Southern terminus: Buffalo County, at Highway 35 on the north side of Alma
Northern terminus: Eau Claire County, at U.S. 12 (Clairemont Ave.) in Eau Claire
Mileage: about 43 miles
Counties along the way: Buffalo, Eau Claire
Sample towns along the way: Alma, Mondovi, Eau Claire
Bypass alternates at: none
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 37 connects Eau Claire with the Mississippi River at Alma, following the Buffalo River much of the way. A nice tour through the northern part of the “Driftless Area”, it’s a pretty easy (and pretty) drive with plenty of curves, views and nature to make it a good “get away from it all” drive.
The Wisconsin Highway 37 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): Highway 37 begins at Highway 35, the Great River Road, just north of Alma (pop. 942). Established in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state, Alma’s motto is “Step into living history.” Alma offers probably the best views of locks in action with a towering observation deck close to and above Lock & Dam No. 4. The metal bridge that serves as the observation platform spans the railroad tracks that line the Mississippi, which makes it all the wilder experience when a massive train rumbles underneath your feet. It’s also a popular nesting place for bald eagles. The Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center is a great place to find out more about the bird migratory patterns, the natural wonders of the area, and to check out the works of local artists – this whole area, actually, draws artists from all over.
Below: This view of Alma, the bluffs above the town, the tracks where trains rumble up and down the Mississippi – in this case, under your feet – and the close-up view of Lock & Dam No. 4 (next picture down) can all be had from the observation deck. The train tracks were completed from La Crosse to St. Paul in 1886; Lock & Dam No. 4 opened in 1935. Highway 37 begins just north of here off Highway 35.
Highway 37 begins just north of all this lock and river action along Highway 35 and heads up into the bluffs, with plenty of curves and winding road to make it fun and interesting.
Most of what you’ll see along Highway 37 isn’t even man-made; the beauty of the natural landscape pretty much takes care of your sightseeing needs. The highways twists and turns its way up from the Mississippi. Bluffs are frequent at the start, but the land stays rolling and forested much of the way to Mondovi. Fall colors are especially brilliant on this stretch, making it popular for motorcyclists. There aren’t too many things in general – other than tight curves – to slow you down on Highway 37.
After a junction with Highway 88, which back towards the Mississippi in a southwesterly course, Highway 37 reachs Mondovi (pop. 2,634), the only sizable town along the route other than Eau Claire, and pretty much the “halfway point” on the route. Mondovi is the county seat of Buffalo County and features several popular watering establishments for bikers (both kinds). Mondovi also features three museums in its “Tourist Park”: the School House Museum, a former one-room schoolhouse that has been restored (ironically, it’s only open on Sundays, when all non-religous schools were always closed); the Old Machinery Museum, which as you might guess boasts a historic collection of old machinery; and the City Hall Museum, which showcases the area’s local history. The Mondovi Historical Society website has more details on all of them. For bicyclists, ATV’ers and cross-country skiers, Mondovi is a trailhead point for the Buffalo River State Trail, which runs 36 miles to Fairchild.
From Mondovi, it’s a fairly short drive to the “big city”: Eau Claire (pop. 65,883). The largest city in northwestern Wisconsin and the ninth-largest in the state, it was founded at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers. Eau Claire was named after early French explorers’ declaration of “voici d’eau claire!” (“here is clear water!”) and the city’s ties to its water resources have been tight ever since. The movement of the water gave rise to as many as 22 sawmills that operated in the city in the late 1800s; however, the rivers also run lazy enough to allow for recreational tubing by thousands of UW-Eau Claire students during the summer months.
A major feature in Eau Claire is Carson Park. Situated on a peninsula formed by an oxbow in the Chippewa River, the 134-acre park features stadiums, festivals, trains, museums, lakes, and probably even some playground equipment. The Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum focuses on logging in the 1890s. It opened in 1934 and features a theater show, a blacksmith shop, cook shanty, bunkhouse and more. The Big Cut Room explores logging’s impact. You can check it out from May through September. The Chippewa Valley Museum (715-834-7871) is next door and features a variety of exhibits, including a 1950s era ice cream parlor if the kids (or you) need a treat. A ride on the Carson Park Train is also fun for everyone; you wind amidst the pine trees and enjoy the steam and sounds of an old-school engine.
