Vernon County Attractions
Bordered by the Mississippi River, Vernon County is in the heart of Wisconsin's grand coulee country. From historic river towns on the west to Hillsboro, Vernon County is a land of spectacular beauty; great rivers, lakes and streams, towering bluffs, rolling contour-planted hills, picturesque farmsteads, diverse ethnic population centers, and year-round recreational opportunities.
Vernon County is rich in history, with ethnic communities proudly preserving and celebrating their European traditions. The homes and churches their pioneer ancestors built are well preserved and many are still in use. Ethnic festivals celebrate their diverse heritage with music, dancing and foods from the old country. Amish families offer the fruits of their labor; furniture, crafts, baked goods, jams, preserves, and agricultural products made in the old world tradition. Area museums bring the past alive with living and static exhibits, interpretive tours and extensive photo and artifact collections.
Vernon County's historic past is reflected in its well-preserved architectural treasures, churches, homes, log buildings, river front inns, farm and commercial buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Vernon County's streams, rivers, creeks and ponds teem with fish lying in wait for the taking. Local outfitters and guide services provide everything needed for fishing fun: boats, motors, tackle, bait, fishing maps and tips on when, where, and how to catch your limit.
Vernon County is crisscrossed by miles and miles of trails for hiking, bicycling, snowmobiling, horseback riding and cross-country skiing. County bike trails join the Elroy-Sparta and 400 Trails; and, the county's snowmobile trails are linked to thousands of miles of trails throughout the state. Area parks, nature centers and recreation areas offer just about every kind of outdoor activity imaginable: rock-climbing, swimming, boating, hunting, fishing, boating, canoeing, wildlife observation, golfing, tennis, hiking, sailing, horseback riding, snowmobiling, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ice-fishing, ATVing, and more.
The Kickapoo, Wisconsin's "crookedest" river, the West Fork, two branches of the Bad Axe River, and Coon Creek all run through Vernon County; and the Mississippi runs along the county's west coast. All provide boating, canoeing and kayaking fun. Area resorts and outfitters rent boats, motors, canoes, kayaks, sailboards, jet skis, and provide guide and shuttle services. Boat ramps spotted along the county's riverbank provide access to the Mississippi River.
Treasure hunters enjoy browsing the area's many fine antique, collectible, art and craft shops, Amish community craft and furniture outlets, and ethnic specialty shops. Vernon County's shops offer a great variety of items, from Amish quilts to Norwegian sweaters, 150 year-old household utensils to made-to-order bentwood furniture,
Good food and thoughtful service are the hallmarks of Vernon County's supper clubs, family restaurants, dining rooms and fast food outlets. Whatever your pleasure you won't be disappointed here. Area foods include pub burgers with special sauce and fries, Czech Jiternice or Hospinia, acclaimed Italian cuisine, authentic Mexican offerings, fresh fish specials, Norwegian home cooking or Continental delicacies served in an historic 18th century dining room.
After enjoying Vernon County's attractions and activities, visitors have a variety of great lodging accommodations to choose from, including camping out under the stars on a Mississippi River sandbar or in a full-service RV Campground, luxuriating in one of several historic bed and breakfast inns, spending a week or a month in a housekeeping resort cottage, a rustic log cabiri in the woods, a full-service hotel/motel or a houseboat cottage on the Mississippi.
Vernon County is a world apart, but only hours away from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Madison or Milwaukee and only a half-day's drive from Chicago. It's one of Wisconsin's best-kept and most remembered vacation secrets.
Vernon County Museum
410 S. Center St., Viroqua
Operated by the Vernon County Historical Society, the Museum preserves the ethnic heritage and history of the area with fascinating displays of artifacts used by the earliest native occupants, European explorers, fur traders, lumber barons and agricultural pioneers. The Society's exhaustive archives include photographs, records, publications and an excellent genealogy department. Open Winter: Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday 12 pm - 4 pm. Summer: 12 pm - 4 pm everyday except Monday.
795 N. Main St., Viroqua
An impressive 19th century mansion, this fully restored home of a Civil War Colonel and his family is furnished as it was in the late 1800's. Open Memorial Day through mid-September, 1:00 - 5:00 pm. Sat. & Sun. or by appointment.
Historic Church and School
606 W. Broadway, Viroqua
Operated by the Vernon County Historical Society, these historic buildings are open by appointment only.
Battle Island and Blackhawk's Retreat
In 1831, by U.S. Government agreement, a band of Sauk people led by Black Hawk were removed from their traditional planting ground east of the Mississippi to their fall and winter hunting grounds west of the Mississippi. When Black Hawk's people returned to Illinois to plant their crops in the spring of 1832, U.S. troops under the command of General Henry Atkinson were ordered to drive the Sauk back across the river. Chased by the federal militia, Black Hawk led his people north to Madison, through Sauk and Crawford Counties into southern Vernon County on his way back to the Mississippi. Black Hawk's people never made it back to their new home. The trail ended on "Battle island', now part of Blackhawk State Park, where the entire band fell to Atkinson's Army. Black Hawk's route is marked by six historic markers on State Highway 27 just before it enters Vernon County, State Highway 82 West from Fargo to Redmound, County Highway UU between Redmound and Victory, south on State Highway 35, from Victory to Black Hawk State Park; and on Battle Island in the Mississippi River, where it ended.
