Eastern terminus: Juneau County, at the junction with Highways 80 & 82 in Elroy
Mileage: about 54 miles
Counties along the way: Juneau, Monroe, La Crosse (brushing the corner), Jackson
Sample towns along the way: Elroy, Kendall, Wilton, Norwalk, Sparta, Melrose
Bypass alternates at: Sparta
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 71 is probably best known by bikers for its location paralleling the famous Elroy-Sparta Trail, the first “rail-to-trail” project in the nation. Winding over and around impressive landscapes in Wisconsin’s “unglaciated” territory (referred to locally as “Hill Country”), Highway 71 is short enough – and yet interesting enough – to make for a good afternoon drive.
Wisconsin Highway 71 Road Trip
The Drive (Southeast to Northwest): Highway 71 begins in Elroy (pop. 1,578) at the junction with Highways 80 and 82. Elroy is the hometown of Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and Secretary of Health & Human Services; the town is named after the son in “The Jetsons” (okay, I’m kidding on the Jetsons one.) Buffs of the 1980s who played the wildly popular game Trivial Pursuit may be interested to know that 30 million Trivial Pursuit games were produced in Elroy from 1983 to 1985 – which is practically a trivia question in itself. It’s also where three major rail-to-trail routes meet: the Omaha Trail, which goes to Camp Douglas, the “400”, which goes to Reedsburg, and the “granddaddy” of them all, the Elroy-Sparta Trail. The Elroy-Sparta was the first rail-to-trail project opened in the United States and has welcome bicyclists since 1967. Along with a downtown strip featuring a great hobby shop, several bars and a number of craft store, there is also the Elroy Commons.
Built in 1991, the Commons is where the Omaha, “400” and Elroy-Sparta Trails meet and features an information center, gift shop, restrooms, showers and bike rentals. Rentals are $3 per hour or $12 per day. Schultz Park, a city facility, provides camping and RV facilities as well as a pool, tennis courts, volleyball, a children’s playground and more. If you plan on riding the trail(s) and making a day or two of it, Schultz Park is a good place to set up camp. If you prefer a motel, a number of them in Elroy and along the route cater to bicyclists. Highway 71 basically follows the trail for its entire length and serves as a shuttle route as well as a road alternate for bikers, so don’t be surprised if you see a lot of people on two wheels on this route.
From Elroy, Highway 71 meanders up, over and around hills in a generally northwestern direction. The bike trail generally parallels the road, sometimes close and sometimes a mile or more away. And just like the trail, Highway 71 takes you through the heart of several small towns that once lived by the railroad.
The first town (and stop along the trail) is Kendall (pop. 469). Kendall offers the Elroy-Sparta Trail’s Headquarters, a facility open May 1 – October 31 each year.
Just in from Tomah, Highway 131 hooks up with 71 for several miles into Wilton (pop. 509), which bills itself as the “Heart of the Trail.” A store and several bars are available for pit stops whether driving or biking. At Wilton, 131 heads off toward the Kickapoo Valley while Highway 71 heads toward more climbs over large hills. In fact, at the crest of the hill where 71 intersects with Keats Road, you’re actually over Tunnel #2 of the Elroy-Sparta Trail.
The Amish population is strong in this area; definitely watch for one- or two-horsepower wagons ambling down Highway 71 and nearby roads. In downtown Wilton, you’ll find some colorful murals that add a splash to this little hamlet.
Norwalk (pop. 653) features a park along the Elroy-Sparta Trail junction along with a grocery store and Diamond Lil’s Saloon, popular with the motorcyclists who use Highway 71 as a major touring route.
From Norwalk to Sparta is 13 miles of winding between hills rather than over them, with the exception of one long drop (or climb, if you’re heading in the other direction).
After crossing over I-90, you reach Sparta (pop. 8,648), the Bicycling Capital of America. Sparta is the main town for about twenty miles around; that coupled with hosting Fort McCoy and the bike tourists means a commercial strip through town where you can get just about anything. Joining Highway 16, Highway 71 goes through this commercial strip as it also crosses Highway 21, which goes into Sparta’s main downtown area, and Highway 27, which it joins on the way out of town.
Sparta lies at the other end of the Elroy-Sparta Trail (obviously) and at that location, in Sparta’s old train depot, you can also pick up the La Crosse River Trail, which continues west toward the Mississippi.
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.
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.
FAST’s work is particularly evident in its hometown. The statue of a man on a bicycle that announces your entrance into Sparta along Highway 71 and the Clydesdale outside of the local Budweiser distributor are just two of the many pieces you can find in the area.
From Sparta, Highway 71 continues, multiplexed with Highway 27, northward toward Melrose. After about 10 miles, 27 branches off toward Black River Falls; Highway 71 heads back on a northwesterly course. Just after that split, you approach Wegner Grotto County Park, a nice art display of concrete sculptures decorated with glittering pieces of glass, seashells, Indian arrowheads, and other augmentations.
Above: A mere sample of the concrete and glass artwork on display at Wegner Grotto.
The drive toward Melrose consists not of major hill climbs or even rolling hills; one might better describe it as a series of little lumps. At the junction with Highway 162 at Four Corners, look south; you’re about 400 feet away from La Crosse County’s northeast corner and the sign is visible from the intersection. Meanwhile, you cross into Jackson County on Highway 71, with the hills and bluffs along the Mississippi River visible in the distance.
Joining Highway 108, 71 heads north across the Black River approaching Melrose (pop. 529). Highway 71 comes to an end at the junction with Highway 54. You can use 54 to head west toward Winona, Minnesota, or northeast toward Black River Falls.
After crossing the Black River, the two highways combine for the ride to the northern end, at a junction with Highway 54 approaching tiny Melrose (pop. 503). You can use 54 to head west toward Winona, Minnesota, or northeast toward Black River Falls.
One suggestion: double back and follow Highway 108 through the gorgeous Mindoro Cut! West Salem and La Crosse are on the other side.
Events on this Tour
Sparta holds some notable festivals, and Butterfest is the biggest one of the year. Along with plenty of butter, the festival features numerous events. Among them: the A&P Carnival, one of the Midwest's best. There's also a craft and flea market, a quilt show, softball tournaments, a cornhole bean bag tournament, dance demonstrations, firemen's water fights, a milking contest, stage entertainment, and much more. The Miss Sparta Pageant will be held during the event, one of the sanctioned events where the winner can then compete in Miss Wisconsin. It runs Thursday June 7th through Sunday, June 10th. The Butterfest Parade takes place Sunday at 12:30pm. The whole event takes place at Memorial Park in Sparta. I-90 and Highways 16, 21, 27, and 71 bring you there! (Heck, so does the Elroy-Sparta Trail!) Check out the Sparta Butterfest website for complete schedules and details.