Fox River Brewing Company

Fox River Brewing Company started up in 1995, an early entry in the craft beer resurgence across the country. It started with Fratello’s Waterfront Restaurant in Oshkosh and expanded to Fox River Brewery & Restaurant in Appleton’s bustling Fox River Mall in 1997.

The beers brewed in their Oshkosh and Appleton facilities encompass a wide variety, depending on the season. Popular picks include Fox Tail Pale Ale, their Hoppyface IPA, the Badger Bitter ESB, the Trolleycar Stout, and Vader’s Imperial Stout. But there are many seasonal and special beers available at different times of the year.

The Oshkosh location has a terrific outdoor patio along the Fox River right at the southeastern end of Lake Butte des Morts. Highway 21 meets U.S. 45 nearby, and the large new bridge carrying U.S. 41 (I-41 later this year) across the lake is visible. The patio is great in summer for enjoying their beers, live music, and occasionally some volleyball an boating activities.

Appleton Oshkosh
Fox River Brewpub & Restaurant
4301 W. Wisconsin Avenue
Appleton, WI 54913
(920) 991-0000
Fratello’s Waterfront Brewery & Restaurant
1501 Arboretum Drive
Oshkosh, WI
(920) 232-2337

Menomonee Park Zoo

The Menomonee Park Zoo is set on 8 acres in a beautiful location on the shores of Lake Winnebago. Open from early May through late September, the Zoo features nearly 50 varieties of animals and exhibits, including permanent exhibits for Gray Wolves and North American Elk. The zoo is bordered by Lake Winnebago on the East and Hazel and Merritt Streets on the South and West; U.S. 45 is just to the west. Highways 21, 44, and 76 are close by.

520 Pratt Trail
Oshkosh, WI 54901
(920) 236-5082


STH-026“O-town to J-ville”


WisMap26Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 26 is becoming an increasingly major feeder route between Oshkosh and Janesville. A primary route through and around towns like Waupun, Juneau, Watertown, Jefferson, Fort Atkinson and Milton, Highway 26 and its “Business” routes take you through a lot of “main streets,” lets you find the first kindergarten in the nation, brings you right past an actual Underground Railroad stop from the 1850s, offers dinner theatre of Broadway caliber, and access to burgers at old-fashioned drive-ins and amazingly tiny stands… all while providing access to outlet mall shopping, high-speed alternate routes and other major routes in the state.

Wisconsin Highway 26 Road Trip

The Drive (North To South):


Highway 26 starts just outside of Oshkosh at I-41. Start by checking out Oshkosh (pop. 66,083) itself, Wisconsin’s eighth largest city (it’s about the same size as Janesville, Eau Claire, and Waukesha.) Oshkosh is still probably best known for it’s OshKosh B’Gosh overalls, which started getting manufactured in the city in 1895. Today they’re made elsewhere, but the corporate offices remain. Other major companies in the area include Oshkosh Truck, Bemis, and some chocolate makers like Hughes and Oaks. UW-Oshkosh is the third largest campus in the UW system with over 13,000 students, and their presence is felt through the downtown area (especially on Friday and Saturday nights.) UW-Oshkosh has some interesting accolades: it was recognized as the first “Fair Trade” university in the country in 2008, and in 2011 it was ranked “Best for Vets” in Wisconsin by Military Times EDGE Magazine (36th in the nation) and 35th nationally in Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” survey.

Oshkosh lies along Lake Winnebago, right where the Fox River empties into it from the west. Roughly 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, Lake Winnebago is the largest lake in the nation that lies entirely within one state. Most days from Oshkosh, you can see across the lake to the bluffs that form part of the Niagara Escarpment on the eastern shore. Rather shallow (average depth is about 15 feet), the lake is very popular for swimming and boating, and definitely for fishing at all times of the year. Shallow waters make for fast ice freezes in winter; the city and surrounding towns on the lake often plow roads on the surface; among the most popular fishing times is February, during spearfishing season for sturgon. On the northwest side of Oshkosh is Lake Butte des Morts, an 8,800 acre lake that was largely created by damming the Fox River near Menasha in the 19th century. Like Winnebago, Butte des Morts is shallow and very popular for fishing. The size of the lake necessitated a causeway for U.S. 41 to cross it in the 1950s; a newer, higher bridge opened in 2013 to accommodate heavier traffic flow as U.S. 41 became I-41 while also freeing up water flow that the old causeway had been interrupting for decades. “Butte des Morts” itself means “Hill of the Dead” in French; early explorers gave the name in reference to a nearby Native American burial mound.


