The regional themes for this part of Wisconsin are cranberries, birds, and bicycles. You can learn everything you could possibly want to know about cranberries at the Cranberry Expo Ltd. on county road E a few miles east of the town of Warrens. (Open 10-4 daily, May through October; 608-378-4878.) Get there by leaving I-94 at exit 135 a few miles north of Tomah and going east on E.
Cranberry Expo Ltd. has a gift shop featuring a whole lot of things I never would have thought of making from cranberries, among them cranberry catsup, cranberry barbecue sauce, and cranberry mustard. You can buy a bag of craisins–dried, sweetened cranberries–or some craisin fudge, craisin nut clusters, or craisin ice cream–vanilla with lots of embedded craisins–which is excellent. (One of the advantages of visiting a state where the dairy industry has a lot of clout is that you get ice cream with gobs of scrumptious butterfat in it.) I bought jars of cranberry-rhubarb jam, which is OK, and cranberry-raspberry jam, which is absolutely splendid. I passed on a wild rice and cranberry stuffing mix, cranberry-scented candles, cranberry-colored ornamental glassware, and a sweatshirt with “Cranberry Expo Ltd.” silk-screened on the front.
In back of the gift shop is a museum (adult admission $5) where you can see a 15-minute video on cranberry growing and look at tools and equipment dating back to the 19th century. Most of the machinery was designed and built by cranberry growers. The Expo can help arrange bus tours of the area; call well in advance of your visit. The annual Cranberry Festival will be the weekend of September 26-27 this year. It will feature tours along with a farmers’ market and an antique market. Last year’s fest drew 60,000 visitors.
There are cranberry marshes all along County E near the Expo. A reservoir just west of the museum has a large great blue heron rookery clearly visible from the road, a perfect ad for the growers’ contention that they are doing good for wetlands. A brochure you can pick up at the Expo lays out auto tours of 20 to 30 miles that will give you a look at lots and lots of cranberry marshes.
County O goes north from County E just east of Warrens. Follow it for a couple of miles to the New Homestead Inn (608-378-4767), where you can get a buffaloburger for $2.75 (with fries) or a plate of buffalo ribs for $7.95. According to “Why Eat Bison?,” a brochure I picked up at the restaurant, bison meat has less fat and cholesterol than turkey or chicken, so a plate of ribs will give you a chance to make up for the big dish of craisin ice cream you ate at the Expo.
Head west on E through the marshes and you’ll hit Wisconsin 173 at the hamlet of Mather. At this point you are really out on the bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. Take 173 north to Babcock and you will encounter no grades and no curves for 14 miles. Stop in the Country Cafe (715-884-2414) in Babcock for a Mrs. Peterson’s cranberry-raspberry pie a la mode. Or hit the Cranberry Inn (715-884-2049) just across from the Ocean Spray complex. Dorothy and Dan can offer you a cold beer, a shot of schnapps, sandwiches, broasted chicken, and a Friday fish fry.
Wisconsin 80 going south from Babcock has one turn just outside of town, and then it’s a straight shot to Necedah, 19 miles away. A few cranberry marshes and other farms are scattered along this road, but mostly you will be traveling through unbroken woodlands.
About six miles out of Babcock, you’ll hit a place called Finley. There is a sign, but not much in the way of buildings. Turn left there on County F and then left again on the second road you come to. This road will take you to a gate leading to a place that maps identify as the Camp Williams Firing Range. The locals call it the Hardwood Range. If the gates are open and your timing is lucky, you can go in and watch Air Force A-10 fighters strafing the Wisconsin countryside with live ammunition. Sometimes at night, B-52s come over and drop dud bombs. Your tax dollars at work.
Four miles south of Finley is Sprague, where Donna and Bob run the Wilderness Inn and the Wilderness Motel (608-565-2337). They claim to be located in beautiful downtown Sprague, but as far as I could see they are beautiful downtown Sprague. Here you can get the essentials: cheeseburgers, beer, ice, and a double room for $27.
In much of Wisconsin, the tourist business mainly serves fishermen in the summer, hunters in fall, and snowmobilers in winter. It’s working-class tourism: steaks, fried fish, and half-pound burgers. There are good salad bars, but no puree of parsnip, no duck breast, and the only sprouts are Brussels.
From Sprague you can continue south to Necedah and then west on Wisconsin 21 to Tomah, or you can take the Sprague-Mather Road across the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and a large state conservation area. This is a lovely bicycling road, with level pavement and very little traffic. The Sprague-Mather Flowage, a huge marsh, borders the road on the north. You can see sandhill cranes there and great blue herons, and the woods along the way are full of deer and wild turkey.
You can come into the refuge from the south off Wisconsin 21 west of Necedah. A 14-mile self-guided auto tour begins at the entrance and takes you through pine and oak woods, grasslands, and marshes. The bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin used to be covered by a thick layer of peat, but drainage ditches lowered the water table, and during the 30s fires burned off the peat. So now the soil is all sand. The environment is excellent for blueberries, the cranberry’s sweet cousin, and during July you can pick all you want. The roads through the refuge are gravel, which would make them difficult going for someone on a road bike, but a mountain bike would be perfect.
