Quickie Summary: Wisconsin Highway 113 serves Baraboo (the “circus city”), Devil’s Lake State Park and the shores of the Wisconsin River around Merrimac before crossing the river on the state’s only free river ferry. From there, Lodi, Dane, and the only Waunakee in the world await before you hit the north side of Madison, Dane County Regional Airport, breweries and more ending at U.S. 151/East Washington Avenue, a major gateway to Wisconsin’s State Capitol. In only 40 miles or so, the scenery and variety makes for an enjoyable morning or afternoon jaunt. Yes, I used the word “jaunt.”
The Wisconsin Highway 113 Road Trip
The Drive (North to South): Highway 113 begins at Highway 33 in the northern portion of the city of Baraboo (pop. 11,550), recently named as one of the 20 best small towns to visit in the U.S. in 2013 by Smithsonian.com. Just west of the junction with Highway 33, the Ochsner Park & Zoo offers the opportunity to view and learn about a variety of animals, from snow leopards to wolves and more. And this is a city that knows animals; Baraboo is home to the International Crane Foundation. Famed ecologist Aldo Leopold is a native son, and the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center at the Foundation is LEED-certified as perhaps the “greenest” building in the U.S. It’s carbon-neutral and uses locally-harvested wood products. But Baraboo is probably most known for the circus — the big one, for all practical purposes.
Baraboo and the Circus…and the College. In 1884, seven brothers named Ringling (Al, August, Otto, Alfred, Charles, John and Henry) founded the Ringling Brothers Circus in Baraboo. Actually, it was called “Yankee Robinson and Ringling Brothers” but Yankee went away at some point. They traveled the country, wowing people with a show that for a while had a monstrous official title: “Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals”. They eventually bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus and by 1919, they were merged into the name most people know them by: Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”The “Barnum” in question, by the way, is P.T. Barnum, who is credited with the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” (Barnum was all wet, by the way – there are hundreds of suckers born every minute.) There was a Ringling Clown College for a while. It started in Venice, Florida in 1968, moved to Baraboo in the early 90s and then relocated back to Florida before closing in 1997. Graduates and instructors from Ringling’s Clown College include Bill Irwin, Penn Jillette, Steven “Steve-O” Glover, and Philippe Petit (the guy who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974.) Honorary graduates of the school include Dick Van Dyke and weatherman/octogenarian greeter Willard Scott who, interestingly, was the first person to portray Ronald McDonald in a TV commercial. But we’re getting off track here.
Embedded in the concrete surrounding the Sauk County Courthouse are elephants, camels, everything short of cotton candy to help illustrate Baraboo’s circus connection. Not enough to convince you? Check the historical marker on the big rock across from the Ringling Theatre.
Highway 113 is part of the west side of Baraboo’s beautiful town square, which frames the Sauk County Courthouse. Encircling the square are shops a’plenty, along with bars, restaurants and the impressive Al Ringling Theatre. Built in 1915, it’s often known as “America’s Prettiest Playhouse.”
|From the “You Never Know What You’ll Find on a State Trunk Tour” Dept:|
On the Sauk County Courthouse grounds, an impromptu oversize chess match.
Imagine getting a ticket for going 3 mph.
Okay, back to circus stuff: following Highway 113 past downtown, the road turns to parallel the Baraboo River and approach the Circus World Museum, a place where boys, girls and children of all ages can see how circuses have worked and entertained people for generations. As they say, “experience the thrill that never gets old,” featuring a Circus Museum, an area called Ringlingville, a wide variety of circus animals and the World’s Largest Circus Wagon Collection. History abounds along this stretch of Highway 113; a series of buildings in the Circus World Museum date back to the 19th century and plenty of plaques will tell you more.
As you leave Baraboo on Highway 113, the Baraboo Hills greet you and so does Devils Lake State Park. The most popular state park in Wisconsin (up to 1.4 million visitors annually), Devils Lake State Park offers 29 miles of hike and bike trails, a unit of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve and a segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Parking for part of that trail is available in a lot right off Highway 113. Access to Devil’s Lake State Park is best found via County DL (I’ll bet you can guess what “DL” stands for, right?) Devil’s Lake State Park is about 1.5 billion years old in geologic terms, though it didn’t become a state park until 1911. Heaven for soil scientists, geologists, hikers, bikers, campers, skiers and climbers, it’s without question one of the most topographically interesting areas of the state.
The picture illustrates how these rock formations look lining Devil’s Lake itself, giving Sconnies and visitors from other areas of the Midwest the impression that they’re approaching the mountains “out west.” Plenty of hikers head up to the top and enjoy the scenery along with a granola bar or two.
The drive along this stretch is hilly, twisty-turny and quite fun. You make your way downward because you’re about to travel along the Wisconsin River.
Highway 113 joins Highway 78 for the ride east to Merrimac (pop. 416), home of the Merrimac Ferry – the last remaining ferry on the State Trunk Highway system. The Merrimac Ferry began as a toll ferry in 1924, becoming free in 1933. It has been ever since. The Colsac III, launched in 2003, is the third boat (hence the “III”) to serve this run and can accommodate 15 cars at a time. Expect a pretty hefty line during summer weekend days, especially in August. They’ll take care of you, though: vendors offer ice cream and other ways to enjoy the day, even when you have to sit and wait. The Merrimac Ferry generally runs from about April 15 through the end of November. – but weather can always be a factor. You can always call them at (608) 246-3871 to check availability and wait times.
Checking out the side of the road along Highway 113… it’s a little wet from the ferry. The railroad bridge frames your view to the east. It’s pretty cool to watch when a train is crossing, too.
