Southern terminus: Lafayette County, at the Illinois state line 7 miles south of Gratiot
Eastern terminus: Columbia County, at the I-90/94/39 junction south of Portage
Mileage: about 93 miles
Counties along the way: Lafayette, Iowa, Green, Dane, Sauk, Columbia
Sample towns along the way: Gratiot, Argyle, Blanchardville, Mt. Horeb, Black Earth, Prairie du Sac, Sauk City, Merrimac
Bypass alternates at: Prairie du Sac
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 78 runs through some of Wisconsin’s hilliest terrain. From the history-rich areas in Lafayette County, to expanse views at the Blue Mounds, having trolls salute you through Mount Horeb and navigating valleys through Black Earth to the Sauk Prairie area along the Wisconsin River, to the breathtaking views and terrain around Devils Lake State Park and access to some good skiing and rock-climbing, Highway 78 makes for a nice drive in any season.
The Wisconsin Highway 78 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): Highway 78 comes into Wisconsin from the Illinois state line, where it’s also Highway 78 going south to Jacksonville, Illinois. In Wisconsin, it enters the state just past a railroad bridge and through fairly open terrain for a little while before hitting its first town, Gratiot (pop. 252). For bikers, hikers, ATV riders and snowmobilers, this is where the Cheese Country Trail stops paralleling Highway 11 from Monroe and starts heading northwest to Mineral Point. Several bars and establishments, including a nice park, serve those recreational riders and State Trunk Tourers.
Whether you stop in Gratiot or not, Highway 78 turns east and joins Highway 11 for a very brief stint before breaking north again and beginning one of its nicest stretches. Lots of long vistas and pleasant stretches await on this section, which brings you north through Wiota and along stretches of the picturesque Pecatonica (try saying that fast five times) River, with the valleys that go with it. The road winds up, over and around many hills and valleys, sometimes giving you a view of the road a few miles ahead.
Narrow and curvy stretches define this stretch as you wind around the Pecatonica River, greeting many farms along the way. Hordes of cows often cluster close to the road; they rarely respond to people who yell “Mooooo!” out the window, but sometimes one gets lucky.
A crossing over the East Branch of the Pecatonica happens at Argyle (pop. 823), the largest town between Mount Horeb and Illinois along Highway 78. A Scotsman named Allen Wright founded the town in 1844, who named it after the Duke of Argyle. Here, Highway 78 intersects briefly with Highway 81 and crosses the river past the Argyle Power Plant into downtown. Turning north again, you’ll spot an F-86 Sabrejet Aircraft. Perched at an altitude of about 8 feet above ground, this aircraft was delivered to the Air Force in 1955 and demilitarized in 1970. Colonel Amos Waage, an Argyle native, obtained the plane and dedicated it to all military personnel from the area.
The next town is Blanchardville (pop. 806), whose downtown strip features a series of 1840s and 1850s-era structures nestled in a pleasant valley. Originally founded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), it was named Zarahemla at first. Mormon settlers mined lead – a popular economic engine at the time – and built the first mill in 1840. A newbie named Alvin Blanchard moved to the area in 1856 and eventually platted a village that now bears his name.
Blanchardville hugs the northeast corner of Lafayette County, and as Highway 78 departs the village and heads through McPeace Valley, you also nick corners of Iowa and Green Counties before entering Dane County and heading into Daleyville.
Through and past Daleyville, the Blue Mounds come into view to the north by northwest (with apologies to Alfred Hitchcock). At 1,719 feet above sea level, the western mound is the highest point in Wisconsin’s southern half. Just after crossing the “new” U.S. 18/151, a 4-lane expressway connecting Madison with points west and southwest, Highway 78 reaches the “old” U.S. 18/151, now known as County ID. Right goes into Mount Horeb via Highway 78; left brings a good side trip involving mounds, hills, caves, skiing and Norwegians.
|Brief side trip: Just west of Highway 78 and Mount Horeb, follow County ID (the original U.S. 18/151 highway) for some terrific attractions in close proximity. Skiing opportunities abound at Tyrol Basin (3487 Bahn Rd., 608-437-4135), where expert skiiers can enjoy the black diamond runs while beginners at skiing or snowboarding can try the Gentle Ben Progression Park, with “gentle” ways to immerse yourself and practice before taking on the bigger runs.
If you prefer interior spaces, check out Cave of the Mounds (608-437-3038), which sat under the site of Dane County’s first white settler but wasn’t discovered until workers accidentally blasted into it in 1939 while quarrying limestone. Perpetually at 50 degrees, the cave features guided tours past crystal formations and stalagtites; you can also mine for gemstones or rise back to the surface to walk the nature trails or check out the rock gardens.
