Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 131 runs up much of the beautiful valley along a river called the Kickapoo (which sounds more like something you’d do in a farm field), Highway 131 twists and turns like a swimmer with a fish in his trunks. The drive is beautiful, though, and worth the wear and tear on the steering wheel. You’ll experience Wisconsin’s apple capital, a solar-powered town, the Ocooch Mountains as part of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, and don’t be surprised if you see seas of bonnets belonging to the many Amish in this region.
Wisconsin Highway 131 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): Highway 131 begins at Highway 60 just east of Wauzeka (pop. 768). Just south of where Highway 131 begins, the Kickapoo River empties into the Wisconsin River en route to the Mississippi. The Kickapoo is the river Highway 131 follows pretty closely and crosses over numerous times for the first two-thirds of its length.
Most of the road curves and winds through very rural territory, hugging hillsides and climbing to ridges where beautiful valley views offer sights for miles and miles – especially in the fall.
The first town you come across is the village of Steuben (pop. 131) at the junction with Highway 179. Other small settlements that follow include Barnum and Bell Center.
You’ll see plenty of references to apples around here, and when you arrive in Gays Mills (pop. 625), you’re in the “Apple Capital of Wisconsin” (the question is, does it keep a lot of doctors away?) Gays Mills hosts the Crawford County Fair every year, and all year ’round features Log Cabin Heritage Park, a series of log homes that preserve the folk architecture for the town and Crawford County. They’re all original, though not in their original places – they were delivered from around the county over the past ten years or so. The Altenburg-Zweifel Corn Crib is one example, a cabin built in 1890 near Wauzeka without the use of nails.
Past Gays Mills and winding near the Kickapoo River, Highway 131 meets up with U.S. Highway 61 in Soldiers Grove (pop. 653). Billed as “America’s First Solar Village”, Soldiers Grove relocated its downtown from 1979 to 1983 in the wake of devastating floods from the Kickapoo – which helped reduce damage from major flooding again in 2007. This moved the village’s business district out of the floodplain, back on U.S. 61, and gave residents an opportunity to do something unique – make all the new buildings energy efficient and solar heated. Buildings were placed and positioned in a way to maximize solar exposure in order to follow the ordinance that they must receive at least half their heating energy from the sun, a first for the U.S.
Highway 131 follows U.S. 61 for about 4 miles into Vernon County into Readstown (pop. 395), where it meets U.S. 14 and follows it over the Kickapoo River (again) before turning north again through the heart of town. North of Readstown, Highway 131 gets very twisty-turny again with nice views of the Ocooch Mountains.
The next town up is Viola (pop. 699), where a brief junction with Highway 56 sends you through the small downtown. Highway 131 here ducks into Richland County and cuts across its northwest corner before re-entering Vernon County.
Back into Vernon County, Highway 131 enters LaFarge (pop. 775), where it intersects with Highway 82. LaFarge is one of about ten places that bills itself as the “Heart of the Kickapoo Valley” – and in a sense, they’re all correct. Nestled in the beautiful valley the Kickapoo winds through, LaFarge marks the southern edge of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, a tract of land 8,500+ acres large with sandstone outcroppings and unique local plants and animals. The Reserve came from a flood control project authorized in 1962, begun in 1971 and abandoned by 1975. What remains of the area is the Reserve, which former Senator Gaylord Nelson campaigned to be turned into a national park and said it deserved such status. Visit it for yourself and see if you agree…especially if you rent a canoe!
The north end of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve is near Ontario (pop. 476), where you cross Highway 33 and, once again, the Kickapoo River, further giving merit to its claim of the “Crookedest River in the World.” Canoe rental places in Ontario provide opportunities for taking a break from the drive and paddling your way up or down to check out the rock formations and (at times unusual) plant species lining the banks. Wildcat Mountain State Park lies just east of Highway 131, offering hiking trails with spectacular views.
Just inside Ontario, Highway 131 enters Monroe County and makes a beeline to Wilton (pop. 519), which bills itself as the “Heart of the Trail” – in this case, the famous Elroy-Sparta Trail, the nation’s first rail-to-trail recreational route. A store and several bars are available for pit stops whether driving or biking in Wilton, where you hook up and join Highway 71 eastward for a few miles before heading north again.
Kickapoo-free for its northernmost stretch, Highway 131 has an interchange with I-90 before ending at U.S. 12 and Highway 16 in Tomah (pop. 8,419), which holds the Monroe County seat. 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. 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.
In 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 connecting to Highway 21 via U.S. 12, straight north past the spot where Highway 131 ends.
Can connect immediately to: Highway 60
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 61, about 8 miles east