Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 80 starts (or ends, depending on how you look at it) at the “Point of Beginning”. Cosmic at that sounds, it’s really just the “zero point” from which the state of Wisconsin’s and is surveyed – although that’s pretty significant in itself. Its other terminus is just south of Marshfield, where it heads south just past the state’s geographic center in Pittsville – which it also runs through. Highway 80 cuts through numerous small towns, negotiates the Driftless Area especially along the Pine and Wisconsin Rivers, hits Platteville, cruises near the World’s Largest “M”, and heads down to the aforementioned Point of Beginning. We’ll follow it southward here from Marshfield to Illinois.
The Wisconsin Highway 80 Road Trip
The Drive (North to South): Highway 80 begins near Marshfield, which we’ll add more details on shortly.
Highway 80 technically starts at a roundabout junction with U.S. 10, which connects west to Neillsville and the Twin Cities and east to Stevens Point and Appleton; we head south on what was Highway 13 for many years to a junction with Highway 73 and turn east, rolling through the farm fields and moraines of Wood County along the way.
After an easterly run combined with Highway 73, Highway 80 turns south into the heart of Pittsville (pop. 874), which bills itself as the “exact center of Wisconsin.” Proclaimed as such by Governor Kohler in 1952, surveyors have pinpointed the exact location – which sits on an island in the Yellow River that’s pretty tricky to access. A marker sits along County E just a few blocks west of Highway 80 in town that notes the exact center of the state lying 250 feet north of that point.
From Pittsville, continue south past Dexterville and cross Highway 54 to head into Juneau County, where the massive Necedah National Wildlife Refuge takes over to the west. Established in 1939, the Necedah N.W.R. is 43,696 acres located in the largest wetland bog in Wisconsin. Numerous rare or endangered species may be found in the Refuge, which played a key role in the reintroduction of the whooping crane and the gray wolf. Over 110 species of migratory birds and 44 species of butterflies (did you even know there were 44 species of butterflies??) along with a variety of reptiles, amphibians, and several threatened species like the Blanding’s turtle all get to hang out here. Hiking, fishing and berry-picking are just some of the activities one can participate in at Necedah.
On the southeast end of the National Wildlife Refuge is the village of Necedah (pop. 916). Founded as an early lumber town on the banks of the Yellow River near Petenwell Rock, a popular climbing bluff, Necedah hosts a number of visitors from the National Wildlife Refuge as well as water lovers wishing to recreate on nearby Petenwell Lake. Petenwell Lake is a wide area of the Wisconsin River formed by a dam in 1948; it’s now the second largest lake in Wisconsin. The dam itself is just east of town along Highway 21, which intersects Highway 80 in downtown Necedah. Despite Necedah being home to NASCAR drivers Jim, Jay, Johnny, Tim and Travis Sauter, remember to obey the local speed limits.
A fork in the road follows a few miles south, where Highway 58 continues south to Mauston, the Juneau County seat. Follow the right fork to stay on Highway 80, cross I-90/94, and enter New Lisbon (pop. 2,554), which calls itself “The Friendly City.” U.S. 12 and Highway 16 intersects here, as does the Burr Oak Winery if you wish to stop and sample 18 wines (not necessarily all of them, but you have a lot to choose from.) The winery is right along Highway 80 just south of downtown and is open 11am-5pm seven days a week.
New Lisbon is the birthplace of actor Kurtwood Smith, who played the nefarious Clarence Boddicker in Robocop and, more recently, the cantankerous Red Forman in “That 70’s Show.”Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and creator of Mosaic, the world’s first popular web browser, grew up here. Today, he serves as chairman of Opsware out in California.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|Kurtwood Smith (Red Forman in “That 70’s Show” is the only actor on that Wisconsin-based show who is actually from Wisconsin.|
From New Lisbon, you enter Wisconsin’s unglaciated territory, a.k.a. the “Driftless Area”. Larger hills, bluffs, exposed rock and scenic vistas begin to dominate as you twist and turn to the town of Elroy (pop. 1,578). Elroy is the hometown of former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and is named after the son in “The Jetsons” (okay, I’m kidding on that second one.) It is, however, 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, first of its kind, opened in 1967. 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. 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 82 joins 80 for the three miles south, paralleling the “400” Trail, to Union Center. There, Highway 33 joins in for about five more miles, into Vernon County and Hillsboro (pop. 1,417). Known as the Czech Capital of Wisconsin, Hillsboro is a pleasant town that hosts the Cesky Den Festival every summer. In Hillsboro, Highways 82 and 33 split off to the west, while Highway 80 turns south again into Richland County.
