Students with Coulee Christian School of West Salem, Wisconsin, and Royall Middle School of Elroy participate in snow tubing at Whitetail Ridge Ski Area at Fort McCoy. Dozens of students participated in the special opening of the ski area for fun on the slopes. (Photo by Scott T. Sturkol, January 2017)
Fort McCoy is in the Coulee Region of West Central Wisconsin in Monroe County. The fort is between Sparta, known as the “Bicycling Capital of America” and Tomah, the “Gateway to Cranberry Country,” marked by more than 2,500 acres of cranberry marshes dotting the region. Monroe County has a proud heritage and a host of experiences for visitors and residents to enjoy. Annual festivals, museums, parks, bike trails, river recreation and more await you.
For more information on Monroe County, check out Go Monroe County’s website at www.gomonroecounty.com. The following is merely a sampling of the cultural and recreational opportunities in the area.
Biking and Hiking Trails
Sparta is the “Bicycling Capital of America.” The city has one of the earliest rails-to-trails programs in the country, in which old railroad tracks were converted into bicycle trails. With three rock railroad tunnels and five small towns along its 32.5-mile route, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail remains one of the most popular biking trails in the country. Traveling between Sparta and Elroy, the trail stretches through the communities of Norwalk, Wilton and Kendall, passing by wetlands, prairies, farmland and unglaciated areas. The trail is directly linked to two other state trails: the La Crosse River State Trail and the trail at Elroy Commons. There is also a connection at Elroy Commons to the 13-mile Omaha County Trail. The Omaha trail travels between Elroy and Camp Douglas, near Mill Bluff State Park. The Omaha trail features a shorter rock tunnel that is about two blocks long. Visit http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/elroysparta for a map and more information on the trails.
The 4-mile Tomah Recreational Trail connects Tomah Lake and Winnebago Park, Memorial Park, Veterans Park, Fireman’s Park and Buckley Park as well as the Tomah Aquatic Center. The paved hiking and biking trail features natural areas along the South Fork Lemonweir River as well as some residential areas. Visit www.travelwisconsin.com/trails-and-hiking/tomah-recreation-trail-274665.
Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum
Artifacts range from bicycles to planes to space memorabilia at the Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum in Sparta. See more than 100 bicycles that span the history of bicycling, dozens of model planes, a 1932 Pietenpol airplane, space memorabilia and more. The museum is named after Sparta native Deke Slayton, who was one of America’s first astronauts as part of the Mercury 7 group, which was formed in 1959. Visit www.dekeslaytonmuseum.org.
The communities of Monroe County celebrate everything from frogs to cranberries with their annual festivals. Tomah Freeze Fest in January features a medallion hunt, torchlight parade, carnival, dance and more. Sparta Butterfest festivities in June include a softball tournament, milking contest, car show, carnival, petting zoo and parade. In July, Wilton Wood Turtle Days entertain with fireworks, arts and crafts, a parade and more. See a frog race during Melvina Frog Days in August. The Warrens Cranberry Festival in September is the perfect time to take a marsh tour or peruse art and crafts, antique booths, farm markets booths and more. For a full list of festivals, visit www.gomonroecounty.com/festivals.
Fort McCoy’s Commemorative Area, History Center & Equipment Park
Fort McCoy’s Commemorative Area, History Center & Equipment Park are in the installation’s 800 block and the area immediately surrounding it. The Commemorative Area consists of World War II-era buildings set aside to help tell the fort’s unique story. The History Center features displays of memorabilia that reflects the role the installation held throughout World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban refugee resettlement center operations, Operation Desert Storm and more. The Equipment Park is an outdoor area used to display historical and present-day equipment representative of the types used on the installation. The design of the park allows for the display of more than 70 pieces of equipment, ranging from helicopters and howitzers to trucks and trailers.
Appointments are needed to view the Commemorative Area and History Center. Visitors have access to the Equipment Park year-round. For more information on tours and appointments, call 608-388-2407 or visit www.mccoy.army.mil/AboutUs/Commemorative.asp.
The 60-acre Memorial Park in Sparta features baseball and softball fields, a golf course, horseshoe pits, outdoor and indoor hockey rinks, picnic facilities, Perch Lake access, a playground, sand volleyball courts, a swimming pool and more. Visit www.spartawisconsin.org/departments/parks-recreation/city-parks.
Mill Bluff State Park
Travelers passing through the Camp Douglas area are intrigued by the unusual, tall bluffs rising abruptly from the flat plain. Mill Bluff’s sandstone buttes were islands in Glacial Lake Wisconsin during the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. See the bluffs and more at Mill Bluff State Park, which offers camping, hiking, swimming and picnicking opportunities. Visit http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/millbluff.
Paul & Matilda Wegner Grotto
The Paul & Matilda Wegner Grotto, in the countryside north of Sparta, is a fantastic concrete sculpture garden decorated with glittering glass shards. Paul and Matilda Wegner began building the grotto after their retirement at their farm home in 1929. Sculptures include a giant reproduction of their 50th anniversary cake, a 12-foot Bremen 1930s ocean liner and a “glass” church. Visit www.monroecountyhistory.org/wegnergrotto.php.
Winnebago Park is home to Winnebago Wonderland, a 10,000-square-foot wooden playground with castles, mazes, slides, tubes, swings and more. The park also features boat ramps for access to Lake Tomah, a handicapped fishing pier, horseshoe pits, picnic pavilions, volleyball courts and more. Visit http://tomahonline.com/index.php/dept/parks-rec/parks.