Navigating Wisconsin

(Or at least Dane County)

Squares in squares in squares in squares, or what to do when you phone dies.

Since people wonder/asked how I navigate with relative ease on all of the rural roads outside of Madison, I’ve consolidated the main techniques into a post.

There’s even acts of the Continental Congress referenced!

Above is a map from 1873. Dane County is a square inside of a giant grid of counties that make up Wisconsin. And the townships are a grid within a grid. (Thank you Land Ordinance of 1785 that guided the development of the Northwest Territory). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Ordinance_of_1785

Fundamentally everything is in a box. Not quite Kanasas level of square-dom, but pretty close.

It’s straight forward to navigate out in Dairyland. And Dane County is an awesome example because it straddle the interface between the two fundamentally kinds of road riding in Wisconsin: Barn Chasing & Hill Dragons. (Glaciers v. No Glaciers, respectively)

But we’ll get to the topography.

First, the most human of constructs:

Organized Grid Subdivisions!

You can figure out where you’re headed through some ridiculous obvious road names and because of the rules setup in 1785, you know how big a given township will be.

Perry Center, York Center, Primrose Center; these are literally roads that run through the center of townships of the same name. And again, because of the rules setup in 1785, you know how big a given township will be.

Townships are 6x6 mile blocks that have familiar names.

That allows for easy distance/time estimations even if you’re not quite sure where you are.

Also, a topo map is nice, but a few general rules:

“West is Best, East is Least.”

“It’s good to be Driftless.”

“The North defeats the South.”

The 10 most western townships have the best riding hands down and going straight East is generally a bad idea unless. Thanks Glaciers/Dairy Cows

The glaciers stopped between Verona & Madison. The Southeast corner of the county begins the “Driftless” area of unglaciated, river-cut topography of river vales and steeps & hills. It’s basically a poorman’s Scottish Highlands.

There’s just a lot of “stuff” to the East as well because of the I94 corridor. There is some awesome riding, but it has to be hunted and the wind has to be right.

The Northern townships are pretty much hemmed in by the Wisconsin River. Lots of great stuff up there, but the Baraboo Hills and Devil’s country is for another day.

And the South is fine, but why have burgers when Dane County affords us steak? Plus 151 corridor down to Verona (and Epic) offers many of the same issues as I94.

And the Southeast? You can’t ride your bike through lakes…

Committing the general map of Dane County to memory is nice, but not essential.

Mostly, just stay away from red and numbers, knowing that letters are usually nice, and the roads that connect in-between the letters are the real gems.

Long and short, even in the heart of Dairyland, you’re never really off the grid.


This post is part of a series about bridging the urban-rural divide in Wisconsin through photography.

As a cyclist I aim for the least traveled routes. The backroads of Dane County that crisscross the landscape to support the dairy industry also make for an excellent training ground. These roads are a portal to the past and a portent to the future of our amazing state.
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