“Vernon, Viroqua and Valleys”
Western terminus: Crawford County, on the Mississippi River bridge connection to Lansing, Iowa
Eastern terminus: Marquette County, at the junction with Highway 23 at the I-39/U.S. 51 interchange
Mileage: about 116 miles
Counties along the way: Crawford, Vernon, Juneau, Adams, Marquette
Sample towns along the way: DeSoto, Viroqua, Hillsboro, Elroy, Mauston, Oxford
Bypass alternates at: none
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 82 connects the lakes of Marquette County and central Wisconsin with the more rugged terrain and scenic valleys of the southwest. The drive between Highway 80 at Hillsboro and the extended Mississippi River bridge connection with Iowa via the Black Hawk Bridge is especially eye-pleasing.
Wisconsin Highway 82 Road Trip
The Drive (East to West): Highway 82 picks up where Highway 23 leaves off in Marquette County, at an interchange with I-39/U.S. 51. While Highway 23 ducks south on its way to the Dells, Highway 82 heads west into Oxford (pop. 536), into Adams County and past a series of small lakes, including lovely views from Parker Lake. It’s worth noting that there aren’t too many lakes along this route, since much of its length is in the “Driftless Area” of Wisconsin, where few natural lakes exist.
Several lakes dot the area between Oxford and the Wisconsin River. Parker Lake, viewed at left, is a pleasant spot for a wayside stop, fishing, or a little swimming.
After crossing Highway 13, Highway 82 heads across the Wisconsin River itself, where in the summertime people lazily tubing down the river from Castle Rock Lake to the Dells are often floating under the bridge in droves. Castle Rock Lake, the fourth largest in the state and essentially a dammed-up widening of the river (it was constructed between 1947 and 1951), offers a host of recreational opportunities – including, of course, tubing. Camping areas, boat launch sites and various recreational rentals are available in areas near the lake, which has sixty miles of shoreline. Castle Rock County Park alone has over 200 camping sites and can be accessed off Highway 82 via County Z just east of the bridge over the river.
A series of horse farms and riding stables dot the area between the Wisconsin River and the junction with I-90/94, so if you have a desire to hop on a saddle, this is a good area for you. A series of hotels, gas stations, and cheese shops you suddenly see can only mean one thing: the Interstate is coming. I-90/94 crosses Highway 82 here on its journey between the Twin Cities and Madison, and a slew of places to stay or stock up on items for the road can be found here.
The junction means you’re heading into Mauston (pop. 4,411), 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. U.S. 12 and Highway 16 provide non-Interstate access to the corridor between Tomah and the Dells (highly recommended over I-90/94 for the full State Trunk Tour experience) and Highway 58 joins in from the north.
Like many towns, Mauston now has a craft brewery: Gravity Box Brewing Company is on the main drag (U.S. 12/Highway 16) just a few blocks north of Highway 82. Gravity Box opened in the city’s former Opera House building in 2021 and offers a variety of brews from their Maugh’s Town (Mauston’s original name) Light lager to a Mexican coffee stout called La Falta. The name “Gravity Box” came from a friend of the founders mentioning on the drive to where they were, he got stuck behind a “gravity box,” referring to farm equipment that hauls grain – often slowly – on rural roads. “Gravity” also refers to the ABV (alcohol by volume) in beer, based in part on how much sugar is in your wort. So the name just fit when they heard the term.
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.
At the heart of all of this is Elroy (pop. 1,578), where Highway 80 meets up with 82 for the ride into town. Elroy is the hometown of Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and Secretary of Health & Human Services and is named after the son in “The Jetsons”. Okay, I’m kidding on that one. Buffs of the 1980s who played the wildly popular game Trivial Pursuit may be interested to know that 30 million Trivial Pursuit games were produced in Elroy from 1983 to 1985 – which is practically a trivia question in itself. It’s also where three major rail-to-trail routes meet: the Omaha Trail, which goes to Camp Douglas, the “400”, which goes to Reedsburg, and the “granddaddy” of them all, the Elroy-Sparta Trail, first of its kind, which opened in 1967. Along with a downtown strip featuring a great hobby shop, several bars and a number of craft store, Elroy Commons lies along the trail – a former railroad station – to provide provisions.
