Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 33 is a “coast-to-coast” state highway, connecting La Crosse on the Mississippi with Port Washington’s scenic harbor on Lake Michigan. From the big blue waters of the Great Lake to the beautiful coulees framing La Crosse, you encounter hairpin turns in what seems like a mountain range, Baraboo’s famous Circus Museum, ski slopes of Cascade Mountain, the natural wetlands of Horicon Marsh, and some of the best canoeing in the nation along the Kickapoo. It’s a terrific cross-section of southern Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Highway 33 Road Trip
The Drive (East To West): Highway 33 begins along the main street leading into Port Washington (called Grand Avenue) at the intersection with Highway 32. From the eastern terminus, you can see the hill dropping into downtown and the beautiful harbor on Lake Michigan, which is postcard-worthy on a nice day. The Chamber of Commerce hints of a “New England fishing village charm”, and they’re not lying.
The Start: Port Washington
Port Washington (pop. 10,683) has the largest collection of pre-Civil War buildings in the state on the National Register of Historic Places; they can be easily navigated in walking tours downtown. While there, check out the lighthouse that marks the harbor entrance… and count the number of tourists taking its picture. Just north on Highway 32 is the headquarters of Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corporation and the “Shoe Bank”, where you can get discounts on the upscale men’s wear.
Port Washington’s bustling Lake Michigan harbor is well-known as a great place to keep your boat and get some good fishing in. The downtown area is adjacent to the harbor, with bars, restaurants, shops, hotels and condos. Highway 33’s eastern start is just west of here.
Above: Smith Bros. Fish Shanty was famous for freshly-caught fish dinners for decades in Port Washington. The original restaurant has since closed; the name is retained in the coffee shop occupying part of the building. The rest is a Duluth Trading Company retail store and offices. The landmark sign has been refurbished and towers over the view towards the lake from where Highway 33 begins heading westward and ends heading eastward. Highway 32 continues the ride east to the waterfront and Rotary Park. Below: Port Washington’s largest annual celebration is Fish Day, which takes place in July. Fireworks over the beautiful marina are just part of the event.
For biking enthusiasts, the Interurban Trail winds through town, and all of Ozaukee County, on a former rail line. From Port Washington’s charming downtown, Highway 33 head west through residential neighborhoods before a roundabout with County LL, which was once the highway bypass of Port Washington as U.S. 141 before the freeway was completed about a mile away in the late 1960s.
Highway 33 is actually one of the oldest roads in Wisconsin, tracing its roots to the 17th century as a trail connecting Horicon Marsh with the harbor on Lake Michigan in today’s Port Washington.
Heading west from Port Washington and crossing I-43/Highway 57, you enter Saukville (pop. 4,068), which sits along the Milwaukee River and is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state. A number of upscale golf courses lie nearby, including The Bog, whose entrance abuts the highway. Entering Washington County at Newburg (pop. 1,119), you encounter a mixture of farmland, forests, and some marshland.
Before long, you hit West Bend (pop. 29,612), the second largest city on Highway 33 and the seat of Washington County. As Washington Street, Highway 33 dives right into town and shaves across the north end of West Bend’s beautiful downtown district, which can be accessed directly via Main Street. Featuring a wide variety of shops, the West Bend Theater and a slew of 19th century brick architecture – several holding notable jewelry stores – it’s a great place to spend a chunk of time shopping and just enjoying the day.
Art lovers will take note of the Museum of Wisconsin Art (300 S. 6th Ave., 262-334-9638), which holds a sizeable collection from Carl von Marr and a unbelieveable doll house – seriously. Walter Zinn, who had a malting company way back when, started building a doll house for his daughter Lenore in 1911 for her fifth birthday and just couldn’t stop. By 1957, he had developed a 27-room mansion of a doll house that contains over 1,200 miniature items, including artifacts brought back from overseas trips. On the next block, the Washington County Historical Society (320 S. 5th Ave., 262-335-4678) offers museum fun in their 19th century courthouse and a jailhouse. The Society also operates the St. Agnes Historical Site nearby, which features homestead sites built between 1856 and 1878 that are well-preserved.