Carson Park also holds the Carson Park stadium, home of today’s Eau Claire Express, of the Northwoods League. Pro baseball dates back to 1937 in Carson Park, when the team was the Eau Claire Bears. Not wishing to be associated with a certain Chicago football team, they became the Eau Claire Braves in 1954 (okay, it was because they became a minor leage affiliate of the new Milwaukee Braves.) The Braves experienced significant success and local fans got to enjoy the careers of such major future players, managers, and sportscasters as Bob Uecker, Joe Torre, and Hank Aaron. Aaron had a statue of him dedicated in 1994 that commemorated forty years since he’d played there, and all of the home run awesomeness that was to follow. The Braves departed around when the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, but the Express came aboard in 2005 and continue to display future MLB players.
Eau Claire holds one of the state’s largest four-year universities, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. With over 10,500 students studying, partying, and otherwise sluffing off across a 333-acre campus spanning the Chippewa River, it’s lively and considered one of the state’s most beautiful. U.S. News & World Report ranked UW-Eau Claire the 5th best regional university in the Midwest among all public colleges. The campus features the James Newman Clark Bird Museum, among other facilities. The campus is divided into upper and lower portions, nestled in hills on either side of the Chippewa River. In summer months, tubing and floating on the river is a popular pastime.
Eau Claire’s main employers and headquarters companies include Menard’s, Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shops, IDEXX Computer Systems, Cascades Tissue Group, National Presto Industries, and Open-Silicon. Computer hardware has become a major manufacturing segment in Eau Claire; for years, a Uniroyal tire plant provided much of the manufacturing employment. Times change.State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
In 2012, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance ranked Eau Claire 7th of “Ten Best Cities for Cheapskates.” Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing…
Eau Claire’s downtown holds plenty of great buildings, parks, bars and restaurants, and historical structures. The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire (220 S. Barstow Street, 715-832-5437) offers plenty of activities for little ones, while places to eat, drink, catch up on the games, listen to bands, see the arts and more downtown can be found at places like The Acoustic Cafe (505 S. Barstow Street, 715-832-9090), Pioneer Tavern (401 Water Street, 715-832-4455), the Eau Claire Fire House (202 Gibson Street, 715-514-0406), Mogie’s Pub & Grill (436 Water Street, 715-836-9666), and Stella Blues (306 E. Madison Street, 715-855-7777). The State Theatre opened as a Vaudeville theatre in 1926, and today serves as the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.
Murals, bridges, and pathways adorn the downtown area, which has bene undergoing major revitalization. The Chippewa River State Trail crosses the Chippewa River downtown and offers recreational walking, hiking, biking, and snowmobiling on a former railroad line, which is why the bridge trestles look as they do.
One of the most popular summer activities – especially for local college students – is to float down the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers.
Find out more about things to see and do in Eau Claire by visiting VisitEauClaire.com.
So, where does one go from here? You can head east or west on U.S. 12, which will take you towards Menomonie, Hudson and Minnesota, or east back towards Black River Falls, Tomah, the Dells and Madison. You could follow U.S. 53 north to Spooner and Superior or U.S. 53 or Highway 93 south to La Crosse. You could jump up to Chippewa Falls and enjoy the Leinenkugel Brewery Tour and then take Highway 29 east to Wausau and Green Bay. Or, just hang in Eau Claire for a while. The Best Western PLUS Trail Lodge Hotel & Suites is within eyeshot of Highway 37’s northern end. Enjoy!
Can connect immediately to: U.S. 12
Can connect nearby to: Highway 85, about 3 miles south; Highway 93, about 4 miles east; U.S. 53, about 5 miles east