Built in 1991, the Commons is where the Omaha, “400” and Elroy-Sparta Trails meet and features an information center, gift shop, restrooms, showers and bike rentals. Rentals are $3 per hour or $12 per day. Schultz Park, a city facility, provides camping and RV facilities as well as a pool, tennis courts, volleyball, a children’s playground and more. If you plan on riding the trail(s) and making a day or two of it, Schultz Park is a good place to set up camp. If you prefer a motel, a number of them in Elroy and along the route cater to bicyclists.
Highways 80 & 82 run together for the three miles south to Union Center, paralleling the “400” Trail along the way. There, Highway 33 joins in for about five more miles, into Vernon County and Hillsboro (pop. 1,417). Known as the Czech Capital of Wisconsin, Hillsboro is a pleasant town that hosts the Cesky Den Festival every summer.
Above: Announcing the Country Market along Highway 80 (coupled with 33 and 82 here) is a large mouse holding groceries, which is better than a large mouse in your groceries, I suppose. Just a short distance later, another huge fiberglass mouse tells you about more available cheese. There should be no calcium deficiencies in this area.
*** Brewery Alert ***
Hillsboro is home to Hillsboro Brewing Company, (608-489-7486), which launched in 2012. Home to notable craft brews like Joe’s Beer and the Leaping Lemur Cream Ale, Hillsboro offers cans and taps at their downtown pub location right at the main corner downtown. It’s a great old building that served as a shoe store and a slew of other businesses dating back to the 19th century, the last time Hillsboro had their own (legal) brewery. Due to growing demand, Hillsboro Brewing built a new facility called the 2E Brewery on the outskirts of town in fall 2018. Their newer brewery adds capacity and event space while keeping up with their growth.
In Hillsboro, Highways 80 breaks south; three miles later Highway 33 splits off to the west. Highway 82 heads southwest, generally following valleys nestled in between ridges like Maple Ridge and Newburn Ridge, with the high hillsides all around. Occasionally you leap over a large hill and duck into the next valley. On a sunny day, the light will play with the trees, especially early or late in the day when the angles often result in dark areas with brilliant light reflecting off a group of trees in the distance. The turns can be sharp, so if a sign tells you to slow to a certain speed, it’s not a bad idea to heed the warning in these here parts.
The Round Barns and Integrated History of Vernon County… Diversity before diversity was cool
In the mid-1800s, a sizeable group of African American settlers came to eastern Vernon County and established Wisconsin’s first integrated schools, churches and sports teams. Interestingly, a racially diverse and by all accounts harmonius community was more easily achieved in rural Wisconsin in the 19th century than some areas are able to have today. Although much of the old community is gone, landmarks remain… including many of the area’s famous “round barns”, many of which were designed and built by Algie Shivers, one of the African-American settlers. About half the barns he supervised and participated in the construction of still stand, and some are seen along Highway 82. There is an official driving tour of valleys and areas featuring the round barns that use parts of Highway 82 and nearby 33, a map of which can be download here in .PDF format.
Through the valleys you enter LaFarge (pop. 775), where it intersects with that Kickapoo River-followin’ Trunk Highway 131. LaFarge is one of about ten places that bills itself as the “Heart of the Kickapoo Valley” – and in a sense, they’re all correct; it’s certainly accurate when you’re driving along Highway 82. Nestled in the beautiful valley the Kickapoo winds through, LaFarge marks the southern edge of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, a tract of land 8,500+ acres large with sandstone outcroppings and unique local plants and animals. The Reserve came from a flood control project authorized in 1962, begun in 1971 and abandoned by 1975. What remains of the area is the Reserve, which former Senator Gaylord Nelson campaigned to be turned into a national park and said it deserved such status. Visit it for yourself and see if you agree…especially if you rent a canoe!
