Hotel Fortney in Viroqua
The Hotel Fortney in Viroqua. (Photo by Susan Lampert Smith)

Trout streams, kayaking, distilleries, and historic accommodations are among the reasons to stay longer than a day.

Viroqua, population 4,500, has remade itself from a sleepy county seat known for historic tobacco warehouses into a cultural capital of the Driftless Region.

From outdoor sports like kayaking and fly fishing to trendy shops and eateries, the town has something for everyone.

Hundreds will descend on the area June 4 and 5 for the annual Winding Roads Art Tour. The tour takes you along country roads to see the studios of 14 artists, who range from potters to weavers to painters. The tour headquarters is the VIVA Gallery, located at 217 S. Main St. Even if you miss the tour weekend, VIVA is an artist-run gallery with changing exhibits and is staffed by local artists, so it’s always worth a stop to see what’s new.

Next door to VIVA, check out the Viroqua Public Market, an eclectic collection of small vendor booths with items ranging from clothing to jewelry and antiques.

Music is another reason to visit the area, and did we mention that it’s free? If you’re visiting mid-week, check out Music in the Parks Wednesday nights from June through early September at Sidie Hollow or Esofea parks. If you want to make a mid-week outing of it, you can camp at Sidie Hollow, which features a lake, beach, and electrical hookups.

The “Live in Viroqua” series, new this year,  takes place on the first and third Saturday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. in June, July, August, and September. The series kicks off June 4 with Joseph Huber—with Pat Ferguson and Christian Staehly—playing on Court Street outside the historic Fortney Hotel. Other performers in the free series include regional headliners such as Dead Horses, Them Coulee Boys and Wurk. 

The other artsy draw is the The Driftless Folk School, located on a farm near LaFarge. You can take classes in basket making, sewing or making a copper bowl. Other offerings include wild plant foraging, electrical wiring, orchard management and other skills needed for homesteading.

Viroqua is also a great headquarters for exploring the out-of-doors. Blue Dog Cycles on Main Street rents all sorts of road, off-road, mountain and fat tire bikes and will send you off with maps to your next great ride. The store sponsors a number of rides, including the scary-sounding P.U.K.E (Pedaling up the Kickapoo Epic) ride in the fall. In the winter, you can rent Nordic skis there.

Vernon County is home to many world-class trout streams, and you can gear up at the Driftless Angler, located across the street from the bike shop. This is the place to hire a fishing guide and to check on the local report on what the trout in Timber Coulee are biting on this week.

If you prefer bigger water, Vernon County’s Blackhawk Park lets you camp right on the mighty Mississippi. And nearby, the Kickapoo River meanders through the 8,600-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve, where you can  camp, fish, hunt, hike, and bike along the old Highway 131 which is part of the reserve. The crooked Kickapoo is justly famous for scenic canoeing and hiking. Rental canoes are available at Drifty’s in Ontario.

Of course, some of us like to take nature home with us, and that’s why a stop at Second Nature at Read’s Creek, located along Highway 14 between Readstown and Viroqua is a must. The property bills itself as a “destination nursery” and they’re not kidding. You can take a picnic and swim at the beach on Read’s Creek (which nearly destroyed the business in a 2016 flood), feed the fish in the koi ponds and wander the greenhouse with a complimentary glass of wine in hand.

Other favorite shopping locales in Viroqua are the Ewetopia yarn shop on Main Street and the Driftless Books, located in a historic tobacco warehouse on Walnut Street. 

Viroqua is the epicenter for organic farming in Wisconsin, and you can buy from the best of them at the Viroqua Farmers Market located in the Western Wisconsin Technical College parking lot on Main Street on Saturday mornings from now until the end of October.

And foodies should definitely not miss the Viroqua Food Co-op, which has an unbelievable selection of food and wine and deli items, and is so bougie it makes Whole Foods look like a dollar store. Another interesting food shopping venue are the Organic Valley retail stores, located in nearby Cashton and La Farge. The company is a major force behind the rebirth of the area.

Wonderstate Coffee is headquartered in Viroqua and its cafe, located in a 1940’s Mobil gas station turned specialty coffee shop at 216 N Main St., is a great place for a pick-me-up and some WiFi.

If you’re hungry, don’t worry. The Driftless Cafe, owned by Wisconsin Foodie TV host Luke Rahm, is open for lunch and dinner, featuring local seasonal foods. In May, the specials included pickled ramps and rhubarb garnishing a smoked trout spread, and a ramen with miso broth, green garlic and local asparagus.

A new entrant is Salt and Tipple, on Main Street near VIVA Gallery. It offers salty noshes to whet your appetite for drinks; we liked the “uff-dah” plate, with pickled beet caviar, smoked whitefish spread, pimento cheese, pickles and crackers. There’s a grill for burgers and chops, and a deli with an interesting selection of wines and beers that allow you to put together your own picnic lunch.

Finally, a local family has begun an extensive renovation of the  historic Hotel Fortney, a landmark Queen Anne edifice on Main Street. It’s still a work in progress, but the lobby hosts a lounge where you can get food and drinks.

If you like checking out the local adult beverages, Vernon County has you covered. For those who like the harder stuff, St. Mary’s Distillery, open on Saturdays, makes brandy and rum at its hilltop location on the scenic St. Mary’s Ridge.

Vernon Vineyards opened in 2006—the first winery in Vernon County. And it’s been joined by Branches Winery, located about 10 miles north of Viroqua near Westby. Driftless Brewing is located in nearby Soldier’s Grove.

There are plenty of places to stay nearby, including the  Viroqua Heritage Inn, a Victorian B&B located a block east of Main Street. Our favorite rural listing was the Grain bin cabin , which is exactly what it sounds like –  a metal grain bin with a front porch. We’d also like to check out The Kickapoo Valley Ranch Guest Cabins, especially since the property is home to Cowboy David’s Bakery.