If you want to go a few more miles off track, visit the highest point in southern Wisconsin: Blue Mound, in Blue Mound State Park. At 1,716 feet above sea level, it offers quite a view.
Heading into Mount Horeb on Highway 78, alpacas and llamas were spotted, some available for sale. They’re fun to look at, and seemed to enjoy the view on a nice, relaxing Saturday.
Trollin’ The Trollway. Mount Horeb (pop. 7,009 and “Troll Capital of the World”) itself is a charming town with a strong Norwegian heritage. And trolls – lots of trolls. Trolls line the main street (which is called “The Trollway” and is part of Highway 78) and have names like the Chicken Thief, the Accordion Player, the Peddler and one called “Little Pisser” for reasons we won’t get into. The Trollway is also home to a wide variety of shops and B&Bs.
Mount Horeb is home to the flagship store of the Duluth Trading Company (100 West Main Street, 608-437-8655), which includes the Wally Keller Tool Museum, which shows you how everything was done a few years – or a century-plus – back using tools of the time. It’s right on Main Street.
Brewpub Alert. Just off the Trollway – and Highway 78 – is the Grumpy Troll. Their brews include the Amnesia Baltic Porter, which just won a Gold Medal at the World Beer Cup. That’s just part of a long line of awards they’ve won, since previous awards have been bestowed upon their English Brown Ale, Trailside Wheat (probably named after the nearby Military Ridge Trail, I’ll get confirmation on another visit), Norwegian Wit, Curly Scotch Ale, Spetsnaz Stout and Maggie Imperial IPA. It was rated one of the 50 Best Brewpubs worldwide for 2008, a distinction held by only one other in Wisconsin. Growlers are a popular way to take the beers to go. They also have a $5 martini menu featuring items like the Cosmi-troll-itan and the I’m Just Happy To See You, which involves banana (inquire further when you go.) Tours are available by appointment by calling 608-437-2739.
Another nice little stop is Dee’s Cheese ‘N More (504 E. Main, 608-437-DEES), a cute little store featuring over 90 cheese varieties, ice cream from UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall, sausages a’plenty and other sundry treats. Does your back hurt? First tip: don’t drive with your wallet in your back pocket… it can throw off your back’s alignment. Second tip: a chiropractor might help, and Mount Horeb actually has the largest chiropractic clinic in the United States, the Gonstead Clinic of Chiropractic. It’s on the east side of town along Business U.S. 18 & 151, just past the roundabout on the east end of town where you also intersect Highway 92, which heads south towards Brooklyn – the Wisconsin one. Meanwhile, Highway 78 heads north again into some fun topography.
As you wind through the Vermont Valley and a series of hills, past quarries and expansive vistas, it’s hard to believe you’re in Dane County, with Madison’s western sprawling growth only about ten miles to the east. There’s not much that’s man-made on this stretch, and although that will undoubtedly change in the coming years, it’s a great drive right now.
Eventually, you reach Black Earth (pop. 1,320). Renamed in the 1850s as “Farmersville” for a brief spell, in 1857 it was changed back to Black Earth and it became the second incorporated village in Dane County, after that one place called Madison. Highway 78 is basically the main street running up downtown Black Earth, with County KP serving as a main crossroad; it was the former path of U.S. Highway 14, which was rerouted further north several decades back. You reach U.S. 14 and The Shoe Box, the largest shoe store in the Midwest and one of the largest shoe stores in the country – over 300,000 pairs are regularly in stock. Step inside and there’s room after room with shoes everywhere. There’s also more references to baseball than you can shake a boot at. Steve Schmitt, the owner, is not only a passionate St. Louis Cardinals fan, but the owner of the Madison Mallards, a Northwoods League team that plays at Warner Park on the north side of Madison along Highway 113. So if you’re into both shoes and baseball, this place is like Disneyland.
The oldest cooperative in the nation started in Black Earth, resulting in a store for farmers that opened in 1894 and lasted exactly 100 years. A marker saluting it is right along Highway 78 (pictured, right).
Highway 78 follows U.S. 14 west out of Black Earth for just a few miles and turns northeast. This happens just before Mazomanie, right at a popular baseball and bikers’ bar called Rookies. If you thought a baseball theme was noticeable back at the Show Box, you won’t believe its presence at Rookies. Sports memorabilia is here in incredible abundance (same owner, so no surprise there). Check this out:
Top: Rookie’s features a mini-baseball field, used for whiffleball, with a great ballpark look and a rather nice view behind it. Center and Lower: The bar is in the front, the restaurant is in the back and the men’s bathroom (above, center) could keep you in there for hours, for the right reasons. I was going to check out the women’s restroom but thought better of it eventually.
