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STH-013“From The State’s Largest Vacation Spot To The World’s Largest Freshwater Lake”

Southern terminus: Sauk County, at I-90/94’s Exit 87 in Wisconsin Dells

Northern terminus: Douglas County, at the U.S. 2/53 freeway near Superior

Mileage: about 340 miles

Counties along the way: Sauk, Columbia, Adams, Portage, Wood, Marathon, Clark, Taylor, Price, Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas

Sample towns along the way: Wisconsin Dells, Adams/Friendship, Wisconsin Rapids, Marshfield, Abbotsford, Medford, Phillips, Park Falls, Ashland, Bayfield

Bypass alternates at: Marshfield

WisMap13Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 13 connects the Dells with Wisconsin’s rugged Lake Superior shores. Along the way, you hit touristy areas like the Dells and Bayfield, run through mid-size Wisconsin cities like “da Rapids” and Marshfield, wind through the North Woods, scoot just to the west of Wisconsin’s highest point, and then hit the state’s northernmost areas along the lake Gordon Lightfoot sang about – for better or worse.

Wisconsin Highway 13 Road Trip

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Highway 13 begins as a ramp off I-90/94 going past the Dells; it runs right through the heart of downtown before making its way north through the state.

The Drive (South To North): Highway 13 begins along a busy interchange with I-90/94 (Exit 87) as it whizzes past Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World” and Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destination. In fact, I caught the local “vacation station”, WDLS (AM 900, which since unfortunately flipped formats), playing “Holiday Road” by Lindsay Buckingham, which served as the opening theme to National Lampoon’s Vacation. It was the perfect accompaniment to rolling through the bustling main street strip filled with shoppers and tourists on a beautiful summer day.

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Almost immediately, Highway 13 intersects with all the main roads in the Dells area: Highways 16 and 23, and U.S. 12

Wisconsin Dells

Past roller coasters, mini golf courses, waterparks, and hopping over the Wisconsin River, you enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418), which actually is a city. However, 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 started 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 (46 Celsius.) five years later. But yes, it gets cold here, too – hence a lot of indoor waterparks. In fact, it’s the “Waterpark Capital of the World.” 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.

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.

South of Highway 13 into Lake Delton via U.S. 12/Highway 13 reveals a vast array of sights: the Crystal Grand Theater, 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.

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Motels, pedestrians and stray beach balls line the stretch south of Highway 13 in Lake Delton via U.S. 12 and Highway 23, 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 Highway 13. A ride passes through it; no word on if anything else is hiding inside. It could be a trick!

Meanwhile, Highway 13 joins up with Highways 16 and 23, at the main intersection, continuing east to hop over the Wisconsin River and enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).

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 fields

And 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 13 where it goes through the heart of Wisconsin Dells. Highways 16 and 23 run with 23 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 13 goes through the heart of the Dells with Highways 16 and 23 in tow. Wisconsin Dells is a great starting – or ending – point for any trip. You could spend a whole summer here and not run out of things to do. Since this is a road trip, it’s also about the journey. At least ’til we come back to the Dells.

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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.

So, onward!

Onward from the Dells

After the intersection where Highway 16 breaks southeast toward Columbus and Milwaukee and Highway 23 continues east toward Green Lake and Sheboygan, Highway 13 turns north. Northward from the Dells, Highway 13 is a pretty straight shot through the tree cutaways, past smaller lodging camps and some access points that lead you back to the Wisconsin River. Beyond the junction with Highway 82 and over the interestingly-named Risk Creek lie the twin towns of Adams-Friendship.

fmound2Adams (pop. 1,914) is the larger of the two, due to the railroad’s new depot location in 1910; its twin city Friendship (pop. 698) remains the county seat and sits under Friendship Mound, which dominates the north view as you drive through the towns.

It gets quite mound-y here. Just on the other side of Friendship Mound is Roche-A-Cri State Park, which features a steep mound of its own… called, interestingly enough, Roche-A-Cri. The mound is 300 feet high and can be scaled via a 303-step wooden stairway that offers interpretive signs and two rest stops on your way to a gorgeous view from the top.

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The top of a long, steep 300-foot climb has its rewards on Roche-A-Cri Mound.

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The rock formations and views from above or below are great in Roche-A-Cri. Birds overhead only add to the enjoyment of a hike, a picnic, or – perhaps – bird watching.

While there, I saw a guy who made me think that Carrot Top and Owen Wilson had a kid. And by the way, this stairway provides quite a workout. Note that this climb is equivalent to scaling almost halfway up Milwaukee’s tallest building and you’ll know why the sounds of huffing and puffing are audible at the lookout point.

Back to ground level, we see that even the early Native Americans wanted to carve their initials in something – some left rock carvings in the rocks called petroglyphs. They’re deep carvings, considering they’ve survived the weather and elements for all these years. In fact, the earliest decipherable markings date back to about 100 A.D. More recent carvings from European settlers date to the 19th century.

