Monroe County Attractions
Located in west central Wisconsin between the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, Monroe County is a land of scenic wonders. From craggy buttes and mesas that once were islands rising from the wooded bed of a great glacial lake and grand marshes where bright red cranberries and mosses grow, Monroe County features sparkling brooks, rivers and streams flowing through rugged rock-walled valleys and gently rolling hills, wildflower prairies, brushlands and forests. The county's varied landscape and diverse plant communities provide habitat for an abundant variety of fish, game and wildlife including whitetail deer, wild turkeys, upland birds, waterfowl, squirrels, beavers, otters, fox, hawks, eagles, owls, herons, cranes and songbirds.
Included among the area's 19th Century immigrants was a large congregation of German-speaking Amish farm families, who continue to worship, live, and farm today as their pioneering ancestors did 150 years ago. Abandoned in the mid-twentieth century, the railbeds of Monroe County now serve as recreational bicycle trails, including the grand daddy of all bicycle trails, the nation's first rails-to-trails conversion, the Elroy-Sparta Trail and the county's portion of the La Crosse River State Bike Trail.
Although the logging and transportation boom that led to their development have passed on, most of the towns and villages that grew around the lumber camps, millsites and railroad depots in the 1850's still flourish and preserve the memories of their pioneering past. The countryside is dotted with steeples of churches built by 19th century immigrant congregations. Gracious historic churches, homes and mansions line city, town and village streets; and well-preserved historic commercial buildings continue to serve 21st century needs. Amish homes, schools and farmsteads, implements, vehicles, tools and farming practices are living reminders of the 19th century past. The county's museums feature artifacts and memorabilia of the area's rich cultural, commercial, railroad, and agricultural history. Preserved 19th century railroad depots, trestles and tunnels continue to serve the needs of 21st century adventurers. Since the last of the great logging operations came to an end at the turn of the 20tb century, Monroe County's economy has revolved around its uniquely diversified agricultural base. The county's rolling hills and bottomlands are among Wisconsin's most productive dairy farming areas. The marshland around the village of Warrens in the county's northeastern corner hosts the largest concentration of cranberry marshes in the state, producing an average of 28.5 million pounds of the bright red berries annually. This area also hosts a unique agricultural activity some refer to as Wisconsin's "Invisible Industry"--the production of sphagnum moss; more than 300,000 bales annually. Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that commercially harvests, processes and exports this major horticultural product.
Monroe County offers visitors a broad range of recreational opportunities. There are more than 50 miles of easy-riding, railroad grade, bicycle trails through spectacular scenic valleys, along the beautiful La Crosse River, over dozens of trestles, and through cavernous tunnels. There are over 100 miles of meandering rivers to paddle; hundreds of acres of public hunting land full of game; forests to roam; craggy islands to climb; miles of streams and acres of ponds to fish in; swimming holes and downhill ski areas; hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails; wildlife areas to explore; berries to pick and birds to watch; and miniature and competition golf courses to try. Area visitors will find whatever they need to fully enjoy the county's outdoor recreational offerings at trailhead offices, local outfitters, bait and tackle shops, resorts and sporting goods stores. Monroe County's roads lead through remarkable bits of history and fantastic scenery to wonders and treasures including the view of Glacial Lake Wisconsin atop Mill Bluff; the remnants of the Goodyear Logging Camp; the red seas of cranberries; cliff-lined river valleys; gold lace tamarack forests; Oil City, where a phony oil discovery raised a fortune; the Wegner Grotto, a grassroots art treasure; Amish homesteads and shops offering hand-crafted rugs and furniture, produce and baked goods still hot from the oven; 80 year-old windmills gently turning on the ridge tops, the Cranberry Museum; and, Fort McCoy, a regional U.S. Army Training Center.
