MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Riding the Glacial Drumlin

Mementos of a distant past line a bicycle trail through Lake Mills.

Aztalan State Park.

© Beth Gauper

Reconstructed ceremonial mounds and a stockade mark the site of an ancient village near Lake Mills.

In the middle of southern Wisconsin farmland, there’s a mystery that rivals those of the Mayans and Anasazi.

Riding along the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail east of Lake Mills, I stopped on a bridge over the placid Crawfish River to read a plaque, "Glacial Time in Perspective.’’

It noted the retreat of the glaciers 143 lifetimes ago and then directed me 1˝ miles northward, to where, "17 lifetimes ago, an ancient civilization flourished.’’

There stood Aztalan State Park. Between 1100 and 1300, a cluster of the Mississippian people lived here, growing corn, fishing in the river and performing ceremonies atop two large, conical temple mounds, one of which had two platforms reached by stairs and a priest’s house on top.

A 12-foot log-and-clay stockade enclosed the 21-acre village, in which three mounds and a natural knoll composed the corners of a plaza. Excavations have shown signs of human sacrifice.

What happened to the village? "Evidence indicates an abrupt end.’’ In the 1950s and ’60s, it was partially reconstructed, and visitors are free to wander the grounds, wondering how temple mounds turned up in Wisconsin.

From Aztalan, I rode through a shady tunnel of trees into Lake Mills, where the annual festival had just started in and around leafy Commons Park, complete with bandstand.

There, I bought a piece of rhubarb-strawberry pie a la mode from the American Legion ladies auxiliary and watched children screeching on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Facing the square was a line of stately brick storefronts, some occupied by antiques centers, gift shops and pubs; squeezed among them was a little white shack, where the American Legion grills its renowned "sliders’’ on Fridays.

It may look like a place where time stands still. But the town is less than half an hour from Madison, and it's become a shopping destination.

On Lake Street, Ephraim Faience Pottery makes its gorgeous Arts and Crafts vases, pitchers and tiles in the basement and sells them in the first-floor gallery. 

Buying sliders in Lake Mills.

© Beth Gauper

A customer waits for a slider at the American Legion post in Lake Mills.

Its limited runs have spurred the formation of a collector's society, which has an office across the street.

On the southeast edge of town, just off the bike trail, James J. Chocolates sells sweets from its candy kitchen.

But Lake Mills mostly is a hub for two of the things Wisconsin folks like best: bicycles and beer.

Ten miles to the north, in Waterloo, Trek Bicycle Co. rented a barn and began producing hand-built steel touring frames in 1976.

Now, its bicycles are known around the globe, and Lance Armstrong rode them on all seven of his Tour de France victories. On Wednesdays, the plant offers tours.

And in Lake Mills, Tyranena Brewing has been having fun with Aztalan legends since it started brewing craft beers in 1999. First, it took Lake Mills' original name, said to mean "sparkling waters,'' for its own.

It named its Stone Tepee pale ale for pyramid-shaped rock piles on the floor of Rock Lake, and its Headless Man amber alt for an effigy mound.

Rocky's Revenge brown ale is named for a legendary serpent who guarded the sacred tepees, and Three Beaches honey blonde for the beaches of Rock Lake. 

Its tasting room is open daily for sampling, and it offers live music in its beer garden on summer weekends.

In late September, Tyranena sponsors an Oktoberfest bicycle tour, incorporating both local passions. The Tyranena Beer Run Half Marathon, part of which uses the Glacial Drumlin Trail, is the first Saturday in November.

From downtown, I rode on past the cream-brick depot, passing Sandy Beach, where sailors were coming in from a day on Rock Lake and diners sat on the shady deck of a log restaurant.

Not far away was a plaque pointing out a long, slender hillock on a farm, shaped like a boiled egg sliced lengthwise.

Shopping in Lake Mills, Wisconsin.

© Beth Gauper

Shoppers walk down Water Street from Ephraim Faience Pottery in Lake Mills.

These drumlins are filled with rock and gravel carried along under glaciers, and, the plaque noted, "just about every spot of high ground you see along this trail is a drumlin.’’

After that, I saw dozens of them, along with enough ripe black raspberries to stock a supermarket.

Mementos of the Ice Age are everywhere in Wisconsin, but the seat of a bicycle is one of the better ways to see them.

Trip Tips: Glacial Drumlin State Trail and Lake Mills

Glacial Drumlin Trail: It's 52 miles between Cottage Grove, just east of Madison, and the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. Lake Mills makes a good base.

The 13 miles between Waukesha and Dousman are paved. The rest is finely crushed limestone. North of Jefferson, there's a 1˝-mile stretch where bicyclists must use roads.

2021 events in Lake Mills: June 26, Town & Country Days parade. July 17, Lake Mills Arts Festival. Sept. 18, Tyranena Oktoberfest Bike Ride. Oct. 3, Fall Festival of Color.

Bike shop: The Bicycle Doctor in Dousman, just north of Kettle Moraine State Forest, rents bikes and sponsors rides.

Aztalan State Park: Admission is free for bicyclists. Admission to the adjacent Lake Mills Aztalan Museum is $5, $3 for students. Watch this short Smithsonian video on the site.

Shopping: If you like the Arts and Crafts style, don't miss the Ephraim Faience Pottery gallery at 203 W. Lake St. You can pick up seconds for 50 percent off and irregulars for 25 percent off. 

James J. Chocolate is at 680 Enterprise Drive (closed Sunday and Monday).

Tyranena Brewery: The tasting room of the Lake Mills craft brewery is open daily.

It also has a beer garden that offers live music on Fridays and Saturdays in warm months; in winter, music is on Saturdays in the taproom.

Trek factory tours: They're at 10 a.m. Wednesdays at the Waterloo plant, 10 miles north of Lake Mills. 920-478-2191.

Accommodations: The Sweet Autumn Inn B&B in Lake Mills is a 1910 foursquare with three rooms, 888-648-8244.

The Fargo Mansion Inn B&B in Lake Mills is a turreted Victorian with five rooms, 920-648-3654.

The Lake Mills chamber lists other lodgings.

Camping: Sandhill Station State Campground is just east of Lake Mills. Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, one of Wisconsin's most popular camping parks, is just south of Dousman and has many hiking trails.

Dining: In Lake Mills, you can't beat the American Legion's sliders if you're there on Friday. 

On Main Street, the Grist Bar & Table offers fish tacos, ribs, burgers and other comfort foods made from scratch.


Last updated on April 18, 2021