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Road trip: Wisconsin River

The valleys and bluffs around Prairie du Sac draw paddlers, hikers and Sunday drivers.

Paddling the Wisconsin River.

© Beth Gauper

Paddlers venture onto the Wisconsin River south of Sauk City.

At Prairie du Sac, the Wisconsin River finally breaks free.

Lined with so many dams and reservoirs it's often called the nation's hardest-working river, the Wisconsin devotes itself to play after it passes the town.

Then it becomes the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, beloved by canoeists, who like to play on its many sandbars.

The busiest stretch is west of Sauk City, which is halfway between Wisconsin Dells and Madison but has its own A-list attractions: bluff-top panoramas, a historic vineyard, a new-age brewery, a free car ferry, a picture-postcard mill and, of course, the river.

In one jam-packed weekend, we sampled all of it and more.

Prairie du Sac and Sauk City

These adjoining towns on the Wisconsin River, together known as Sauk Prairie, are best known for the bald eagles that hang around in winter, picking off fish stunned by the turbines in Prairie du Sac's hydroelectric plant.

The two main streets follow the river between the Wisconsin 60 bridge in Prairie du Sac to the U.S. 12 bridge in Sauk Prairie and are linked by the paved Great Sauk State Trail.

We stop at the Saturday-morning farmers market, River Arts on Water Gallery and the delightful Blue Spoon Cafe, which has three levels and patios overlooking the river.

Sauk City is the home of my friend Debra's sister Sue Ann Schwanke, an enthusiastic paddler and bicyclist who wants to show us her favorite places.

First, we head west.

Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

There are outfitters who supply canoes and kayaks for the 11-mile trip to Arena from Sauk City, but we have our own boats, so we put in at the canoe landing south of town, off Lueders Road.

It's a gorgeous evening on the wide, slow river. We pass a few houses, then nothing but wooded banks; the state owns most of the land along the last 92 miles of river.

As we paddle along, a biplane swoops over our heads, and the pilot waves. A big family is hanging out on the opposite bank, with a gazebo tent, chairs, coolers and toys.

The view of the Wisconsin River from Ferry Bluff.

© Beth Gauper

The view of the Wisconsin River from the top of Ferry Bluff.

Bald eagle sit in trees on both sides of the channel to the mouth of Honey Creek, just four miles from Sauk City. We get out, load our boats and climb a mile to a gorgeous overlook.

Ferry Bluff

Named for a Civil War-era ferry landing, this sandstone bluff rises more than 300 feet above the river. The views from its ledges are magnificent, especially at dusk, when the river reflects the moon and clouds tinted pink by the setting sun.

As we head back to the landing, the woods twinkle with hundreds of fireflies, like a fairy version of fireworks.

Ferry Bluff also is a popular day hike and picnic spot, reached by Ferry Bluff Road off Wisconsin 60 west of Sauk City.

Outfitters out of Mazomanie (pronounced MAY-zo-MAY-nie) and Spring Green supply canoes for the 10-mile trip from Arena to Spring Green.

Tom Porter of Lake Louie Brewery.

© Beth Gauper

At Lake Louie, Tom Porter discusses unruly yeast.

Lake Louie Brewing

We have a noon appointment for a tour at Lake Louie Brewing near Arena. Passing the town's Firm Worm Bait-n-Liquor and Cheese Outlet, we turn toward the river and arrive with a group of touring bicyclists.

"I keep getting bicyclists drunk and sending them on their way,'' jokes founder Tom Porter, who wears a Day of the Dead T-shirt and checkered flip-flops.

He started the brewery in 1999, naming it for his uncle and the little pond outside.

"This was my midlife crisis,'' Porter says with a smile. "I thought I would start really small so I could fail really small, but I never failed.''

Above the taps, we read a wall sign: "Some folks make bombs in the backwoods. We're sticking to beer.''

Porter is a beer nerd, but also an entertainer. He regales us with stories, including the origins of his Kiss the Lips IPA: the country song "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,'' which described his and his wife's working relationship at the brewery before they divorced.

Hyde Mill south of Arena, Wis.

© Beth Gauper

The dam at Hyde Mill was built in 1850.

Not only do we get to drink the beers, we get a fascinating glimpse into the business of brewing. Porter even makes the chemistry of brewing interesting.

"I really enjoyed that tour, and I've never enjoyed a brewery or winery or whiskey tour,'' Debra says.

Hyde's Mill

This wooden mill is in the bucolic coulees south of Arena, off County Road H.

With its big wooden water wheel, on a mill pond next to a lively waterfall over an 1850 stone dam, it's a favorite of photographers.

Theodore Sawle, who lived in the miller's house and had operated it since 1931, died in 2009 at age 103.

There's a history fair going on around the corner, to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the 1862 Hyde Chapel. But we don't see any food there, so we head into Spring Green for lunch.

Spring Green

As a tourist attraction, this town is more than a little bipolar, with the high-brow Taliesin built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the low-brow House on the Rock.

