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Once on Highway 23, you make your way through Lafayette County to its county seat. After hooking up for a spell with Highway 81, Highway 23 enters Darlington (pop. 2,418), which calls itself the "Pearl of the Pecatonica River", harkening back to the time when people harvested clams out of the river, apparently to produce pearl button blanks. The whole area is drained by the Pecatonica River and its many tributaries, which carve out the beautiful hills and valleys characteristic of Lafayette County. Author Sylvan Muldoon, who was big on writing about out-of-body experiences, hailed from Darlington.
Darlington's restored downtown is a great place to stop and just walk around. Highway 23 is a little boulevard going through town, crossing the Cheese Country Trail (watch for plenty of ATVers and bikers) and providing plenty of parking for the boutiques, taverns and other points of interest in town. Pecatonica River Trails Park offers riverside camping. Downtown Darlington's Main Street - which is Highway 23 - is lined with historic buildings and it's worth a stop just to explore.
Weaving through the terrain further north brings you to Mineral Point (pop. 2,617), another town chock full of history. In fact, it's the first town in Wisconsin to be named to the National Register of Historic Places. As gold was to California and gambling is to Nevada, lead made the Mineral Point area of Wisconsin a sought-after destination in the '30s and '40s... and we're talking 1830s and 1840s.
Lead and zinc mining was grueling work, and those who endured the brutal winters became known as "badgers" because they burrowed into the ground like the furry creatures. Their influence lives on as the state's nickname and, of course, the UW-Madison mascot. Mining was so important to the state that in 1848 when the state seal was established, one of the four images on the seal was that of a miner's ax.
Mineral Point claims the title "where Wisconsin began," and the handsome buildings along High Street attested to the new wealth and impressive designs of the day. The city lost by one vote to Madison when the state's capital was selected. While he waited for the capitol building to be established in Madison, Wisconsin's first governor, Henry Dodge (who also has a county named after him), maintained an office in Mineral Point's courthouse.
The first Wisconsin city to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mineral Point has many small shops offering antiques, galleries and artisan crafts. Highway 23 goes right past the downtown area, which is best accessed via High Street. The handsome Mineral Point Opera House (139 High Street, 608-987-2516) was built in 1914. It started as a vaudeville and performing arts house and continues to feature live performances from theater groups and world cinema brought by the Mineral Point Film Society. Currently undergoing renovations, it will reopen this spring.
A big attraction in Mineral Point is Pendarvis (114 Shake Rag St). Owned and operated by the State Historical Society, it's a complex that shows visitors what life was like during the 1830s, including the day-to-day tasks of miners and their families as well as superstitions and traditions that influenced them. The Mineral Point Depot (13 Commerce St.) is the oldest surviving railroad depot in the state. Originally built in 1856 and restored in 2004 by the Mineral Point Restoration Society, it now hosts a museum.
Upper Left: The entrance to Pendarvis, right along Highway 23; Upper Right: Pendarvis House; Middle Left: The Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts offers plenty of artistic endeavors amidst its beautiful setting; Middle Right: How cool are some of Mineral Point's buildings? This cool, with plenty more to look at. Lower Left: Downtown Mineral Point in summer. Lower Left: From pretty much the same spot, only in winter.
Highway 23 runs through the heart of Dodgeville before crossing U.S. Highway 18 and approaching Governor Dodge State Park, one of the largest in the state at 5,270 acres (just to give you a sense of the size, one square mile is 640 acres). The whole area has many scenic bluffs, but Governor Dodge State Park is a great place to see quite a few of them. The Park also features two lakes, a waterfall, abundant wildlife, original spring houses built by early settlers, 267 campsites, 77 electric sites, winter camping, boat and canoe rental, programs, marked beaches, 2 miles of nature trails, 26.6 miles of hiking trails, 24.7 miles of horseback trails, 10.3 miles of off-road bicycle trails, 15 miles of snowmobile trails and 18.1 miles of cross-country ski trails. But that's all.
Just north of Governor Dodge State Park is the ever-famous House On The Rock. What is it? It's a 200-acre complex with architectural wonders, electic art collections, gardens and yes, a Japanese-style house perched on what's called Deer Shelter Rock, overlooking the Wyoming Valley. Its inspiration came from a feud between creater Alex Jordan Jr.'s father and the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright that dated back to the 1920s. Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright has some less-than-flattering comments about Jordan Sr.'s architectural talents. IN 1945, Jordan Jr. began construction of the house on his favorite rock and by 1959, a stone marker placed along Highway 23 announced to travelers that The House On The Rock was open for viewing. Financed by tour fees, a series of additions since then include 1968's "Mill House", which holds one of the world's largest fireplaces; a "Streets of Yesterday" exhibit, introduced in 1971 and inspired by a similar exhibit in the Milwaukee Public Museum. The "World's Largest Carousel" opened in 1981 and the "Infinity Room", perhaps the most dramatic, came along in 1985. The Infinity Room literally projects 218 feet out over the valley; the walls are made of glass with reinforcements (3,264 windows in all), so visitors can walk out above the forest floor, which beckons 156 feet below. Quite visible from the surrounding area, it's probably one of the more unique rooms in the world.