Appliance lovers will love the Regal Ware Museum (18 E. Washington Street), located right on Highway 33. Since 1911, West Bend and “suburb” Kewaskum have been meccas for the manufacture of small cooking appliances and utensils. The name “West Bend” has peered out to users of blenders, mixers, and utensil users everywhere for decades. In 2002, Regal Ware (which started in Kewaskum in 1919) took West Bend over and, despite being worldwide conglomerate, continues to manufacture items in the area. So what can be exhibited at such a place? How about the world’s first whistling tea kettle? Or inventions that never quite made it to market, like the electric pizza cutter? Kitchenware products throughout the decades – reflecting everything from elegant styles to fashion eras some may wish to forget – are on display at this new and rather unique museum. Built inside a former credit union, the Regal Ware Museum is the only museum in the nation with an operable drive-thru window. Check out a YouTube video of the museum here, made by somebody we stumbled upon.
The west side of West Bend brings Highway 144 along for the ride and a freeway junction with U.S. Highway 45, which bypass the city. West Bend’s growth continues along Highway 33 to the west, approaching Highway 144’s turnoff southward toward Cedar Lake and Slinger, being part of the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive.
On the ridge right next to 144’s turnoff, you cross the Subcontinental Divide, designated with a marker along the south side of the highway. East of this marker, all water flows into Lake Michigan and out to the Atlantic Ocean; west of it, water flows to the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not quite the Continental Divide through the Rockies, but it’s still pretty major. At this point, you’ve climbed 600 feet in the 20 miles since the Port Washington harbor at Lake Michigan.
Further west, the junction with I-41 marks the entrance to Allenton; you swoop down into the (unincorporated) town, cross the Rock River and railroad line and head back up. On the climb, you have a nice view back east. Allenton is where former NASCAR driver and current General Manager of Roush Fenway Racing Robbie Reiser was born. His father John Reiser also raced throughout Wisconsin and the nation, founded Triton Trailers and managed the Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series race shops. He obviously lived there for a while too, so racing is tied in with Allenton’s history – and yet, the speed limit on Highway 33 is pretty strictly enforced.
The Yellowstone Trail Junction.
You may notice a small street sign saying “Yellowstone Tr.” on it. While today’s Highway 33 swoops left slightly, what you see marked as “Yellowstone Trail” is a small segment of the old Highway 33 that once crossed under Highway 175, which prior to 1954 was U.S. 41 and part of the nationwide Yellowstone Trail, the famous route “from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound.” A rather cool Art Deco-style bridge (below) was built back in 1933 to carry U.S. 41 over Highway 33 in what was an early attempt at bypassing a town – in this case, Allenton – and creating a safer intersection by using grade separation.
The bridge was torn down in 2005 and now the two roads meet at a regular 4-way stop (that’s no fun, what the heck??) But you can still trace parts of the old route, and right next to where the bridge stood stands the Simon Weiss House. The house was built in 1896 and was the neighbor of the bridge for 72 years; the historic marker to the right tells the story.
Approaching Highway 67, Highway 33 ducks under a major railroad line, one of many that connect the northern woods with the big cities that processed the trees and minerals that came down. Today, you’ll also notice between Allenton and Horicon that there are windmills everywhere – this area, like the ridge on the north end of Horicon Marsh, has a lot of wind and was designated as a good place for wind farms.
Horicon and the Horicon Marsh
Shortly after entering Dodge County and crossing Highway 67, you come upon Horicon (pop. 3,775), known as the “City On The Marsh”. The marsh, of course, being the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, both a State Wildlife Area and a National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a pretty unmistakable feature; a vast expanse of flat land that looks like a lake had been drained there. And that’s pretty close to how things got to be this way. When the glaciers that once covered this part of the state retreated, a moraine was formed that worked like a dam and created a large lake. The Rock River, which uses the Marsh as its source, gradually drained the natural lake and turned it, well, marshy. People tried manipulating it again twice: from 1846 to 1896, a dam re-created the glacial lake; after it became a marsh again, there was an attempt to drain it from 1910 to 1914 and use the area for farmland. That didn’t quite work either, and today the Marsh is preserved and protected to serve as one of the world’s largest “rest stops” for migrating birds.
