"The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese." - Willie Nelson — Photo courtesy of Jacky Runice
Wisconsin produces more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheese and other dairy products – more than any other state in the United States. So, this road trip loop launches in Chicago (or anywhere along the way) winding through Sauk County's wild Wisconsin Dells and Devil's Lake State Park, then south to Green County, the cheesiest spot in America. Since all the stops are close, you need lodging in just two places: Wisconsin Dells/Baraboo and New Glarus.
Fromage fans can visit various cheese factories and shops, including the only cheese factory in the U.S. that still makes Limburger. In between, there are wineries and breweries – Wisconsin’s brewing history dates back to 1835, 13 years before it even became a state.
For lunch and dinner, have a genuine Wisconsin bratwurst, Swiss cuisine, a Friday night fish fry and visit an old-fashioned supper club – Wisconsin lays claim to the dining institution. Emerge from the cheese coma by hiking, biking, birding and taking part in other outdoor recreation.
Chicago, Illinois to De Forest, Wisconsin
2 hours and 35 minutes, 160 miles via I-290 to I-90 W, Exit 126 for Highway V toward Dane/DeForest
Ehlenbach's Cheese Chalet in DeForest, Wisconsin — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Stretch your legs and gaze at 400 different kinds of Wisconsin cheese and Wisconsin-made summer sausage at Ehlenbach's Cheese Chalet in DeForest, Wisconsin. The family-owned shop has been slicing it for more than a half-century, so sample mango habanero blue cheese, morel mushroom and leek jack, chicken soup cheese or the rosemary olive oil asiago which earned a ribbon at the Wisconsin State Fair.
DeForest to Baraboo/Wisconsin Dells
40 minutes, 36 miles via I-90 to Highway 78 to Highway 113 to County Road DL
Fried bologna sandwich at Tumbled Rock Brewery and Kitchen — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Just steps from Devil’s Lake State Park, Tumbled Rock Brewery and Kitchen in Baraboo offers a robust modern menu starring locally-sourced ingredients plus satisfying suds. Start with house clam chowder spiked with smoked trout and served with warm baked bread.
The kitchen excels with fine ingredients, like prime beef sirloin stacked on a French roll for an outstanding French dip and made-daily dough for the wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas. Bison on the sliders hails from Northstar Bison in Cameron, Wisconsin. And when was the last time you had the opportunity to order a fried bologna sandwich? This one features thinly sliced griddled bologna from the award-winning Baraboo Meat Market, served on house-baked sourdough and topped with American cheese, fried egg and greens.
Try a hard cider or a flight of five Tumbled Rock beers. Growlers and crowlers to-go are a favorite of campers at Devil's Lake. Since it’s so close, it’s a good time to visit the park to hike, bike, kayak and rock climb – there are over 1,600 climbing routes, with guides, instructors and outfitters.
Balanced Rock Winery in Baraboo — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
It’s just a few minutes' drive from the park to Balanced Rock Winery (take DL/Walnut Street north). Taste Midwest grape varietals, locally-sourced charcuterie and cheese or smack a few balls on the on-site driving range. You can always return on Wednesday or Friday summer nights for live music.
There are cabins, condos, vacation homes and thousands of hotel/motel rooms from which to choose in the Wisconsin Dells/Baraboo area. The Wisconsin Dells website lists a long directory of places to stay. Cedar Lodge and Settlement, for example, features modern log cabins tucked into the woods along the shores of the Wisconsin River with a beach, a pool and rentable boats.
For a mid-priced chain, the Staybridge Suites offers full kitchens and free breakfast. Engage in cellular bliss and coddling at Sundara Inn & Spa surrounded by 80 acres of soaring evergreens and the unusual rock formations carved from glaciers that give the Dells its name.
Sundara Spa's Cambrian Oasis features grotto-like pools and waterfalls — Photo courtesy of SundaraSpa.com
Try yoga, salt room therapy, fitness classes and the meditation trail. There are free mountain bike rentals; heated indoor and outdoor pools; championship golf on one of a handful of quarry courses in the Midwest; appealing culinary options including plant-based protein and mocktails; plus 34 suites and private villas in the woods. You won’t even know that water park and mini golf mania is just around the bend.
Locals congregate at Summer House Grill and Bar where you’ll enjoy lakeside outdoor seating and views of Lake Delton. Sip Summer House sangria while snacking on Ellsworth Creamery cheese curds, beer battered and fried to a crispy gooey finish. Choose among sandwiches and burgers, plus entrees such as walleye filet and steak frites.
