Highway 27 between Rising Sun and Fairview

27

STH-027“Whipping and Winding Down Western Wisconsin”

 

WisMap27Quickie Summary: For the Wisconsin Highway 27 Road Trip, State “Trunk” Highway 27 runs for almost 300 miles from the wilderness of Brule River State Forest near the Lake Superior shore, through a slew of rural towns, up, down and around western Wisconsin’s rugged landscape, all the way to the banks of the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien. Scenery, serenity and small-town charm abound on this route from top to bottom.

Wisconsin Highway 27 Road Trip

The Drive (North To South): Highway 27 begins at U.S. 2 in Brule (pop. 607) at the edge of the Brule River State Forest. Now, you may also know that there’s a Brule River on the Wisconsin-Michigan U.P. border on the northeastern edge of the state. This is not the same river; this one is officially the Bois Brule River (but locals refer to it simply as the “Brule”), which runs from Upper St. Croix Lake into Lake Superior. Speaking of, Highway 27 is only about 15 miles from Lake Superior at its northern start; at times along U.S. 2 nearby, you can still see the lake and the sizable Iron Range hills in Minnesota. So you’re almost as far north in Wisconsin as you can get. Not surprisingly, logging and fishing are the two main activities around here.

The River of Presidents. The Brule River is also known as the “River of Presidents”. Presidents Coolidge, Cleveland, Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower came here regularly to fish and hang out, far away from the craziness around D.C. This is also a huge area for fly fishing, and the river is one of the preeminent trout streams in North America. And yes, fish fry Fridays are quite popular here. You can sample a Brule fish fry at Kro Bar & Grill (13920 E. Hwy 2, 715-372-4876), River House Restaurant (13844 E. Hwy 2, 715-372-5696) or at the Twin Gables Cafe (Corner of Hwy 2 & 27, 715-372-4831). Wild rice is another popular local item, and all through Douglas County you’ll find wild rice available for sale.

From Brule, Highway 27 cuts through the Brule River State Forest, into Bayfield County (the largest county in Wisconsin, although it doesn’t have a single traffic light.) Recreational opportunities continue to abound, thanks to numerous lakes that make up the Eau Claire Chain of Lakes: 11 connected, spring-fed lakes surrounded by an abundant forest of large pine and hardwood trees. These lakes make up the headwaters of the Eau Claire River, which flows into the St. Croix River at Gordon and prove you’re over the subcontinental divide and waters now flow to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

Beyond this particular recreation paradise, Highway 27 heads into Sawyer County before hooking up with Highway 77 and getting into Sawyer County’s county seat.

Hayward

Hayward (pop. 2,129) is one of northwestern Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destinations, being located amidst a vast array of lakes with some of the country’s best fishing, forest in every direction, and a knack for hosting a series of participatory events (Birkie, anyone??)

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Hayward is home of the American Birkebiener – and several fast food restaurants. Don’t laugh; there aren’t many anywhere else nearby! The downtown area has many structures with second level balconies, used during the Birkie for spectators watching cross-country skiers plying the main streets.

Like many Wisconsin towns, there are a lot of good eats and drinks all over the place. Those familiar with Famous Dave’s locations around the country might be interested to know that it all started in Hayward. Famous Dave of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Tribe opened the first Famous Dave’s here in 1994, serving up barbeque on garbage can lids (yes, the portions can get huge) and their award-winning bread pudding with praline sauce. Sadly, the original location here burned in 2014.

*** Brewery Alert***
Along U.S. 63 less than a mile southwest of Highway 77 lies an old brick building that simply says “Brewpub” on the side… at least that’s the only part you can see from the street. Inside is the Angry Minnow Restaurant & Brewery (10440 Florida Ave./U.S. 63, 715-934-3055). The building itself was constructed in 1889 and once housed a sawmill operations office; today, it’s probably the nicest restaurant in Hayward, with rich, dark wood and brick everywhere. The oval-shaped bar and iron chandeliers help create a cozy, warm atmosphere. The food is terrific (try the Black Pepper Seared Tuna appetizer) and the craft beers are quite good.

Lumberjack Championships, Birkie Skiing and the World’s Biggest Musky. Hayward does it up in every season. The annual Lumberjack World Championships hold events in Hayward, so expect lots of axes, saws and flannel. Scheer’s Lumberjack Shows are highly recommended. Watch lumberjacks “speed climb” up trees, throw axes (not at you, don’t worry), and perform things like logrolling and canoe jousting. Can you get more up North than this?? In February, Hayward hosts the American Birkebeiner, an annual cross-country skiing race from Cable (30 miles away via the trails) to the “main street” block in Hayward, just off U.S. 63 several blocks southwest of where it intersects with Highway 77. About 9,000 skiers participate every year. About 2,500 bikers head through the wilderness every year in the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival; it’s one of the most popular off-road bicycling events in the nation. And trust me, when you wander into town doing the State Trunk Tour on that weekend, the hotels are full and/or pricier than normal. So watch the Events calendar here carefully! The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame (715-634-4440) is probably the most consistently visible (100,000 visitors per year) attraction, thanks to the World’s Largest Muskie. Standing 143 feet long and 41 feet tall, the muskie holds names of world record-holders in fishing across the world. You can check out the names and climb the steps to show yourself from the muskie’s mouth, 4 stories off the ground. It’s a popular place to get your picture taken… how can one resist??

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The World’s Largest Muskie – and that’s just the start of what you can check out the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame!

Check out our full gallery of photos at the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame here!

Leaving Hayward, Highway 27 meanders south past a variety of lodges and recreational areas. Access to snowmobiling, hunting and fishing is nearly omnipresent in these parts. Southward on Highway 27, long stretches through forest and between lakes dominate for many miles in a row before 27 meets up for short stretches with several other highways. Highway 70 meets up with 27 as you approach and turn along lovely Sand Lake, which despite the name consists primarily of water.

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The kind of scenery along Highway 27 between Hayward and Radisson.

Following Highway 27 & 70 means winding along a series of lakes and rivers, affording sometimes brief but always lovely views. The scenery here appeals to everyone, even old Chicago gangsters like Al Capone, who kept a hideout on Pike Lake (via County Highway CC) a few miles north of Couderay (pop. 96 on the sign, it has since dropped to 88), a blink-of-an-eye village along the highway. There are no retail businesses in Couderay, although there is a part-time tavern. Nevertheless, it has its own post office serving the surrounding area (the zip is 54828, in case you were curious) and it’s one of the tiniest, charming post offices you will ever see. Constructed of native stones, it’s located next to what at the time of this writing is a wreck of a building constructed with similar materials, but is missing a roof and most of its walls. Research tells me this used to be a place called the Keystone Bar, but if anyone is positive, let us know.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The coldest temperature ever in modern-day Wisconsin, an innards-chilling -55°F, was reported in Couderay on February 2nd and 4th, 1996.

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Check out Couderay’s (population 96) post office, right along Highway 27/70. Some of the adjacent buildings have since been abandoned, making for some interesting perspective shots.

Further east, the northern terminus of Highway 40 crosses your path at Radisson (pop. 222 and ironically, there is no Radisson Hotel to be found) before the Chippewa River shoulders up to parallel your way. At Ojibwa, Highway 70 continues east toward Winter and Minocqua while Highway 27 turns south again for its next lone stretch, a long and straight haul that runs for 23 miles into Rusk County.

At the crossing with U.S. Highway 8, Highway 27 grazes the lovely city of Ladysmith (pop. 3,932). Ladysmith was founded in 1885 as “Flambeau Falls” reflecting its picturesque location along the Flambeau River where the new Soo Line railroad made its crossing. Subsequent names included “Corbett” and “Warner” before “Ladysmith” was settled upon in 1900, after the bride of a man named Smith who ran an influential local company (apparently, she was quite a lady). The Flambeau Mine Trails offer a great glimpse at a reclaimed mine. For eight years in the 1990s, this site was a wide-open copper and gold mine. The valuable minerals may be gone, but today the 181 acres provide scenic open grassland – a rarity in these relatively dense-forested parts – and excellent bird watching.

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Ladysmith features a lot of lovely old stone buildings and a fair amount of artwork coloring some of them, including art that welcomes you along U.S. 8, just east of Highway 27. Large wooden bears adorn a city park along the Flambeau River in Ladysmith. Real bears prove to be more intimidating.
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Ladysmith is the county seat of Rusk County, which features over 300 miles of snowmobile trails and serene, productive fishing in the Flambeau and Chippewa Rivers, which coverge in the southern part of the county. Equestrians can take advantage of the Copper Park Equestrian Trails, which cover about 10 miles of trails for hikers, horseback riders and others not in need of motor for a while. The trails are part of the Reclaimed Flambeau Mine Site (check out this website… it’s an aerial view that shows when it was a mine versus how it is today), an area featuring a number of things to do. The whole kit ‘n kaboodle is along Highway 27 about a mile and a half south of Ladysmith, between Jensen Road and County P.