Many people forget it's also a river town. We eat at Wisconsin Riverside Resort, watching passing canoes and flotillas of tubers lolling offshore.

In town, we stop at Bargain Nook III for a few Land's End deals, at the Driftless Depot Market & Deli for dessert and to peek in the windows of the Shitty Barn, a funky folk venue. It's empty, but we can see it'd be a fun place to hear music.

Next, we head east of Sauk City.

The wine cave at Wollersheim.

© Beth Gauper

At Wollersheim, a tour group looks at the wine cave dug in the 1840s by Agoston Haraszthy.

Wollersheim Winery

On the hillside just across the river from Prairie du Sac, this stone winery, surrounded by old oaks, is Wisconsin's first and most picturesque. It also has the most interesting backstory.

In 1840, the first vines were planted by a Hungarian count, who left to follow the Gold Rush in 1849 and became the father of the California wine industry. They were taken up by a German immigrant, but in 1899 his son died and the vines froze.

In 1972, Bob Wollersheim rejuvenated the vineyard, becoming Wisconsin's first modern winemaker. Today, its Prairie Fumé is the state's most popular wine, and its annual Grape Stomp became so popular it had to be discontinued.

The property is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim's daughter Julie and her winemaker husband, Philippe Coquard, make the wines.

When we stop by, the place is buzzing. Patrons are taking tours, sampling wines and drinking in the wine garden. It's not Falcon Crest, but it's close.

Hiking up Gibraltar Rock.

© Sue Ann Schwanke

Gibraltar Rock, with Lake Wisconsin in the distance.

Gibraltar Rock

Just south of Lake Wisconsin, on County Road VA west of Wisconsin 113, we park and climb up an overgrown road.

The view from the gnarled cedars atop this 200-foot cliff makes it one of the most popular spots on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

It's a Sconnie version of Grant Wood country, with rolling farmsteads in the forefront, the Baraboo Hills in the distance and the giant lake of the Wisconsin River around the corner.

“It's like being on the Devils Lake bluffs, except there's more below you than just the lake,'' Sue Ann says.

Merrimac car ferry

Every day, all day, the free Colsac III ferry serves as the bridge on the highway between Baraboo and Lodi. It's also the bridge for the Ice Age Trail.

We wait for it to chug across Lake Wisconsin, then board and enjoy the view. It's part of the highway system, but it seemed to us like a poor man's cruise. 

The Merrimac ferry docks on the north side of the river.

© Beth Gauper

Bicyclists are first to roll off the Merrimac car ferry.

When they were little, Sue Ann and Debra used to go for Sunday drives with their family, crossing on the ferry and stopping for ice cream at one of the stands on each side of the river.

We wonder if the captain would kick us off if we rode all day.

"We could bring a grill, some brewskis and lawn chairs and make a day of it,'' Debra jokes.

Durward's Glen

North of Merrimac, off Wisconsin 78, we drive into a peaceful retreat built by the Durwards, a family of priests, painters and writers who arrived in the valley in 1862.

There's a chapel, a lodge, a guesthouse, a shrine and, most interesting to us, the Cornerstone Hermitage. This narrow, two-story building was built in 1926 by Father John Durward for his own use while visiting his family.

Later, it was filled with mounted birds by Wilfrid Durward and used as an art gallery by Mary Durward. Now, it's available to the public for their own retreats. The public also is welcome to walk along the babbling brook and picnic in the glen.

Nearby attractions

Parfrey's Glen, Wisconsin's first state natural area and one of the most magical spots on the Ice Age Trail, is two miles southwest of Durward's Glen. It's connected by the trail to Devils Lake State Park, Wisconsin's most-visited state park.

Baraboo is just north of the Devils Lake. Tom Every's Forevertron and other scrap sculptures are just north of Prairie du Sac along U.S. 12.

Trip Tips: Prairie du Sac and Sauk City in Wisconsin

Getting there: The two towns are half an hour south of Wisconsin Dells, east of Spring Green and north of Madison.

2020 events: Jan. 17-18, Bald Eagle Watching Days. July 4, Fire on the River. Sept. 4-5, Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw, with music, arts and crafts and the Tournament of Chips parade at noon Saturday.

For events at Wollersheim Winery, see A vintage vineyard.

Accommodations: In Sauk City, the Cedarberry Inn is a pleasant chain-style hotel. 

Camping: In Prairie du Sac, Veterans Memorial Park has a boat landing and playground and is on the Great Sauk State Trail. Sites are first come, first served.

If the river isn't too high, sandbar camping is very popular.

Dining: In Prairie du Sac, the Blue Spoon Cafe serves lovely salads, sandwiches and soups and up to a dozen flavors of its own homemade gelato. 

In Sauk City, Vintage Brewing offers daily specials as well as sandwiches, burgers, soups, salads and its own craft beers.

In Roxbury, on County Road Y southeast of Sauk City, the Dorf Haus Supper Club serves German classics. 

Information: Sauk Prairie area tourism, 608-643-4168. The attractive Welcome Center in Sauk City is a handy place to stop.

Last updated on January 28, 2020