Photos by John Camper
by Mary C. Galligan
Start with Swiss cheeses, chocolate, and craft beer. Then add the picturesque Wisconsin countryside and you’ll have a recipe for an enjoyable getaway to New Glarus, Wis., known as “America’s Little Switzerland.” In the rolling hills of south central Wisconsin you can enjoy beautiful scenery and sample a taste of Swiss culture without going to Switzerland.
Settled in 1845 by Swiss immigrants, New Glarus charms visitors with its chalets, window boxes filled with flowers, and restaurants that serve tempting Swiss specialties. Photogenic brown cows graze in the hilly countryside while colorful cow statues parade downtown. New Glarus, which had a population of 2,172 in 2010, is about 120 miles from Chicago’s North Shore.
You won’t encounter mountains to climb, but you will find fun and adventure on the bike trails and country roads in this part of Wisconsin. At the New Glarus railroad depot you can buy a $5 daily bike pass for those 16 and older and start exploring the Sugar River Trail that begins in town. The 24-mile recreational trail built of crushed stone also attracts hikers and walkers as it follows an abandoned Milwaukee Road railroad line through farms, woods, rolling hills and prairie. The path is also wheelchair accessible.
On the way south toward Brodhead, the trail crosses 14 trestle bridges and a covered bridge over the Sugar River and its tributaries. Along the way are wildlife to spot, scenic views and a short access trail just south of New Glarus to the New Glarus Woods State Park.
Six miles south of New Glarus, the trail intersects with the 40-mile Badger Trail near Monticello, a pleasant town where you can explore stores such as the Quilter’s Compass and stop for a snack or lunch at a variety of cafes and take-out restaurants.
The highlight is the Stewart Tunnel, about 5 miles north of the intersection on the Badger Trail. The 1,200-foot-long tunnel is built on a curve, so the other end isn’t in sight when you first enter. It’s dark and cool inside, so pack flashlights and jackets even on warm days when the tunnel remains much cooler than the outside temperature.
If you want more biking, ride north on the Badger Trail where it connects to the Capital City Trail in Madison, Wis., or head south to the Illinois state line and ride 17 miles to Freeport.
At the Swiss Historical Village on the west side of New Glarus, Swiss culture and history come to life. The village includes 14 historic or replica buildings that include a settler’s cabin, a bee house, a cheese factory and sausage kitchen. You’ll learn about the settlers who came from Switzerland, how cheese is made and why the newspaper for many years was printed in German and English.
Open from May 1 through Oct. 15, the museum charges $9 for admission for adults and $3 for children, with the option of a guided or self-guided tour. The village is wheelchair accessible in most areas.
Dining is a pleasure in New Glarus, where you’ll find the Glarner Stube, the New Glarus Hotel and other restaurants that serve Swiss specialties such as cheese fondue, wiener schnitzel and potatoes roesti. The hotel’s restaurant and other venues feature bands on some evenings. If you drive back to Monticello, you’ll find fine dining at the Dining Room at 209 Main, truly a destination restaurant.
Part of the fun of visiting New Glarus is to shop in the Swiss-themed stores. The Maple Leaf Cheese & Chocolate Haus is a favorite with visitors. It offers about 100 varieties of cheeses, as well as homemade fudge that you can sample and pack up to take home. You’ll find specialty sausages and bratwurst at Hoesly’s Meats and tempting baked bread and sweets at the New Glarus Bakery. Beer lovers will enjoy a visit to the New Glarus Brewery, a microbrewery south of downtown on Highway 69. Known for its Spotted Cow brew, the brewery offers a tasting room, free self-guided tours, reservation-only hard hat tours, and a well-stocked gift shop.
Other specialty shops include the Artful Gourmet, where you can find kitchen gadgets and gourmet food; the Bramble Patch, which has a colorful collection of Polish pottery; and Blumenladen, where you can browse for fashion, home décor and garden items.
New Glarus is a delight to visit any time, but its festivals are especially fun. This year’s Polka Fest runs from June 10-12. The Music Fest and the Heidi Festival are held from June 24-26, with more festivals planned for later in the summer. During festival weekends throughout the year you can enjoy polka bands, yodeling and the Swiss alphorns.
Places to stay include Swiss-style hotels, B & B’s and even a guest farm. For more information, check out these web sites:
Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. A former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Mary also taught journalism at Northwestern University and Columbia College. As a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine, she traveled throughout the Midwest on stories. Mary and her husband, John Camper, love to take weekend road trips in search of art and culture, historical sites and biking and hiking trails. They also enjoy longer adventures around the world.