Everyone is familiar with the Yellowstone National Park. What most are unfamiliar with is the Yellowstone Trail, a segmented collection of byways originally created and partially paved by auto enthusiasts back in the 1910s and 1920s connecting the East and West Coast with Yellowstone National Park. Travelers who love to explore small towns in the United States will find the Yellowstone Trail to be one of the best means of learning about history as well as seeing small towns you would otherwise never know about.
Though the Yellowstone Trail is a long forgotten gem, there is a group attempting to rekindle travelers’ interest in these scenic byways. Because the Trail spent 70 years in remission, its remnants span many different highways, back roads, and scenic byways. There are several books that provide reasonable maps of where these roads actually connect (list of publications). Without these maps it is very difficult to maneuver the Trail. Most businesses, though they may lay directly on the Trail, do not know of its existence and therefore, much of the Trail is difficult to find.
What is the Yellowstone Trail?
The Yellowstone Trail is not actually a ‘trail’ for hikers, though cyclist Jim Marx just finished a tour by himself from Washington state to New England . The Trail is a segmented stretch of roads and scenic byways stretching from Yellowstone National Park to the East and West Coasts.
It was originally built through private financing just as automobiles were gaining in popularity. The road served a dual purpose. It served the purpose of increasing interest in this new invention: automobiles. Secondarily, the Trail served to increase interest in the Yellowstone National Park which was the world’s first national park. However, the federal highway system made the Trail obsolete. Since its obsolescence, much of the trail has disappeared and is unmarked.
Rebirth of the Yellowstone Trail
With a resurgence of interest in small town America, Yellowstone Trail also has it followers. As of right now, Wisconsin appears to be the most active in re-marking the Trail to increase tourist interest in some of its small towns. Travelers interested in having much of the exploring part done for them, Wisconsin has created a detailed brochure providing historic trivia and tidbits of information on local attractions through Wisconsin’s scenic highways (pdf of brochure).
For a small fee, you can purchase Trail markers and street signs to place outside your business or around your city (with permission from city officials, obviously).
Some of Wisconsin’s Best Yellowstone Trail Stops
Having only trekked the Wisconsin segment of the Trail, and being that the Wisconsin segment is well marked and well researched, it makes the Wisconsin segment easiest to traverse.
Frank’s Diner: Featured on “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives” is in Kenosha, Wisconsin at the east end of the Wisconsin portion of the Trail. Be warned: Its a small place and the wait can be long, but if you are serious about your breakfast, stop here. Because its a family business, servers and cooks can be so backed up the average restaurant goer will become irritated quickly. Deal with it.
Ask for the Garbage Plate: an overstuffed, highly addictive and incredibly ugly looking omelet. I have never tasted a better breakfast in my life, and I know my breakfast.
Windmer’s Cheese Cellars: Found in the tiny town of Theresa, Wisconsin, Windmer’s Cheese Cellars will go unnoticed if you’re not looking hard enough. Their cheese is like all Wisconsin cheese (to die for). The clerks were very inviting even though we showed up just as they were closing and demanded we try their fresh cheese curds. And, by fresh they meant, still warm, 20 minute old cheese curds!
Bonus : Theresa, Wisconsin has several Trail markers on the main street. So, even if you miss the town as you pass through, you will not likely miss the 4 or 5 yellow signs.
Dretzka’s Department Store: A fun and unique little trading post styled shop in Cudahy, Wisconsin, which is just south of Milwaukee.
This shop has existed since before the Yellowstone Trail (1901) and has everything from men’s clothing, fabrics and other sewing needs, and in the back there is a rather large collection of what I can only describe as antiques and random toys of old. Adding flare to its ambiance is the old factory pulleys and wires and mechanisms still visible overhead.
Bonus: There is a Trail Marker just outside the store on Packard Avenue.
In all, for travelers seeking roads less trampled by big box stores, theme parks, and cookie cutter souvenir shops, the Yellowstone Trail marks a great trek across the top half of the United States through small towns and forgotten neighborhoods. Much like the Turquoise Trail in New Mexico, the Yellowstone Trail can provide several road trips worth of fun and adventure.