This area is a haven for architects, and it certainly was for Frank Lloyd Wright. Born in Spring Green, Wright started building his summer house, called Taliesin (named after a Welsh bard) in 1911. It took decades to develop, including recovery from a devastating attack in 1914 where a chamber boy set fire to the house and murdered seven people with an ax while the fire burned. Wright himself was in Chicago on a project at the time, but his lover (a former wife of one of his clients), her two children, a foreman, a draftsman, a landscape gardener and the son of a carpenter were all victims. The living quarters were rebuilt, yet destroyed again by fire in 1925. The third incarnation of Taliesin was survived intact since. Taliesin is where many of Wright's most famous structures, including New York's Guggenheim Museum were designed. In a nod to snowbirds everywhere, Wright also established a Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. But since that's nowhere near State Trunk Highway 23, it's not part of the Tour.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center is located just off Highway 23 on County C, across the Wisconsin River's southern bank. Crossing the river on Highway 23 brings you into Sauk County and Spring Green (pop. 1,444) itself. Along with the architectural wonders and natural scenic beauty, you can get Shakespearean in Spring Green at American Players Theatre, one of the most popular outdoor classical theaters in the U.S. Set in a natural amphitheater in the woods near the Wisconsin River, APT entertains audiences with rotating plays while working to educate students on theater in general. If you're getting a way early start on a weekend jaunt, try hitting APT for "Skippeth-Out-Of-Work-Early" Thursday nights.
On the north side of Spring Green, Highway 23 hooks up briefly with U.S. Highway 14 and even more briefly with Highway 60, before heading north again into the hills that line the Wisconsin River valley. The views are great as you zoom up and down hills and wind through valleys, past hamlets like Plain (pop. 792) and Loganville (pop. 276). Plain, interestingly, has been considering a name change since 1915, when a reader to the local newspaper wrote a letter to the editor. No rush, though.
Further north, Highway 23 heads into Reedsburg (pop. 8,704), where it hooks up with Highway 33 for the ride through downtown. The Museum of Norman Rockwell Art (227 S. Park St.) features almost 4,000 of the famous artist's works. Speaking of artists, famous comic artist and cartoonist Clare Briggs hailed from Reedsburg. It's also the starting point for the "400" State Trail, which runs to Elroy as part of the state's increasingly-extensive rail-trail system for bicycles, hikers, cross-country skiiers and snowmobilers.
Reedsburg sits on the 90th Meridian, which marks the halfway point between the Prime Meridian (which runs through Greenwich and London, England) and the International Date Line, marking the exact center of the Western Hemisphere. A marker in the median of Highway 23 notes the meridian's location (actually, for some reason, it sits 325 feet west of it), although I missed it somehow on the drive. (If you spot it, e-mail me a close-up picture! The city once hosted a World War II POW camp and pioneered both the first Ford dealership and the first sanctioned Little League in Wisconsin. On the way out just east of the city, the Pioneer Log Village and Museum provides a first-hand look at log buildings, antique furnishings and a glimpse of what life was like in the 19th century frontier days. Tours are available from 1-4pm on weekends during the summer. Also in summer, Reedsburg holds its annual Butter Fest.
For several miles east of Reedsburg, Highways 23 and 33 hang together until 23 breaks to the northeast for a weaving 6-mile jaunt through portions of Mirror Lake State Park and a junction with I-90/94. And right away, you enter it: the Dells.
Taking Highway 23 past the Interstate, you immediately come upon Lake Delton (pop. 1,982, and the lake is back!), which pairs with the city of Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418) makes the up the gargantuan land o'tourism known at the Dells.
Highway 23 meets up with U.S. 12 and joins it heading northbound into a vast array of sights: the Crystal Grand Theater, roller coasters, mini golf courses, ferris wheels, waterparks, upside-down White Houses, plastic pink flamingos, motels, hotels, ski jumps in bodies of water... it's all along this stretch. The world's largest Trojan Horse can't be missed; neither can Meanwhile, Highway 16 joins up with Highways 13 and 23, breaking east to hop over the Wisconsin River and enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).
In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin "Ducks" (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlettís Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dellsí selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.
This is truly a mecca of recreational vacation fun. Letís take a look at some facts about the area around the Dells (thanks to the "Quick Facts" section of wisdells.com):
And if you want fudge shops, only Mackinac Island in Michigan can compete with the downtown strip along Highways 13/16/23. Mmmm... fudge. "The Strip" features t-shirt stores that seem to repeat every 100 feet or so. But there are also a ton of unique - or just not too common - things. Among them: Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" Museum, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming); the Rick Wilcox Theater; and waterparks a'plenty. Feel like going extreme? Extreme World features a 130-foot high bungee jump, a skycoaster and for those who prefer to stay on the ground the whole time, a big selection of go-karts and tracks.
Highway 23 goes through the heart of the Dells twice: once with U.S. 12 as Wisconsin Dells Parkway, and once with Highways 13 and 16 as Broadway.
Eventually, Highway 23 joins the "backbone" of Wisconsin, the I-39 & U.S. 51 freeway. The highway heads north on it for about six miles, past the little burg of Packwaukee, which lies on Buffalo Lake, an elongated stertch along the Fox River as it heads up to Lake Winnebago. This is prime fishing and hunting country. From Exit 100 to 106, Highway 23 is part of the I-39/US 51 freeway before exiting. Highway 82 begins to the west and goes all the way to DeSoto and the Mississippi River; meanwhile, Highway 23 continues east for the next leg, now as a more major artery across the eastern half of the state.
Montello, Princeton, Green Lake, Ripon, Fond du Lac, Plymouth, Kohler, Sheboygan and everything in between has been toured and will be posted shortly.