Biking Beautiful Viroqua
Discover challenging bike rides and gorgeous southwest Wisconsin scenery
PHOTO BY GENA LARSON
You get the sense that Viroqua is the kind of place that’s whispered about in cycling circles. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s been, returning with fairytale-like stories of scenic routes and empty roads. Yet as you pull into town, the historic main street isn’t clogged with bike-rack-wielding cars. In fact, there aren’t even all that many cars. Whispers, indeed.
Despite its growing reputation as an emerging destination for two-wheel enthusiasts, Viroqua is exactly what you’d expect from a county seat in rural Wisconsin. A charming, if somewhat time-locked, city center surrounded by a handful of both modern chain establishments and those that give a healthy nod to the agricultural stronghold of the land around it. Just two hours away from Madison, it makes for an easy road-biking day trip or weekend adventure. While the region has seen mention on lists like gorp.com’s “Top 10 US Road Biking Routes” and starred in a Bicycling Magazine feature story, Viroqua is still an emerging destination; don’t expect glossy ride maps or organized tour groups.
Feeling a little uneasy about hitting the roads without a plan, I stopped in at the local bike shop, Bluedog Cycles, for some personal attention over a cup of locally roasted Kickapoo Coffee. A quick chat with the owner, Pete, yielded me a hand-drawn map and some general directions, but I was still free—encouraged, really—to get lost and wander off course. Just “stay off the numbered roads” to avoid the traffic, I was told.
Though traffic isn’t much of a worry here. With a county population of just under 30,000, the 795 square miles are far from crowded. The scariest encounter on the road is more likely to be with an intimidating yet slow-moving farm implement or excited farm dog.
PHOTO BY GENA LARSON
Viroqua's Main Streetfeatures quaint shops and restaurants.
The topography of Viroqua, set in the Driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin, makes a challenging ride easy to find. It boasts some of the hilliest terrain in the Midwest—which can average seven hundred to a thousand feet of elevation gain for every ten miles in the saddle—but long stretches of gently sloping road are available for those looking for something more leisurely.
For a good sampler of the area’s cycling, try the “SS to Avalanche” route, a twenty-five-mile loop that starts south of town on SS, heads north toward Avalanche on County S and hits all the highlights: scenic ridge tops, shaded valleys, world-class trout streams and a friendly chicken or two. Cruising north through the valley next to the west fork of the Kickapoo River and looking left toward the bluffs, I couldn’t help but liken it to a mini Montana. The varied scenery makes the undulating topography a bit less painful, but don’t be surprised if a quick dip in any of the cold, fast-moving waters you’ll see starts sounding really appealing.
After your ride, settle into a local restaurant to enjoy the fruits of all those charming farms you passed by on two wheels. Tucked away on a side street in the center of town, Driftless Café is a comfortable option, epitomizing the local organic food movement. Or for a small-town take on big-city tastes, try Tangled Hickory Wine Bar—another highlight in this unexpected gem of a biking destination.
Gena Larson is a Madison-based writer and photographer.