Market Square Cheese, family-owned since 1969, for the largest selection of cheese in the Dells — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
If you want to venture into downtown Dells, just follow the wafting scent of onions emanating from The Original Monk’s Bar & Grill, purveyor of the best burgers in town. Stop at Market Square Cheese, family-owned since 1969, for the largest selection of cheese in the area, as well as homemade fudge, ice cream, honey and maple candy.
Big Sky Twin Drive-In — Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau
There’s no shame in having some laugh-out-loud fun in the Dells: see a double-feature with stereo sound at the Big Sky Twin Drive-In Theater; take an Original Wisconsin Ducks tour on land and water; challenge your partner to mini golf. Then count curds to get a good night’s sleep because tomorrow promises platters of cheese and glasses of Midwestern grapes.
Wisconsin Dells to La Valle
39 minutes, 21 miles via County Road H and County Road K
It's always time to make the cheese at Carr Valley — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
A traditional Wisconsin cheese plant that opened in 1902, Carr Valley Cheese Company in La Valle is a retail store and factory where you can watch the cheese-making process. If you’re lucky, owner Sid Cook, a fourth-generation master cheesemaker, will be in the shop explaining the intricacies of Mobay (a layer of sheep milk cheese and a layer of goat milk cheese separated by a layer of grape vine ash, resulting in three different flavors) and sheep milk butter (this is the only place in the country that makes it).
Cook has won more national and international cheese awards than any other cheesemaker in North America, and you'll be wowed by the variety of cow, sheep, goat and mixed milk cheese, including 34 that are trademarked. Those on a keto diet will want to explore Carr Valley’s variety of browned Bread Cheese that tastes great right off the grill or out of the oven.
Carr Valley Cheese to Cedar Grove Cheese
27 minutes, 22 miles via County Road G
Pick up sheep milk feta or artisan Fleance at Cedar Grove — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
If you care about chemical-free food, include the short trip to Plain, Wisconsin. Cedar Grove Cheese, in production since 1878, produces an array of organic, grass-fed and specialty cheeses. It was also first in the United States to assure that its products were rBGH-free and all product is made without GMOs.
Pick up some mild, sweet milled sheep cheddar, sheep milk feta or artisan Fleance that’s reminiscent of Spanish Manchego. The company’s artisan Donatello, which earned a first place award from the American Cheese Society, can be enjoyed by the slice or grated over pasta.
Cedar Grove Cheese to Wollersheim Winery and Distillery
27 minutes, 21 miles via County Road B and Highway 60 Trunk E
Wollersheim Winery and Distillery in Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
The state’s oldest winery and a National Historic Site, Wollersheim Winery and Distillery is one of the most beautiful wineries in the Midwest, tucked into a hillside across from the Wisconsin River. And the vintners are not people who chucked the corporate world and hopped on a trend. Head winemaker, Philippe Coquard, hails from the Beaujolais area of France and a family of winemakers with centuries of viticulture and enology experience.
The winery itself has pedigree, too. It was first planted with vineyards in the 1840s by a Hungarian nobleman who was integral to establishing the California wine industry. Reserve a seated wine and cocktail tasting, a guided walking tour of the lovely grounds or a wine flight tasting.
Consider having lunch at the bistro: quiche, rustic flatbreads, sandwiches, salads, small plates and dessert. Or go completely Francophile and get a traditional baguette or a warm bread basket to relish with your wine. Of the seven wines made from the grapes grown in the vineyards, Prairie Fumé is the most popular.
Wollersheim Winery and Distillery to International Crane Foundation
26 minutes, 22 miles via US-12
Baraboo's International Crane Foundation is the only place to see all 15 species of cranes — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
The International Crane Foundation, the only place on the planet where you can see all 15 species of cranes, recently reopened after a $10 million renovation and expansion. Check out the new welcome center, exhibits, wetland habitats, murals by local artists and an expanded gift shop with cool, one-of-kind jewelry pieces.
Yes, they’re saving birds, but also the environments that sustain cranes, human beings and biological diversity. An easy ten minutes from Wisconsin Dells, it’s a serene respite from the world albeit noisy with the brassy calls of cranes.
International Crane Foundation to Ishnala Supper Club
10 minutes, 4.5 miles via Shady Lane Road
Enjoy the view while you wait for your table at Ishnala Supper Club — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
You’re in Wisconsin, so dinner at a classic supper club is imperative and Ishnala has been dubbed the best in the state by Travel Wisconsin. Organically snuggled in the middle of Mirror Lake State Park and overlooking Mirror Lake and miles of soaring Norway pines, Ishnala celebrates its 68th season of serving brandy old fashioneds, escargot Bourguignonne redolent of garlic, hefty baked French onion soup, perfectly prepared Caesar salad, steaks, seafood and traditional favorites like BBQ baby back pork ribs and roasted Wisconsin duck. Don’t miss it.
