Highway 51, Wisconsin's Own Route 66

By Mary Bergin
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

It’s easy to fill a journal with stories without ever leaving Wisconsin.

The Highway 51 Journey Journal takes vacationers about 300 miles, as part of a six-state, 1,275-mile effort to turn the whole highway (which ends in Laplace, La.) into one huge tourist attraction.

Think “Route 66,” but map your route vertically. In Wisconsin, we’re talking about Hurley’s rowdy and bawdy Silver Street to Beloit’s collection of 12,000 angels (the largest in the world, says the Guinness Book of World Records).

You gotta love the contrasts.

The Highway 51 Journey Journal lists where to go and what to see. It’s not meant to be a thrill-a-minute excursion, but a way to better understand the state’s diversity of culture, character, history, economics and terrain.

There are the attractions, and then there’s the road. The route embraces the nuances of Wisconsin as well as the stark contrasts of its urban and rural, Northwoods and agricultural landscapes.

It is about our sense of humor and identity: Hurley’s giant corkscrew, Beloit’s big can of chili, the planet’s largest loon (in Mercer) and biggest penny (in Woodruff).

It is about the unusual crops that earn farmers a living: the ginseng near Wausau, the cranberries of Eagle River, the tobacco of Edgerton. Amish farmers use horses in the fields. Others use machinery that costs more than their house.

It is about having easy access to natural beauty, be it the Bearskin-Hiawatha bike trail, between Minocqua and Tomahawk, or the 150 miles of snowmobile/ATV routes in Iron County.

It is about paying attention to the roadside as well as your driving, and not getting a cell phone connection for miles. It is about having a red fox cross your path in one town, or seeing a hawk soar.

One farm sells maple syrup. Another has a quilt shop. There are cosmopolitan pursuits, too – fine art and dining, boutique shopping – but not always where they are expected.

These are people who are proud of where they live. They are excited to be part of a multi-state project that encompasses people of a similar spirit, in places they may have never seen.

What can you see along the way? The Journey Journal contains terrific ideas, but here are a few more that are lesser known.

Manitowish Waters – More artists have begun to call this remote area their home, and studios are open during the Northwoods Summer & Fall Art Tour, during weekends in late July and early October. This back roads tour has 20-plus stops, and art techniques are demonstrated. It isn’t all about chainsaw wood carvings.

Recommended lodging options include Voss’ Birchwood Resort, rustic but charming, full of nostalgia. Family owned and established in 1910, with an ice cream parlor and an inviting dining room that overlooks Spider Bay.

Tomahawk -- Harley-Davidson provides work to hundreds in the area, and plant tours occur during the Fall Ride, in mid September, which turns the area into a little Sturgis. About 40,000 attend; it’s about street dances and Harley demos.

Merrill – The city’s personality show up in a big way in early summer when Rodeo Days take over the Lincoln County Fairgrounds.

At Rodeo Days expect a cowboy church service, professional rodeo competition and mounted shooting demos.

Wausau area – One of Mosinee’s newer summer events is the mid-August Little Bull Falls Log Jam, which includes an old-time lumberjack contest (that means no power equipment) and sanctioned horseshoe throwing tournament.

Wautoma – On the outskirts is Pine Ridge Farms, upscale lodging for people who love trout fishing, bird and deer hunting. “Adding a touch of class to the outdoors” is one of the business slogans; fine dining fare includes – no surprise! – wild game.

Stoughton – This community says it’s the place where coffee breaks began, a fact that is celebrated with a one-day festival in mid August. The biggest bash, though, is in mid May and about Norwegian heritage. Stoughton’s Syttende Mai reportedly is the largest such celebration outside of Norway.

Edgerton Sterling North, whose book “Rascal” became a Disney film in 1969, is a native and much revered. Public tributes include the Sterling North Book and Film Festival, held at the end of September.

Ready for a road trip? Check out 11 more scenic drives during fall in Wisconsin