After hooking up briefly with Highway 56, Highway 82 heads into the largest city along its length, Viroqua (pop. 4,335). The name can also apply to a genus of jumping spiders, but this Viroqua is a pleasant town where numerous artists have made home. Butch Vig, member of the rock band Garbage and producer to albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, was born in Viroqua, as was President Bush’s (the Dubya one) personal physician. While Highway 56 heads west from the downtown crossroads, 82 turns south through downtown, joining Highway 27 and U.S. 14 & 61.
The Fortney Building (above) includes a residence hotel and is a prime example of the early architecture along Viroqua’s Main Street, of which Highway 27 is one of four State Trunk Tour routes. The Temple Theatre is a 1922 Classic Revival style vaudeville and movie theatre that underwent a $1.3 million restoration; today it stands as a prime example of why Viroqua’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Viroqua was called “the town that beat Wal-Mart” by Smithsonian Magazine in 1992, not because it prevented a Wal-Mart from opening, but because so many local businesses are successfully co-existing with it. Viroqua’s natural beauty has drawn artists for decades, but the arts and culture scene has been growing more significantly as of late. The presence of the renovated Temple Theatre and numerous coffee shops and galleries are just a hint of the growing arts community. Highway 27 goes through the middle of it all; architecture buffs can enjoy the theatre, the Fortney Building (pictured above), and the Sherry-Butt House, an 1870 structure constructed in the Southern style… all of which are on Main Street.
Highway 27 is just one of the routes on Viroqua’s Main Street. Highway 82 and U.S. 14 & 61 also travel through the heart of town. Highway 56 intersects downtown, too. Bypass plans were in place for many years that would carry some or all of the routes around town, but that got cancelled in 2014. And we’re pretty glad to see that – this is a town to explore!
South of Viroqua, the four highways stay combined for a few miles before Highways 27 and 82 break away to the southwest. You run a series of ridges, from which the views get quite expansive. You pass through the small village of Liberty Pole, which is noted for nearby Monument Rock, a huge natural rock formation (we’ll have to get a picture on the next trip through). From Liberty Pole west to Red Mound, you’ll see a series of old stone wayside markers. These markers note historical facts about areas in Vernon County, especially as they applied to settlement and clashes with Native Americans. Many of these markers were carved in stone in the 1930s; most have been moved to their current location. They’re worth stopping and checking out, especially if you’re a history buff. These markers are noted in points all along the route in Vernon County.
Above: Just southwest of Viroqua, this caboose (presumably in someone’s yard) lies on real railroad tracks. Several other sculptures adorn the property. Below: Liberty Pole, Wisconsin. Not a bustling metropolis, but a serene place to stop, step outside and enjoy the views and quiet sounds of southwestern Wisconsin.
Liberty Pole is also the name of an annual scenic motorcycle parade covering areas across this part of the state. Check out their home page here for more information.
As shown above (click for larger images you can read), county historical markers dot the sides of Highway 27 from Liberty Pole west for quite a ways. A map of marker locations is provided at most waysides, with specific details carved into stone tablets. John McCulloch is considered the county’s first European settler, building a cabin here in 1844 before “California Dreamin'” took him out west. Most of the tablets were made around 1930.
This area of Highway 82, basically between Viroqua and DeSoto, is big on scenic views and short on facilities, so make sure your gas gauge isn’t reading close to empty. Keep your camera ready, though!
Highway 27 splits off at Fargo (not relation to the movie or North Dakota) and heads toward Prairie du Chien. Highway 82, meanwhile, heads west for about a dozen miles before hitting Red Mound.
At Red Mound, Highway 82 has a split with County Highway UU, providing two ways to access the Mississippi. We’ll be taking Highway 82, of course, but the drive on UU is also breathtaking as you approach the river towards Victory, Wisconsin. Red Mound and the area surrounding it features a macabre history in the Black Hawk War, which looms large in Wisconsin history. Red Mound is about where General Atkinson (the one the city of Fort Atkinson is named after) caught up with Chief Black Hawk’s Band and were subsequently killed, although the Sauk tribe members were trying to surrender at the time. Markers about 1 1/2 miles west on UU describe this in more detail, and I found a web page here that will tell you more if you’d like.