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It’s 19th century – and before – graffiti, well before the invention of spray paint.

Buttes like Roche-A-Cri, and nearby Rabbit Rock, were islands in a glacial lake that once covered the area Highway 13 goes through today. Continuing north past Highway 21, which to the west crosses the Wisconsin River at man/dam-made Petenwell Lake (Wisconsin’s 2nd largest), you enter the town of Rome, where “Picket Fences” was set – alas, no Lauren Holly sightings. Motorcycle enthusiasts, however, can find the Dyracuse Motorcycle Recreation Area (yes, like “Syracuse”, but with a D.) Named after Dyracuse Mound, another major Adams County landmark, DMRA offers eight miles of trails for motorcycles, motocross, ATVs and an Enduro Loop. Full facilities are offered in the recreation area, which is operated by both the Town of Rome and the Rapid Angels Motorcycle Club. So get your motor runnin’/ head out on the highw… well, you know the rest.

In the Lake Arrowhead area, a newer golf resort with its eye on big national things has emerged. Sand Valley Golf Resort opened its first course in 2017 with more under construction. Sand Valley was established to take advantage of the natural sand hills and dunes in this area of Adams County, once the bottom of a glacial lake. The sprawling complex covers over 1,700 acres and looks to become of the premier destinations for golf in the nation and beyond – stay tuned!

Continuing north into Wood County, Highway 13 junctions with Highway 73, which goes west to Nekoosa; we’ll see 73 again before too long. Next up is the Rapids.

Wisconsin Rapids

Wisconsin Rapids (pop. 18,435) isn’t a big city, but it is big enough to be its own “micropolitan” area, which has almost 50,000 people. “Da Rapids” – as some locals call it – used to be two cities on opposite sides of the Wisconsin River, Centralia and Grand Rapids; they merged in 1900. Then, in 1920 when locals were fed up with getting mail misdirected to Grand Rapids, Michigan, they changed the city’s name to Wisconsin Rapids. The “rapids” refers to a 45-foot drop this “hardest working river in the world” made at this point, which provided some good acceleration to boats and canoes. Dams have since changed this – there are five from Stevens Point down to Nekoosa – but this stretch of the river still provides hydroelectric power and makes it convenient to pound wood into pulp so we can eventually have something to write on.

Consequently, Wisconsin Rapids is a major hub for papermaking and also serves as the shipping point for a lot of cranberries you saw in the bogs getting here. Wisconsin grows more cranberries than any other state – over 300 million pounds per year – and Wood County (of which Wisconsin Rapids is the county seat) is pretty much the center of it all. It’s home to a major educational software company, Renaissance Learning, Grim Natwick, creator of Betty Boop (and to salute that, the city has an annual Betty Boop Festival) and the hometown of the driver with NASCAR’s coolest name ever, Dick Trickle – even though he’s technically from Rudolph, which we get to next!

Hey, tours aren’t just for highways, breweries and museums. Tour the Stora Enso North America papermaking plant at 4th Avenue and High Street (715-422-3789) or, if you want to see paper in its original form, check out the Griffith State Nursery (473 Griffith Avenue, 715-424-3700), the largest forest nursery in Wisconsin.

During the summer months, you can take in a baseball game at Witter Field, a nice old-school ballpark that hosts the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, a Northwoods League team that plays opponents from all over the Midwest. If you like BMX biking, check out the nearby Central Wisconsin BMX track (715-572-2075), which has competitive racing on a 1,075-foot sealed track surface built into a natural amphitheater. I’ve raced on it, and you’re off to a good start with the 10-foot start hill and some serious jumps you can make once you get going.

Highway 13 is clearly the main commercial strip as it heads into town at 8th Street South. At the junction with Highway 54, 13 jogs west and bypasses downtown to the south and west as the Riverview Expressway. If you’d like to head downtown, stay north on “Business” 13 (which is also today’s Highway 54) to Avon Street, then turn left. You’ll jog onto Jackson Street for the river crossing before re-joining Highway 13 and head north out of town.

On the west side of Wisconsin Rapids, Highway 73 breaks west; Highway 13 followed that route for decades but was recently re-routed north along Highway 34, which begins at the same intersection where 73 leaves. Around the north side of town, Highway 66 begins and heads towards Stevens Point; we continue north into little Rudolph (pop. 439), where thousands of holiday greetings are sent each year to the postmaster for a special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer postmark.

Rudolph is the actual town where racing legend Dick Trickle grew up, a huge part of Wisconsin’s legacy in racing. The state’s legacy in cheese is also well-represented in Rudolph: this is where Dairy State Cheese (715-435-3144) makes a variety of fantastic cheeses and curds, whey protein concentrates, and brings in ice cream so everyone has something to enjoy. It’s right along Highway 13/34 in town.