Above: Announcing the Country Market along Highway 80 (coupled with 33 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.
The next twenty-five miles take you through some of Wisconsin’s most beautiful territory, along ridges and valleys, Beaver Creek and the Pine River. At Rockbridge, the Pier Natural Bridge Park features the Pine River running under a rock wall (hence, the “natural bridge” park part) and makes for a pleasant stop.
Next up is Richland Center (pop 5,114), which spans the Pine River. The pedestrian footbridge over the Pine, started in 1912 and rebuilt in 1951, is worth a walk to stretch your legs. As Wisconsin’s designed Purple Heart City, Richland Center features a nice variety of historic buildings and Flag Park, which is just like it sounds. Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Richland Center in 1867; one of his designs resides in the town, the A.D. German Warehouse at 300 S. Church Street, two blocks east of Highway 80. Constructed in 1921, the first two floors are open for visitors to explore on Sundays from 10am-2pm, May through October.
Oh, and ever heard of GTE? You know, the massive telecommunications company? It traces its beginning to Richland Center. It started as the Richland Center Telephone Company back in 1918, became Commonwealth Telephone in 1920 and – after an ambitious acquisition program – General Telephone Company in 1935, as it grew from just a few thousand subscribers over half a million. By 1969, it had become General Telephone & Electronics Corporation (GTE), acquired Sylvania Electric, and was the largest independent telephone company in the U.S., though it had long moved its headquarters. In 2000, it became part of Verizon where its remains remain to this day. There’s a marker about this; you’ll find it along U.S. 14 on the west side of Richland Center near W. 6th Street.
More of Richland Center can be discovered at the Richland County Visitor Center, located in a former 1909 train depot along U.S. 14, just a few blocks west of Highway 80. It includes information on the suffrage history of Richland Center – a legacy that includes a visit from Susan B. Anthony in 1886 and activity from local suffragist Ada James, who also has an historic marker in her name along U.S. 14 on the west side, not far from the Visitor Center. Meanwhile, Highway 80 crosses U.S. Highway 14 in Richland Center and from there it twists and turns toward Highway 60 before crossing the Wisconsin River.
Over the river (and kinda through the woods – no sign of grandmother’s house), you enter Muscoda (pop. 1,408), the “Morel Mushroom Capital of Wisconsin.” In fact, Muscoda hosts the Annual Morel Mushroom Festival in May, complete with a mushroom contest (biggest, smallest, most unique, most in cluster, things like that.) The town’s name is pronounced “MUS-co-day” and its meaning is derived from an Ojibwa term for “prairie” or “prairie flowers” – but it’s the morels that give Muscoda the most distinction.
The Wisconsin River Canoe Race also takes place in July, where canoers race from as far away as Spring Green, about 21 miles upstream. Once known as English Prairie, Muscoda is bisected by Highway 80 before the road joins Highway 133 and heads east into Iowa County.
After paralleling the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway for several miles, Highway 133 continues east while Highway 80 turns south once again and follows ridges and valleys south to Cobb (pop. 442), where you turn west once again along U.S. Highway 18 to Montfort (pop. 663). In between, you’ll see about 30 massive wind turbines, part of the state’s effort to move toward renewable energy. About 52,000 megawatt-hours are generated annually just from the – as Dylan might put it – “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
From Montfort on south, Highway 80 straddles the Iowa-Grant County line for a while before swinging fully into Grant County. Looking to the east, eventually you may spot a massive “M” on a hillside known as Platte Mound. Visible for miles and miles, the World’s Largest “M” is essentially a historic monument completed by UW-Platteville engineering students in 1937. It is constructed of rocks arranged 241 feet high and 214 feet wide and looks at the land from a 45-degree angle on Platte Mound. It’s an easy sign that you’re approaching the largest city along Highway 80.