Highway 82 descends into the Mississippi River town of DeSoto (pop. 366), where the road is in a long valley that leads you into the downtown area. DeSoto was originally called Winneshiek Landing, but it was renamed after Hernando DeSoto, the Mississippi River explorer, in 1854. Like downriver Cassville, DeSoto is a great place for bird watching, including eagles. Historically, it’s also where Chief Black Hawk and his Sauk and Fox followers were defeated and subsequently slaughtered even though they were trying to surrender peacefully. The battle site is along Highway 35 between DeSoto and Victory, two miles north and where the aforementioned County UU that forked away from Highway 82 earlier reaches the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has established a park at the battle site.
DeSoto is perched above the Mississippi River. After all the descending of hills and curves you navigate to get here, the river suddenly appears… right there. Highway 35 runs along the Ole Miss, with Iowa and their bluffs in the background. It’s not over for 82, though; the road does eventually get to Iowa.
Down the hill approaching Highway 35, you literally cross the northwestern corner of Crawford County… the last few hundred feet, clearly visible with the signs. At the intersection, look back at the line of buildings facing the river; it’s the quintessential view of a small Mississippi River town. Once joined with Highway 35, Highway 82 follows along the river’s edge as part of the Great River Road for about six miles before heading southwest in a last bid to reach Iowa.
Highway 82 joins The Great River Road & Highway 35 for about 2 1/2 miles. At that point, Highway 82 breaks southwest, directly onto a bridge across the Winneshiek Slough. A few miles through the Mississippi River Wildlife & Fish Refuge, characterized by marshlands, sloughs and swampy forest will eventually lead you to the Black Hawk Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi’s main channel into Iowa.
The Mississippi River along this stretch can grow up to 5 miles wide, with a series of islands, sloughs and marshlands in the middle. The state line follows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ maintained shipping line, which was right next to you in DeSoto and but darts southwest by the time Highway 82 prepares to cross the river.
The Black Hawk Bridge (often referred to locally as the “Lansing Bridge”) is where Highway 82 comes to an end, at the Iowa state line halfway across the bridge’s steel deck.
The Black Hawk Bridge has an interesting history. It opened in 1931 as a toll bridge and operated for 14 years until a March ice jam in 1945 forced it to close. The Wisconsin approach to the bridge was washed out and it stayed that way for ten years. Finally in 1955, the Iowa State Highway Commission rehabbed the bridge and by 1957, both states purchased the bridge and reopened it as a free facility. It could be due for another rehabilitation or even replacement sometime soon; the structure is narrow and has a speed limit of 25 mph that we highly, highly recommend you follow. The western end of the bridge drops right onto the riverbank. where Iowa Highway 9 is an immediate crossroad. The sound of tires grinding over the steel deck surface can be heard for quite a distance along the riverfront.
The Black Hawk Bridge has an unusual look that makes some travelers uneasy about crossing it. The bridge is a riveted cantilever through truss bridge that totals 1,653 feet in length, clears 68 feet over the Mississippi River, but is only 21 foot-long subs wide. The picture at left is the view from under the bridge; for a really cool look at the whole area from above, click on the aerial shot below. You get a good sense of how long the causeway is to approach the Wisconsin side of the Black Hawk Bridge! This shows the last few miles of Highway 82.
Along the Iowa side of the river, the Black Hawk Bridge dominates the view and the sound of cars crossing the steel grid above echo up and down the valley. Lansing, Iowa is a pleasant little river town that was named after Lansing, Michigan. The Black Hawk Bridge is the only Mississippi River crossing between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, a distance of 63 miles.
At the western end of Highway 82 at the Wisconsin-Iowa line over the Mississippi River, you can view the Black Hawk Bridge via webcam during daylight hours.
And if you turn around to head back to Wisconsin, this is the approach from the Iowa side. Use it!
Can connect immediately to: Highway 23, I-39, U.S. 51
Can connect nearby to: Highway 22, about 6 miles east in Montello (via Highway 23)
Can connect immediately to: Highway 35, Iowa Highway 9
Can connect nearby to: Highway 56, about 11 miles north; Highway 171, about 9 miles south