15 Reasons Why You Should Visit Wisconsin’s Driftless Area

We rounded up all the ways you can make the most of your visit to this unique, beautiful region.


This story is part of our Summer Guide from the June Issue of Milwaukee Magazine. To read our full guide to summer fun, order your copy today!


SPARED THE LAST ROUND of ice age glaciers, the southwestern corner of Wisconsin is free from “drift” – the glacial debris that shaped the rest of the state’s landscape. Rather than hills and lakes, the Driftless Area is dominated by steep ridges and river valleys. Scenic roads wind through a tangle of verdant beauty, modest farms and small towns, making the Driftless a world unto itself to disappear into for a day or long weekend. There’s a lot to see and do, so here are some of the highlights to get you started.


Eat and Drink 

1. Driftless Café 

118 W. COURT ST., VIROQUA 

Co-owned by James Beard Award-nominated chef and “Wisconsin Foodie” host Luke Zahm, this unassuming eatery has customers driving long distances for its carefully crafted, seasonally evolving menu. The farm- to-table mission takes advantage of the area’s concentration of organic farms, the highest in the USA.

Driftless Café; Photo courtesy of Driftless Café, by Shana Meshbesher

2. Local Brews 

MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

Housed in a converted century-old factory at the edge of its namesake city, Hillsboro Brewing (206 E. Madison St.) makes great beers and offers a solid brewpub menu. Snappy IPA is a hit, as is Joe’s Beer, a porter named for brewer Snapper Verbsky’s father. Driftless Brewing Co. in Soldiers Grove (102 W. Sunbeam Blvd.) has a taproom in a conspicuous passive-solar building along the highway. Try the Cow Cult Milk Stout.

Hillsboro Brewing Co.; Photo courtesy of Hillsboro Brewing Co.

3. Old Country Cheese 

AS502 COUNTY RD. D, CASHTON 

With milk from more than 200 Amish dairy farmers, this cheese factory produces 20 varieties, including fresh muenster cheese curds. The store sells other Wisconsin cheeses and sausages, as well as a variety of Amish-made jams, candy, maple syrup and crafts. 


 

 

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4. Driftless Wineries 

MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

Just west of Westby, Branches Winery (E6796 Old Line Rd.) uses estate-grown, cold-climate grapes to produce some remarkable wines that include dry, oaky reds, crisp whites, and dessert and fruit wines. Outdoor brick-oven pizzas are a bonus.  Make it a wine trail: visit Vernon Vineyards (S3426 Peterson Ln., Viroqua) 10 minutes away.

Branches Winery; Photo courtesy of Branches Winery

Shop

5. Crazy Frank’s Readstown Flea Market 

HWY. 61 SOUTH, READSTOWN

As much a museum as an indoor flea market, Crazy Frank’s is the place to stop to search for antiques, collectibles and memorabilia, or simply to browse among the found objects and remember your childhood (or your grandparents’). More than 350 vendors sell everything from vintage toys, tools and household items to Cabbage Patch Dolls and Coca-Cola merchandise. 611 

6. Driftless Books & Music 

518 WALNUT ST., VIROQUA 

With a collection of more than 500,000 new, used and rare books and records, the store occupies one of Viroqua’s historic tobacco warehouses. A vintage beer can collection greets you at the door. Browse here for classics, bestsellers, and all sorts of genres and specialty books. Be sure to inquire about that rare antique work or first edition you’ve been looking for.

Driftlessy Books & Music; Photo courtesy of Driftless Books & Music

7. Amish Goods 

MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

The Driftless has a large Amish population, especially in the area between Hillsboro and Cashton. Look for their
delicious pies, jams, preserves, fresh produce, quilts and other crafts at Viroqua and Ferryville Farmers Markets (220 S. Main St., Viroqua; Sugar Creek Park, Highway 35, Ferryville). And on your drive, watch for the roadside signs directing you to the abundant small Amish shops in the area.

Ferryville Farmers Market; Photo courtesy of Ferryville Farmers Market

Explore 

8. A Gorgeous Drive  

STATE HIGHWAY 131

For a winding ride into the heart of the Driftless, follow State Highway 131 north from State Highway 60 near Wauzeka, as it runs low along the Kickapoo River and high along the ridgetops, for great views of the horizon. The ridgetop Historical Marker 23 above Gays Mills celebrates the nearby apple orchards and offers a roadside overlook not far off 131. (Fresh apples and fall colors will call you back here in autumn.) 

9. The Kickapoo River 

E13660 WI-33, ONTARIO

The Kickapoo is a narrow, twisty river through forest and sandstone outcrops, fun and easy for paddlers of all skill levels. Starting from Ontario, where most paddling and tubing outfitters are, the most popular route ends at the takeout at Wildcat Mountain State Park, but other landings and riverside campsites offer longer trips.

Kickapoo River; Photo by Alamy.com

10. The Wisconsin River 

715 WISCONSIN AVE., BOSCOBEL

The Prairie du Sac dam is the last on the Wisconsin River, leaving 92 miles of unimpeded water to the Mississippi. The current is steady, and the river is wide, with many side channels to explore. A plethora of sand bars makes it ideal for fee-free overnight camping. Wisconsin River Outings in Boscobel offers day trips, canoe and kayak rentals, longer excursions and shuttles. 

11. Cheyenne Valley and Round Barns 

MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

A marker in Hillsboro commemorates 150 Black farmers and freed slaves who settled in Cheyenne Valley in the 1850s. Born there in 1889, WWI veteran Alga Shivers built some of the striking round barns for which the area is known. The nearby Vernon County Museum (410 S. Center Ave., Viroqua) is a good stop for a history lesson, and its online map marks the surviving round barns.

Round Barns; Photo courtesy of the Vernon County Historical Society

12. Eagle Cave 

16320 CAVERN LN., BLUE RIVER 

Learn some history and geology on a guided tour of Wisconsin’s largest cave of onyx, a variety of waxy-looking rock displaying parallel bands. Bring a light jacket into the 3,000 feet of passageways for a 52-degree break from summer heat. The privately owned property, great for families, also offers camping, cabins, canoe rentals, mini-golf and more.

Eagle Cave; Photo courtesy of Eagle Cave

Camp/Stay

13. Wildcat Mountain State Park 

E13660 STATE HWY. 33, ONTARIO 

The 3,643-acre park sits atop a tall ridge that slopes down to a canoe landing on the Kickapoo River. At a minimum, make a picnic stop for one of the scenic overlooks, but the 20-plus miles of trails, 25 pull-up campsites and 20 hike-in sites make this a good home base for a camping or hiking trip.

14. Kickapoo Valley Reserve 

S3661 STATE HWY. 131, LA FARGE 

Through its heart runs the river, but the reserve also has trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders. Explore valleys and along ridges with abundant birds, rare plants, river crossings and overlooks. Hikes can run from 1 to 8 miles, and 25 rustic, first-come, first-served campsites are scattered throughout. 

15. Kickapoo Valley Ranch Cabins 

E11761 COUNTY RD. P, LA FARGE

Eight quiet, cozy cabins gleaming with hardwood offer Driftless views and no distractions – other than the resident llamas and horses perhaps. Guests get a crazy good cookie at check-in from the onsite Cowboy David’s Special Order Bakery, in itself worth a stop.

Kickapoo Valley Ranch Cabins; Photo courtesy of Kickapoo Valley Ranch Cabins

 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June Summer Guide issue.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop

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