Platteville (pop. 9,989) is the largest city in Grant County and the primary college town in Southwestern Wisconsin. Originally home to a teaching college and the Wisconsin Mining School, the two merged in 1959 and became part of the University of Wisconsin system in 1971. Today, UW-Platteville (UW-P for short) teaches over 6,000 students and features an engineering department respected around the world. UW-P launched some good basketball coaching careers too, including that of Rob Jeter (now at UW-Milwaukee) and of course Bo Ryan, who went to UW-Milwaukee and then UW-Madison, where he coached the Badgers to multiple Final Fours and even the National Championship game in 2015 (Duke… grumble grumble…).
Highway 80 is just off Second Street, the main street downtown for students to relax, some (um, over 21s only) with various beverages in hand. The music scene is surprisingly robust in Platteville; taverns actually help fund some musical acts and one, known then as Envy, won MTV’s Best Bands on Campus Contest.
Platteville offers an arboretum and two museums, the Mining Museum and the Rollo Jamison Museum. The Mining Museum traces the history of – you guessed it – mining throughout the Upper Mississippi valley. Models, artifacts, dioramas, pictures, and a guided tour complete with a walk into a real lead mine and a ride on a train (weather permitting) are offered. The Rollo Jamison Museum started with little Rollo Jamison collecting old arrowheads on his family farm in 1899. Over 20,000 items are now part of the museum’s collection, chronicling history of all kinds. Both museums are located just east of Highway 80 along Main Street.
For a time, Platteville hosted the Chicago Bears’ summer camp on its UW-Platteville campus and enjoyed the economic benefits that went with it, but they decided to move back to Illinois (friggin’ Bears, you were helping the economy over here! Why would you want to spend more time in Illinois??)
The straight streets and grid systems often found in American cities and towns aren’t quite reflected in Platteville. A vast network of mines exist underneath the city, and streets were built in locations to avoid being directly on top of them – a good idea no doubt cooked up by engineering students. In the city, Highway 80 meets up with Highway 81 for the ride south out of town. U.S. Highway 151 is now a 4-lane expressway around Platteville’s south side, providing faster access than ever to Dubuque and Madison.
Highway 81 leaves and heads east after a few miles while Highway 80 continues south into the “City of Presidents”, Cuba City (pop. 2,074). Why is it called as such? Well, Cuba City erected a series of presidential shields for the 1976 Bicentennial and things just kind of took off from there. Watch for banners honoring each American President as you go through town.
South of Hazel Green, Highway 11 comes in from the east and joins 80 into Hazel Green (pop. 1,183), which calls itself the “Point of Beginning.” Hazel Green hosts a number of bed & breakfasts and antique stores and served, in the 1800s, as lodging for land surveyors.
The Point of Beginning in question is located along the Fourth Principal Meridian (also the Grant-Lafayette County boundary) at the Wisconsin-Illinois state line, one-half mile east of the southern terminus of Highway 80 as it barrels into Illinois. What’s so significant about it? Well, all property in Wisconsin – from Superior to Kenosha and East Dubuque to Marinette – is surveyed from this point. Surveyors began public land surveys here in 1832 and today every public boundary in the state, from counties to cities to farms and lots and the positions of roads, lakes and streams are all mapped from this point.
Fittingly, it’s also the point of ending for this State Trunk Tour tour of Highway 80. Now, it’s normally not State Trunk Tour policy to endorse out-of-state locations, but Galena, Illinois is pretty darn nice and it’s only a few miles down the road on Illinois Highway 84. Enjoy, and then get back to Wisconsin!
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 10
Can connect nearby to: Highway 13, about 3 miles north or 4 miles north and east; Highway 97, about 3 miles north; Highway 73, about 10 miles south
Can connect immediately to: Illinois Highway 84
Can connect nearby to: Highway 11, about 2 miles north