The Horicon Marsh covers about 50 square miles – equivalent to about half of the City of Milwaukee. The southern third of the marsh, around Horicon, is managed mostly by the state; the northern two-thirds (up by Highway 49) is under Federal control by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Over 290 species of our winged friends have been documented in the Marsh, making it a top birding area. It’s a favorite layover for over 200,000 migrating Canada geese as they make their way back and forth in spring and fall – think of it as a rest area on the bird migration highway. (Find out more about birding here.) Horicon Marsh draws nature lovers, bird watchers, hunters, scout groups and naturalists. It can draw mosquitoes too, so bring some repellent.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|The Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S., and the area around Horicon Marsh has the highest concentration of drumlins in the world.|
As you go into Horicon’s downtown area, Highway 28 begins and heads back northeast, along the southern boundary of the Marsh. Meanwhile, Highway 33 heads right into downtown. John Deere has a large plant in the city that cranks out lawn and garden tractors, golf and turf reel mowers and utility vehicles. It’s been there a long time, and will hopefully continue for a long time. Horicon also has access to the Wild Goose State Trail and naturally draws on the scenic beauty of the marsh and also maintains a nice park system, particularly along the Rock River, whose headwaters come out of the marsh. Oh, and the high school team nickname? The Marshmen.
An old war relic sits in a park in Horicon, overlooking the Rock River and the John Deere plant behind it. Horicon cranks out a LOT of tractors, snow blowers and other sundry, handy machinery. Meanwhile, Highway 28 starts on the east side of Horicon, right off Highway 33. After a cruise through some neighborhoods, Horicon Marsh is just around the corner.
Highway 33 cuts right through Horicon after the junction with Highway 28 and then ducks southwest out of town, pushing west past the Wild Goose Trail, a great rail-to-trail path connecting Clyman Junction and Fond du Lac while skirting the west edge of Horicon Marsh. The intersection with Highway 26 is known as Minnesota Junction. Note, however, that it looks nothing like Minnesota. There was a noticeable lack of Vikings fans and lutefisk at the junction on this particular day.
Shortly thereafter to the south you’ll see the Dodge County Fairgrounds (I happened to catch the Fair on my trip) right near the Crystal Creek Dairy House (920-887-2806), which not only has a nice selection of cheese but serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a specialty in burgers and homemade ice cream. But the “CHEESE” sign is what catches the eye as you drive by.
Just past the fairgrounds and the Beaver Dam Raceway, a 1/3-mile banked clay oval track, Highway 33 meets the U.S. 151 freeway, which is a bypass of Beaver Dam to the east.
Founded in 1841, Beaver Dam (pop. 15,169) is Dodge County’s largest city. Bobby Hatfield, one of the Righteous Brothers, was born here and actor Fred MacMurray of the classic TV show My Three Sons – and many movies – grew up here. Beaver Dam is home to Wayland Academy, a college preparatory high school that was established in 1855 as a Baptist university. Graduates of Wayland include pro wrestler Ric Flair; Jensen Buchanan, formerly of Another World and General Hospital fame, Olympic speed skater Maddie Horn, and a series of congressional representatives, reporters and columnists and even a NASA rocket scientist (Andrew Mulder), although apparently you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to go there. Highway 33 cuts right through the center of Wayland’s 55-acre campus.
Hey, this is Wisconsin, the cheese capital of the nation – and perhaps the world. Do you like cream cheese? If so, know that Beaver Dam is home to one of the largest processing plants for Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese. In fact, Beaver Dam hosts the annual Midwest Cream Cheese Competition in salute of this distinction, so bring your best cream cheese-related recipe.
The downtown stretch of Highway 33 follows Business US 151 for a while before angling north to run parallel to Beaver Dam Lake, upon which the city sits. There were no actual beaver sightings during the Tour, however…maybe it was an off day.