Heading south, it’s a pretty straight shot into Chippewa County, where you get nice water views crossing the Holcombe Flowage (which flow into the Flambeau) and, before long, there’s actually a curve: you meet Highway 64 and join it westerly into a town originally named Brunet Falls after an adjacent island in the Chippewa River. Today, it’s called Cornell (pop. 1,466), and it’s home to the only known pulpwood stacker in the world. Standing 175 feet high, it looks like a crane about to build something, or a radio tower leaning at about 45 degrees.

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Cornell features the only known pulpwood stacker in the world. In use from 1913 until 1972, it apparently stacked a lot of pulpwood.

Cornell also supports a local municipal airport, ample recreation with Burnet Island State Park on the northwest side of town, and is the northern trailhead for the Old Abe State Trail, one of Wisconsin’s awesome rail-to-trail projects. This one follows along the Chippewa River about 20 miles to Lake Wissota State Park near Chippewa Falls and is paved much of the way.

After the run through Cornell, Highway 64 breaks away west across the Chippewa on its way to Minnesota. Meanwhile, Highway 27 heads south again, crossing the 45th parallel into Cadott (pop. 1,345), named after a French fur trader. Cadott hosts a number of music festivals that draw from all over the Midwest and the nation, including Country Fest in June and Rock Fest in July, each of which draw tens of thousands.

At the interchange with Highway 29 on Cornell’s south side, you’ll find the Wisconsin Veterans Tribute. Part of the River Country Plaza Truck Stop at the exit, you’ll find many significant memorials, an AH-1S helicopter, cannons, markers and more all under an eye-catching cadre of flags from all over the world.

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The flags of the Wisconsin Veterans Tribute, at Highways 27 & 29 in Cadott.

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Cadott lies along the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole (although the weather is more like the North Pole than the Equator much of the year). This is one claim to fame Cadott wants you to know about as you enter town.

***Merrillan to Black River Falls is coming soon… meanwhile Black River Falls to Sparta continues below!***

Black River Falls (pop. 3,618) is the county seat of Jackson County and, frankly, the first sizeable town along Highway 27 since Ladysmith. The county seat of Jackson County, Black River Falls sits along the Black River. A small waterfall provided the hydroelectric power for a sawmill, which of course was all that was needed back then to establish a town.

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Highway 27 runs right through Downtown Black River Falls.

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State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
In 1872, Black River Falls became the first village in Wisconsin to establish a free city library.

sphagnummoss_500Ever heard of Sphagnum moss? Me neither, but it’s actually a significant plant that pumps money into the local economy. Growing quickly in the boggy and marshy lands in the area, Sphagnum moss is used to keep nursery plants and flowers alive and watered during shipping, since this moss can hold 20 times its weight in water. It’s used in hydroponic gardening, which I had to look up — it’s basically about growing plants with mineral nutrient solutions instead of the traditional soil. It’s even used for surgical dressings because it is sterile (ironically, it reproduces quickly.) It also helps prevent fungus attack in seeds. Wisconsin is actually the only state that produces Sphagnum moss commercially.

The Black River, which runs through the heart of Black River Falls (logically enough), indeed has a blackish hue due to its high iron content. It’s a popular paddling and canoeing river. The Black River Falls Chamber of Commerce offers information on a bunch of other places to take advantage of the river’s amenities, as well as the city’s. You’ll find it approaching downtown, shortly before the junction with Highway 54. You can also call them at 800-404-4008.

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*** Brewery Alert ***
Black River Falls is home to Sand Creek Brewing Company (320 Pierce St., 715-284-7553), which makes a variety of quality brews on a site that started brewing beer in 1856 – it’s had a wild history since. Brewing here actually took a 75-year hiatus until the Pioneer Brewing Company started up in 1995 and became the new home of Sand Creek Brewing in 2004. For more history, check out this page. Meanwhile, stop in (right off Highway 54) and check out their brews, from the light Golden Ale to the hearty Sand Creek Imperial Porter. State Trunk Tour picks include the Groovy Brew, Woody’s Wheat (banana overtones are a good thing) and the Pioneer Black River Red, which won the World Beer Cup’s Gold Award for a German-style Marzen in 2000.

Cool kitsch: Familiar with the British band The Fall? They actually mention the Black River Falls Motel. Why? I’ll do some digging and find it, ’cause I’ll bet the story’s interesting. Also, a quick ride east on Highway 54 will reveal the orange moose at the Best Western Arrowhead Lodge & Suites and the “cow” McDonald’s, a Mickey D’s with cow-like themes on the tables – although they could be dalmation-like, too. The Majestic Pines Casino is also nearby, just east of Black River Falls. If you’re feelin’ it, stop in and test Lady Luck.

The Legend of the Orange Moose
54moose2_lgThey proudly call it the world’s most unusual town ornament. Legend says a Norwegian farmer named Torvaald Kjorvak (try pronouncing that) found a wounded moose calf along the Black River. With no mother around to be found, Kjorvak nursed the animal back to health himself. He then fed him an experimental grain that helped him grow huge… and orange. Find out more here!

In Black River Falls, U.S. Highway 12 breaks away and parallels I-94 on its way to Tomah. Highway 27 continues south through the Black River State Forest, where a stop to hike up Castle Mound is a terrific way to get both exercise and a phenomenal view. You can camp, ski, ride ATVs, or just relax and check out the abundant wildlife. If you want to check out some cranberry bogs (this is the edge of Wisconsin’s “Cranberry Country”), take a brief jaunt down Cranberry Drive for about a mile and a half.

After Cataract, Highway 71 joins in from Melrose. Just a few hundred yards west on Highway 71 brings you to Wegner Grotto County Park, a nice art display of concrete sculptures decorated with glittering pieces of glass, seashells, Indian arrowheads, and other augmentations.

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Above: A mere sample of the concrete and glass artwork on display at Wegner Grotto.

Sparta

For about ten miles, Highways 27 and 71 stick together before reaching 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. Highway 27 meets with Highway 16 on this strip, where Highway 71 breaks east to go follow the Elroy-Sparta Trail route. Highway 21 also starts just to the east in the heart of Sparta’s downtown; Highway 27 stays on the west side and meets I-90 on the south side of town.

Sparta lies at the connecting point of the Elroy-Sparta Trail – which originates 32 miles away in Elroy (of course) – and the La Crosse River Trail, which heads toward La Crosse and the Mississippi River. The trail meets at Sparta’s old train depot, which offers both energized and tired bicyclists whatever they need.

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At the Sparta Depot, a group of bikers begin the 32-mile trek toward Elroy.

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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.

Of course, you can’t top having the World’s Largest Bicyclist to exemplify your status as America’s Bicycling Capita, right? Roll east slightly along Wisconsin Street (Highway 16) and you’ll find Ben Bikin, a 32-foot high fiberglass statue. Ben sits atop an 1890s-era bicycle, cementing the city’s status and getting everybody driving, riding, or walking by to look up and take notice.

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Made locally, “Ben Biken” greets you to the Bicycling Capital of America along Highway 16/71, just east of Highway 27. He’s the World’s Largest Bicyclist!

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The Deke Slayton Museum, chock full of bikes and space exhibits.

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.)

spartaphantFAST 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.

Sparta High School along Highway 27

Sparta High School’s mascot? The Spartans, of course! Michigan State alums, take note.

After crossing the intersection with Highways 16 and 71 and then getting through the hordes of gas stations and hotels from there to the interchage with I-90, Highway 27 continuing south begin to dive into the heart of Wisconsin’s gorgeous Driftless Area.

Highway 27 winding south of Sparta.

Highway 27 south of Sparta, ready for more Driftless Area scenery.

Farm and silo close to Highway 27 in Monroe County

Vistas of hill-framed barns (some quite close to the road) adorn this stretch of Highway 27.

Highway 27 continues to navigate the beautiful hills and valleys of southern Monroe County, through little Leon and making an easterly bend through the Leon Valley along the Little Lacrosse River to Melvina (pop. 104) before bending back west a bit on the way to Cashton (pop. 1,102).

Juusto Cheese at Pasture Pride along Highway 27 in Cashton, just south of Highway 33Just west of downtown Cashton, Highway 27 meets Highway 33, where you can stop and stock up on more cheese. Pasture Pride Cheese (608-654-7444) is right along Highway 27 just south of 33, and they offer a variety of cheeses using milk from Amish farmers – of which there are many in the area – going all grass-fed for their cows and goats. Pasture Pride is the home of that “Juusto” Cheese, the baked Finnish style of cheese that looks baked and is extra buttery in flavor – that’s what the judges who shower them with awards generally say.