Grotto Alert.
Fans of the remarkable collections of stone, glass and rock that make up Wisconsin’s fascinating grottos will want to check out Rudolph Grotto & Wonder Cave, located about nine miles north of Wisconsin Rapids via Highway 34. Red gossan rocks dominate much of the grotto, ranging from pebble-sized to a 78-ton boulder. The Wonder Cave itself is something to see.

13caronsiloRight: Yep, you’ll never know what you’ll find on the State Trunk Tour. We found this near Marshfield along what WAS Highway 13 back in the day. Now it’s part of Highway 80. Not sure if it’s still there, but it sure was eye-catching when we went past!

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After the junction with U.S. Highway 10 freeway and heading west at expressway speeds for about 15 minutes, you reach Marshfield (pop. 19,201), which is perhaps best-known as a medical destination for patients from all over the world. That’s because it’s the headquarters of Marshfield Clinic, a sort of Wisconsin counterpart to Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic. Founded in 1916, the clinic has expanded across the state and into upper Michigan with satellite centers and remains at the forefront of medical research, technology, development and treatment.

The medical research may come in handy, given what people will eat in Wisconsin at events like the Central Wisconsin State Fair, also held annually in Marshfield (deep-fried Twinkie on a stick, anyone??). Another Marshfield claim to fame is on these fairgrounds: the World’s Largest Round Barn. Recognized in places like Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, this huge red superlative at 513 East 17th Street is 150 feet in diameter and holds up to 1,000 people for a variety of events, many of them livestock-related. Built in 1916 without the use of scaffolding, it is 70 feet high.

Marshfield, World's Largest Round Barn near Highway 13

The World’s Largest Round Barn in Marshfield. Built in 1916, it anchors the grounds of the Central Wisconsin State Fair; you can’t get much more central in Wisconsin than Marshfield.

The annual Dairyfest is also held here, as is a 10K road race called the Cheese Chase. They also have Hub City Days, a fun festival saluting the city’s original nickname. Marshfield was a major hub of early railroads and its location very close to the geographic center of Wisconsin made it a hub of transportation long before it became a hub for medical care.

With a large medical anchor and associated businesses, Marshfield ably supports a local orchestra, the Foxfire Botanical Gardens and the Wildwood Zoo (608 W. 17th Street, 715-384-4642), a beautiful and free zoo covering 60 acres. The zoo features everything from cougars and lynx to bison and prairie dogs. Of particular interest are Kodiak bears, unique in a city this size and a harkening back to the zoo’s 1904 origins, when city utility workers started caring for two black bears in town. Another nice break from your road trip at Wildwood Zoo is the Sensory Gardens, featuring a wide variety of flowering and non-flowering plants designed to enhance your senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch amidst a tranquil setting.

Marshfield, like many Wisconsin cities, also supports locally-brewed beer. The Blue Heron Brew Pub (108 W. 9th Street, 715-389-1868) boasts over 16 varieties of beer and ales that are quaffed all over Central Wisconsin. They’re located in Parkin Place, an old dairy processing plant with a history all its own. Getting a parking place at Parkin Place usually isn’t too much trouble, so stop in!

Hub City Days

How wide is Central Avenue in Marshfield? Wide enough to accommodate crowds like this during Hub City Days. This is Business Highway 13 through the city.

In Marshfield, “Business 13” follows 13’s original route: Central Avenue. Downtown offers a wide variety of shops that cater more to the city itself than tourists. When increasingly busy roads through cities cause congestion, the solution is often to build a bypass way around the city; not Marshfield. They built a “through-pass”, essentially an upgraded version of Highway 13 (known also here as Veterans Parkway) that also cuts right through town but kind of juts in from a different angle. It stays multi-lane all the way through Marshfield.

Out of Marshfield, you follow the CN (Canadian National) train line, often witnessing long trains carrying loads of lumber. The next town is Spencer (pop. 1,932), which is somewhat of a suburb for Marshfield.

colbymarkerShortly before going through Unity (pop. 368), Highway 13 begins straddling the Clark-Marathon County line and continues as the divider into the small town of Colby (pop. 1,616), which is famous for – you guessed it – the birthplace of Colby cheese! Colby is similar to cheddar cheese, but is milder and softer because it is produced though a washed-curd process. In fact, it takes more than one gallon of milk to produce just one pound of Colby cheese (I’m dying to try producing it with chocolate milk!) The 1885 development put Colby on the map, where it remains as a little dot.

In Unity, by the way, I saw a bar so shacky it made the Boar’s Nest in “The Dukes of Hazzard” look like Tavern On The Green in Central Park. I almost stopped in for a Blatz. I will next time.