Highway 33’s northern jaunt leads to nearby Fox Lake (pop. 1,454). The Depot Museum on Cordelia Street (920-296-0254) sits in a building constructed in 1861 just off Highway 33, which is known as Spring Street through town. Along with information, it features about one block of no-longer-used railroad track and an adjacent walking trail that winds through and describes the native vegetation. Adjacent is an historical marker noting Fox Lake as the birthplace of noted jazz musician “Bunny” Berigan, who played with Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, and Bing Crosby. Louie Armstrong was a big fan, too, as the marker indicates.
Fox Lake is about 62 miles from the starting point in Port Washington… or 100 kilometes for all you metric freaks. This is a longer trek across farmland and the approaching hills. You cross Highway 73 and see lots of rural things, like mailboxes with fish mouths for doors. Parts of “Old” Highway 33 are visible just west of the intersection with Highway 73, giving you an idea of what some of the roads were like way back when. Hints of landforms to come also become visible heading westbound, as some of the hills in the distance begin to show themselves and beckon.
Old sections of Highway 33 are still in use – or at least visible – in areas. This was grandpa’s route on 33, taking decades to deteriorate; to the right, you can see the new, current highway adjacent to the old one.
Highway 33 beelines across Columbia County past rolling farmland, with impending hills in the distance as you approach Portage.
After parading across some territory and crossing Highways 22 and 44, the next town in question is Portage (pop. 9,728), named for its location at the only traditional land break along the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, a 1.5 mile “portage” between the two rivers which connect the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Used as a land portage for centuries by Native Americans and then European settlers to cross between the two major basins of the country, it was eventually connected via the Portage Canal. The Canal was constructed between 1849 and 1876, the dream of investors to make the Fox-Wisconsin corridor one of the great water highways in the nation. However, the railroads took over in importance and the Canal couldn’t compete. It still exists, treated by pumps and an aeration flow system. Efforts are underway to restore the canal, the use of which by boats ended in 1951 when the dam and locks making its use possible were closed to protect the separate water basins. The Canal’s south bank is now part of the National Ice Age Trail, created in 2006, which also included cleaning up the canal.
It’s home to Fort Winnebago Surgeon’s Quarters Historic Site, part of former Fort Winnebago. It was built in 1828 between the rivers on the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway to help protect the portage. Decommissioned in 1845 and ravaged by fire in 1856, little remains today, but the old “Surgeon’s Quarters” stayed intact and is open for tours. Built in 1824, this log cabin started as a trading post at this strategic junction and later served as the Surgeon’s Quarters for Fort Winnebago (hence the name.) The Old Indian Agency House is another point of interest on the grounds.
Portage is the county seat of Columbia County and considered by many where “up North” begins – including its Chamber. Its strategic location, once defined by a connecting waterway and Fort Winnebago, is now defined by the I-39 and I-90/94 split and junction of Highway 16, and U.S. Highway 51, while Highway 33 goes through the heart of town as Cook Street. Still, Portage boasts a sizeable downtown that overlooks the waterway area, filled with shops and businesses catering to both tourists and residents from miles around. Writer Zona Gale hailed from Portage and used the area as a setting for her Pulitzer prize-winning play Miss Lulu Bett in 1921. It’s a nice walking downtown, and this Walking Tour Guide can help you enjoy stretching your legs and discovering shops, restaurants, and other points of interest.
Downtown Portage is a bustling crossroads, where U.S. 51 and Highway 16 also meet.
Just past downtown Portage, Highway 33 crosses the Wisconsin River and heads toward two major interstate junctions. The first is I-39 (and formerly Highway 78 until 1992), which heads north toward Wausau and south to Madison and Illinois. The I-90/94 interchange arrives about two miles later, which is the main route between Madison and the Twin Cities. Cascade Mountain, the well-known skiing area, lies just to the south of this interchange and hints at the topography to come; the Baraboo Range, which kicks off the western half of the Highway 33 Tour, undoubtedly the prettiest from a topography standpoint.