Cashton is also the birthplace of Frank King, cartoonist and creator of Gasoline Alley (he gre up in nearby Tomah), as well as the birthplace of Leif Erickson. No, not that Leif Erickson, the one who became a justice on the Montana Supreme Court. But we’re guessing having that name helped with an air of authority.

Westby & the Ski Jump

Just past Cashton, Highway 27 enters Vernon County. Just past the little settlement of Newry, you just might see something poking above the hills on the horizon to the west-southwest. Is that… a … ski jump?? Yes it is! The Snowflake Ski Jump opened in 1961 and – right there in Timber Coulee a few miles off Highway 27 – hosts national and international competitions for ski jumping in January and February. Numerous Olympians have trained or competed at Snowflake, which is the 7th highest such jump in North America. Additional, smaller jumps are right there too, for junior competitions and training. Snowflake also opened a golf course to complement their ski jump and also their Rod & Gun Club, so Snowflake operates all year long. It can boast of having “the only nine-hole golf course in the shadow of an Olympic-sized ski jump.” If you want to check it out, follow County P west from Highway 27 about three miles south of Newry.

Past the jump, you hop into Westby (pop. 2,271), where Highway 27 meets up with U.S. 14 & 61 before heading into the heart of town. A city build on Norwegian heritage, Westby hosts one of the state’s largest Syttende Mai festivals each May and offers boutiques like the Uff-Da Shoppe along the main drag.

After hooking up with Highway 82, Highway 27 heads into Viroqua (pop. 4,335). The name can also apply to a genus of jumping spiders, but this Viroqua is a pleasant town where numerous artists have made home. Butch Vig, member of the rock band Garbage and producer to albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, was born in Viroqua, as was President Bush’s (the Dubya one) personal physician. Four main routes run through the heart of Viroqua, and all combine through downtown: U.S. 14, U.S. 61, Highway 27, and Highway 82.

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The Fortney Building (above) includes a residence hotel and is a prime example of the early architecture along Viroqua’s Main Street, of which Highway 27 is one of four State Trunk Tour routes. The Temple Theatre is a 1922 Classic Revival style vaudeville and movie theatre that underwent a $1.3 million restoration; today it stands as a prime example of why Viroqua’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Viroqua was called “the town that beat Wal-Mart” by Smithsonian Magazine in 1992, not because it prevented a Wal-Mart from opening, but because so many local businesses are successfully co-existing with it. Viroqua’s natural beauty has drawn artists for decades, but the arts and culture scene has been growing more significantly as of late. The presence of the renovated Temple Theatre and numerous coffee shops and galleries are just a hint of the growing arts community. Highway 27 goes through the middle of it all; architecture buffs can enjoy the theatre, the Fortney Building (pictured above), and the Sherry-Butt House, an 1870 structure constructed in the Southern style… all of which are on Main Street.

14276182sign_225hiHighway 27 is just one of the routes on Viroqua’s Main Street. Highway 82 and U.S. 14 & 61 also travel through the heart of town. Highway 56 intersects downtown, too. Bypass plans were in place for many years that would carry some or all of the routes around town, but that got cancelled in 2014. And we’re pretty glad to see that – this is a town to explore!

South of Viroqua, the four highways stay combined for a few miles before Highways 27 and 82 break away to the southwest. You run a series of ridges, from which the views get quite expansive. You pass through the small village of Liberty Pole, which is noted for nearby Monument Rock, a huge natural rock formation (we’ll have to get a picture on the next trip through). From Liberty Pole west to Red Mound, you’ll see a series of old stone wayside markers. These markers note historical facts about areas in Vernon County, especially as they applied to settlement and clashes with Native Americans. Many of these markers were carved in stone in the 1930s; most have been moved to their current location. They’re worth stopping and checking out, especially if you’re a history buff. These markers are noted in points all along the route in Vernon County.

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Above: Just southwest of Viroqua, this caboose (presumably in someone’s yard) lies on real railroad tracks. Several other sculptures adorn the property. Below: Liberty Pole, Wisconsin. Not a bustling metropolis, but a serene place to stop, step outside and enjoy the views and quiet sounds of southwestern Wisconsin.

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Liberty Pole is also the name of an annual scenic motorcycle parade covering areas across this part of the state. Check out their home page here for more information.

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As shown above (click for larger images you can read), county historical markers dot the sides of Highway 27 from Liberty Pole west for quite a ways. A map of marker locations is provided at most waysides, with specific details carved into stone tablets. John McCulloch is considered the county’s first European settler, building a cabin here in 1844 before “California Dreamin'” took him out west. Most of the tablets were made around 1930.

This area of Highway 27, basically between Viroqua and DeSoto, is big on scenic views and short on facilities, so make sure your gas gauge isn’t reading close to empty. Keep your camera ready, though! Highway 82 splits off at Fargo (not relation to the movie or North Dakota) and heads west toward DeSoto. Highway 27, meanwhile, turns south into Crawford County to run more ridges in this hilly territory.

And the beauty just continues on this stetch of Highway 27. The first settlement is the unincorporated Rising Sun, Wisconsin, supposedly named by a settler in 1856 who was super excited after seeing the sun after a rainy, cloudy two-week stretch (not an uncommon occurrence in this state.) Past more ridges are towns like Fairview and the village of Mount Sterling (pop. 211), named for platter and State Assemblyman William Sterling (who platted the town), not Roger Sterling from the Mad Men series – we surmised that possibility for a while. Highway 171 intersects here, ambling east and west across the territory.

Highway 27 between Rising Sun and Fairview

Part of the rolling hill farmland scenery as Highway 27 heads between Rising Sun and Fairview in northern Crawford County.

Meanwhile, Highway 27 starts heading southwesterly again, winding through Seneca (with 893 people, it’s the largest settlement between Viroqua and Prairie du Chien) and Eastman, where Highway 179 meets up.

It’s more ridge-riding after Eastman, where Highway 27 affords views that at times can include a glimpse of the Mississippi River from Limery Ridge, about six miles east of the river itself – giving you an idea of how high these ridges are.

Mississippi River in the distance through valleys from Highway 27 northeast of Prairie du Chien

That would be the Mississippi River about 5-6 miles away, visible from Highway 27’s vantage point near Limery Ridge. Iowa is in the distance, Prairie du Chien lies ahead on the route.

From this high vantage point, we begin a gradual and curvy descent into our final stop on the Highway 27 State Trunk Tour.

Prairie du Chien

Prairie du Chien (pop. 6,018) is the Crawford County seat and Wisconsin’s second oldest city (Green Bay is the oldest, in case you were wondering.) The Fox and Sauk tribes were here for hundreds of years prior to French explorers arriving and saying “voila!” Early establishment began in 1673 as Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet paddled their way to the Mississippi via the Wisconsin River and opening the area up for further European exploration. The first trading posts were developed in 1685 by French explorer Nicholas Perrot. Fur trade, along with Prairie du Chien’s natural location near the Wisconsin River and Mississippi River confluence, guaranteed the small settlement would prosper for years to come. Prairie du Chien’s history spans five centuries, including the only Wisconsin battle in the War of 1812, the Siege of Prairie du Chien. PDC’s first fort, Fort Shelby, was built by Americans built captured by the British in the War. By 1816, it had been replaced with Fort Crawford. The Black Hawk War, which took place in 1832, featured a commanding officer in the form of Colonel Zachary Taylor, who later became 12th President of the United States. A lieutenant during the same time named Jefferson Davis not only married Zachary Taylor’s daughter (named Sarah “Knoxie” Taylor, proving cutesy nicknames existed in the 19th century), he later became President of the Confederate States of America. Neither worked out well; the future President Taylor didn’t approve and poor Sarah passed away from pneumonia only months after their 1835 marriage; his new country in the 1860s didn’t last very long, either.

The fur trade may have kept many warm, but it made a few millionaires on top of it. Local resident Hercules Dousman was the first millionaire in Wisconsin, and in 1871 his son H. Louis Dousman built Villa Louis, a National Historic Landmark on St. Feriole Island. The plot of land upon which Villa Louis stands once held Hercules Dousman’s original house, as well as Fort Crawford and Fort Shelby. Today it’s a museum operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the first historic site for the organization.

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The Villa Louis mansion, just part of what lies in store on the grounds of this National Historic Landmark on PDC’s St. Feriole Island.

Did school ever feel like prison? Well, Prairie du Chien has a prison that was once a highly-regarded Jesuit boarding school. Campion Jesuit High School operated from 1880 to 1975 and counts among its alumni the likes of Vicente Fox, Mexican president from 2000 to 2006; George Wendt, Norm of Cheers fame, a number of movies and noted Bearssss Superfan Bill Swerski; sportscaster George Blaha; former Wisconsin governor Patrick Lucey; and politician and prankster Dick Tuck (yes, his real name.) As long as we’re name dropping, Pat Bowlen, longtime owner of the Denver Broncos, was born in Prairie du Chien – one of the few Wisconsin natives who liked Super Bowl XXXII.

