June 19, 2024


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 – through the beautiful Bayfield Peninsula and on to Superior.

Wisconsin Highway 13 Road Trip

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.




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.


Basically, 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.

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.

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

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! The original guy who put that car up there (old 13 south of Marshfield) worked at Marshfield Clinic as the hospital was doing construction work so he asked the crane company to come out and put that car up onto the silo as he was using his pole shed for car storage. Early 80s.. — according to Thomas Bauer on Facebook.



Visit Marshfield logo for Marshfield, Wisconsin

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.x`

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).


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.


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.

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

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.

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.




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.


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.

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”.

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.”
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.

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.

Along Highway 13, a trio of flags wave in front of a hotel overlooking Chequamegon Bay, with Madeline Island in the distance.
Highway 13 through downtown Bayfield.
Boats and yachts a’plenty in the marina around Bayfield, prepping to navigate around the Apostle Islands.
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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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