New Glarus, America’s Little Switzerland
Do you ever daydream of hiking or biking through Europe but have just a weekend to spare? Then plan a trip to New Glarus, Wisconsin, known as “America’s Little Switzerland,” where you can enjoy scenic trails, indulge your taste for Swiss cheeses and chocolate, and stay at a Swiss-style hotel, bed-and-breakfast or even a guest farm.
Located in the rolling hills of south central Wisconsin, New Glarus is 264 miles north of Springfield and 28 miles south of Madison, Wisconsin. The town of 2,172 is a showcase of Swiss heritage. Settled in 1845 by Swiss immigrants, New Glarus charms visitors with its chalets and window boxes filled with flowers. Photogenic brown cows graze in the hilly countryside while colorful cow statues parade downtown.
Even though you won’t find mountains to climb, you’ll love the picturesque bike paths and country roads in this part of Wisconsin. Start at the New Glarus railroad depot, where you can buy a $4 daily bike pass for those 16 and older and start exploring the Sugar River Trail. The 24-mile recreational trail built of crushed stone is on a fairly level grade that follows an abandoned Milwaukee Road railroad line through farms, woods, rolling hills and prairie.
On the way south toward Brodhead, the trail goes over 14 trestle bridges plus a covered bridge that cross the river and its tributaries. It’s a fun ride for both adults and children, with wildlife to see, shady areas along the way 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. My family and I loved the Stewart Tunnel, about five miles north of the intersection on the Badger Trail. The 1,200-foot-long tunnel is built on a curve, so you can’t see the other end when you first enter. It’s dark and spooky, so we brought flashlights and jackets because the tunnel is much cooler than the outside temperature.
If you have time for more bicycling, you can start on the Jane Addams Trail in Illinois at Freeport, ride 17 miles north to the state line and join the Badger State Trail. From there you can head north to Dane County where it connects to the Capital City Trail in Madison. These Wisconsin trails also attract hikers, families out for a walk and, in the winter, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
Both adults and children will enjoy exploring the Swiss Historical Village in New Glarus, which consists of 14 historic or replica buildings that include a settler’s cabin, a bee house, cheese factory and sausage kitchen. You’ll learn about the settlers who came from Switzerland, the development of the town, how cheese is made and why the newspaper for many years was printed in German and English.
Open from May 1 to Oct. 15, the museum charges $9 for admission for adults and $3 for children, with the option of a guided or self-guided tour, which takes about an hour. Some guides speak Schweizerdeutsch, or Swiss-German, if you’d like to practice your language skills. The village is wheelchair accessible in most areas.
The payoff for all your exercise awaits you in downtown New Glarus, where you’ll find the Glarner Stube, the New Glarus Hotel and other restaurants that serve Swiss specialties, with culture on the side. The hotel’s restaurant and other places in town also feature bands on some evenings. If you drive back to Monticello, you’ll find fine dining at the Dining Room at 209 Main.
New Glarus has an excellent variety of Swiss-themed shops and gift stores. The Maple Leaf Cheese & Chocolate Haus is one of my favorites. 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 goods at the New Glarus Bakery. And beer lovers will enjoy a visit to the New Glarus Brewery. Known for its Spotted Cow brew, the brewery offers a tasting room and self-guided tours.
Fall is a wonderful time to visit New Glarus, with Swiss Village Harvest Fest through Oct. 11, but the town also offers festival weekends throughout the year when you can enjoy polka bands, yodeling and the Swiss alphorns. These include Polkafest and Heidi Festival, both celebrated in June, and the Wilhelm Tell Festival in early September.
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Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. She alternates writing the monthly IT travel column with Mary Bohlen of Springfield.