A carp-droppin’ tradition. A relatively new tradition in Prairie du Chien happens on New Years’ Eve. In 2001, they started lowering a carp via crane to coincide with the ringing in of the new year. Similar to the apple in New York City or the peach in Georgia, residents count down the last minute or two of the year while the carp – a 30-pound female named “Lucky” – gets lowered via crane from about 110 feet high. Now called the “Droppin’ of the Carp”, it’s certainly one-of-a-kind.

Prairie du Chien contains five National Historic Landmarks and nine sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Wyalusing State Park lies just to the south of the Wisconsin River via the Great River Road.

Highway 27 ends at U.S. 18 in Prairie du Chien

Highway 27 comes to an end right before the bridge to Iowa, at U.S. 18/Highway 60 on the south edge of Prairie du Chien’s downtown.

 

CONNECTIONS
North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 2
Can connect nearby to: Highway 13, about 6 miles north

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 35
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 18 & Highway 60, about 0.5 miles south

HIghway 21 Tank Crossing

21

STH-021“Bikes To B’Gosh”

 

WisMap21Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 21 cuts across much of central Wisconsin, joining Sparta and Fort McCoy with Oshkosh and the Fox Cities. Used as a primary route for cross-state traffic, it’s the main street for several key towns and provides access to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, as well as both the Wisconsin River (which flows into the Mississippi) and Lake Winnebago (which flows into Green Bay to Lake Michigan and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.)

Wisconsin Highway 21 Road Trip

The Drive (West To East): Highway 21 begins in the Bicycling Capital of America, Sparta (pop. 9,522). Sparta is the western host of Fort McCoy, the eastern terminus of the La Crosse River Trail, and the northern terminus of the world-famous Elroy-Sparta Trail. It’s also childhood home of a famous astronaut and current home of the World’s Largest Bicyclist (more on that below.) I-90 and Highways 16, 27, and 71 also meet in Sparta.

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Sparta’s traditional downtown runs along Highway 21, with shops and bikers lining the street.

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Ben Biken, Sparta’s bicyclin’ mascot, looks over Highway 21’s western start. He was manufactured locally by FAST Corp., which we’ll get to in a second.

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.

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The Sparta Depot serves as a trailhead for the La Crosse River and Elroy-Sparta Trails. Here, a group of bikers begin the 32-mile trek toward Elroy.

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.

Deke Slayton Museum, Sparta

An out-of-this-world statue of Sparta son Deke Slayton adorns the Space & Bicycle Museum that bears his name.

So, you know that fiberglass hippo? The one 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.

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Fiberglass animals of all kinds, including this elephant hanging out in the pasture, dot FAST’s lot on the northeast side of Sparta. You are welcome to wander around and check out all the fascinating pieces, just be careful. Watch for wasps, which sometimes make nests inside the displays. Nobody needs somebody getting hurt, stung, or whining off to their lawyer. It is forbidden on the State Trunk Tour.

Highway 21 into Fort McCoy

Highway 21 crosses a stretch of Fort McCoy between Sparta and Tomah. They encourage you to just keep driving…

HIghway 21 Tank Crossing

Now HERE’S a “crossing” sign you don’t see that often…

Northeast out of Sparta, Highway 21 follows the La Crosse River and then beelines it across Fort McCoy, a military reservation in service since 1909. Amidst a beautiful setting with valleys, coulees and hills, about 100,000 members of the military are trained here every year.

Tomah

After a 5-6 mile straightaway, Highway 21 winds past Tunnel City and across the northern end of Tomah (pop. 8,419), which holds the Monroe County seat. Tomah itself sits right where the Driftless Area gives way to cranberry bogs and forests. Transportation has long been a hallmark of Tomah; it holds an Amtrak station for the Empire Builder and is where roads going through Wisconsin from Illinois to Minnesota tend to split. Pre-Interstate days, it’s where then-main roads U.S. Highways 12 and 16 split; when the interstates were built in the 1960’s, they decided to split Interstates 90 and 94 here as well. Highway 131 also starts here and makes a trek south through Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, an incredibly beautiful drive. Even shows of power congregate here: the Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull is one of the largest in the country and takes place every June at the Monroe County Fairgrounds. Not coincidentally, lots of hotels, truck stops, warehouses and transport companies are located here. In keeping with the transportation theme, Gasoline Alley comic strip creator Frank King grew up in Tomah. The city’s downtown is south of Highway 21; just follow U.S. 12 south and when you reach downtown, it’s a pretty cool main street boulevard. Meanwhile, along Highway 21,you’ll find a plethora of gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and more at the busy junction with I-94.

Tomah water towerIn addition to transportation, Tomah is known as one of America’s cranberry capitals. The world’s largest cranberry festival is held during late September in nearby Warrens, which also holds the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center. Warrens can be reached by heading north on I-94 to County E, about 8 miles north of Highway 21.

You can see cranberry bogs for yourself along Highway 21 just east of the intersections with U.S. 12 and I-94.

East of Tomah, it gets more forested. Just past the junction with Highway 173, an angled road that sends you up towards Nekoosa and Wisconsin Rapids, you enter a busy area – for wildlife.

The massive Necedah National Wildlife Refuge covers 43,696 acres in the largest wetland bog in Wisconsin. Established in 1939, the Necedah N.W.R. hosts many rare or endangered species; the Refuge 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.

Necedah Visitor Center sign

The Necedah National Wildlife Refuge can be accessed right off Highway 21.

Necedah NWR guide signs

Necedah is known as the “Land of the Yellow Water” due to the Yellow River flowing through (and no, it’s not a book by I.P. Daily.)

Further along Highway 21 at 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, just past the intersection with Highway 80 downtown. Despite Necedah being home to NASCAR drivers Jim, Jay, Johnny, Tim and Travis Sauter, remember to obey the local speed limits. For something slower and more reflective, the Necedah Shrine (W5703 Shrine Road, 608-565-2617) is a Marian shrine officially called the “Queen of the Holy Rosary Mediatrix Between God and Man Shrine.” They welcome visitors with free admission and an Information Center that is open from 10am-4pm daily.

While plying the beautiful farmland and forests that characterize much of the drive from Necedah eastward on Highway 21, you will cross the occasional curious landform such as Ship Rock, described by some as “an isolated pinnacle of Cambrian sandstone” and as a “cool rock formation” by others.

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Ship Rock, one of the most eastern outposts of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Area” and a fun place to go rock climbing.

It’s a beautiful outcropping, marred in places by graffiti for no good reason whatsoever. But check out the angles, because from many of them the rocks do resemble a “ship-shape.”

Coloma

Further east on Highway 21 we approach Wisconsin’s spine, the I-39/U.S. 51 highway. It tends to mark an unofficial boundary between the western and eastern halves of the state, and right where these two highways cross you’ll find little Coloma (pop. 450). Through history, Coloma has shifted to where the action is; it began four miles west of its present location where the stagecoach route once came through; when a railroad connecting Stevens Point to Portage was built in 1876, Coloma shifted over to where the rail was – its present downtown. U.S. 51’s original route came through on Main Street; today’s U.S. 51 & I-39 run through within a mile of Coloma’s main crossroads now, meaning the town could stay put. The original location four miles west is now known as “Coloma Corners.”

Glover Bluff Meteor Crater

A little-known, under-studied but significant feature on the landscape a few miles south of Coloma is the Glover Bluff Meteor Crater. This impact crater, estimated to be less than 500 million years old (you know – give or take), is five miles wide and is exposed at the surface. However, natural plant and tree growth coupled with quarrying for dolomite rock means the crater itself tends not to be uber-noticable. However, scientists and researchers are starting to recognize the need to study this crater in more detail, and we’ll keep you posted if becomes something where a visit will reveal something cool.

Highway 21 entering WautomaContinuing east from Coloma on Highway 21, you angle through Marquette County into Waushara County, heading east-northeast through the “sand hills” into Waushara’s county seat, Wautoma (pop. 2,218). The city bills itself as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” due to a major tree-growing farm that established in Wautoma in the 1950s. Highways 22 and 73 also converge here; Highway 21 joining 73 for a brief ride north into the city’s downtown before angling southeast. A brief offshoot is Highway 152, which runs for seven miles to Mount Morris and the Nordic Mountain Ski Area.

** Drive-In Alert **
On the east side of town along Highways 21/73, Wautoma offers an old fashioned drive-in, the Milty Wilty. Open since 1947, the Milty Wilty (920-787-2300) is known for delicious old-school burgers, hearty yet light milkshakes, ice cream, and just all-around fun.

The rest of Highway 21 from Wautoma to Oshkosh is coming soon!

West Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 16, Highway 27Highway 71
Can connect nearby to: I-90, about 2 miles east via Highway 16

East Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: I-41, Highway 76, U.S. Highway 45
Can connect nearby to: Highway 26, about 4 miles southwest; Highway 44, about 3 miles southwest

LaCrosse Brewery

16

STH-016

“La Crosse to Milwaukee the fun and historic way!”

WisMap16Quickie Summary: A former U.S. highway, State “Trunk” Highway 16 comes in from Minnesota at La Crosse and works its way toward Milwaukee through routes so popular they were supplanted by Interstates in most areas. Paralleling I-90 and/or I-94 much of the way, Highway 16 goes through many of the towns the interstate highways bypass. Highway 16 used to continue into downtown Milwaukee and across Lake Michigan on a ferry to Muskegon via the old Milwaukee Clipper, where it then ran all the way to downtown Detroit just short of the Canadian border, hey. Today, though, it ends at I-94 in Milwaukee’s western suburbs, but not before passing by a ton of interesting things along its almost 200-mile journey.

Wisconsin Highway 16 Road Trip

The Drive (West To East): Highway 16 in Wisconsin begins on, of all places, an island in the Mississippi River. You’re skipping over The Mighty Mississip. The Old Miss. The Old Man (just channeling my inner Clark W. Griswold.) Highway 16 here is multiplexed with U.S. Highways 14 & 61 and was the busiest bridge across the Mississippi River between Dubuque and St. Paul before I-90 was built just to the north in 1969.

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Highway 16, along with U.S. Highways 14 & 61, begins on an island in the Mississippi, right before the bridge that leapfrogs you into downtown La Crosse.

La Crosse

16_bridgetolcDowntown La Crosse lurks through the truss work of the 1939 bridge carrying eastbound Highway 16 back toward La Crecent, Minnesota. The hills framing La Crosse are clearly visible in the background (click on picture for larger view.)

 

 

 

 

 

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Highway 16 (along with US 14/61) enter and leave Wisconsin using each of these bridges, although the state line is several hundred yards to the west yet. This beach along the Mississippi River faces downtown La Crosse but is still in Wisconsin.

Highway 16’s bridges spanning the Mississippi River connect to La Crosse from La Crescent, Minnesota. The newer span 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.

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Downtown La Crosse, across from an island beach in the Mississippi River but is still within Wisconsin. That’s the skyline right there – if you don’t count the bluffs in the backdrop.

La Crosse statue by its tallest building

The statue of Natives playing lacrosse is fitting for the city. The city’s tallest office building, the 126-foot, 10-story U.S. Bank Place.

Entering Wisconsin here means entering 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 just south of Highway 16 as it comes to the surface in downtown La Crosse and continues to run as the City Brewery. The World’s Largest Six Pack is indicative of La Crosse’s fun style, and you can access this gigantic, John Blutarsky-pleasing sight by following U.S. Highway 14/61 south less than a mile once you’ve crossed the bridge into the city.

6pack_500Once 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.

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.

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Paddleboats ply the Mississippi in the summer and make stops in La Crosse at Riverside Park.

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.

Also at the intersection where Highway 16 meets the southern start of U.S. 53, which heads north a few blocks into the heart of 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.

16_gdadbluffOne of La Crosse’s most notable landforms, Granddad Bluff made an appearance in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi, towers over 500 feet above the city and brilliantly reflects the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

Drive-In Watch:
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.

rudys800Car shows and “Cruise Nights” happen regularly throughout the summer. You can find Rudy’s two blocks west of Highway 35 along Highway 16, which is La Crosse Street here. Highway 35 basically bypasses downtown La Crosse, instead going right through neighborhoods.

Past the downtown area, Highway 16 gets close to the bluffs that line eastern La Crosse and heads northeasterly as Losey Boulevard. Approaching I-90, you’re in the busy outskirts where all the big-box stores and chain restaurants are… it’s like the ‘burbs.

Past the junction with I-90 and beyond La Crosse, the coulees and ridges dominate the landscape on all sides as farmland emerges amidst the topography. The first town you reach is West Salem (pop. 4,738), home of Pulitzer-prize winning author Hamlin Garland, the La Crosse Fairgrounds and Speedway, and two octagon-shaped houses, one of which is Garland’s homestead. Past Lake Neshonoc and an intersection with Highway 108, Highway 16 follows the relatively flat area along the La Crosse River valley – not far off the La Crosse River Trail, great for biking – and the hills, bluffs and coulees surround you, often from a distance.

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From Highway 16, Highway 108 heads north, past an “old” section of Highway 16 featuring a bridge from 1926, and zigzags north a bit through La Crosse County along part of Eggins Coulee.

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We love these old bridges. Along Highway 108 just north of today’s Highway 16, the original 16 route is still marked, heading across a creek on a bridge constructed in 1926 – and left practically unchanged since. This is in New Salem.

Sparta

Shortly after entering Monroe County is the Bicycling Capital of America, Sparta (pop. 8,648). Sparta is the western host of Fort McCoy, the eastern terminus of the La Crosse River Trail, and the northern terminus of the world-famous Elroy-Sparta Trail. All of this hubub results in a commercial strip through town where you can get just about anything. Joining Highway 71, Highway 16 goes through this commercial strip as it also crosses Highway 21, which goes into Sparta’s main downtown area before heading towards Oshkosh, and Highway 27, a key north-south route through the coulee region.

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. And speaking of your tummy, the “Ben Biken BBQ Bash”, named by Governor Doyle as the Official State Barbeque Championship of the State of Wisconsin, takes place every September. Coupled with typical September weather, it might be the best weekend of the year to go check out the area. You can eat brisket and burn it off biking.

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The Deke Slayton Museum, chock full of bikes and space exhibits.

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.)

spartaphantFAST 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.

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Made locally, “Ben Biken” greets you to the Bicycling Capital of America along Highway 71 & 16.

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Sparta’s high school nickname? The Spartans, of course! (This doesn’t encourage graduates to go to Michigan State, does it??)

Heading east from Sparta, Highway 16 crosses Interstate 90 and begins a straight shot through the Fort McCoy Military Reservation, often paralleling the interstate just a few hundred feet south. I felt like opening it up and maxing out the speedometer with such a nice straightaway, but something told me that military land but be an even worse place to break the law than a regular ol’ stretch of road. Oh, and turn your lights on for safety.

Tomah

Downtown Tomah along U.S. 12 just north of Highway 16

The Main Street boulevard through downtown Tomah, lined with historic buildings and shops. This is where all the heavy traffic between Madison and Minneapolis went before I-94.

Next up is the crossroads city of Tomah (pop. 8,419), which holds the Monroe County seat. Transportation has long been a hallmark of Tomah; it has an Amtrak station for the Empire Builder line and it’s where main highways tend to arrive and split. Pre-Interstate days, it’s where then-main roads U.S. Highways 12 and 16 split; when the interstates were built in the 1960’s, they decided to split Interstates 90 and 94 here as well. It’s considered a halfway point between Chicago and Minneapolis and definitely focuses on hospitality and logistics. Even shows of power congregate here: the Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull is one of the largest in the country and takes place every June at the Monroe County Fairgrounds, right off Highway 16 on the western edge of town. You’ll find plenty of hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, truck stops, and stores to stock up for trips. Quite a few transport companies and distribution facilities are located here. In keeping with the transportation theme, Gasoline Alley comic strip creator Frank King grew up in Tomah.

Tomah, home to Gasoline Alley creator Frank King bannerPart of the reason for Tomah’s being a center for transportation is its location where the Driftless Area of western Wisconsin meets the forests and cranberry bogs of central Wisconsin. To the west, hills; to the east, flatter forested lands perfect for growing and harvesting cranberries. Tomah is known as one of America’s cranberry capitals, with the world’s largest cranberry festival taking place in late September in nearby Warrens, which also holds the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center. Heading south of out of Tomah via Highway 131, you immediately head into hills and an extensive part of Wisconsin’s Amish Country. And of course, Fort McCoy is just to the west.

Highway 16 comes into Tomah from the Fort McCoy grounds and goes right past Recreation Park, which holds the Monroe County Fairgrounds. Found just off Butts Avenue (heh-heh, heh-heh), events there include the annual Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull, the second largest truck and tractor pull in the nation.

Highway 16 stays on the south side of town and hooks up with U.S. Highway 12 just south of downtown. Highway 131 begins here and heads south.

Continuing east from Tomah, U.S. 12 and Highway 16 two join together for the next 40-plus miles while paralleling I-90/94. This is only fitting since this was the interstate before they built the interstate. A string of towns you zoom past on the interstate become places you can check out with more care on this trip. Quaint burgs like Oakdale (pop. 297) and Camp Douglas (pop. 592) host facilities for Mill Bluff State Park, which is located right between the two.