Between Portage and Baraboo, the Baraboo Range – and the “Driftless Area” of Wisconsin – takes over the local topography. The glaciers that worked like massive irons, flattening out the land and leaving small lakes everywhere in the Midwest didn’t quite catch this part of Wisconsin. Lucky you: Highway 33 snakes around increasingly impressive landforms featuring bluffs, rock formations and deep valleys as a result. Check out the Lower Narrows historical marker, which outlines information on the Baraboo Range and ancient rock formations you’re driving through.
Just off Highway 33, get a little history by checking out the Man Mound (no, this isn’t a trick.) By following Man Mound Road, you can access what’s left of a Native American burial mound, originally built to look like a man from above. It remains significant as the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound in North America. Measuring 214 feet long by 48 feet wide (before construction of the road cut through the legs and shortened him by about 50 feet), this was one large man. Likely built sometime between 750AD and 1200AD, it was “re-discovered” in 1859, dedicated as a county park in 1908, and became a National Historic Landmark in 2016.
Named after the Range, Baraboo (pop. 11,550) hosts a number of organizations and was named one of the 20 best small towns to visit in the U.S. in 2013 by Smithsonian.com. It, similar to Delavan, is a circus town: Baraboo is home to the Circus World Museum, once the headquarters and winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus. Today, the living museum hosts the largest library of circus information in the U.S. Crane lovers probably know that Baraboo is home to the International Crane Foundation, the world’s foremost organization dedicated to preserving and restoring crane species. 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.
Just south of Highway 33 along 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 south from 33 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. Many buildings in the Circus World Museum date back to the 19th century and plenty of plaques will tell you more.
Devil’s Lake State Park, located south of Highway 33 as you enter Baraboo from the east, is Wisconsin’s most visited and, at over 10,000 acres, there’s plenty of room for nature lovers and adventurers of all kinds. Follow Highway 113 or U.S. 12 south to access the park.
Baraboo’s geography isn’t just a pleasant treat for State Trunk Tourers; it’s a hotbed for structural geology. University of Wisconsin researchers, including Charles Van Hise, used the area to advance the science and today the Baraboo Hills are designated one of the “Last Great Places” by Nature Conservancy due to the relatively unique plants, rocks and animals in the area.
Highway 33 skims the north side of Baraboo as 8th Street, where it intersects the northern end of Highway 113 (the route southward to the museum) and then joins up with U.S. 12, where hotels a’plenty greet you and the Ochsner Park & Zoo awaits for animals not currently involved in the circus.
After a short stint with U.S. 12, which heads toward the Dells, Highway 33 breaks west again and eventually picks up Highway 23 for the ride into Reedsburg (pop. 8,704). Prior to entering 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. 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 skiers and snowmobilers.
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 33 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.
After Highway 23 breaks away to head south, Highway 33 starts moving west and northwest, winding through and around the hills and valleys into places like La Valle (pop. 326 and, creatively enough, “La Valle” is French for “The Valley”) and – once you cross into Juneau County – Wonewoc.
In Wonewoc (pop. 834), Highway 33 is the main street and parallels the Baraboo River through downtown. Canoeing, a theme which will be visited again on this stretch of 33, is popular with both residents and tourists. The “400” Trail, which began back in Reedsburg, ends in Wonewoc where it finds new trails to hook up with. The downtown area is quiet and small, but features a number of bars for some food, a beer, or spirits. And speaking of, the Wonewoc Spiritual Center covets spirits of a different kind. Founded as the Joint Stock Spiritualist Association in 1874 as known for a long time as the Western Wisconsin Spiritualist Camp, the Wonewoc Spiritual Center hosts a sizeable number of members every summer, who enjoy the serenity of hills surrounding the town and the area.
Past Wonewoc by a few miles is Union Center, where you intersect with Highways 80 and 82 and head west to Hillsboro (pop. 1,302). Known as the Czech Capital of Wisconsin, Hillsboro is the last town on Highway 33 with over 1,000 people until you get to La Crosse. It’s home to annual Czech festivals and counts among its native sons B.J. Schumacher, who rides regularly with Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (also known as “PBR”, but that gets confused with a different type of PBR in this state.)
