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Wisconsin's Coulee Country is bound by beauty: The ever-shifting sandbars of the Wisconsin River skirt the eastern border of the region, while the backwaters of the Mississippi River embrace it on the west. Spend some time this month exploring the quiet hills and valleys of the Coulee counties and you will be rewarded with a bounty of late-autumn delights both natural and historical.
First, get yourself a proper map. The Coulee Pathways Heritage Tourism Project publishes a handy guide to the area; for a copy, call (608) 427-2090 and talk with Bonnie. Pick up a State Highway Map at any Tourism Information Center in the state. The Wisconsin Atlas and Gazetteer shows most every road, nook and cranny imaginable, and is available at many sporting-goods shops.
Start your journey in New Lisbon, Juneau County – where you can view the Gee's Slough group of Indian mounds just southeast of town on Highway 12/16. A few miles west on County Highway A going toward the village of Hustler, you'll find the Twin Bluffs Petroglyphs, carved by the Ho-Chunk people from 100 B.C. to 1650 A.D.
Look for other colorful names in the area. For instance, you can take it nice and easy on a cruise along Never Sweat Valley Road. Then again, a road is a road is a road, especially when it's Good Enough Road. And who knows? You might meet Wally and the Beaver on Cleaver Road.
If you brought along your bicycle, head southwest to Elroy, where you can hop on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. Formerly an old railroad track that carried early travelers and immigrants to the area, the trail now offers a comfortable surface for cycling and hiking. You'll pass through three tunnels and landscapes ranging from wetlands and farms to dry, sandy terrain. Or, bring your binoculars and go north of New Lisbon to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and the Meadow Valley State Wildlife Area, set in the center of the Great Central Wisconsin Swamp – the largest wetland bog in the state. The refuge counts coyotes, turkeys, gray wolves and beaver (not that Beaver) among its resident wildlife species.
Should your forays into nature leave you feeling out of touch with the modern world, visit the Harris G. Allen Telecommunications Museum, 306 Arthur St. in Tomah, Monroe County. You can place a call from the museum, but you'll need the operator on duty to patch it through &and listen in, of course!
Continue heading west to Sparta, where graceful buildings from other eras lend a calm dignity to nearly every street corner. The Sparta Depot, the Monroe County Courthouse, the Sparta Free Library, the Masonic Temple and the Sparta Post Office are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Feel like singing? Head a few miles north of town to Canary Avenue – near West Beaver Creek (not that Beaver). While you're trilling, take a peek at the Castle Rock.
The curving coulees of La Crosse and Vernon counties hold many surprises. The picturesque village of Coon Valley is certainly worth a stop. Get a glimpse of Wisconsin's ethnic heritage from aptly named landforms like Norwegian Hollow and Belgium Ridge (west of Viroqua) and Irish Ridge (northwest of Viroqua). Bohemian Ridge, which follows German Coulee Road, is northwest of Westby. Got that?
For fine panoramic views, visit Wildcat Mountain State Park near Ontario in Vernon County. From high lookout points along the park's many trails, you can view the knotted meanderings of the Kickapoo River below. Stretch back a century or more in nearby Mount Pisgah Hemlock-Hardwood State Natural Area, where relict stands of hemlock, yellow birch and white pine still hold forth in quiet majesty. And not that it matters to your feet – but here in Wisconsin's Driftless Area, the part of the Coulee counties left untouched by the last great glacier, you stand on some of the oldest sedimentary rock on the planet.