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Landforms in this part of the state make for great state parks, including Mill Bluff, halfway between Oakdale and Camp Douglas on the Monroe-Juneau County line.

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This view from Highway 16 & U.S. 12, which closely parallels I-90/94 through Camp Douglas, shows Castle Rock. Once an island in a shallow sea, it towers above the landscape.

Camp Douglas also hosts Volk Field, which in turn hosts the Wisconsin National Guard Museum. Housed in a log lodge built in 1896, the museum contains exhibits, dioramas, video and slide programs, and a battlefield map. It also extensively covers the state’s famous 32nd Division, which Highway 32 was named after and the French regarded as Les Terribles, but they meant it in a good way for us – and them. The German Haus Restaurant offers a nice view of Castle Rock, spaetzle and bier along with parking and access the Omaha Trail, which bikers can take to Elroy.

Next up for drivers is New Lisbon (pop. 1,436), which calls itself “The Friendly City.” Highway 80 intersects here, as does the Burr Oak Winery in case you didn’t sample any German beer back in Camp Douglas.

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.

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Juneau County’s capital, Mauston, is a prime stop for stock-up items and a gateway to the rail-to-trails and scenery of the Driftless Area. Here, Highway 82 meets up with U.S. 12 & Highway 16 for a brief ride through downtown.

Next up is Mauston (pop. 4,256), which in some materials refers to itself as the “un-Dells”, referencing its close proximity to, but much more relaxed and homey approach than, nearby Wisconsin Dells. County seat of Juneau County and home to the area’s largest medical center, Mauston (rhymes with “Boston”) hosts five companies who are Fortune 500 members and is wedged between Decorah Lake to its north and One Mile Bluff to its south. Highway 82 provides access to I-90/94 to the east – as well as about twenty fast-food restaurants and tourist places featuring giant plastic things – and access to the more rugged hills toward Elroy to the west. Highway 58 heads north toward Necedah and south into the heart of the Driftless Area, too.

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Mauston’s St. Patrick Catholic Church at the end of Pine Street is one block off Highway 16, but visible around much of the town.

Through Mauston, Highway 82 goes past a slew of growing neighborhoods and several large schools, which serve communities for miles around. The larger, more rugged hills of the “Driftless Area” of Wisconsin beckon; before long, you start twisting around through valleys and past increasingly frequent rock cuts and bluffs. This is a main route for bicyclists and ATV’ers looking to take advantage of the rail-to-trail systems in southwestern Wisconsin.

After a long end-round past Sheep Pasture Bluff (no sign of sheep on this particular day), Highway 16 heads through little Lyndon Station (pop. 500) on the way towards the Dells.

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This area was once of the greatest hop-raising districts in the country, supplying breweries with a key ingredient. This marker in Lyndon Station recalls the days when an editorial in 1867 encouraged locals to “keep hopping, hoeing and hoping”, which could also be rap lyrics today.

Past Lyndon Station, I saw an interesting place: it just said “massage” and a phone number, which began with the “666” prefix. I do no further research. Shortly after that is the double-entendre named Cruisin’ Chubby’s, in which I believe dancing of some sort takes place. In between is the Dells Motor Speedway, which features a 1/3-mile semi-banked asphalt oval and hosts super late models and stock-car racing on Saturday nights. Lots of interesting places in just a few short miles.

us12us16signOnce you cross I-90/94, the Dells begin. First, you hit about two miles of thick forest; then suddenly, lights, action, and roller coaster rides begin to fill the view. Yes, you’ve reached the tourist mecca of Wisconsin Dells!

By the way, some old signs, like at left, still show 16 as a U.S. Highway, which it was from 1926 to 1978 in Wisconsin. Remember, before the Interstate this was THE way highway between Madison and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Imagine how much busier it was back in the day!

Once you cross I-90/94 at its Exit 85, the Dells area begins. First, you hit about two miles of thick forest that’s part of Rocky Arbor State Park, a 244-acre refuge from the bustling vacationland on the other side of the trees. Pine trees (which aren’t super common in the area otherwise), beautiful bluffs, hiking trails, camping, RV spaces, and more. Hunting and trapping are allowed – with a license – and the park is open in winter for winter hiking and snowshoeing. So any time of year, you can check out the 500 million year-old sandstone formations.

As you cross from Juneau into Sauk Columbia County past Rocky Arbor, one quick drop and suddenly lights, action, and roller coaster rides begin to fill the view. Yes, you’ve reached the tourist mecca of Wisconsin Dells!

Wisconsin Dells & Lake Delton

Ah, Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World” and Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destination. Highway 16 comes into the area and immediately, the architecture changes. The vibe changes. And the amount of traffic changes. When people refer to “Wisconsin Dells”, they usually mean the whole area, including Lake Delton and the region up and down the Wisconsin River, whose gorgeous ‘dells’ and gorges give the area its name. Wisconsin Dells itself started out as Kilbourn City in 1857. It was named after founder Byron Kilbourn, who also played a major role in getting Milwaukee started as a city one decade earlier. Renamed Wisconsin Dells in 1931, the city set the state’s high temperature record of 114 degrees Fahrenheit five years later. But indeed, it gets cold here, too, which explains why so many waterparks offer indoor facilities. It’s also chock full of foreign workers, many of whom are college age from Eastern Europe and South America. Time magazine actually named it one of the “Best Places for College Students to Work during the Summer” in 2004, proving there’s a list for nearly everything.

For Highway 16, it all starts at the junction with Highways 13 and 23, where a ride west on 13 leads you right to I-90/94. Here, U.S. 12 leaves Highway 16 and, coupled with 23 southbound, heads into Lake Delton. This section on the west side of the Wisconsin River is where the bustling and larger resorts generally are; you’ll find roller coasters, mini golf courses, ferris wheels, waterparks, upside-down White Houses (a place called “Top Secret”), plastic pink flamingos, motels, hotels, ski jumps in bodies of water… it’s all along this stretch. The world’s largest Trojan Horse can’t be missed. I mean, it’s right there – you can even see it from Highway 16 before it turns east!

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Motels, pedestrians and stray beach balls line this stretch in Lake Delton just south of Highway 16, with skywalks allowing pedestrians to avoid traffic and/or winter; and as you can see, traffic can get heavy on this stretch. Stop and go traffic much of the time on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer is not uncommon.

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It’s hard to miss the World’s Largest Trojan Horse along U.S. 12/Highway 23 just south of the junction with Highway 16. A ride passes through it; no word on if anything else is hiding inside.

So at the big intersection where U.S. 12 leaves and heads south, Highway 16 breaks east with Highways 13 and 23, hopping over the Wisconsin River and entering the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).

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At the intersection coming up, U.S. 12 and Highways 13, 16, and 23 all converge. I-90/94 is less than a mile to the west via Highway 13. The Dells’ main “strip” is to the east, along 16.

In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin “Ducks” (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dells’ selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

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One of the Wisconsin Ducks in front of Ripley’s, believe it or not.

This is truly a mecca of recreational vacation fun. Let’s take a look at some facts about the area around the Dells (thanks to the “Quick Facts” section of wisdells.com):

– There are 18 indoor waterpark/playground properties in the Dells, the highest concentration of such facilities in the world
– The first indoor waterpark in the nation, The Polynesian, opened here in 1989
– The largest indoor waterpark in the U.S. is the Kalahari Resort, with 125,000 square feet
– North America’s largest waterpark is Noah’s Ark, covering 70 acres, utilizing five million gallons of water and powering screaming people down three miles of waterslides
– The Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort’s indoor and outdoor waterpark space combined covers the space equivalent to six football fieldsAnd if you want fudge shops, only Mackinac Island in Michigan can compete with the downtown strip along Highways 13/16/23. Mmmm… fudge. “The Strip” features t-shirt stores that seem to repeat every 100 feet or so. But there are also a ton of unique – or just not too common – things. Among them: Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museum, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming); the Rick Wilcox Theater; and waterparks a’plenty. Feel like going extreme? Extreme World features a 130-foot high bungee jump, a skycoaster and for those who prefer to stay on the ground the whole time, a big selection of go-karts and tracks.

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Plenty of sights to see along Broadway, the stretch of Highway 16 where it goes through the heart of Wisconsin Dells. Highways 13 and 23 run with 16 here, too. Nig’s Bar, pictured at night just above, is one of those places advertising itself via t-shirts that people wear (“I had a swig at Nig’s”) all over the place… you’ve probably seem them.

wisdells-cyclesthru13-16-23Basically, Highway 16 goes through the original Dells’ main strip as Broadway. This is a major crossroads in the state and marks a division for Highway 16, where it ceases to parallel Interstates for a while and begins its push into eastern Wisconsin.