Across the ferry, you enter Columbia County. Highway 188 begins there and heads southwest towards Prairie du Sac; Highway 113 begins a ride along the southern arm of Lake Wisconsin, a picturesque extension of the Wisconsin River with 57 miles of shorelines and bluffs towering above. Pine Bluff is particularly noticeable as you cruise within sight of the water for several miles, past the tiny settlement of Okee. Farmland begins to dominate again as you make your way to the next town – one that salutes a historic duck and produced a Duke.
That town would be Lodi (pop. 2,929), which founded in 1846 for its water power potential because of Spring Creek, which runs through the downtown area. About one hundred years later, the town adopted a mascot named “Susie the Duck” for a duck that returned to build a nest in the downtown area along Spring Creek year after year. While the original Susie is long gone, wild ducks continue to flock to this area. Lodi celebrates with an annual “Susie the Duck Day” – and the highlight is the rubber duck race.
Lodi’s downtown runs mainly along Highway 113, right at the crossing with Highway 60 which heads east to Grafton near Lake Michigan or west to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi. At the Susie the Duck spot, you can buy handfuls of dried corn from vending machines to feed the ducks – one of whom just might be this year’s Susie. The annual “Susie the Duck Day” celebration features the plastic duck race, where you can buy a small duck that will, along with thousands of others, get dumped into Spring Creek for a “race” to the finish line. We’ll check into what the winner receives. By the way, Susie’s fame outside of Wisconsin pales in comparison to another famous native, Tom Wopat. Most famously known as Luke Duke on the “Dukes of Hazzard” (one assumes he picked up the accent elsewhere), Wopat is also well-known for his theater performances and a rather successful singing career, including country and some pop standards across eight albums, the most recent of which is Consider It Swing, released in 2009.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|Lodi is one of three Wisconsin cities to have its own fair, the Lodi Agricultural Fair. It’s been running since 1865.|
South of downtown Lodi, Highway 113 runs along a portion of the Ice Age Trail and Ice Age Park. There’s also easy access to the Lodi Marsh State Wildlife Area, a large wetland complex filled with springs and cattail marshes, and it’s noted for a habitat popular with mamy varieties of moths, including several rare species. Who knew? Into Dane County, Highway 113 starts to do some zigzagging. You zig into tiny little Dane (pop. 799), then zag and zigzag again (this is a great excuse for typing “z”‘s) into the only town of its kind…
Yes, you hit the only Waunakee (pop. 8,995) “in the world”, as they like to point out. It was founded as Leicester in 1870; the following year, two early settlers persuaded the St. Paul Railroad, via cash and land, to relocate through their property instead of the original intended location two miles north. A post office and other buildings sprouted up, and the village incorporated as Waunakee (one Native American meaning: “the fair and pleasant valley”) in 1893. Just into town, Highway 113 hooks up with Highway 19. Together, they go through downtown and head east for a few miles.
Brewery Alert. Also, in the light industrial park shortly before Highway 19 heads east an 113 begins to head back south, you can connect to Octopi Brewery, a craft brewer that brews for others along with a nice line of their own brands under the name 3rd Sign Brewing. Opened in 2016, their Tap Room offers a wide variety of samples and makes a good stop.
From Highway 19, Highway 113 heads south into Madison (pop.243,344), Wisconsin’s second largest city, of course the state’s capital, and – as some have famously claimed – “77 square miles surrounded by reality.”
From flying to fly balls, the next attraction along Highway 113 – now called Sherman Avenue – is Warner Park, home to Madison’s Northwoods League baseball team, the Madison Mallards. Often referred to as the “Duck Pond”, the stadium holds 7,500 plus standing room for baseball games and offers up a dozen closed-circuit TVs so fans can monitor the game when they’re not in their seats. A popular “B” (or “C” or “D” or so) List Celebrity Friday Nights promotion hosts everyone from Emmanuel Lewis (Webster from “Webster”), to Sonny Shroyer (Enos from “The Dukes of Hazzard” and, amazingly, an eponymous TV show spinoff for about 3 episodes) and William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the NFL Team That Shall Remain Nameless from South of the Border.
Just north of all this is Madison’s airport, Truax Field/Dane County Regional. With an airport code of MSN, it fortunately came before Microsoft’s attempts at duplicating AOL, so they couldn’t sue. An airport since 1937, it was activated as an army base in 1942 and deactivated in 1968, though it still holds the 115th Fighter Wing, flying F-16’s. The commercial portion of the airport is expanding rapidly, with a new parking garage, terminal expansions and adjacent business parks spouting up. Highway 113 is the main “gateway” to the airport; you’ll pass it just north of Aberg Avenue.
Right where you can turn into Madison’s airport, you’ll spot the Ale Asylum Brewery. Originally located just west of here, Ale Asylum brews up several popular beers including Ambergeddon and Hopalicious. They brew on-site and have a full restaurant; tours are available on Sunday afternoons.
This is THE route from Madison’s downtown to the airport. On the way, you pass the world headquarters of Oscar Meyer Foods, home of a variety of meats and the ever-popular Weinermobile. Direct access to the interstates east of Madison (I-39, 90 & 94) can also be had via Aberg Avenue, which also leads to Highway 30, a key route out of Madison that was also the key road to Milwaukee prior to the I-system taking over.
Highway 113 ends at U.S. 151 (East Washington Avenue, a.k.a.”East Wash”) in Madison, in view of the state capitol just down the road. (map)
Can connect immediately to: Highway 30, U.S. Highway 151
Can connect nearby to: Interstate 39/90/94, about 3 miles east; U.S. 51, about 2 miles east
Can connect immediately to: Highway 33
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 12, about 1 mile west