Quickie 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 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.)
The Wisconsin Highway 21 Road Trip
The Drive (West To East): Highway 21 begins in the Bicycling Capital of America, Sparta (pop. 8,648). 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.
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. And speaking of your tummy, the “Ben Biken BBQ Bash”, named as the Official State Barbeque Championship of the State of Wisconsin, takes place every September. Coupled with typical September weather, it might be the best weekend of the year to go check out the area. You can eat brisket and burn it off biking.
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. And that fiberglass hippo, 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.
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.
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 every year.
After a 5-6 mile straightaway. Highway 21 winds past Tunnel City and grazes the north end of 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. Highway 131 also starts here and makes a trek south through Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, an incredibly beautiful drive. 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 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.
While plying the beautiful farmland and forests that characterize much of the drive from Tomah eastward on Highway 21, you will cross the occasional curious landform, such as Ship Rock, described as “an isolated pinnacle of Cambrian sandstone” by some, and as a “cool rock formation” by others.
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