Just north of Colby and the junction with the new expressway bypass of Highway 29 lies Abbotsford (pop. 2,000). Holding claim as “Wisconsin’s First City”, it’s “first” in terms of the alphabet, not in population or age (those distinctions go to Milwaukee and Green Bay, respectively).

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hawkeyecone_225hiHighway 13 goes right through town and intersects with “Business” (read: Historical) Highway 29 at the main crossroads. This portion of 29 is also the old Yellowstone Trail, by the way.

Abbotsford features plenty of old-school businesses to check out, including Duke’s for Italian beef, antique shops and taverns. Right: Between Old 29 and Now 29 along Highway 13 is the Hawkeye Dairy, which features a wide variety of cheeses, sausages, and ice cream – it’s hard to miss the massive cone!

Crossing the 45th parallel (halfway point between the equator and the North Pole) at Dorchester, you end up in Taylor County. Going through Stetsonville (pop. 563), I noticed no Stetson hats; then the next place you reach you find people curiously asking you what you want on your tombstone.

Don’t worry, it’s just Medford (pop. 4,350), home to Tombstone Pizza (now owned by Kraft) and Pep’s Pizza. Basically, it’s the frozen pizza capital of Wisconsin, indirectly serving thousands of college students at 3am every night. Astrologer/psychic Jeane Dixon was born in Medford before moving to California and becoming a famous for her syndicated astrology column, predicting the Kennedy assassination and advising President Reagan’s wife Nancy during his term.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Tombstone Pizza started in 1962 as the bar pizza served at Medford’s own Tombstone Tap, a tavern whose name was inspired by the graveyard across the street.

After Medford and the junction with Highway 64, increasing evidence of the North Woods comes into play. Chequamegon National Forest is accessible on either side; you climb higher and higher, too, as Timm’s Hill, the highest point in the state, lurks just off Highway 13 about five miles east of Ogema, along Highway 86 and County C.

Timm’s Hill (elevation 1,951 feet) is a fairly low “high point” for a U.S. state, but standing atop the lookout tower, over 2,000 feet above sea level, you can easily tell it’s the highest point around. Many nearby hills are visible; all are clearly below you. If you want to do the Leonardo DiCaprio/Jack Dawson/Titanic “I’m king of the world!” shout from the top of the tower, well, that’s up to you.

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The views from Timms Hill, the highest natural point in Wisconsin, is remarkably expansive. You can truly tell you’re at the top!

Near Prentice lies an expressway junction with U.S. Highway 8, and then you reach the town of Phillips (pop. 1,675). County seat of Price County, Phillips offers several in-town lakes, a Wildlife Museum featuring a variety of wildlife mounts by taxidermist Martin Ribnicker, and Wisconsin Concrete Park, a crazy array of sculptures and folk art figurines using concrete, broken glass, shells and other materials. Some of them reflect both the relative dullness of concrete and the sparkle of multicolored glass, especially if it’s a sunny day.

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Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips, chock full of stone-based works of art.

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Highway 13 blazes right through downtown Phillips, county seat of Price County.

On the north side of town in the parking lot of the R Store gas station, see if Lola’s Lunchbox – one of our favorite food trucks – is parked and cooking up stuff. They grill up phenomenal burgers, tacos, and sandwiches with a unique menu. They also make puffed corn in a dizzying array of flavors, including Oreo, caramel, and much more. It makes for incredible road food!

Fifield (“a little town in northern WI with more cars than people”) provides a junction with Highway 70, one of the last main east-west highways left in the state as you head north; shortly thereafter, you cross the Flambeau River and enter Park Falls (pop. 2,793) Park Falls was originally called Muskellunge Falls, but it turns out “Park” was much easier to spell.

Park Falls boasts two stoplights, which is significant only in that they’re in the only two in Price County; the next set of stoplights is about 40 miles away in any direction. So yes, I’d say you’re officially “away from it all” by this point.

Fishing enthusiasts, of which there are many here, note Park Falls as the home of St. Croix Rod, known worldwide for its equipment. Along with a Pamida sighting, I took note that Park Falls is the “Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World”. Alas, I did not see any ruffed grouses on my way through town.

From Park Falls, Highway 13 forges northward through towns like Butternut (pop. 407), home of the “Best Tasting Water In Wisconsin.” (Water is supposed to be tasteless, though, right?) The high school team name is the Butternut “Mighty Midgets”, evoking thoughts that their offensive line doesn’t need to crouch at the line. The players are probably regular-sized, though. Another town is Glidden (no relation to the paint), the “Black Bear Capital of the World,” meaning it’s the place where you least likely want to go camping and leave food out.

