The sun was out, the line was short and before I knew it, I was biting into sweet geodes of crystallized root beer and vanilla. All root beer floats will now be measured against that transcendent cup at Belt’s Soft Serve in Steven’s Point, WI.
Welcome to “America’s Dairyland.” It says so right on the Sconnie license plate and California’s cow numbers will never convince me otherwise. In Wisconsin you are never far from premium, locally-sourced ice cream, or better yet–her denser cousin custard. Not to mention cheese, cheese curds, beer and meats.
Stevens Point is known as a college town, home to University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. But the Point is also gaining a well-deserved reputation for its art- and bike-friendliness. It’s about a three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, an hour-and-a-half drive from Green Bay, WI. Which makes it a great weekend or day trip with lots of nature and bike paths, culture and creameries, but little in the way of crowds.
For art, start at Stevens Point Sculpture Park, just north of downtown. See the work of local and national artists in an outdoor setting. Take your time strolling the paths in this city park; a wooded trail leads you by roughly 30 installations.
Entry to this 20-acre art park is free and the trails are accessible. Just southeast of the sculpture park is Schmeeckle Reserve. This 280-acre natural land area is located on the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. It’s not dog-friendly, but you can explore miles of hiking trails and a lake.
The ribbon connecting all of these trails and more is the Green Circle Trail. The 27-mile scenic hiking and biking trail is a real treasure, winding along the river front, through woodlands, wetlands and parks. Stevens Point takes its hiking/biking infrastructure seriously, and that means you can get most anywhere by bike.
There’s usually something going on in downtown Stevens Point on the weekends, but visiting still feels like stepping back in time. There are newer restaurants aimed at diners who want to eat local, like the “Wicked Willow.” Then again, you can walk down to the public square on 2nd Street and belly up to any number of bars like you just got off second shift. A cluster of olde style beer signs bespeak a time when guys with basic names drank basic beer.
Speaking of a time before craft beer, here’s the Point. Steven’s Point Brewery has been around since 1857. To put it in perspective, it’s the third oldest, continuously-running, privately owned brewery in the U.S. The Point Special Lager is a classic American-style lager they’ve been brewing from the get-go.
The beer was even served to troops in the Civil War, but that was a time before the cans came to become called “Blue Bullets.” Tours last a bit longer than an hour and require reservations.
Belts’ Soft Serve is a belt-loosening experience, and besides that it’s an institution. I’ve read that Belts fanatics camp out in all kinds of weather for the spring opener to get their mittens on that first malt, sundae or most likely–flurry–of the season. Belts inspires that kind of loyalty. True enough, one visit has made me a Belts root beer float evangelist. Their stuff’s not fancy, not expensive, and without peer in custard country. Expect lines at peak times.
That squeak heard ’round Wisconsin, that’s the sound of impossibly fresh cheese curds. Mullins Cheese in Mosinee is a must-stop. Family owned and operated for 40 years, Mullins deep fries molten curds on the spot. Bite, stretch, repeat. Grab a few bags of chilled curds from the case to take with. Of course, cheese is available in literally any Wisconsin-themed shape or form you could imagine.
The dairy hangover was in full effect as I headed back to MN. Thankfully, the radio provided the perfect soundtrack for perking back up: WDEZ’s “Polka Jamboree,” Sundays, noon to 6 pm. A cool mix of old and new polka, and a fitting reminder that when in ‘Wisco, you better wear your party pants. Preferably expandable, like an accordion.