts.  It’s part of the larger Winnebago Pool that features chains of lakes along the Fox and Wolf Rivers, eventually dumping into Lake Winnebago and then the Fox River out into Lake Michigan. And yes, if you can navigate a few locks, from this inland location you can get in a boat and make your way all the way to the Atlantic Ocean if you were so inclined. But we digress…

Lake Butte des Morts averages only 9 feet deep; its maximum depth is 15 feet. Popular for fishing, boating, water skiing, and trying to cross via I-41, the lake was named by early French settlers meaning “Hill of the Dead,” referencing a nearby Native American burial mound.

Highway 116 heads west from U.S. 45 and Butte des Morts for about three miles into Winneconne (pop. 2,383), which is squeezed into the Wolf River’s passage between Lake Poygan and Lake Butte des Morts. Highway 116 uses a drawbridge originally constructed in 1934 but has since been updated. This is a very popular crossing point, being is the only road crossing this Fox-Wolf-Wisconsin waterway system between I-41 in Oshkosh and the western end of the lakes system in Waushara County. This makes Winneconne a very popular boat launch spot, and summer days and nights are filled with boats and trailers towing them.

Winneconne welcome sign

The Well Drive-In, Winneconne** DRIVE-IN ALERT **

As Highway 116 enters Winneconne, you’ll find The Well Drive-In (705 E. Main, 920-582-7292). Open from March through September, The Well serves up the burgers, shakes, cones, and more you’d expect from a drive-in stand – but they also serve wings, fried cheese curds, and a Friday fish fry.

At the bridge, Highway 116 arrives in downtown Winneconne. Crossing the Wolf River here, Lakes Winneconne and Poygan are to your north, Lake Butte des Morts to your south. Along the shore, bars and restaurants – often with boat launch facilities – are ready to serve you.

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Highway 116 crosses the Wolf River. The first bridge, a floater, was constructed here in 1852.

One of them is a real “showboat” place – the Fin n’ Feather. A restaurant, bar, banquet hall, and launch point for riverboats that ply the Wolf River and adjoining lakes, the Fin n’ Feather dates back to 1922. With a design looking like a showboat of old, its location at the bridge along the water makes it an incredibly popular summer spot.

Not a bad day to relax along the Wolf River in Winneconne.

Not a bad day to relax along the Wolf River in Winneconne.

Fin' n Feather Restaurant, Winneconne

The Fin n’ Feather, which has grown in stages since 1922. It looks like a showboat… and it’s not just a look. They actually launch boats and have tours of the waterways here.

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Downtown Winneconne buzzes with activity on warm summer days. The Arrowhead Restaurant gets props for having a cool older sign!

“Sovereign State” and the 1967 map mess-up

In 1967, somebody screwed up and accidentally left Winneconne off the official state map – leaving only the dot. Winneconne did not take kindly to this; they reacted Texas-style by declaring “secession” from Wisconsin.  They created officers of the “Sovereign State of Winneconne”, developed a flag, named the skunk their official state animal, poison ivy the state flower, and the dodo the state bird.

Secession began on July 21, 1967. Later that day, Governor Knowles called Winneconne officials. He promised the error would be fixed on the next map and gave Winneconne some love and recognition on highway signs over on U.S. 41 and (then) Highway 110, helping to point more people to their town. So Winneconne rejoined Wisconsin and has celebrated “Sovereign State Days” every year since then – and they’ve never been skipped on a Wisconsin road map again.

On Winneconne’s west side in Arthur Marble Park is the Winneconne Historical Museum, which features the town’s 1871 railroad depot, an original one-room schoolhouse from 1889, the Kay Wilde Doll Cottage, and a Steamboat Museum. It’s open Sundays from 1:30-4:30pm… so you have a narrow window to hit!

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The Winneconne Historical Museum, a campus of historic buildings in Arthur Marble Park along Highway 116. They’ll let you in if you hit a 3-hour window on Sundays during the summer.

 

omro_welcomesignSouth of Winneconne, Highway 116 heads straight south six miles into Omro (pop. 3,517). Here it meets a junction with Highway 21, a main east-west route from Oshkosh that goes all the way west to Sparta. Omro lies along the Fox River and was visited by French explorers as early as 1639; in the late 1800s it brimmed with mills, factories making glass and carriages, and machine shops – many of which headed to Oshkosh by 1900.

Omro serves as a center for western Winnebago County (south of the waterway system) and has been growing again, including as a bedroom community for workers in Oshkosh. Omro’s main street includes historic buildings – which can be further explored via their historic walking tour – and attractive parklands along the Fox River.

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Highway 116 meets up with Highway 21 for the ride across the Fox River into downtown – they actually have a “wrong way concurrency” through town, with eastbound 21 also being westbound 116 and vice-versa.

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In what looks like a former Fotomat, this kiosk welcomes you to Omro. A pay phone is in front of it, too. Maybe this should their de facto historical museum.

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Both car and pedestrian-only bridges span the Fox River in Omro. Nice parkland, including Miller Park abutting downtown, makes this a pleasant area.

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The Colonial Cheese House.

One favorite Omro stop is the Colonial Cheese House (800-985-6590), which specializes in aged cheeses as well as beef sticks, curds, spreads – and their homemade pizzas are very popular among locals. It’s places like this that help make a roadtrip fun and brings a Wisconsin experience.

As Highway 21 breaks east toward Oshkosh, Highway 116 meanders south-southwest through Winnebago County farmlands.

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The former site of “Blue Bell School”, which closed in 1962, is commemorated here just southwest of Omro along 116 and County F. Not to be academic, but the bell itself here isn’t blue; it’s gold. Just an observation.

It’s an increasingly forested ride south, with a nice diversion for nature lovers via County K available in the form of the Waukau Creek Nature Preserve, which offers spring wildflowers, willows and marshes, and a great time for bird watchers.

Highway 116 ends up heading into the small settlement of Waukau (pop. 255), where it once turned west to head into Berlin, nine miles to the west in adjacent Green Lake County.

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We couldn’t find much history on this mill close to where Highway 116 ends in Waukau, but we do know when it operated.

Today, Highway 116 ends at Highway 91, which runs from Oshkosh to Berlin and took over for Highway 116’s original turn west from Waukau to Berlin when 91 was designated on this route in 1996.

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Highway 116 doesn’t go very far, but it’s a pleasant little drive with some nice stops in Omro, Winneconne, and along the way. Oshkosh is close too, always ten miles away or less. Enjoy!

CONNECTIONS
Western/Southern Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 91
Can connect nearby to: Highway 49, nine miles west; Highway 44, nine miles east

Eastern/Northern Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. 45
Can connect nearby to: I-41, six miles southeast; U.S.10, seven miles north