Treasure hunters will enjoy browsing the county's antique, gift and specialty shops, including a 60-dealer antique mall and area flea markets, and visiting with craft producers in Amish country. No matter what the palate, diners will find a variety of cuisine to choose throughout Monroe County, from ethnic to traditional and from "fast" foods to gourmet dining. Monroe County offers a variety of accommodations for a night, a week, a month or more, including 15 campgrounds with more than 600 sites ranging from primitive tent sites to full-service RV hook-up facilities, historic log cabins, Victorian bed and breakfast inns, housekeeping cottages and full-service motels. Monroe County, a world away from the ordinary, yet close enough for everyone to come and enjoy the scenic and historical charm of the area!
MUSEUMS AND HISTORICAL SITES
Cty. Hwy. EW, Warrens, 608-378-4878
Dedicated to preserving the heritage of the cranberry industry, this museum offers guided tours and hands-on exhibits that are fun and educational for all ages.
Little Red School House
Gillett Park, Tomah, 608-372-2166
Step into the 19th Century at the Little Red House located in Tomah's Gillett Park on Superior Avenue. The historic one-room school is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Tomah Area Historical Society Museum
112 Superior Ave., Tomah, 608-372-1880
This museum catalogs the history of Tomah with displays from Tomah native son, Frank King, creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip "Gasoline Alley", along with exhibits on the development of Tomah's businesses and industries including the early railroad and lumber years, agriculture and cranberry operations. Open Tuesday - Saturday, mid-May through mid-October.
Little Falls Railroad and Doll Museum
Cty. Hwy 11, Cataract, 608-272-3266
Ride back to the days of the steam locomotive with a miniature outdoor train ride and enjoy a large library of railroad photos, books, videos and more. Wander through the old orange caboose and three operating layouts that bring the past to life. The Doll Museum is filled with hundreds of dolls dating from the 1800's to the collectible dolls of today. Visit the Japanese area, the Barbie room, the Victorian Doll House, the busy kitchen and everyone's favorite, the "Christmas Morn" room. Located two miles east of Cataract on Cty. Hwy 11.
Monroe County Local History Room Museum and Library
200 W. Main St., Sparta, 608-269-8680
Featuring permanent exhibits that illustrate daily life in the area, from the days of the fur trappers through modern times, the History Room Museum presents artifacts of early farming and industry along with displays depicting the typical home life of bygone eras. Open Monday - Friday, 9:00 am - 4:30 pm.
The City of Sparta incorporated as a village in 1857, is home to many fine examples of late 19th and early 20th century architectural style and workmanship, including a number of public buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the impressive 1896 Monroe County Courthouse, the Masonic Temple, the Sparta Free Library, a Carnegie Library, and the United States Post Office.
Tomah Veterans Administration Medical Center
Veterans St., Tomah, 608-372-1727
Originally an Indian Boarding School, this facility served as an Army Air Force radio training center during WW II and now houses the Tomah Veterans Administration Medical Center. Tours of this historic government facility may be arranged by calling the VA Public Affairs Office at 608-372-1727.
St. Mary's Church
Cty. Hwy. U, Cashton, 608-654-7828
Built more than 100 years ago, St. Mary's Church stands at the highest point of St. Mary's Ridge on Cty. Hwy. U northeast of Cashton. The interior of this historic landmark features three towering, intricately carved and gilded wood altar pieces and finely executed statuary reminiscent of that found in 16th and 17tb century European Cathedrals. Outside, St. Mary's Ridge offers a breath-taking, panoramic view of the countryside.
The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto
State Hwy. 71, Cataract, 608-269-8680
The Wegner Grotto features a collection of primitive glass and concrete art works restored and given to the people of Monroe County by the Kohler Foundation including the "Glass Church" where weddings have been held, the Peace Garden, a ship, wedding cake, and animal sculptures. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Fort McCoy Historical Center
State Hwy. 21, Monroe County, 608-388-2407
Established in 1909 as Camp McCoy, this 60,000-acre military facility has been home away from home and training ground for generations of soldiers from WW I dougb-boys to present day peace-time warriors. The Fort McCoy Historical Center recalls the history of U.S. military development and the men and women who worked and trained here. The installation also includes a WW II Commemorative Area and a Military Equipment Park.