Downtown Oshkosh, featuring the Civil War Monument. And yes, this is as high as the skyline gets.


Downtown Oshkosh features a number of interesting buildings and landmarks, including the Grand Opera House (100 High Avenue, 920-424-2350). The first fat lady sang there in 1883 and it was an early addition (1974) to the National Register of Historic Places. A refurbishment was completed in 2010 and today the Grand Opera House seats 600 and hosts a variety of events. Other notables include the Paine Art Center & Gardens (1410 Algoma Blvd., 920-235-6903), which has a beautiful botanical garden area and features events all year; the Oshkosh Public Museum (1331 Algoma Blvd., 920-236-5799) features exhibitions and permanent attractions like the 8-foot-tall Apostles’ Clock from 1895, an interactive exhibit called Grandma’s Attic, and more, all housed in a Tiffany Studios-designed home built in 1908. The Military Veterans Museum (4300 Poberezny Road, 920-426-8615) sits just north of where Highway 26 begins at I-41 and houses an impressive collection of military vehicles, artifacts, and more.

Heading southwest out of the city, you approach Highway 26 by taking Highway 44 south to I-41, and then 41 south to where 26 begins (a little over two miles south). Along the way, you pass Wittman Regional Airport, which opened in 1927. Wittman is normally fairly quiet but becomes the world’s busiest airport for one week during the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Fly-In every July.

From I-41 right by Wittman Field, Highway 26 heads southwest out of the Oshkosh area, barreling through farmland into Fond du Lac County and Rosendale (pop. 923), noted mainly for its intersection with Highway 23 and the local police enthusiasm for writing speeding tickets – so watch your speed going through town!

Further south, Highway 26 hooks up with U.S. Highway 151, where it becomes a freeway for just over a mile before breaking off and heading into the first major town past Oshkosh, Waupun (pop. 10,718). Long known for holding Wisconsin’s primary state prison, Waupun is also billed the “City of Sculptures”, being the home of famous sculptor Clarence Shaler and a series of his works. Sculptures like End of the Trail, Who Sows Believes In God, Dawn of Day, and Morning of Life grace the city in various parks and streetsides. Waupun also serves as a northwestern gateway to the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The Marsh Haven Center, just east on Highway 49, is a nature education center offering hiking paths and an observation tower at the edge of the Marsh itself.


Highway 49 cuts through the heart of Waupun as the main street, still cutting the county line; Dodge County is to the south, Fond du Lac County is to the north. Highway 26 is the main north-south crossroad.


Throughout the city, the sculptures show up to greet you. This one above is called The Citadel.

Waupun has held Wisconsin’s primary state prison site since 1851, when it was selected due to its “proximity to transportation and readily available building materials in the area”, according to the Department of Corrections’ historical site. Back in the day, Wisconsin’s justice system was considered so efficient, a popular chant in Milwaukee was once “crime on Sunday, Waupun on Monday”, indicating that infractions would be met with swift action. This was before a lot more lawyers showed up. The Wisconsin Historical Society page on the Waupun Correctional Facility reports that in 1878, sales of the goods manufactured by the prisoners produced enough revenue to run the prison without drawing from the state’s treasury. Wouldn’t that be nice now? You can find the State Prison south of Highway 49 along Madison Street, also known as County M.


South Cell Hall was originally built in the 1850s; its walls still stand today.


These are the walls in the question, built in the 1850s, that still stand today.


