Road Trip: The House on the Rock, Wisconsin

I’m always looking for road trip ideas, and especially for destinations that are within a few hours of the Twin Cities. The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin had been popping up in my search results for a few years, so we finally decided to take a weekend to go check it out.

The House on the Rock was originally built in the 1940s as the home of owner Alex Johnson. This obscure gentleman built such of oddity of a house that people traveled in from miles around around to see it. Mr. Johnson started charging people to tour his place, and eventually expanded his property with a series of warehouses stuffed with oddities. Today, it’s impossible to say what exactly this place is. It’s a bit like a museum, and a little like a small-town thrift store where you can’t buy anything, and kind of like a trip through someone’s deranged mind. It’s all of those things.

We made the four-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Spring Green on a hot summer afternoon. We arrived around 2:00 – which is a little too late. Try to get there before noon if you can. You want at least three hours to explore the place.

After checking out the gardens (nice but not jaw-dropping or anything) we went into the living quarters of the now-deceased Mr. Johnson. The living quarters are Section 1. The place was like James Bond meets a 1970s porn set. Orange shag carpeting covers the low ceilings, and every corner sports some kind of faux-Buddhist statue. The house is a maze of narrow passageways lined with water fountains and hidden sunken rooms with built-in couches. I kept imagining myself here in bell bottoms and a crocheted halter top, waiting for my turn to snort a line of cocaine off a fake ivory elephant’s horn.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Johnson did indeed have some kind of cocaine problem. Or possibly LSD? Because while the living quarters are astoundingly odd, the next two sections of the tour are completely mind-blowing. Seriously. If you’re someone who likes to do drugs and then go look at weird stuff, don’t do that here. You won’t make it out with your sanity intact.

Sections 2 and 3 are complete lunacy. They’re dusty, old, and unlike any museum you’ve ever visited. It’s noisy here. There are two-story orchestras staffed by melting wax dummies that will scare the hell out of you when they strike up a tune right as you turn a corner. There is a entire room with nude mannequins hanging from the ceiling, all of them adorned with angel wings. Creepy 19th-century dolls grin at you from a gigantic carousel as they go round-and-ground.

And while there are plenty of impossibly huge structures in impossibly vast spaces, there are also very tiny items stuffed into every bit of empty space. There are model circuses with broken pieces and dollhouses with working lights. There are cheap plastic replicas of England’s crown jewels which Mr. Johnson claimed to be honest-to-God authentic not too long ago. Your senses don’t get to rest here at all. You are bombarded by sounds, sights, and a musty odor from the second you enter until you finally exit, exhausted and dizzy and with mind blown.

If this all sounds crazy, IT IS.

House on the Rock

Open March through December

First self-guided tours start at 9:00am, last tours at 3:00pm

The Ultimate Experience (strongly recommended self-guided tour of all three sections): $29.95 for adults, $15.95 for kids age 4-17, free for 3 and under

How to get there:

From the Twin Cities, head down to LaCrosse and take Highway 14 west towards Spring Green.

Where to stay:

Madison is less than 30 minutes from Spring Green and is a great place to find hotels for all budgets. House on the Rock also offers lodging at offsite hotels, see their website for more information.

What else to do:

Across the highway and available for tours is Taliesin, the home and studio of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  Have breakfast at Cow and Quince, a cute farm-to-table restaurant in the nearby Swiss village town of New Glarus. Take a self-guided tour of the brewery on the outskirts of the town and stock up on New Glarus beer. Drive through Mount Horeb on your way back to the Twin Cities – the town is known for its troll statues lining the main street. Wisconsin Dells is also close by, as well as underground caves you can tour.

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