Hillsboro Historical Society Museum and Log Cabin
Albert Field Memorial Park, Hillsboro
In the mid-1800's Czechs, mostly from Bohemia, immigrated to the town of Hillsboro, bringing a European heritage and traditions that are preserved and displayed here, in the "Czech Capital of Wisconsin", the Czech Museum located in Yuba, and the "painted Forest" Mural in Valton, just 15 minutes south of Hillsboro.
Coon Prairie Church
Settled by Norwegian immigrants in the 19th century, Westby's heritage is reflected in its National Historic site, the Country Coon Prairie Church, the first Lutheran Church constructed in Western Wisconsin.
The Inn at Wildcat Mountain
300 E. South St. (Hwy. 33), Ontario
A grand Greek Revival home built on six lovely acres along the Kickapoo River by well-to-do ginseng farmer Charles Lord in 1908. Now a beautifully restored bed and breakfast that is listed on the Historic Register, The Inn at Wildcat Mountain also provides wedding planning and hosting, along with motor bike and bicycle rental.
PARKS AND NATURE CENTERS
Kickapoo Valley Reserve
One of the most beautiful areas in the Midwest is the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,569 acre tract of land located between the villages of La Farge and Ontario in Vernon County. In the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, you'll be amazed by the beauty of the masses of spring wildflowers and dense greenery through mid-summer and by the brilliant colors of hardwood timber in autumn. The Reserve offers a variety of fantastic recreation: fishing and hunting; horseback, biking, hiking and snowmobile trails; cross-country skiing and snowshoeing; camping and canoeing. Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the Reserve trails (except for snowmobiles - in season). Horseback and biking trails are open May 1 - November 15. Hiking is available year round. All visitors are required to purchase a permit.
Thrune Nature Center and Helga Gundersen Arboretum
Norsekedalen, Cty. Hwy. PI, Coon Valley
The natural heritage program at Norskedalen has its headquarters at the Thrune Nature Center, a 350-acre facility used for nature classes designed for school age children. The Center's Helga Gundersen Arboretum features more than five miles of walking trails, springs, Poplar Creek and Gunderson Pond all restored and preserved as they were when the Norwegian settlers arrived here in the mid 19th century. The Thrune Visitors Center is open from April 15 through October 31, Mon.-Fri. 9:00am-4:00pm, Sat.10:00am-4:00pm, and Sun. Noon-4:00pm.
Wildcat Mountain State Park
Canoeing on the winding Kickapoo River, camping and horseback riding for those who bring their own horses, spectacular scenery, and abundant wildlife highlight the attractions of this pristine playground. Campgrounds with full amenities are available for campers with and without horses. An observation point high on the mountain overlooks the Village of Ontario and the meandering Kickapoo Valley.
Black Hawk Park
Majestic Bald Eagles swoop and soar as barges, riverboats and pleasure craft ply up and down the great Mississippi River, past Battle Island where Black Hawk's tragic adventure is memorialized in this park that bears his name. Here, fish and waterfowl abound, deer cautiously wade and otters play in the backwaters bounded by the park. The park offers camping, canoe, boat and motor rentals, backwater flatbottom rides, launching and docking facilities, tackle and bait, camping supplies and groceries.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge
Mississippi River, Onalaska
With more than three million people annually who come to fish, boat, hike, birdwatch, hunt, sightsee or just relax, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is one of the country's largest and most visited refuges! Established in 1924, the 200,000-acre, 260-mile-long Upper Mississippi refuge features more than 265 bird species, 57 species of mammals, 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 100 species of fish. No wonder this refuge is a nature-lovers wonderland! Special attractions along the La Crosse county shore of the river include boat and canoe rentals, the Long Lake and Goose Island canoe trails, with observation points at major pull-offs denoted by interpretive refuge signs. Displays of refuge wildlife are found at the US Fish and Wildlife Service visitors center, located at 555 Lester Ave. in Onalaska. Open Monday - Friday 7:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Wisconsin's "crookedest" river, the gentle Kickapoo, meanders through Vernon County from Ontario south, joined by the West Fork River above Readstown, continuing its southerly journey across the corner of Richland County, to the southern border of Crawford County where it joins the Wisconsin River which joins the mighty Mississippi at Prairie du Chien. Coon Creek flows through the northwestern third of Vernon County and joins the Mississippi at Stoddard; and the North and South Forks of the Bad Axe River flow westerly to the Mississippi north of Black Hawk Park and south of Lock and Dam #8. The county's streams and rivers flow for more than a hundred miles through the unchallenged natural beauty of deep-cut gorges, tree-topped bluffs, undulating, terraced farmland surrounded by gently rising wooded hills, under forest canopies through shadowy glens. Local outfitters rent canoes and kayaks, provide guides, maps and shuttle services.