Above: Announcing the Country Market along Highway 33 (coupled with 80 and 82 here) is a large mouse holding groceries, which is better than a large mouse in your groceries, I suppose. Just a short distance later, another huge fiberglass mouse tells you about more available cheese. There should be no calcium deficiencies in this area.
In Hillsboro, Highways 80 breaks south; three miles later Highway 82 splits off to the southwest.
Hillsboro and the Cheyenne Valley… Diversity before diversity was cool
In the mid-1800s, a sizable group of African American settlers came to eastern Vernon County and established Wisconsin’s first integrated schools, churches and sports teams. Interestingly, a racially diverse and by all accounts harmonious community was more easily achieved in rural Wisconsin in the 19th century than some areas are able to have today. Although much of the old community is gone, landmarks remain… including many of the area’s famous “round barns”, many of which were designed and built by Algie Shivers, one of the settlers. About half the barns he supervised and participated in the construction of still stand, and some are seen along Highway 33. There is an official driving tour of the Cheyenne Valley exploring this, which can be download in .PDF format here. Highway 33 from Hillsboro to Wildcat Mountain State Park is part of the tour.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|The Driftless Area of Wisconsin, which you’re smack dab in the midst of at this point on Highway 33, is the only part of Wisconsin with no natural lakes.|
Speaking of, the segment of Highway 33 resembles a twisty Colorado mountain road at times through the gorgeous Cheyenne Valley and approaching Wildcat Mountain State Park. Over 3,600 acres of scenery, trails and wildlife await in the park, which offers great views of the Kickapoo River Valley. Meanwhile, hairpin turns await you on Highway 33… seriously! You have to drop to about 20 mph to make it around some of these curves. Check out one of them in the pictures below, just east of Ontario…you might forget you’re in Wisconsin. (Click on any picture below for a larger version.)
Entering Ontario (pop. 476), you cross Highway 131 and the Kickapoo River, often called the “Crookedest River in the World.” This is major canoeing territory. Canoe rental places provide opportunities for taking a break from the drive and paddling your way up or down the Kickapoo and checking out the rock formations and (at times unusual) plant species lining the banks.
Past Ontario, Highway 33 enters Monroe County and works westerly across ridges and coulees, providing a twisty-turny drive (if you have a directional compass in your vehicle, it might be spinning like a top) and great views all around. You’ll go through Cashton (pop. 1,005), where you cross Highway 27. The cartoon strip Gasoline Alley, which has been around since 1918, was created by Frank King; he was born in Cashton and grew up in nearby Tomah. Just past Portland you cross into La Crosse County, the second-most populated county on Highway 33 after Washington. Some of the best views have yet to come; at Middle Ridge, feel free to play the Who’s song “I Can See For Miles”… because you can.
Coulees, coulees everywhere
Not to be confused with “cooties”, which I was accused of having back in second grade, “coulees” are ravines with deep, steep sides. They’re formed by erosion and often harbor little mini-worlds of plants that could otherwise not grow in the surrounding land. “Coulee” is derived from the French verb couler, meaning “to flow.” The things you learn on the State Trunk Tour…
Highway 33 continues along St. Joseph’s Ridge for the ride into the final destination, La Crosse (pop. 51,818). Situated on a rare piece of flat land amidst beautiful coulees and hills, La Crosse emerged as a Native American trading post due to its position at the confluence of the Black and Mississippi Rivers. La Crosse holds a number of “quality of life” accolades, often involving low crime or livable small city status; I note USA Today also named La Crosse one of the “Top Ten Places Worldwide to Toast Oktoberfest” (more on that in a second.) Long known as a brewery town, La Crosse was home to G. Heileman Brewing Company for almost 140 years, cranking out a variety of brands, most notably Old Style. Today, the sprawling brewery complex lies right along the north of Highway 33, just south of downtown La Crosse, where it continues to run as the City Brewery.
Once Heileman and the home of Old Style, the “World’s Largest Six Pack,” which holds enough beer to fill 7.3 million cans, lives on as the storage tanks for the City Brewery, founded in 1999. City Brewery brews about a dozen of its own beers as well as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and several flavors of Arizona Tea. This is one block north of Highway 33’s western end.