The prison’s history makes it an easy candidate for the State Register of Historic Places.


Another civic building in Waupun, featuring yet another statue in its front yard – this one is west along 49 a bit from 26 (click to enlarge).

Highway 26 runs through Waupun, just west of the U.S. 151 bypass before crossing it again and making a beeline south into the heart of Dodge County. The Wild Goose State Trail, a 34-mile rail-to-trail right-of-way from Fond du Lac to Clyman Junction, runs just to the east and there are many access points along the way. Minnesota Junction (which, ironically, doesn’t look that much like Minnesota at all) provides a junction with Highway 33 and, shortly thereafter, Dodge County Airport. From there, it’s a short hop into Dodge’s county seat, Juneau (pop. 2,485). Juneau the city has nothing to do, ironically, with Juneau County… that lies about 60 miles to the west. It’s not named after Milwaukee’s first mayor Solomon Juneau either, but rather his son Paul, whose mother (and Solomon’s wife) Josette was the daughter of a local Indian chief. Juneau itself hosts the Dodge County Courthouse and several nice parks. Highway 26 goes through the heart of town and has a brief jog west before heading south again out of town.

After a brief junction with Highway 60, which joins Highway 26 for about one mile, Highway 16 joins Highway 26 for the ride past Clyman (pop. 388) towards 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.


Methinks there’s a double entendre in this business establishment’s name along Highway 26 near Clyman, but maybe it’s just me.


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

Highway 16 breaks off as a bypass to the southeast and Highway 26’s mainline begins a bend around western Watertown (pop. 21,598), which is actually the largest city along Highway 26 between its two terminal cities of Oshkosh and Janesville. We follow the traditional city route, so use “Business” 26 into the heart of town. Otherwise, there’s not much to experience!

Watertown 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.

Heading into downtown Watertown, crossing into Jefferson County, you reach an intersection with Highway 19. Downtown is to the east a few blocks on Highway 19 (aka Main Street) and 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. The “water” in Watertown indeed comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city. Twice.



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


In case you want detail on the historic marker…

A left from 26 onto Highway 19/Business 16 brings you to the Main Street in Watertown. The city’s downtown is fairly extensive and features a number of shops, along with Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a great 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.


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.


The main drag in Watertown, which is Highway 19 – and was U.S. 16 until 1962. Today, this section is also “Business” Highway 16. Highway 26’s original route cuts right through on the west edge of the downtown strip; the bypass today is a little over a mile further west.

Heading south from Watertown, Highway 26’s mainline meets the original road again at speeds southward seven miles to a major crossroads in the form of I-94. At the junction with the Interstate, which will only get more congested in the future, is a sprawling complex of development: the Johnson Creek Outlet Mall, truck stops, an array of restaurants, big-box stores and a multiplex movie theater are all rapidly making this a focal point for shoppers in Jefferson County and beyond.

The apex is part of rapidly-growing Johnson Creek (pop. 2,012), which calls itself “Crossroads With A Future… and a Past.” Johnson Creek’s (called “JC” by the hip and trendy… sorta) focus used to be along present-day County B and County Y, which were the old highways 30 and 26, respectively. The old downtown is still there, west of Highway 26 along County B, about one mile southwest as the crow flies from the current I-94/Highway 26 interchange. It’s rather quiet and pleasant amid the booming development taking place all around it, especially to the north and east. One piece of Johnson Creek history is The Gobbler, which you can learn about in this great piece from the Capitol Times, from this note from HotelChatter and in our “salute” to the right. Groovy, baby!

State Trunk Tour Salute:
The Gobbler

Just west Highway 26 and south of I-94 lies a well-recognized old supper club, restaurant and motel called The Gobbler. It opened in 1967 and looks like something The Jetsons would have appreciated due to its completely round design for the supper club; the adjacent motel (featuring round beds, hot tubs, etc.) was burned down by the JCFD in 2001. You can read a non-glowing – yet hilarious – review of the old Gobbler here. A bigger, extensive salute to the Gobbler can be found on this blog, featuring tons of links and pictures.

gobbleroldThe Gobbler was hip when it opened in 1967; “groovy” hadn’t quite gone into the mass use yet.. This page from their original pamphlet (left) indicates the era; below is how the main building looked in 2014 after it had been closed for years. It has since reopened as the Gobbler Theater, and we’ll get updated info posted soon!


