To help us plan our travels to each state, Vivian and I consult a book titled “1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before you Die”. Guess what? Wisconsin contains 18 places! Not bad given Iowa, our previously visited state has only half that many places to see before you die. However, if you take your enthusiasm for visiting a state to an unequaled level of quirky attractions, 18 is quite conservative when compared to Atlas Obscura’s guide to Wisconsin which describes 146 “cool, hidden and unusual things” to do in Wisconsin. If you choose to go down a rabbit hole of hidden gems (or lumps of coal), you could spend a lot of time in Wisconsin.
Given that there are 50 states to visit before we die, we whittled the list down to a reasonable number. Following the driftless area, we went on a quest to see Wisconsin’s Cheese Country and the Dane County Farmers’ Market, among other things. We left our paradise campground in the driftless area to stay at another county park, William G. Lunney Lake Farm, only four miles from downtown Madison. Despite being so close to a city with a population over a quarter million, the natural surroundings we enjoyed at Esofea awaited us at this park, and we can owe all that to Dane County’s large and greatly numbered public spaces where people can recreate outside year round.
Each morning, I walked the bike and hike/ski trails, enjoyed the view of Lake Waubesa from the trail that includes a recently built boardwalk bridge, and was greeted by pairs of sandhill cranes, more white-tailed rabbits than I can count, and deer partially hidden in fog-veiled fields of colorful wildflowers (see the slideshow below). Temperatures fluctuated – one morning I was layered up, the next in a t-shirt and shorts. True to its urban location, our campground park is a busy place, serving those recreating on the Capital City State Trail with a pavilion rest area, water bottle fill station and restroom facilities. From our RV, we watched runners, cyclists, Nordic ski rollerbladers and paddlers on the lake, young and old alike coming and going – an atmosphere of clean energy and outdoor recreation.
Most of Dane County is comprised of Madison, once referred to as “77 square miles surrounded by reality” by a Republican running for governor in 1978. Think what you will about Madison, but Vivian and I anticipated a perfect place to get our progressive urban fix while continuing to frolic through Wisconsin’s rural areas. Parked at a campground close to it, we anticipated at least a couple days in the downtown area, which is dominated by the University of Wisconsin campus as well as the state capitol complex.
We’ve been having great luck lately parking our 21-ft truck in the city – Des Moines, Memphis, Montgomery, so I didn’t bother researching downtown parking in Madison. I would come to regret that. On the first day, we drove our 21-ft aluminum beast downtown to the Chazen Museum of Art which offered the following information on its website, “Located in the center of the UW campus, the Chazen is free and open to the public. Public parking lots are available nearby.” And within walking distance from the state capitol building, we were set for our first day in Madison. Being smitten with the thoughts of casual visits to a welcoming city, my disappointment rose to the top as Vivian and I drove up and down narrow one-way streets while detouring around road construction areas for 30 minutes passing one empty parking space after another with the following parking meter next to each:
At last, we found a 2-hr parking spot, which was enough time to tour the state capitol building and make the 15 minute walk there and back. Oh well Madison, we really wanted to love you, but you did not want to love us. Enjoy the slideshow of this magnificent state capitol building, our third on this trip and well worth the parking frustration.
Meanwhile, we had rural areas to explore because there was cheese and beer to be had. Among the 18 places to see in Wisconsin before you die is Monroe, the cheese capital of the U.S. and where you’ll find the National Historic Cheesemaking Center that offers a history of the cheese country and can lead you to a cheese factory tour.
That sounded perfect; a visit there and later to a brewery would fulfill our mission to see cheese and beer making all in one day. To get there, we again drove through idyllic farm country, river valley scenes running through a green patchwork of corn fields and cattle pastures interrupted by barns and silos. According to Google Maps, our search for the National Historic Cheesemaking Center brought us to a modest building known as Green County Visitor Center. Expecting to get a tour of a cheese factory, we were instead greeted by the visitor center volunteer who explained that cheese tours were terminated due to – you guessed it – covid. Instead of an extravagant tour of cheeses being created by licensed professional cheesemakers and receiving samples along the way, we were given a brochure or two and recommended a cheese store.
After getting our fill of Wisconsin cheese, it was time for some afternoon beer tasting, brought to us by the New Glarus Brewery. Cold beer sounded delicious as the daytime temperatures had reached the upper-80s, shocking us after enjoying cool temperatures for the past couple weeks. New Glarus Brewery is named after the Swiss town near which it stands. On the sharply graded road leading to the brewery, you can see a field of hops, which lends itself to Wisconsin’s self-sustaining farm communities.
The New Glarus Brewery’s website describes itself as a “quaint little brewery”. Compared to Miller’s Milwaukee operation, it is small with 90 employees. But it is impressive and has a fine story attached to it. Founded in 1993 by Deborah Carey, New Glarus Brewery was a gift to her husband Daniel, an experienced master brewer.
Brewing began in an abandoned warehouse, and in 2006 ground was broke for a new $21 million facility on a hilltop near New Glarus. It has since become a popular tourist destination and a very popular Wisconsin beer including its most famous Spotted Cow.
Our last day in Madison was a Saturday when the famous Dane County Farmers’ Market is held each week in downtown Madison. Believing Madison to be unfriendly to visitors in large diesel-guzzling vehicles, we dreaded the thought of returning to its downtown where parking a truck for longer periods than it takes to deliver an Amazon package is discouraged at best. “If you want to go to the Farmer’s Market”, said our camp host, “you need to arrive at a specific parking lot near the capitol building no later than 6:30 am”. Most would gasp hearing such an unreasonable suggestion, but instead we smiled and nodded our heads in agreement because arriving insanely early to anything worth visiting is precedent on our trips. Consequently, we checked off another place to see in Wisconsin (see the slideshow below) before we die and brought home some beautiful produce. Thank you Wisconsin.
Interested in reading more about Wisconsin? Check out our previous blogs: