Wispy tendrils of fog loosely curl around the Ocooch Mountains, which suddenly — and strikingly — pop up on the horizon. Ed and I are mesmerized. We’ve traveled over nearly every inch of Wisconsin and have seen many beautiful sights, but nothing quite like this. The mountains, which are really a thick cluster of forested bluffs, appear perfectly rounded and resemble scoops of chocolate ice cream in the darkening night. As we drive along the serpentine country road, the Ocooch ice cream scoops on either side, I hope we reach the ranch before night’s inky curtain falls. Cowboy Joe said if we didn’t, it might be difficult to find the place.
The “place” is Kickapoo Valley Ranch, a clutch of eight cabins snugged up against the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, 8,600 acres of public land in southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. The ranch is touted as a sanctuary — a tranquil, beautiful spot, perfect for unwinding. No activities are offered, and cabins lack television reception, daily maid service, phones or bathrobes. What is included, according to the ranch’s website, is a comfy bed, kitchen or kitchenette, and handcrafted Nantucket rockers on your cabin’s expansive back porch.
We reach the ranch just as the sun plops out of sight, then crunch along a small gravel walkway past a pen of llamas to reach the office. Cowboy Joe, aka co-owner Joseph Rogan-Nordstrom, is waiting for us. He gives us a key to the Big Sky Getaway, a spacious cabin that pairs handmade quilts with fine Egyptian-cotton linens. Then he dispenses pointers to help us enjoy our stay: The Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers a wealth of recreation. There are some great Amish gift shops in the area. The Driftless Cafe in nearby Viroqua, Wis., serves the best food within 300 miles. And there are no mosquitoes here on the ranch.
“No mosquitoes?” I raise an eyebrow.
“I’m not saying there aren’t any at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve,” says Cowboy Joe. “But because of the up-and-down terrain here, we have no standing water, and so no mosquitoes.”
I don’t quite believe him. This is Wisconsin, after all.
The Big Sky Getaway cabin is large, clean and well-appointed (Cowboy Joe is an interior designer). Ed immediately finds four plump double-chocolate-chip-with-walnut cookies, and downs one within seconds. The cookies are a gift from Cowboy David Rogan-Nordstrom, the ranch’s other co-owner. Cowboy David now operates a bakery on-site and creates gourmet cookies, cakes, cupcakes and muffins. They’ve been extremely popular with guests since the ranch’s opening in 2003.
The next morning, comfortably ensconced in the giant rocker on our cabin’s back porch, I want to linger rather than get the day started. But if we’re to explore more than a sliver of the reserve, it’s time to get going. Reluctantly I set down the mug of coffee I’m clutching and we head out.
The reserve, opened in 2001, has an interesting history. Its acreage is dominated by the Kickapoo River and its tributaries, prettily trimmed by towering bluffs and sandstone outcroppings. The river is a canoeist’s dream, as it gently meanders across the terrain. But it’s prone to flooding. The reserve property was originally set aside for a flood-control project that included the creation of a dam and recreational lake. But in 1973, it was halted due to environmental and economic concerns. The land lay unused for 20 years before its rebirth as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, a perfect spot for canoeing, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, skiing, snowshoeing and more.
Some 50 miles of trail wind through the reserve, one of which is right across the road from the ranch, running alongside Weister Creek in the property’s far western fringe. After walking along the flat, scenic path we motor to the reserve’s main area, where we begin hiking an interconnecting series of trails: West Ridge, Hanson Rock, Ma and Pa’s, Little Canada, Ice Cave. Then Wintergreen Bluff, Dam Tower, Old Harris Road, Star Valley. The scenery ranges from thick woods to scenic ridges, from a muddy and surging Kickapoo River to impressive bluffs soaring several hundred feet above the valley floor.
Thwack! Thwack! Ed slaps his neck, then his arm. Mosquitoes. None had bothered us for the first few hours out here, but now they’re everywhere. After swatting and swiping our way along a few more paths, we decide it’s time to head back and prepare to dine at the Driftless Cafe, per Cowboy Joe’s recommendation.
Once cleaned up, however, we hesitate. It’s awfully nice in this cabin, and Viroqua is 20 minutes away. Soon Ed is warming up the electric grill on the back porch while I’m seasoning steaks. We’ll enjoy dinner here, and hopefully catch a beautiful celestial display afterward, as the sky is quite dark in this little valley.
Unfortunately, a cloudy sky masks the twinkling stars tonight. But Ed and I are perfectly content to slowly rock on the back porch and listen to nature’s symphony.
“Hey!” Ed suddenly whispers, startling me out of my relaxing reverie.
“Cowboy Joe was right — there hasn’t been one mosquito out here all night.”
That alone is worth a return trip.
Kickapoo Valley Ranch is about 200 miles or 3 ½ hours southeast of the Twin Cities. It’s an hour east of La Crosse, Wis., or an hour south of Tomah, Wis., via state and county roads.
Kickapoo Valley Ranch: King and queen cabins starting at $169-$219. kvranch.com or 1-608-625-6222.
Kickapoo Valley Reserve: kvr.state.wi.us or 1-608-625-2960.
Wisconsin Fall Color Report: travelwisconsin.com.
Radzicki McManus, of Sun Prairie, Wis., writes about travel and fitness.