26maltaway_500South of Johnson Creek, Highway 26 returns to a busy 2-lane over farm fields and railroads, passing a large malting plant once owned by Ladish, now owned by Cargill. From I-94 or the hilltops by Johnson Creek Outlet Mall or the nearby Days’ Inn, they almost look like a city skyline of old office buildings; from up close, not quite.

Bypass Alert: Jefferson

Not too far south of Johnson Creek, a bypass of Jefferson opened up in 2011 to connect with an existing “Super-2” bypass of Fort Atkinson that opened in the early 2000’s. The bypass around Fort Atkinson is now four lanes also. Use the bypass if you’re in a hurry to get to Milton or Janesville; however, for the full State Trunk Tour experience, we’ll follow the traditional path through the towns! These are called “Business 26”.

26byp_jefferson01_800 26byp_jefferson02_800

Left: Highway 26 zooms around Jefferson and Fort Atkinson on a 4-lane freeway bypass, so you can save time if you want. But the full experience comes with going through town! Right: On the north end of the Highway 26 bypass, “Business” 26, the traditional route, branches off near the huge Cargill plant. Follow Business 26 south to go through the heart of Jefferson and then Fort Atkinson.

“Old”/Business 26 heads into Jefferson (pop. 7,338), the namesake county seat that calls itself “the Gemuetlichkeit City”, referring to the friendliest of German heritage; ironically, Jefferson also hosted a German POW camp during World War II. Rosemary Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, spent much of her adult life in Jefferson at the St. Coletta School, which provides care for children and adults with learning disabilities. Her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver (mother of Maria Shriver and mother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose Wisconsin connection involves graduating from UW-Superior), created the Special Olympics in 1968 in Rosemary’s honor.

The city is located where the Rock and Crawfish Rivers meet; the Rock runs just west of downtown and parallels Highway 26 until finally ducking under it south of town. At the downtown crossroads, Highway 26 crosses U.S. Highway 18. A short jog to the west on U.S. Highway 18 lets access Jefferson Speedway, a quarter-mile track that bills itself as “Wisconsin’s Action Track”. Most of the racing action happens on Saturday nights, and during racing season hosts the Jefferson Bargain Fair every Sunday. Over 100 vendors come out to the track with various items for sale, as the smell of fuel and tires has usually dissipated by then. It’s just west of the new Highway 26 bypass.

In downtown Jefferson, meanwhile, a line of stores, taverns and several banks built with beautiful stonework line the street. To the west just south of U.S. 18 is a park that holds Jefferson Depot, the old railroad station, and newly refurbished bridge spanning the Rock River past the tracks.


The handsome Jefferson Depot lies along the Union Pacific tracks by the Rock River in downtown Jefferson.


This cool twin arch wood bridge spans the Rock River, connecting Jefferson’s east and west sides.

Have you checked out Wedl’s? It’s a hamburger stand and ice cream parlor – with an emphasis on the burgers. Wedl’s burgers are cooked – in lard – on a cast iron skillet over a century old. Which makes them delicious, of course. In summer, the burgers are made in an 8’x 8′ stand next to the main building – making it the smallest burger shop in America. The burgers are small – they weigh in at 1/8 pound – but they pack in a lot of great flavor, enough to have caught the attention of the Travel Channel! You’ll find Wedl’s one block east of Business Highway 26, right along U.S. 18/Racine Street in downtown Jefferson.


Wedl’s stand – the burgers are cooked in the little shack to the right. The burgers are “smashed”, a cooking technique that turns them from round, ice cream scoop-size balls of meat into flat patties that cook quickly and thoroughly. And deliciously. If that’s not a word, it is now.