Ishnala does not take reservations, so you'll have a wait, but there are three bars where you can have a cocktail and appetizer while admiring the gorgeous scenery. There’s also a beach with chairs, or take the walking trail across the bridge for a quick trail trek in the state park.
Wisconsin Dells/Baraboo to New Glarus
1 hour 10 min, 57 miles via Highway 78/Highway 78 Trunk
You’ll notice New Glarus’ Swiss roots on local business signs such as “Chiropraktiker” and “Wäsch Haus” (laundromat), as well as in the Alpine-style architecture (like The Chalet of the Golden Fleece on the State and National Register of Historic Places).
The town of 2,000, known as “America’s Little Switzerland,” is on a lot of must-visit lists for its wildly popular New Glarus Brewing Company (closed for tours and tasting until October 2021, but you can get the brews everywhere in the state), the scenic 23-mile-long Sugar River State Trail and Swiss cuisine.
The Bramble Patch has an enormous selection of colorful, hand-painted Polish pottery — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Explore the compact downtown. Puempel’s Olde Tavern opens at 10 am and will set the stage for your Swiss adventure. The historic building was a boarding house for railroad workers and still has colossal murals painted in 1913 by an itinerant Swiss man who traded his art for room and board. The bar is massive and the food is inexpensive ($6 brat, $6.25 for a variety of sandwiches).
A block away, you’ll discover The Bramble Patch’s enormous selection of colorful, hand-painted Polish pottery, Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus, antique shops, Swiss and American pastries at New Glarus Bakery (since 1910) and Brenda’s Blumenladen, a huge garden and gift shop.
It’s a snappy three-minute drive to Bailey's Run Vineyard and Winery that has spectacular views of the rolling hills and valleys. Wood-fired pizza is crowned with local cheese and meats, and expect live music weekends. Beverages include dry whites and reds, cold beer, mimosas and bloody marys, plus lots of sweet wine.
Bailey's Run Vineyard and Winery — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Take an energizing hike at New Glarus Woods State Park, which connects to Sugar River State Trail and offers camping and picnicking opportunities. The Sugar River Trail runs from New Glarus to Monticello to Albany to Brodhead over several trestle bridges and along the Sugar River. At Monticello, it intersects with the Badger State Trail and both are very easy grade for bikers.
Lodging in New Glarus ranges from farm houses, B&Bs and guest houses to the Swiss Aire Motel and Chalet Landhaus Inn sporting traditional Swiss architecture and accoutrement. At the Chalet, there’s an indoor pool and fitness center, and the hotel is located right on the Sugar River Bike Trail (purchase trail passes at the hotel).
Chalet Landhaus Inn — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
You can almost hear yodels in the distance when dining at the on-site restaurant’s chalet-like dining room. Continental breakfast is included in your stay (or take $3 off a hot, generously portioned breakfast), and you really should have dinner here for authentic cheese fondue prepared with Grand Cru gruyere cheese made in Monroe, various schnitzels and other specialties courtesy of the Swiss-trained chef.
Entrees come with a surplus of sides and, for your carbs, choose traditional spatzli or decadent roesti – a tasty sibling of latkes and hash browns featuring warm grated potatoes and cheese under a crisp crust. You’ll sleep like das baby in your tidy Swiss-inspired room just upstairs.
Swiss-inspired Chalet Landhaus Inn — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Other good dining bets in New Glarus include cozy, wood-paneled Glarner Stube for its excellent fondue and roesti potatoes. At Tofflers Pub and Grill, order homemade chips, mac and cheese of the week or burgers with melted local cheese, and ask for a seat on the huge deck out back. Sugar River Pizza is right along the bike trail and a two-minute walk from the back door of the Chalet Landhaus lobby. The pies feature cheese from nearby Silver Lewis Cheese Factory in Monticello.
In the morning, a four-minute walk on the path behind the hotel gets you to a robust cup of joe at Fat Cat Coffee Works. The shop also makes breakfast burritos, berry bowls, oatmeal, quiche and egg sandwiches.