Great River Road
Follow the mighty Mississippi from county line to county line along the Vernon County segment of the Great River Road, State Highway 35. Visit the historic riverside villages of Stoddard, Genoa, Victory and DeSoto. Stop at the site of the "Battle of Bad Axe" near Victory. Visit "Battle Island" and "Battle Slough" at Black Hawk Park and view majestic bluffs, rich backwater vegetation, watch eagles fish for food and humans fish for sport. Take time to observe the river traffic lock through at Lock & Dam #8, visit the Dairyland Power Cooperative's Station Number three south of Genoa, and the Genoa National Fish Hatchery, too.
Vernon County has a number of Amish settlements. Their black buggies and horses can be seen on most roads in the county throughout the year. Their homes, farms, and farming methods are much as they have been for generations. Relying only on horsepower, windpower and other natural energy sources, 19th century agricultural practices, and centuries-old traditional wisdom, the Amish families produce a bountiful variety of goods and agricultural products. Signs posted along county roads invite passersby to homesteads where Amish families display and sell the fruit of their labors: dairy products and baked goods, candy and leather crafts, toys, quilts, bentwood furniture, whirly-gigs and more.
From the late 1800's until the 1930's, round barns were the choice of most progressive farmers. Built with the silo and hay chute in the center for more efficient distribution of food and forage to the surrounding animals, round barns saved labor and conserved energy. Most of Vernon County's round barns were built by Alga Shivers, son of a slave who escaped to the area via the Underground Railroad. These barns were usually covered with red tiles, sheet metal and wood boards soaked in local creeks to render them pliable. With the arrival of electricity, round barns were replaced by rectangular structures which provided the straight lines required for piping for electric milkers and mechanical barn cleaners. In 1994, Vernon County had 15 standing round barns, more round barns per square mile than any other place in the world. Books describing each of these barns, and maps of their locations are available from the County Museum, The Viroqua Chamber of Commerce and the Main Street City Office in Viroqua.
Olympic Ski Jump
Cty. Hwy. P, between Westby and Coon Valley
In winter, thousands of spectators and ski-jumpers from around the world gather at Timber Coulee for 90 meter and 55 meter ski-jumping tournaments. Both events are sponsored by the Westby Snowflake Ski Club. The 90-meter contest is usually one of the trials for the U.S. Olympic Ski Jump Team.
Lock & Dam #8
Lock and Dam #8 is an integral link in the upper Mississippi navigation system. The Lock and Dam consist of main and auxiliary locks, roller gates, tainter gates, and a dam extending to the Minnesota shore. Over 2,000 small pleasure boats, from canoes to cabin cruisers, and hundreds of river barges lock through this Lock and Dam annually. The pool above the dam is ideal for all forms of water recreation. Surrounding forests and plenty of fresh water combine to produce a natural wildlife habitat for fish, waterfowl and wild game. A look-out platform allows visitors to observe the locks in action, riverboats and barges queuing-up for passage, rising and dropping with the water level, and tow boats deftly maneuvering their gigantic barges through the locks.
Cheese House and Factory
Hillsboro is home to the only factory in America that produces New Holstein Muenster Cheese, a special cheese using a process dating to the 7th century in Europe's Vosge Mountains. Hillsboro's AMPI cheese factory employs more than 90 employees and processes more than half a million pounds of milk every day. Tours of the factory begin and end at the company's cheese house where visitors can sample the many varieties of cheeses produced here.
Coon Creek Watershed
An historical marker located one-half mile west of Coon Valley on State Highway 14 commemorates the successful restoration of the 92,000-acre Coon Creek Valley watershed. Decimated by erosion resulting from clearing, cutting, 19th century wheat growing and subsequent soil-depleting dairy farming practices, by the 1920's the once lushly green Coon Creek Valley was mostly barren, cut by deep gulleys that turned to raging torrents with every rainfall. Topsoil carried from the Valley choked the Mississippi River with silt which filled in and spoiled the channels and adjacent wetlands, damaging the habitat for fish and aquatic plants. In 1933 the U.S. Soil Erosion Service selected the Coon Creek Watershed for a demonstration of soil and water conservation. With the aid of local farmers, the Coon Creek Soil Conservation District was created and went into action. Applying the latest in soil conservation practices, stripcropping, terracing, contouring, erosion control and crop rotation, "The Nation's First Watershed" was restored and became an outdoor classroom for Wisconsin's and the nation's farmers. Thanks to that early experiment and continuing soil conservation practices, present-day visitors will find the Valley green again, with colorful, contrasting strips of contoured plantings following the curves of the hills. The streams run clear again, the fish are plentiful, and the flood control ponds provide great recreation for all.