Just south of Jefferson is Fort Atkinson (pop. 11,621), or “Fort”, as all the locals call it. A bustling town (Money Magazine recently named it “One of America’s Hottest Little Boomtowns”) set along the banks of the Rock River shortly before it widens into Lake Koshkonong, Fort Atkinson was originally Fort Koshkonong but renamed Atkinson after Henry Atkinson, the fort’s general.

Business 26, the original 26 route, goes into the heart of Fort Atkinson along the Rock River through a series of residential neighborhoods. A few jogs west and south, and you cut through Fort’s extensive downtown and head over the Rock River – just like you did in Jefferson and Watertown – past a wide variety of shops, restaurants and even some nice artwork along the waterway. You also cross U.S. 12 and Highway 89 downtown, with easy access to nearby towns.

Just off Business 26, south along the turnoff via U.S. 12 and Highway 89, is the Hoard Historical Museum, which features history of the area including Sauk warrior Black Hawk, Abraham Lincoln’s early days in the area, the “father of American dairying” (for whom the museum is named) and, next door, the National Dairy Shrine Museum, which offers plenty of interactive exhibits, displays, and artifacts covering the fine art of bovine lactation, which of course leads to milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream… so this is important.


Real children actually play quite a bit in the yards in Fort, but even in the harshest weather these kids are always outside. Check this out after sundown... they're holding "fireflies" that have fiber optic lights so they look like real fireflies at night.

Real children actually play quite a bit in the yards in Fort, but even in the harshest weather these kids are always outside. Check this out after sundown… they’re holding “fireflies” that have fiber optic lights so they look like real fireflies at night.

The Fireside Dinner Theatre is located in Fort Atkinson, even though most of their auditions are held in New York. Drawing people from far and wide, the Fireside combines dining with stage entertainment, celebrating 50 years of Klopcic Family hospitality and more than 35 seasons of professional theatre. This year’s shows include Disney’s “High School Musical”, “The Witnesses” and “The Sound of Music.” The place is huge inside, and that’s just the gift shop. The Fireside is along Business Highway 26, just south of town.



Chief Black Hawk’s legacy is well-documented across south central and southwestern Wisconsin. In some communities, he has a park or monument named after him. In Fort, it’s a tavern.

South of da Fort, Business 26 reunites with the mainline Highway 26 and it continues as a four-lane expressway traversing some rolling hills and skimming Lake Koshkonong, one of the largest lakes in Wisconsin. Koshkonong was actually man-made, created from a wide marshland the Rock River ran through. Many of us have heard about Lake Winnebago’s shallowness; Koshkonong’s rivals it, averaging only about six feet deep. A Milwaukee Bucks player could practically walk through it without having to swim or snorkel (standard disclaimer: kids, don’t try it.) A variety of access roads lead to the lake; supper clubs and restaurants also dot the roadside as you cross into Rock County, the final one for this road.

A few miles later lies Milton (pop. 5,090), where Highway 59 joins in for a few blocks as you pass the Milton House Museum, the most famous local landmark… and now a National Historic Landmark. The Milton House itself is a hexagonal stagecoach inn constructed in 1844. It has three claims to fame: it was the first poured grout building in the United States, it’s the oldest concrete building still standing in the U.S., and it’s one of 14 officially recognized stations on the Underground Railroad from the pre-Civil War days. Joseph Goodrich, Milton’s founder and a staunch abolitionist, provided the Milton House for runaway slaves on their way to Canada or points north. Goodrich was a busy guy: the same year he founded the Milton House, he founded the Milton Academy, which evolved into Milton College, which lasted until 1982. It was the oldest college in Wisconsin until it closed. Football fans know the college for its most famous alumnus, Dave Krieg, who played in the NFL for a whole lot of seasons, including some notable ones for the Seattle Seahawks.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Milton’s original name was Prairie du Lac. When settlers applied to get a post office in 1839, the name was dismissed because it sounded too similar to “Prairie du Sac”. It was renamed for Paradise Lost author John Milton, familiarized to people everywhere via Professor Jennings’ (Donald Sutherland) lecture in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Interestingly enough, two major stars from the movie (John Belushi and Thomas Hulce) either went to college or grew up in nearby Whitewater. Karma? Perhaps.