77greatdivideHighway 77 joins in for ride, fresh off its route as the Great Divide National Scenic Highway. You do indeed cross the “Great Divide” (I call it the “subcontinental divide”), where south of the divide water flows southward toward the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico; north of it, water flows north and east into the Great Lakes and to the Atlantic Ocean. At this point, you’re 950 ft above Lake Superior, 1,550 feet above sea level. That means from there to Ashland, you’re dropping about 950 feet.

Mellen (pop. 935), Highway 77 heads away and shoots northeast towards Hurley. Mellen itself sports a charming city hall building, constructed the same year the largest tannery in North America opened here (1896). It would be seven more years before the telephone would come to town. Mellen peaked in population around 1920 when it had almost 2,000 people, but in 1922 the tannery closed and since then it’s been a small, pleasant burg that considers itself the Gateway to Copper Falls. Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man was filmed here in 1962, when the town welcomed the likes of Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy. Today, it welcomes recreational seekers of all kinds… but you can also catch a movie here if you want.

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Mellen City Hall, featuring a charming bell tower on its corner. This at the intersection of Highways 13 and 77.

Copper Falls State Park is accessible north of Mellen right off Highway 13 via Highway 169. Considered one of the most scenic of all Wisconsin’s state parks – a tall order, indeed – Copper Falls features ancient lava flows, deep gorges, and some serious waterfalls. Brownstone Falls is one of the best in the state, as is its namesake, Copper Falls. Campers have their choice of 54 sites, with additional group camping and backpack campsites. You’re in the midst of “snow country” here, with over 100 inches annually being the norm, so it’s generally safe in the winter months to assume the 8 miles of cross-country ski trails are maintained and ready.

Beyond Mellen and Highway 169, Highway 13 climbs to vistas where you can sense the coming of Lake Superior (especially in winter, when the lake effect snows can be relentless.) Past small towns like Highbridge and Marengo, The Big Lake They Call Gitchigumee (sometimes it’s hard to get Gordon Lightfoot songs out of your head) finally comes into your view as you drop down into Ashland.

Home to a shipping port, Northland College and a beautiful view of Chequamegon Bay, Ashland (pop. 8.620) serves as a gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (more on this later). A great place to stop and stretch after your long trek northward is the Northern Great Lakes Center, which offers interactive exhibits, displays, a boardwalk, an observation tower, and information about everything from historical events to best places to stay. It’s located west of Ashland along U.S. 2, just after the Highway 13 turnoff northward.

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It’s been a while since Highway 13 had boulevards and traffic lights; the drive into Ashland as Lake Superior becomes visible in the distance.

ashlandchBack in town, Ashland hugs the Bay and buildings for several blocks heading back from the shore offer nice views of the water. Highway 13 couples with U.S. Highway 2 here, but another, parallel route is Main Street, one block south. You pass a J.C. Penney Department store – one of the few times you won’t see one as a mall anchor store, the beautiful Ashland City Hall, the city’s main downtown shopping district and the South Shore Brewery before Main becomes just another side street in the neighborhoods.

One of the cool things to check out in Ashland comes from the increasing plethora of artists residing in these parts. On the sides of a number of downtown buildings, formerly drab brick facades have given way to vibrant, colorful murals depicting everything from streetscapes to people to simple extensions of how each building looks on its more “detailed” sides. You’ll find one on the north-facing side of the building along Highway 13 and Main as you approach U.S. 2; others lie along Main and its side streets downtown. Check out 4th, 5th, and others for evidence of these murals.

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After that, check off another brewery tour and imbibe in a cold one at the South Shore Brewery. Makers of the popular South Shore Honey Pils, the South Shore Brewery also brews up a Nut Brown Ale, a Pale Ale, and the new Rhoades’ Scholar Stout, their first “named” beer. South Shore Brewery offers tours, some on a regular basis and some by appointment. Bo Belanger, the head brewer, will happily show you around and let you sample a variety of brews.

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It’s probably the most hoppin’ place in town, no pun intended. The brewery is connected to the Deep Waters Grille and a bar so you can enjoy their freshly-brewed products with a variety of food, sports, and conversation with locals and visitors; there’s also a view of Lake Superior out of the front window. What else do you need? You know it’s a small, interconnected world when fresh grilled mahi-mahi with mango-tomatillo sauce is the special in a restaurant in Ashland, Wisconsin. It’s not like they pull mahi-mahi out of Lake Superior.

To be a good Sconnie, I partook in the Walleye fish fry, which ironically enough was not beer-battered. It was really good, though, as was the interesting combination of “cream of wild rice, ham and mushroom soup.” For my beers, the Brewers’ Choice was the Blonde Bitter (which I’ve dated a few), and was terrific. Others in my sampler included the Golden Lager, Nut Brown Ale, Rhoades’ Scholar Stout, the Cream Ale and the South Shore Honey Pils, a personal favorite of mine back in Milwaukee. Since I spent the whole evening there, dessert consisted of pizza. Bar manager Merri, who originally hails from Colorado, was managing that night. Since I wasn’t hungry enough for a whole pizza, we split one – chorizo with four cheeses (five if you count the parmesan sprinkled on top.) Everyone there was fun and interesting to talk with, and I was hardly the only out-of-towner in the place. Lots of Northland College students work there, and they come from all over the country.