Fat Cat Coffee Works to M & M Cafe
10 minutes, 6 miles via Highway 69
You might want to caffeinate on the locally roasted Ancora Coffee at Fat Cat, then take a quick drive to Monticello’s old-timey M & M Cafe for a diner breakfast (take 69 South to Lake Avenue, left to Main Street). The 1930’s-style diner serves inexpensive breakfast and lunch dishes, homemade soup and pies. Just ask what they’ve baked that day – coconut cream, peach, triple berry, Amish cream and strawberry rhubarb are some of the possibilities. You can’t get any more small-town America than at this little nugget.
Donna Becker serves homemade pie at M & M Cafe in Monticello — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
M & M Cafe to Silver-Lewis Cheese Factory Cooperative
6 minutes, 4 miles via County Highway EE
Four miles down County Highway EE, you’ll land at Silver-Lewis Cheese Factory Cooperative. If it’s Wednesday, the curds are fresh and squeaky, but the small factory has also been known for its brick and muenster cheese since 1897.
Silver-Lewis Cheese Factory Cooperative to Decatur Dairy
15 minutes, 11 miles via County Highway F
If your heart is set on freshly made curds, Decatur Dairy on Highway F in Brodhead turns them out daily. You’ll see people lined up for curds, but also Decatur’s made-to-order grilled cheese sandwiches, to devour at a picnic table outside.
It’s not a restaurant, but a cheese store where you can wrap your lips around a most epic cheese sandwich buttered and griddled on a flat top – for four bucks. Among the eight choices, go for the 3 Mouseketeer – havarti, cheddar and jack melted on sourdough with a smear of secret sauce – and feel your eyes roll back into your head.
The epic $4 grilled cheese at Decatur Dairy — Photo courtesy of Jacky Runice
Decatur Dairy to Hawk's Mill Winery
25 minutes, 21 miles via Highway 11/Highway 11 Trunk
You’ll need to complement that cheese ball in your belly with some grapes. It’s 25 minutes from Decatur Dairy to Hawk's Mill Winery in Browntown, Wisconsin. The sensory entertainment is the luscious view over vineyards and the 600-acre Cadiz Springs State Recreation Area. Have a glass on the outdoor deck and just chill or visit weekends for live music.
Hawk's Mill Winery in Browntown, Wisconsin — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
New Glarus area to Monroe
Monroe is home to the only Limburger-producing factory in the United States (more than 850,000 pounds annually), Chalet Cheese Cooperative, 12 miles from Hawk’s Mill. It’s not much to look at, but you can get an olfactory rush in the small shop and purchase some Limburger (or their award-winning baby Swiss for the less adventurous) to take home. Chalet also stocks fresh curds on Thursdays.
Heather Mueller shows off the award-winning Limburger at Chalet Cheese Cooperative — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
You’re in Green County, the Limburger capital of the country, so pinch your nostrils and try it at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store & Tavern in downtown Monroe. Thankfully, neither the decor nor menu has changed all that much since its beginnings in the 1930s. The oldest cheese store in the state, Baumgartner’s famous sandwiches are comprised of a thick plank of cheese on dark rye bread, maybe a raw onion ring and definitely the house-recipe horseradish mustard – all for $3.50 to $5.
Choose Swiss, brick, cheddar, Limburger or any of the other cheeses sold in store. Add fresh salami or Braunschweiger to make it a combo. There are comforting homemade soups like Swiss beef stew, hamburger goulash and always a cheese-based soup. The kitchen adds 30 pounds of meat (pork shoulder and beef stew) to every batch of “The Second Best Chili in the World” (your mom’s is number one, naturally). Pair anything with a New Glarus beer and you’re an official Wisconsnite.
Baumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern in downtown Monroe — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Or stroll a half-block to Minhas Brewery, the oldest in the Midwest, and try a Huber Bock (served since 1947 when it was the Joseph Huber Brewing Company), Blumer’s Old Fashioned Soda or a Boxer Hard Soda. Peruse the brewery museum with scads of memorabilia or take a tour of the brewing process. For something harder, visit the distillery to learn how to make a perfect margarita or Manhattan.
Take a tour, have some suds at Minhas Brewery — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Follow the yodeling to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center Museum, just a mile from downtown Monroe, where you’ll learn about the first settlers from Glarus, Switzerland and the days when Green County had one cheese factory for every 2.8 square miles. Today, Wisconsin has more licensed cheesemakers than any other state, and it’s the only state to offer a cheesemaker the opportunity to become a Master Cheesemaker.
It's in the heart of cheese country: Monroe — Photo courtesy of Harold Rail
Monroe, Wisconsin to Chicago, Illinois
2 hours and 45 minutes, 130 miles via I-90
You are now a master cheese eater, so stack the coolers with your purchased Wisconsin cheese, beer and wine and head back to Chicago via 90 East.