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This is part of the “dells” in Wisconsin Dells. A boat ride reveals all kinds of rock formations along this stretch of the Wisconsin River. These dells were formed about 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

At the east end of Wisconsin Dells, you’re suddenly in the countryside again. Highway 13 heads north towards Lake Superior (it’s a long road) and Highway 23 makes its way toward Green Lake and Sheboygan. Meanwhile, Highway 16 makes the plunge southeast and you have a long, fairly lonely ride (most traffic takes I-90/94, which parallels 16 on the other side of the Wisconsin River) towards the next town, with plenty of time to decompress from the activity in the Dells.

Portage

The next town in question is Portage (pop. 9,728), named for the Fox-Wisconsin waterway that quietly connects the two rivers, and by extension the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. What remains is now a small water pump and aeration flow system, although efforts are underway to restore the canal, whose use by boats ended in 1951 when the dam and locks making its use possible were closed.

Portage is the county seat of Columbia County and considered by many where “up North” begins. 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 Highways 16, 33, and U.S. Highway 51. 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 home to Fort Winnebago, which protected the portage in the frontier days. Little remains of it today, but the old “Surgeon’s Quarters” are still available to view. The Old Indian Agency House is another point of interest. In keeping with part of Portage’s raison d’etre, Highway 33 crosses the Wisconsin River at this point.

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Portage includes some nice parks, like the lovely Pierre Pawquette Park, which I can only assume is named after a Frenchman.

Heading out of Portage, U.S. 51 hooks up with Highway 16 for the ride past the Swan Lake State Wildlife Area (no, this isn’t where the song came from). This is the second instance of the former U.S. highway hooking up with a current one. After a few miles, U.S. 51 departs southward for Poynette, Madison and eventually New Orleans. Highway 16 heads southeast again toward Wyocena (pop. 732), where it speeds under Highway 22 in a “Super 2”-style interchange. It may seem unnecessary, but Highway 16 once went through Wyocena and the bypass was built in the 1950s before the interstates displaced it as the main route between Milwaukee and destinations like Minneapolis and La Crosse.

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This road once carried Highway 16 through Wyocena. The highway’s role as a primary route between Milwaukee and Minnesota before the interstates necessitated a bypass in the 1950’s, which carries Highway 16 today. Other bypasses were since built at Watertown and, much more recently, Oconomowoc.

Highway 16 also ambles around the village of Rio (pop. 938), which is pronounced, please, “rhy-oh”. They had to do something to distinguish it from the Brazilian city. The lack of beaches, palm trees, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Portugese-speaking people do the same, as does the lack of crime and instability. Rio provides crossroads to access two state wildlife areas, Mud Lake and Grassy Lake (how creative can you get?)

The next actual city on Highway 16 greets you right as you hook up with Highway 60 and duck under the U.S. 151 bypass: Columbus (pop. 4,479). It’s one of 17 U.S. states that has a city named Columbus. Located on the Crawfish River and straddling Columbia and Dodge Counties, Columbus refers to itself as the “Red Bud City” and boasts largest antique mall in Wisconsin with the Columbus Antique Mall – 78,000 square feet filled with stuff across 444 booths under one roof. The Christopher Columbus Museum in the antique mall features souvenir memorabilia from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and as well as lithographs, china, tapestries, statues, and more. Columbus also has the closest Amtrak station to Madison, which is a fairly quick ride down U.S. 151 from here.

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Stretches of downtown Columbus feature an array of preserved architecture, shops and yes, a few watering holes.

Columbus has done a great job preserving architecturally significant buildings, with the entire downtown district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural and photography students come to check out Jaeger’s Mill on the Crawfish River, or the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank Building (known as the “Jewel Box”), which was one of the last buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan. Students of history may revel in the Sunday morning toll of the steeple bell from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, partially made up of pieces of French canon captured during the Franco-Prussian War and presented as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (no comments were solicited from any area French residents.)

Downtown Columbus features a wide variety of shops and draws a good number of visitors on a nice day. Highway 16/60 intersects with Highway 73 right downtown. A short jaunt along 73 (aka Park Avenue) brings you past a nice part of town, to the original 1902 Kurth Brewery building (described and pictured below), and a connection with Highway 89.

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One of the last buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan, the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank draws attention with its facade. City Hall is kitty corner.

Columbus, like many Wisconsin cities, has a brewing history. Started on Park Avenue (today’s Business U.S. 151/Highway 73 at the intersection with Highway 89) in 1859, the Kurth Brewery quenched thirsty Columbusinians (or however you’d say it – Columbans, maybe?) for most of the ninety years that followed. Prohibition originally shut it down in 1920, but the Kurth Brewery managed to bounce back for 16 years after it was repealed, churning out items like Banner Beer and Blue Mound Beer throughout the 30s and 40s until it finally closed for good in 1949.

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Highway 60 snakes along the Rock River between Astico and Columbus. Highway 16 is along for the ride here, too.

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A couple enjoys the serene wayside along the Rock River just outside Columbus. The Rock eventually flows to the Quad Cities before meeting the Mississippi.

Highway 60 continues with 16 for the straight shot from Columbus to Clyman. At Clyman Junction (named for the railroad junction, not the road one), Highway 60 heads north and then east toward Hartford and Grafton. Meanwhile, we turn south and join Highway 26 for the ride south toward Watertown. It’s pretty much open land for this section, but it’s worth checking out Dickie Lee’s Whacky Shack (920-696-3563) for a bite or beverage and some good immature humor.

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Methinks there’s a double entendre in this business establishment’s name along Highway 16 near Clyman, but maybe it’s just me.

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Perhaps part of an old gas station, this charming little sight is just north of Watertown along Highway 16 while it’s joined with Highway 26 in Dodge County. It may have been moved since the expansion to four lanes, we’re checking.

Highway 16 technically runs as a bypass to the southeast that was built in 1962 and skirts the outer edge of Watertown (pop. 21,598), while Highway 26 leaves to bypass the city to the west on a new route opened in 2013. But for the true State Trunk Tour experience, follow Business 16 – the traditional city route – into town! Heading into downtown Watertown, crossing into Jefferson County, you reach an intersection with Highway 19, which you join eastbound because that’s also Business 16. Downtown is fairly extensive, featuring a number of shops and late 1800s-era buildings. A nice stop is Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a throwback malt shop-type place that opened in 1931. An aggressive Main Street program is paying off and walking around, back and forth over the Rock River, is a great way to stretch your legs as you check out everything from clothing stores to taverns and historic bank buildings.

octagonhousemarker_267hiWatertown was the second-largest city in the state back in 1855 and launched the first kindergarten in 1856. It can be found – and toured – on the grounds of the Octagon House, an 1854 structure built by one of the city’s founders, John Richards, to fulfill a promise to his sweetheart (he promised to built her the finest house in Wisconsin Territory if she would marry him. This was before the days of just using a stadium message board to ask.) The “water” in Watertown comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city. Twice.

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Amid a typical Wisconsin middle-class neighborhood on the southeast side of Watertown lies the historic Octagon House, built in 1854 to fulfill a guy’s promise.

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Up for a malt, ice cream or other sweet concoction from an old-fashioned, authentic soda fountain place? Mullen’s Dairy Bar in downtown Watertown offers items for your taste buds and cool items to look at from the store’s early days.

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The main drag in Watertown, which is Highway 19 – and was U.S. 16 until 1962. Today, this section is also “Business” Highway 16.

The first crossing of the Rock River is downtown where all the murals are; the second crossing is on east side of town at a park where walking trails, pedestrian bridges, and even fishing piers with carp-specific disposal bins are available(?)

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A nice summer day along the Rock River in Watertown. Water levels can vary greatly – we’ve seen this park submerged before.

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Highway 19/Business 16 ends as it merges into today’s Highway 16 east of Watertown, heading towards Oconomowoc. Highway 19 once continued with 16 all the way to Milwaukee; it was truncated back to Watertown in 1947.

Highway 16 continues east from Watertown and parallels the Canadian Pacific railroad through northeast Jefferson County. The road juts over the north end of Ixonia‘s (pop. 2,902) main crossroads. Technically still a town rather than a village or city (but probably not for long, given the recent growth), its name came from a little girl. As explained in the Ixonia Heritage Book Index, which illustrated the naming debate going on when the town first split from the Town of Union in 1846: “To satisfy all factions, it was agreed to put the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper and have young Mary Piper draw them until a word was formed that could be used as the town name. The result was Ixonia.”

It goes on to say that it’s the only Ixonia in the country. I’ll bet you’re just as shocked as I am by that revelation.

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The BP along Highway 16 in Ixonia salutes “crusin'” along the highway.

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In autumn, vast farm fields turn colors just as leaves on the trees do. This field between Watertown and Ixonia turns a brilliant yellow on a sunny September day.