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Ashland’s waterfront features a marina and the railroad pier, once used for exporting lumber and iron ore at a breakneck pace. In 1899, Ashland was the second largest iron shipping port on the Great Lakes. The Soo Line Iron Ore dock, pictured here, was the largest in the world until it was demolished in 2011.

Ashland features an array of lodging, since it’s the largest city between Duluth-Superior and the Ironwood-Hurley “microplex”. Of the notables, Best Western The Hotel Chequamegon is the most gracious, and a recent addition to the Best Western family. Victorian-style rooms overlooking the city or the water beckon to the days of the classic 19th century hotels that once served cities coast to coast.

Just west of Ashland into Bayfield County, Highway 13 veers off U.S. 2 and begins its final push into Wisconsin’s northernmost territory.

Bayfield’s county seat of Washburn (pop. 2,285) is the first town that greets you. Located along the Bay, Ashland is visible across the water. Highway 13 is the main downtown street and shops line the road. Several places that specialize in quilting adorn Washburn, as does Chequamegon Books, a great bookstore featuring stacks upon stacks of new and used books – and wireless Internet. I had a nice chat in the bookstore with proprietor Carol Avol, who reminded me that “Chequamegon” is pronounced without the “Q”.

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The Washburn Historical Museum and Cultural Center. Which also offers quilting essentials; the obelisk to the right is a memorial to Washburn’s nickname, “The Monolith City.”

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Chequamegon Books, pronounced, please, without the “q”…

Proceeding north, Mount Ashwebay provides a tree-filled backdrop to your view while approaching Big Top Chautauqua, a 900-seat entertainment venue that manages to combine “state of the art” with “all canvas tent theater” in one sentence – and mean it. Located at the base of Mount Ashwabay between Washburn and Bayfield, artists including Willie Nelson, Keb’ Mo, John Hiatt, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Robert Cray have complimented the already bustling line-up of orchestras, singers and performance artists that cover over 60 dates every summer from mid-June through mid-September.

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Mount Ashwebay dominates the landscape between Washburn and Bayfield.

Popular Bayfield (pop. 611) is well-known to tony vacationers around North America. Its charming shops, picturesque, sweeping views of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, access to the islands and interior recreation, and wide variety of B&B’s, hotels, motels and restaurants make this a popular destination for relaxers and adventurers alike. The Chicago Tribune called it the “Best Little Town in the Midwest” and numerous presidents and Hollywood stars have made Bayfield a regular stop on their “get away from it all” itineraries. It’s not rare to see autographed pictures of familiar people and historical figures adorn the walls of some shops and restaurants. Like Ashland and Washburn, Bayfield is a very popular place for artists to set up shop. whether just for the summer or all year ’round. Bayfield is noted as one of the “best 100 artist towns in the U.S.”, and you’ll find more galleries here than perhaps any other town with a population of 611 people. Bayfield is also the access point for cars wishing to visit Madeline Island and the Apostle Islands.

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Along Highway 13, a trio of flags wave in front of a hotel overlooking Chequamegon Bay, with Madeline Island in the distance.

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Highway 13 through downtown Bayfield.

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Boats and yachts a’plenty in the marina around Bayfield, prepping to navigate around the Apostle Islands.

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Cars boarding the ferry to Madeline Island, the only island in the Apostles with roads.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, designated in 1970, is a series of islands dotting Lake Superior, as well as a 12-mile slice of the shoreline itself – most if along Highway 13 from Bayfield north and west. Only one of the Apostle Islands – Madeline Island – is accessible by car. In Bayfield’s downtown, the Madeline Island Ferry is located right off Highway 13 and heads 2 1/2 miles from the mainland to the island. In the winter when the ice is thick enough, you can simply drive across to Madeline Island and its sole town of La Pointe, which receives both the ferry and the ice road on the island side. Madeline Island is the only inhabited one of the twenty-two Apostles and therefore the only island not part of the official National Lakeshore. Others include Stockton Island, the largest one at over 10,000 acres; Oak Island, which has the tallest elevations (almost 500 above the water); Sand Island, furthest to the west and the only island other than Madeline to once have enough settlement to warrant a post office; Raspberry Island, with a popular lighthouse now undergoing restoration; Devils Island, the northernmost one and therefore the one giving ships in the busy Lake Superior shipping lanes the most trouble; and two of the islands, Eagle and North Twin, the only two completely off-limits to campers, hikers and the like, because they are proetcted areas designated for preservation and study. Other islands are available for non-motorized recreation and camping… if you can get to them.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The Apostle Islands have the highest concentration of lighthouses anywhere in the United States (take that, Maine!) and its largest island, Stockton, has the highest concentration of black bears in the U.S. (don’t leave your food uncovered if you’re camping there.)