Tomah makes a good base for exploring the cranberry country. There are a dozen motels ranging from the Holiday Inn ($66 for a double, 608-372-3211) through the Comfort Inn ($49.95 for a double, 608-372-6600) and the Econo Lodge ($54 for a room with a king-size bed, 608-372-9100) down to small, locally owned places like the Pleasant Acres ($30 for two, 608-372-9343). There are indoor pools at the Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, and Econo Lodge. The motels are all clustered around the Wisconsin 21 exit from I-94. For dining, try Filippo’s (608-372-7190), west central Wisconsin’s only Chinese Mexican restaurant, or Mr. Ed’s TeePee (608-372-0888), which is owned by the brother of Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. Be prepared for a heavy dose of midwest in your Chinese and Mexican cuisine, but every place is cheap by Chicago standards with entrees in the $6-$8 range.
The real center of bicycling in this part of the state–perhaps the center for the whole midwest–is in the hills that border Glacial Lake Wisconsin to the south. Exit I-94 at Mauston and drive west toward the town of Elroy. You will begin to notice rugged islands of sandstone rising out of the plain. The cliffs on these islands were cut by the waves of the old glacial lake. In a few miles, you leave the old shoreline behind and enter a region of rolling hills. This is the Driftless Area, the part of Wisconsin that was never touched by glaciers. It runs south from here to Illinois, and it is quite lovely indeed. The hilltops are wooded, and picturesque dairy farms dot the valleys. This is Amish country, and horse-drawn buggies marked with international reflective-orange triangles are a common sight on the roads.
Elroy is at one end of a 33-mile bicycle trail that follows an old railroad bed west to Sparta. The state of Wisconsin has been buying up old railroad rights-of-way for bike trails for almost 30 years. This one, opened in 1964, was the first in the state and it now draws about 60,000 cyclists every year. I rode it in 1973 and can recommend it enthusiastically. You go through three tunnels, cross numerous trestle bridges over highways and streams, and ride through the hills without having to pedal. Since the route was built for trains, the steepest grade is 3 percent.
The Elroy-Sparta Trail has been so successful that it has inspired the creation of a 12-mile county trail (the Omaha) from Elroy to Camp Douglas, and the 21-mile La Crosse River State Trail, which connects with the Elroy-Sparta on the east and with the 22.5-mile Great River Trail on the west. Another trail, the 400, which will run from Elroy southeast to Reedsburg, will open late this year or early next.
Added to all these off-road miles are hundreds of miles of paved, lightly traveled county and township roads that provide excellent biking.
The invasion of the cyclists has engendered all sorts of businesses. There’s a bike shop on Wisconsin 82 in Mauston (the Bike Rack, 608-847-4385) and another right next to the trail in Sparta (Speed’s, 1126 John St., 608-269-2315). Speed’s rents bikes ($9.50 a day for ten-speeds; $10.50 for mountain bikes) and so does a souvenir shop called Bits and Pieces (608-462-8545) at the junction of 82 and 71 in Elroy. Or you can rent at trail headquarters in the town of Kendall (608-463-7109).
Since the trails follow old railroad beds, they go right through the middle of various small towns, so restaurants and stores are easily accessible. Elroy also provides a variety of other services, including campgrounds, public showers, and a public pool with a $1 admission. Passes to use the bike trails are available at locations all along the route. Cost is $2 per day or $6 for a season.
In downtown Elroy, where the old train depot used to stand, there will be a farmers’ market this summer. You might also make a visit to Mr. Ed’s (608-462-5299), which the governor’s brother used to own (before he opened the Teepee in Tomah). Mr. Ed’s gets somewhat raucous on Saturday nights when they have live rock and roll bands. They make a good hamburger, have a Friday-night fish fry, and, sometimes, Saturday-night pig roasts.
Just north of Elroy in the hamlet of Hustler you can visit the Hooter Bowl (608-427-3444) for a Friday-night fish fry that feels like you’ve stumbled into somebody else’s family reunion. They even bring in busloads of people from a nearby old folks home.
Cyclists tend to be members of the comfortable classes, and their presence around Elroy and Sparta has spawned numerous examples of that ultimate symbol of yuppie travel: the bed and breakfast. There are at least a dozen on or near the bike trails. My favorite is Waarvik’s Century Farm, a 140-acre dairy farm north of Elroy. Mary Waarvik, the fourth generation of her family to live on the land, rents three rooms in a farmhouse that dates from 1884, and two rooms upstairs in the house her parents now occupy. A room with a queen-size bed costs $45 a night for a couple, and kids can sleep on a roll-away for $10 each. Breakfasts feature do-it-yourself omelets that rely on Mary’s garden for many of their ingredients. Holsteins graze in the fields around the house. Mary’s father has retired, so the cows belong to an Amish neighbor who rents the land. Call 608-462-8595 for information and reservations.
The Waarvik Farm is simple and rustic. The Franklin Victorian is very fancy. Located in Sparta, it was built in the 1890s for a local banker named W.G. Williams. The banking industry was obviously very very good to Mr. Williams. The house is gorgeous, filled with elaborate woodwork, brass chandeliers, and stained-glass windows. The present owners, Lloyd and Jane Larson, have refurbished and restored it, and added modern plumbing. Rooms with a private bath are $70 to $80 a night. Call 608-269-3894 for information and reservations.
Both places provide shuttle service for cyclists staying with them.