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Wisconsin was the first governmental body to identify roads by number. The first actual markers went up along this section of Highway 16 (originally Highway 19) in 1917. Click on the picture to enlarge, and then you can read all the text!

East of Ixonia, a cozy little wayside at the Rock River crossing features the historical marker detailing Wisconsin’s status as the first governmental body in the world to number its roads.

History here is indicated not only by the route marker, but by evidence of the original U.S. Highway 16 and State Highway 19 from the 1920s, the remnants of which are still visible in broken-up pavement paralleling the new road just to the south by 100-200 feet between the Rock River crossing and the exit where Highway 16 either goes into, or bypasses, Oconomowoc.

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Part of the original U.S. 16 (which was actually WIS 19), a road dating back before it was numbered in 1917. Can you imagine this as a main road between Milwaukee and Minneapolis?

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Here’s that same stretch of 16 once things green up. The prettiness of the area cannot be debated.

Oconomowoc

**Bypass Alert**
Highway 16 – technically – now runs around the north and east ends of Oconomowoc on an expressway bypass that, although planned since 1960, opened in 2007. If you want to save about five minutes, follow the bypass. To see the town – which you should do – follow Wisconsin Avenue (now known as “Old” 16) at the exit simply marked “Oconomowoc”. Wisconsin Avenue re-joins Highway 16 automatically on the east end of the city.

Oconomowoc (pop. 12,382) is a ten-letter city, five of which are o’s. Native American for “gathering place of the beaver” (according to one translation), it’s probably also the only Oconomowoc in the world, too, just like Ixonia. And Waunakee. And a bunch of other Wisconsin places.

Oconomowoc, built around Lac La Belle, Fowler Lake and Oconomowoc Lake, is at the western edge of Waukesha County’s “Lake Country” and served as a resort town for wealthy Americans as far back as the 1870’s, earning it the nickname “Newport of the West.” A host of American presidents throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s visited Oconomowoc, and some of the mansions where they stayed can be seen on walking tours around town.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The first premiere of Wizard of Oz was in Oconomowoc, at the Strand Theater on August 12, 1939, thirteen days before it opened nationwide. You can find the site of the Strand in front of today’s Oconomowoc City Hall, on Wisconsin Avenue – Historic Highway 16.
Brewfinity Brewing's Jorge jalapeno beer in a can

Brewfinity’s Jorge jalapeno beer, a State Trunk Tour favorite.

*** Brewery Alert ***
On the way into Oconomowoc on the city/”old” Highway 16 route you can reach Brewfinity, a craft brewery that originally opened as the Sweet Mullets Brewing Company in 2014. Brewfinity offers a variety of beers, including an unusually good and flavorful jalapeno beer called Jorge, which does a great job offering up the flavor of a jalapeno pepper without the heat. How do they do that? Something about not using the inner ribbing of the pepper. Regardless, it’s good. If you’re eastbound on Highway 16, just follow the Oconomowoc exit to “old” Highway 16/Wisconsin Avenue. About one mile down, follow Division Street south to Industrial Road. It’s a residential area going into a light industrial area, just follow the signs – because nobody “happens” across the building where Brewfinity is located. But inside, you’ll find a great Tap Room with a food menu and a good variety of craft beers.

Oconomowoc does a lot of things, including baking bread that goes all over the country: the Brownberry Ovens plant, home to delicious baking bread smells since Catherine Clark opened her first bakery there in 1946, can create some nice smells near downtown. Brownberry Ovens is now a subsidiary of Canadian conglomerate George Weston Limited, the same company that provides Entenmann’s, Thomas’ muffins and Boboli pizza crust. You can buy it at the source in the store along Summit Avenue right in front of the factory.

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Once the city’s main connection to the rest of the world, Oconomowoc’s old depot on Collins Street is now a restaurant and bar featuring a nice array of railroad memorabilia.

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In the spring breeze, a pier into Lac La Belle offers views and access to one of the area’s most beautiful lakes.

Along Wisconsin Avenue into town, you cross Main Street, the old Highway 67. The headquarters of five-state pizza chain Rocky Rococo is also at this intersection, though you have to go down to 1075 Summit Avenue to imbibe in their deep-dish slices. The main shopping district for the city is east along Wisconsin and further north along Main, where you’ll find old timers like Boelter’s Shoes. Plenty of boutique shops, antique stores, bars, restaurants, and more flank both sides of Wisconsin Avenue; Lac La Belle and then Fowler Lake are just to the north by a block or so.

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A roundabout now circulates traffic heading into the Main Street strip in Oconomowoc. You’ll encounter it following 16’s “city” route. The city’s “five O’s” make for a nice centerpiece, especially at night when they use a variety of colored lights.

Continuing east as Wisconsin Avenue, Highway 16’s mainline re-joins on the east side of town and begins its stretch as a freeway, which it stays as until it terminates. But the historic route offers some great things to check out along the way!

*** Drive-In Alert ***
The Kiltie (262-567-2648), along old 16 just south of the Highway 16/County P interchange, dates back to 1946 and serves up great burgers, sides, malts and more on the old fashioned window tray. As a resident of Oconomowoc during my toddler years, I believe the burger I ever ate was at the Kiltie. There have been many, many more since.

The Kiltie, one of our classic Wisconsin drive-ins

At the exit for the Kiltie (Highway P/Brown Street), you can follow the old, old original Highway 16 through Okauchee, a nice little burg nestled within the multiple arms of Okauchee Lake. Go just north of the freeway along P, turn right along Wisconsin Avenue and follow it through town; you’ll be able to hook back up with the freeway on the east side of town. While Okauchee doesn’t have anything “touristy”, there are a lot of beautiful views on the streets around and plenty of good places for food and drink. Highly recommended for a nice dinner is the Golden Mast (1270 N. Lacy’s Lane, 262-567-7047), which has been there for over five decades and offers beautiful lake views and tasty German fare, brunches, and fish fries. Other great stops include Bertrand’s Point Comfort Place (N52W35002 Lake Drive, 262-569-9700), Foolery’s Liquid Therapy (N52W35091 Lake Drive, 262-912-6777), which can get wild at night and offers deck seating along the lake), and a slew of other bars and restaurants in the area.

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Okauchee has been a solid settlement since the 1840s. Its namesake lake is extremely popular with boaters and a variety of homes, restaurants and bars line the lakeshore, as well as the main street through town. A clock tower in the roundabout is where you can follow Wisconsin Avenue back towards the freeway; the historic marker gives you some interesting details about Okauchee’s past.

Since the mid-1970s, the rest of Highway 16 has been a four-lane freeway. The original road went through Okauchee, Nashotah and Hartland, charming lake villages and towns winding past Waukesha County’s Lake Country. This area combines hills common to the Kettle Moraine area with lakes that surround the towns. Jumping off Highway 16 along this stretch, including past the interchange with Highway 83, makes for a series of pleasant rides. County C, which runs north to Chenequa and Stone Bank and south to Delafield, is part of the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. The exit at County E, which takes you into Hartland, is also part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Eventually, Highway 16 turns south for the final stretch to I-94. Way back when, Highway 16 followed Capitol Drive (now Highway 190) all the way into Milwaukee. Later, it followed Blue Mound Road (now U.S. 18) into Milwaukee and followed a car ferry across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, then as part of the Grand River Road across Michigan into downtown Detroit. Today, it ends at I-94 on the Pewaukee/Waukesha boundary in the heart of a booming area with plenty of things to do.

Pewaukee (pop. 13,195) surrounds the eastern end of seven-mile long Pewaukee Lake. It can be accessed from the Ryan Drive exit to follow the old 16 road, or via the Highway 190/Capitol Drive exit (Exit #187) – heading west from the interchange will lead you to the lake. The main street fronting the lake was recently rebuilt with a series of storefronts that feature everything from a bike shop to a sub shop to salons and a blend of restaurants. The beach bustles with swimmers and sunbathers all summer, and lake homes – both new and old – stretch along the north and south shores of the lake. The boating theme is appropriate; Pewaukee holds the world headquarters of Harken, Inc., a leading manufacturer of sailboat hardware and accessories.

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Next to the beach, across from stores and restaurants, a pier juts out into Pewaukee Lake. Plenty of people enjoy fishing on this particular summer day. Extending east from this area is Capitol Drive, where Highway 190 begins just west of the freeway junction with today’s Highway 16. This stretch is where the original Highway 16 came through.

Today’s Highway 16 bends around the north and east sides of Pewaukee as a freeway. It’s bypassed Pewaukee since the 1940s, when this stretch was built as a 2-lane road bypass before the freeway upgrade in the 1970s. After junctions with 190/Capitol and County JJ, which connects to Waukesha County Technical College and a major complex for GE Healthcare, Highway 16 ends on a flyover ramp on its way to join eastbound I-94 for the ride into Milwaukee.