madelineismarker_500Madeline Island’s original name? Moningwunakauning. Meaning “Home of the golden-breasted woodpecker”, the island was renamed for the daughter of an Ojibway chief who married a French settler. This marker right along Highway 13 tells the story. Had the original name been kept, Moningwunakauning would have replaced Oconomowoc for the trickiest name in Wisconsin to pronounce on the first try.

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This curve over Saxon Creek is the northernmost point on Highway 13; Lake Superior is just to the north and the next paved road to your north is in Canada.

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The vista as you head west in the Bayfield Peninsula approaching Cornucopia.

Cornucopia is “Wisconsin’s Northernmost Village”… also, not coincidentally, with Wisconsin’s Northernmost Post Office. From the Latin Cornu Copiae, Cornucopia means “horn of plenty” or “harvest cone”; it’s actually the town’s symbol, clearly visible on signs as you drive through. With two marina facilities on Lake Superior and a beach called Corny Beach (I was wondering what kind of jokes beachgoers were telling on the sand), Cornucopia sports a large array of boat-oriented seasonal visitors, many of whom visit Ehler’s General Store, right next to the state’s northernmost post office. Ehler’s has been around since 1915 and is still operated by descendents of one of the original founders. Squaw Bay, just northeast of Cornucopia, features a series of sea caves that are quite a sight, especially if you can kayak. If you have a kayak or can rent one, definitely check out the bay; it’s accessible off Highway 13 via a series of small side roads, including Squaw Bay Road, Meyers Road and Squaw Point Road.

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Ehler’s is a good stop in Corncopia for supplies; and it’s always fun to mail something from Wisconsin’s “Northernmost Post Office.”

Herbster (part of the Town if Clover, and perhaps the only place that didn’t entirely hate Burger King’s “I’m Not Herb” campaign from the ‘80s), Port Wing had “Wisconsin’s largest fish boil” going on when I passed through.

Somewhere along here in the depths of winter, you can check out the Bayfield Sea & Ice Caves when conditions are right. You can kind of see them from hiking trails in the non-frigid months on land, but when Lake Superior freezes over enough you can walk out directly to them and check out the crazy works of Mother Nature when she’s cold. When are conditions right? This link will tell you, or you can call (715) 779-3397.

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This is how cool the ice caves can look. In places they look even cooler. Thanks to State Trunk Tourer Erin Uselman for this shot!

Side note: Now here’s the wild thing about Bayfield County: it’s the largest in the state by area, covering 2,042 square miles – larger than Rhode Island and only a little smaller than Delaware. It has 962 lakes, varies by almost 1,100 feet in elevation, contains a number of tourist sites and offers a ferry service to nearby Madeline Island; and yet, there isn’t a single traffic light in the whole county. Not one. Which in a way is good, because there’s no way you can get a ticket for running a red light; just a stop sign here and there.

In the distance, Minnesota is visible, usually about 40-50 miles away. Interestingly, a majority of the cars heading eastbound sported Minnesota plates, reiterating how popular these reaches are as a vacation spot for out-of-staters. You see, in the “south” (of Wisconsin), out-of-staters are usually Illinois people – going about 90 mph.

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Along with U.S. 2, Highway 13 carries the Lake Superior Circle Tour route through Wisconsin. The ride through the Brule River region is hilly and filled with forest.

13lsctsignJust inside Douglas County, Highway 13 stops hugging Lake Superior and heads straight south for a few miles. At County H, 13 turns west again (you can access Highway 27 by heading about 9 miles south on County H to Brule), heads through a narrow swath of the Brule River State Forest, and makes a beeline for the final stretch, a straight shot towards the final terminus just south of Superior in the Town of Parkland.

Just inside Douglas County, Highway 13 stops hugging Lake Superior and heads straight south for a few miles. At County H, 13 turns west again (you can access Highway 27 by heading about 9 miles south on County H to Brule), heads through a narrow swath of the Brule River State Forest, and makes a beeline for the final stretch, a straight shot towards the final terminus just south of Superior in the Town of Parkland.