Many of Milton’s older buildings are seeing new uses as shops or even wineries. The Northleaf Winery opened in 2009 in a former wheat warehouse and blacksmith shop made primarily of lime mortar, an early form of concrete. Northleaf features two dozen wines, most bottled on-site; they specialize in pairings that include locally-made chocolates. It’s definitely worth a stop, right along the original Highway 26 through Milton. Bypass-takers can access it via the Highway 59 exit.

From Milton, Highway 26 heads a fast five miles south to Janesville (pop. 60,483), the “City of Parks”. Highway 26 enters Janesville at about the same time it crosses I-39/90 and intersects with U.S. Highway 14, which has ducked around the north and east sides of Janesville since 1952. Here, you’ll find a massive, sprawling array of stores, restaurants and travel services, since so many major highways come together here. Continuing south on Highway 26 (as Milton Avenue) brings you past the Janesville Mall, a regional shopping center, through a long commercial strip and then into some of the city’s older neighborhoods. Major companies founded in Janesville include Parker Pen and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, neither of which are headquartered in the city anymore. Janesville does host playground equipment maker Swing N Slide, now a subsidiary of Playcore, Inc., Blain’s Farm & Fleet (a store you see many times on the State Trunk Tour), and Gray’s Brewing Company, of which more will be divulged shortly.


Perched high above the Rock River is Janesville’s memorial to fallen Civil War soldiers.

Janesville is the home of former Senator Russ Feingold, Representative and now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (not exactly two peas in a pod), race car driver Stan Fox, even WNBA Houston Comets player Mistie Williams, daughter of Chubby Checker. Janesville hosted Wisconsin’s first state fair in 1851 on a site just south of downtown, which still holds a series of impressive, expansive older homes. Janesville is the county seat of Rock County and the largest on the Rock River, with the exception of Rockford, Illinois. Janesville’s a bit of a brewing town, too: on the west side lies Gray’s Brewing (2424 W. Court Street, still along old Highway 11, about 2 miles west of where Highway 26 ends), crafter of numerous award-winning brews. They’ve even been making cream sodas since 1856.


Gray’s has been crafting beer and a variety of cream sodas in Janesville since 1856.


Janesville hosted the first Wisconsin State Fair in 1851. No word on how much cream puffs cost back then.

Highway 26 angles over on a few other streets entering downtown Janesville and ends at U.S. 51, just before one final jump over the Rock River. The city’s “skyline” – to put it fairly loosely – looms along the river to the south and a series of city streets lined with historic buildings await, especially in the Courthouse District. Homes like Lovejoy Mansion (pictured below) and the Merrill-Nowlan House are registered historic places; the Lovejoy Mansion held the local YMCA’s offices for a while.


Nearby St. Lawrence Avenue, which parallels the river and runs through the Courthouse District, overlooks downtown; lovely old mansions line the street for a good distance.

Highway 26 is a good slice of eastern and southern Wisconsin, passing right by or close to a number of historic sites and giving you a bunch of good selections for shopping, entertainment or just finding nice places to stretch out and relax. Enjoy this one! Other great routes and places to see are all around.

Highway 26 ends at it hits U.S. 51 in downtown Janesville.

Highway 26 ends at it hits U.S. 51 in downtown Janesville.

North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 41
Can connect nearby to: Highway 44, about 2.5 miles north; Highway 91, about 2.5 miles north; Highway 21 about 5 miles north; U.S. 45, about 3 miles east

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 51, Highway 11 (the city portion)
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 14, about 4 miles northeast; I-39/90, about 4.5 miles northeast

HIghway 21 Tank Crossing


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.


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


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.”


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