The World’s Largest Six Pack (obviously pictured above) is indicative of La Crosse’s fun style, and you can access it by following U.S. Highway 14/61’s northbound lanes for just a few blocks, then turning left one block and heading back south. Highway 33’s western end is one block south of the gigantic, John Blutarsky-pleasing sight.
La Crosse is Wisconsin’s largest city on the Mississippi River and holds the corporate headquarters of Kwik Trip, the Trane air conditioning company, and FirstLogic. This is where journalist Chris Bury got his start before moving on to Emmy Awards and little shows like Good Morning America, Nightline and World News Tonight. Model and actress Alexa Demara hails from La Crosse; FHM magazine called her “the hottest thing to come out of Wisconsin since Brett Favre’s spiral.” A century earlier, actress Minnie Dupree came out of La Crosse to a prominent career in New York theatre. Young actor Brandon Ratcliff also hails from the city.
It’s also a college town, home to Viterbo University, Western Wisconsin Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. In keeping with the spirit of the World’s Largest Six Pack, La Crosse also hosts one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States and has been doing so every year since 1961.
Highway 33 descends into La Crosse as State Road, then as Jackson Street, to the point where you might find your ears popping. Just north of Highway 33 as you enter town is Grandad’s Bluff, the most notable landform in the area – next to the Mississippi River, of course. You basically enter the city on the south side of town, crossing Highway 35 and then ending at U.S. 14 & 61, right at the City Brewery, formerly the Heileman Brewing Company. It’s still a large complex!
From the end of Highway 33, head north on U.S. 14/61 into downtown La Crosse, where you can enjoy Historic Pearl Street. It’s filled with Civil War-era buildings, specialty shops, a microbrewery, galleries, antique shops, coffee houses and, at night, college students doing what they do best when they’re not studying. The Pearl Street Brewery, once located on Pearl Street, now sits nearby on the north side of town in a former Rubber Mills Boot factory. On the east side of downtown along 9th Street, the Swarthout Museum features changing exhibits from prehistoric to Victorian; over on 5th Street, the Children’s Museum of La Crosse has exhibits for our future leaders on three floors, along with a climbing wall for all ages. All of this can be reached by your car, or you can hop the La Crosse Trolley in the warm weather months for a little “no need for the gas pedal” tour.
La Crosse is home to the La Crosse Loggers, one of the Northwoods League baseball teams. They play at Copeland Park (aka “The Lumber Yard”), which sits north of downtown just off U.S. 53. The Loggers play a 70-game season from June through August. This is a good baseball town; it’s where MLB players Damian Miller, Scott Servais, George Williams and Jarrod Washburn all hail from.
Rudy’s Drive-In is one of the great ones in Wisconsin. Built in 1966, Rudy’s features roller-skating carhops and a sheltered carport where you can pull up and order your probably-unhealthy-but-delicious food from the menu sitting right out your window.
Car shows and “Cruise Nights” happen regularly throughout the summer. You can find Rudy’s two blocks west of Highway 35 along Highway 16 (La Crosse Street).Highway 35 basically bypasses downtown La Crosse, instead going right through neighborhoods. You have good access to downtown via U.S. 14/61 or Highway 16.
Along with I-90 to the north, the two main bridges spanning the Mississippi River and connecting La Crosse with La Crescent, Minnesota are collectively called, creatively enough, the “Mississippi River Bridge.” Yeah. Individually, the nearer one in the picture is the Cameron Avenue Bridge, which opened in 2004; the other is the Cass Street Bridge. Opened in 1940, the Cass Street Bridge originally carried both directions of traffic; today, each bridge carries one-way.
So there you have it! Highway 33, 200 miles from the Great Lake to the Great River, with some great towns and great scenery along the way. Enjoy!
Can connect immediately to: U.S. 14, U.S. 61
Can connect nearby to: Highway 16, about 1/2 mile north; U.S. 53, about 1/2 mile north; Highway 35, about 3/4 mile east; Interstate 90, about 5 miles north