Less than five minutes up U.S. 2 & 53 from Highway 13’s end is Superior (pop. 27,368), Wisconsin’s northwest corner and one of the Twin Port cities (the other, of course, being Duluth, Minnesota) that together have one of the busiest ports in the world. Superior basically runs along the western end of Lake Superior’s shore. The drive up U.S. 2 & 53 runs you right along Superior Bay, protected from the rough lake waters by Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point. Native Americans settled here not only for its proxoimity to the lake, but portage access to the St. Croix River, just south of Superior near Solon Springs. Superior is the county seat of Douglas County (named for the Illinois senator famous for being the “D” side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates) and features the second largest municipal forest in the United States. The UW system has a Superior campus and counts bodybuilder, actor and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger among its alumni. The economy here has had its up and downs, as has the city itself; the population peaked at just over 46,000 back in the 1930s, more than currently live in all of Douglas County. Lately, though, things have been on the upswing; traffic at the Port is up, manufacturing and transportation business is growing again, and the city is drawing more tourists than ever before.

Superior offers a look at the “World’s Largest Whaleback” at the S.S. Meteor Museum. Originally named the Frank Rockefeller, it was one of only 44 whaleback ships ever built. It’s a 366-foot long vessel launched in 1896 as an iron ore carrier. In 1927, many many years before the TV show, it was renamed the South Park, where it carried automobiles and hauled sand and fill for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. During World War II it was sold and renamed the Meteor, where it continued service until running aground near Marquette, Michigan in 1969. It was retired and by 1973 became the museum it is today in Superior. Tours are available from mid-May to mid-October; admission prices vary: it’s free for kids under 6, $5 for students and seniors, and $6 for adults. The Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center (305 Harbor View Pkwy., 715-392-7151) salutes the United States’ highest-scoring air ace and Medal of Honor recipient. He’s the same Bong who has a Recreation Area in Racine County named after him – a place originally slated to be an Air Force base – as well as the namesake of one of the bridges from Superior to Duluth (the one carrying U.S. 2), a bridge in Townsville, Australia, an Air and Operations Center on Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, and even a theatre in Misawa, Japan. The Heritage Center celebrates all who dealt with World War II, from frontline fighters to those who kept things running at home. It’s located right along Superior Bay.

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Superior’s harbor, well protected from Lake Superior’s waves by Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point, offers a popular marina and anchoring place for not only large ships, but plenty of pleasure craft. The hills towering above Duluth, Minnesota across the way form a nice backdrop.

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The northern end of Highway 13 at the edge of Superior, more than 340 adventurous miles from the start in Wisconsin Dells.

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Looking back at the start of southbound Highway 13. It’s just as fun the second time around!

Alas, after 340+ miles, Highway 13 comes to an end. Just as Highway 13 begins at a freeway junction with I-90/94 in Wisconsin Dells, it ends at a freeway junction with U.S. Highways 2 & 53 on the southern outskirts of Superior.

Big Manitou Falls and some of the spectacular rock formations near it.

Beautiful Big Manitou Falls and the splendor of Pattison State Park, not far from the end of Highway 13.

Just Beyond, State Parks Edition: At the end of Highway 13, you can also head straight west on County Z, then south on County A and right on Weinstein Road to hook up with Highway 35, where you can head south and check out Big Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park. At 165 feet, it’s the highest waterfall in Wisconsin and the fourth highest east of the Rocky Mountains. The Park and waterfall is about 13 miles south of Superior and about 15 miles from the end of Highway 13.

Just Beyond, Food Edition: While Highway 13 ends at the U.S. 2/53 interchange, food lovers might want to head straight on County Z, hang a left on County E at Parkland, then right on County K a mile or so to Kounty Quarthouse (4119 S. County K, South Range, 715-398-5582), a self-proclaimed “Five-Star Dive Bar” which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. Also, straight north from 13 on U.S. 2/53 in Superior you’ll find Gronk’s Grill (4909 E. 2nd Street/U.S. 2 & 53, 715-398-0333), a souped-up log cabin dishing up bar-b-que and some excellent burgers, including their soon-to-be-famous “Upside Down” Gronk’s Burger… which is exactly like it sounds. Finally, Shorty’s Pizza & Smoked Meat (1015 Tower Avenue/Highway 35, 715-718-0889) was also featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, where Montreal-style smoked meats and specialty pizzas and sandwiches are the norm. You drove a long way – EAT!

From the Dells to the southern outskirts of Superior, you encounter tourist towns, logging towns, paper- and cheese-producing villages, medical center cities, shoreline burgs, beachside hamlets and miles of forest. It’s a truly huge cross-section of Wisconsin and a great way to spend a few days road-tripping on one of the Wisconsin’s longest State Trunk Highways – a must route on the State Trunk Tour!

CONNECTIONS:
North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 2, U.S. Highway 53
Can connect nearby to: Highway 35, about 4 miles west; Highway 105, about 5 miles west

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: I-90, I-94, Highway 16, Highway 23, U.S. Highway 12
Can connect nearby to: Highway 33, about 9 miles southwest via I-90/94 & Highway 23

LaCrosse Brewery

16

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“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.