From this point, Highway 19 begins and runs along with Highway 78 for about a mile before breaking east across Dane County towards Sun Prairie and, eventually, Watertown. Meanwhile, Highway 78 heads north again, where the influence of the Wisconsin River begins to show. Some lowlands line the area to the west and there’s good access to hunting grounds. Eventually, you hit U.S. Highway 12, now a full 4-lane highway coming in from Madison. Highway 78 joins U.S. 12 to cross the river.
Where Highway 78 meets U.S. 12, you have an option to bypass Sauk City and Prairie du Sac by angling south very briefly and catching Highway 188, which parallels Highway 78’s run from Sauk City to Merrimac, but on the east side of the Wisconsin River. You skip the two towns and can access the Wollersheim Winery, about 4 miles north of U.S. 12. You can rejoin Highway 78 via Highway 60 into Prairie du Sac or Highway 113 via the Merrimac Ferry.
With U.S. 12, Highway 78 crosses the Wisconsin River into Sauk City (pop. 3,019), Wisconsin’s oldest incorporated village (1854) and site of the first Culver’s restaurant ever (1984). Culver’s headquarters, meanwhile, is in Prairie du Sac. Don’t ever question putting butter on a burger around here. Sauk City and its neighbor, Prairie du Sac (pop. 3,231), are essentially twin cities and collectively the area is called Sauk Prairie. Highway 78 splits from U.S. 12 and goes through the heart of both towns combined with Highway 60 along the Wisconsin River’s western bank. This is Eagle Country, where bald eagles – and maybe even some with hair – can be regularly spotted.
Sauk City’s downtown features several sports bars, including the Press Box – illustrated quite vividly on its facade.
After Highway 60 breaks away and heads east toward Lodi, Highway 78 continues northeast, following a mile or two off the Wisconsin River in the Sauk County countryside. Just to the northwest in much of this area is the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, the largest of its kind in the world when it was constructed in 1941-1942. It provided thousands upon thousands of jobs in wartime, from World War II through Korea and Vietnam. Everything from rocket propellant, smokeless powder and gun powder protection to testing for weapons and chemicals took place at Badger. The U.S. Army declared Badger to be excess to its needs in 1997, and is being split among six parties ranging from the Ho-Chunk Nation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the State Department of Transportation.
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
When it opened in 1942, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant – then called Badger Ordnance Works – was the largest in the world. It displaced hundreds of farmers for construction and employed 6,600 workers during its peak time during World War II.
Great access to Devil’s Lake State Park (608-356-8301) can be found just up Highway 113, which comes in from Baraboo. Devil’s Lake has over 1.2 million visitors every year, and why not? It features spectacular landforms and phenomenal hiking, biking, fishing, rock climbing, camping and more across its almost 10,000-acre landscape.
Highway 78 heads straight east to Merrimac (pop. 416) and the Merrimac Ferry, the last remaining ferry on the State Trunk Highway system. The Merrimac Ferry began as a toll ferry in 1924, becoming free in 1933. It has been ever since. The Colsac III, launched in 2003, is the third boat (hence the “III”) to serve this run and can accommodate 15 cars at a time. Expect a pretty hefty line during summer weekend days, especially in August. They’ll take care of you, though: vendors offer ice cream and other ways to enjoy the day, even when you have to sit and wait. The Merrimac Ferry generally runs from about April 15 through the end of November. You can always call them at (608) 246-3871 to check availability and wait times.
Checking out the side of the road along Highway 113… it’s a little wet from the ferry. The railroad bridge frames your view to the east. It’s pretty cool to watch when a train is crossing, too.
Staying on Highway 78 past Merrimac, you can access Devil’s Head Ski Resort, which offers great skiing and golfing. Unlike the Merrimac Ferry, though, it’s not free. Highway 78 winds around a lot at this point, and farms are plentiful. You enter Columbia County along this stretch, with the Baraboo Range to your north and northwest. It’s a nice view as you head toward the three interstates that await you.
Highway 78 used to continue north into Portage to meet U.S. 51. When I-39 was designated in the 1990s, though, they pulled the north end back to the interchange with I-90/94. There’s a massive Petro at this interchange, where there’s trucks a’plenty 24 hours a day. You can reach faraway places quickly, what with quick access to three interstates. You also have quick access to skiing at Cascade Mountain, just to the west, and everything in Portage, just by continuing north. Via the freeways, Madison is only 40 minutes away, Milwaukee’s an hour and 45 minutes, Wausau is less than 2 hours and the Wisconsin Dells are only about 15 minutes. Enjoy!
Can connect immediately to: Illinois Highway 78
Can connect nearby to: Highway 11, about 7 miles north