PARKS AND NATURE CENTERS
Mill Bluff State Park
Glacial Lake Wisconsin Overlook
St. Hwy. 12 & 16, Oakdale
About 18,000 years ago, the last great North American glacier crossed the Baraboo Hills at Devil's Lake and blocked an ancient riverbed with a giant earthen dam, creating "Glacial Lake Wisconsin," a million-acre freshwater lake up to 150 feet deep, covering 1,800 square miles stretching from Stevens Point in the North, west to present-day Tomah. About 14,000 years ago, the loose rock, sand, and earthen dam that created the Glacial Lake burst, generating a colossal flood that emptied the lake in about three days. The land that had lain under the water for 4,000 years was level and sandy, studded with. rocky outcroppings, towering buttes and bluffs of Cambrian sandstone that had once been islands protruding from the glacial lake. The water is gone, but the lake can still be seen from the top of Mill Bluff. Here, visitors who climb the 175 stone steps to the blufftop, enjoy a matchless view of the great glacial lake bed, now covered with woodlands, scrub brush, and prairies, strewn with rocky islands stretching east as far as the eye can see.
Wild Cat State Park
Hwy. 33, Ontario
The scenic beauty of this park is highlighted with exposed bluffs overlooking forested hills and valleys. Visit the park office and climb to Observation Point for an exceptional view of the area.
Kickapoo River Valley
Winding 125 miles through a 65-mile long valIey, the Kickapoo River is one of the "crookedest" and most picturesque rivers in the nation. Bordered by sandstone cliffs covered with ferns, mosses and wildflowers, the Kickapoo offers unexcelled scenic beauty, peaceful solitude, great fishing and easy going. Canoe and equipment rentals, launching sites, resting spots and picnic areas along the way beckon paddlers to explore at leisure, relax and feast along the way.
Skiing and Snowmobiling
In winter, Monroe County's bike trails become part of a network of trails linking with trails in surrounding counties to provide hundreds of miles of snowmobiling enjoyment. The county also sports miles and miles of cross country ski trails over gently rolling hills, along rushing rivers and through forested valleys. Area ski hills provide lots of downhill skiing excitement.
Elroy-Sparta National Bike Trail
Monroe County, 608-463-7109 (Kendall Depot Headquarters)
Stretching from Sparta, the bicycling capital of America, south to Elroy, the Elroy-Sparta Trail is the grand daddy of all bicycle trails. This 32-mile trail was the first rails-to-trails conversion in the United States. Added to the National Bike Trail route in 1972, was nearly 30 miles of the Elroy-Sparta Trail through unglaciated Monroe County, allowing the user to enjoy spectacular foliage, pass over 33 trestles and through three massive rock tunnels. Tunnels 1 and 2 are 1,680 feet in length and tunnel 3 is 3,810 feet, almost 3/4 of a mile long! The tunnels are unlighted so bring strong flashlights for the walk through. Because the trail is easy to ride (no grade is over 3 percent) and covered with limestone screening for smooth riding, bicyclists of all ages can enjoy the trail. The Elroy-Sparta Trail links with the 400 and La Crosse River State Trails. The 21.5-mile La Crosse River State Bike Trail parallels the beautiful La Crosse River and travels across prairie remnants, farmlands, trout streams and hardwood forests. The scenery along these trails is spectacular and the communities along the way furnish everything needed for a grand two-wheeled excursion-- rentals and repair shops, parking, camping, drinking water, restrooms, picnic facilities, groceries, bed and breakfast inns, motels and restaurants. Electric carts for non-pedalers, souvenirs, and trail passes are available at trail headquarters located in the Kendall train depot.
Monroe County, 800-948-6624
Explore the fascinating world of Monroe County! Visit the cranberry country and travel through the world's only commercial sphagnum moss production area. See Oil City where a fortune was made on a phony petroleum "discovery”; then watch as automotive craftsman hand-build $160,000 Deusenberg Motors Precision Classics. Enjoy the tranquil old-world Amish Country, and more on one of three Monroe County Driving Adventures. Self-guided tour maps are available from local Chambers of Commerce and area merchants.