Length: About 250 miles.
When to go: Year-round, but some attractions are closed in winter.
Ferries: Bayfield to Madeline Island (three ferries make frequent trips from April to December).
Nearby attractions: Fairlawn Mansion and Museum, Superior. Pattison State Park, Rte. 35 south of Superior.
Further information: Wisconsin Dept. of Tourism, Box 8690, Madison, WI 53708; tel. 800-432-8747, www.travelwisconsin.com.
Trees grow tall in this authentic northern wilderness. But it’s the lakes—thousands of them, some big enough for squadrons of water-skiers, some small enough for a pair of loons to nest in solitude—that make the Wisconsin North Woods so appealing. Sports enthusiasts are lured by world-class fishing, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling, while others are drawn by the promise of serene days spent in a simple cabin by a lake.
Whereas 100 years ago the streets of Rhinelander bustled with loggers clad in flannel shirts, nowadays they are filled with legions of visitors who (at least in summer) wear T-shirts and tote fishing poles. Even so, tourism has not wholly supplanted the loggers: the Rhinelander Paper Company, on the Wisconsin River, is a substantial producer of paper. The loggers’ legacy also lives on at the Logging Museum in Pioneer Park, where a reproduction of a 19th-century camp features massive old-growth white pines felled by crosscut saws.
2. Northern Highland–American Legion State Forest
Pushing northeast on Rte. 17, the drive approaches the town of Eagle River. Once you enter the city limits, stop off at Carl’s Wood Art Museum, which features life-size figures of people and animals (including an enormous grizzly bear) carved with a chain saw. Natural wood oddities, such as tree burls, are also on view at the museum.
Here the drive turns west on Rte. 70, easing through the second-growth pines, red maples, and balsam firs of Northern Highland– American Legion State Forest. The gentle terrain gives no clue that mountains taller than the Rockies stood here countless ages ago—granite peaks that were gradually worn away by the elements, especially by ice. In fact, every bit of this landscape was crafted by the great glaciers that long ago entombed all of northern Wisconsin. When the ice finally retreated, it left the land dotted with hundreds of depressions large and small that we now know as everything from tiny ponds to the Great Lakes.
At Woodruff the drive turns south on Rte. 51 to Minocqua, the gateway to the region’s extraordinary concentration of freshwater lakes. These pristine pools draw family vacationers and fishermen in search of muskellunge (muskie), northern pike, walleye, and panfish. In winter, when the lakes are locked in ice, recreation shifts to cross-country skis and snowmobiles; fishing moves into snug ice shacks, some outfitted with heaters and (yes) even television sets.
3. Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation
Some 200 years ago, a visitor to Lac du Flambeau might have seen birchbark canoes gliding through the shallows as the Chippewas harvested wild rice, the silence broken only by the occasional honks of geese flying overhead.
The name Lac du Flambeau was used by 16th-century French fur traders and refers to the local Indians’ practice of fishing the lake by torchlight. Today the descendants of these Indians display a variety of artifacts at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center. The exhibits and demonstrations there highlight beadwork, decoy carving, basketry, and moccasin making.
“Hayward, Hurley, and Hell,” midwesterners commented at the turn of the century, shaking their heads at the hamlets where loggers and miners came to drown the memory of months in the deep woods or the mines by spending long nights in the saloons. Hurley held on to its rowdy reputation well into the 20th century. The Iron County Historical Museum is worth a visit, and you’ll find plenty of remnants of Hurley’s checkered past on Silver Street—still serving their cups of cheer, they now cater to snowmobilers and skiers lured by heavy winter snowfalls.
Even before you see Lake Superior, you can smell the cool, bracing air that wafts from its surface. When viewed from the overlook on Rte. 2 on the way to Ashland, the gigantic lake is blue to the point of blackness: a virtual ocean of the North.
Asaph Whittlesey, who founded Ashland in 1854, saw the lake not so much as a thing of beauty but as a highway. In its heyday the town shipped out millions of tons of virgin pine, iron ore, and brownstone, brought by rail to Ashland’s docks. The commercial buildings of the Second Street Historic District stand as sturdy reminders of the town’s mercantile roots, but visitors are more likely to pause for the Big Top Chautauqua or the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center.
6. Apostle Islands
The 22 Apostle Islands beckon to the northeast. To get closer, turn north on Rte. 13, following the shoreline of the Bayfield peninsula. Here you’ll find Bayfield, another once-bustling, now quirky port town. The burghers’ white clapboard mansions serve as bed-and-breakfast inns, while the old county courthouse, built of locally quarried brownstone, houses the visitor center for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
On the islands, it’s an intoxicating blend of water and wilderness: 50-foot sandstone cliffs line secluded coves, and wildflowers brighten the forests above. The islands appeal to sailboaters and kayakers, serviced by half-day excursion boats departing from Bayfield. From the ferry, you’ll see Raspberry Island and its lighthouse, one of six 19th-century beacons in the archipelago. To drive, take the 20-minute car ferry to Madeline Island, the only inhabited Apostle, and explore the 14-mile-long island, which is fringed with pristine white beaches.
7. Brule River State Forest
West of the drowsy lakeside town of Port Wing lies one of the most renowned trout streams east of the Mississippi: the Bois Brule. Five presidents have tested their mettle against its wily brook trout. White-water canoers also love the stream; from its headwaters it meanders gently, but north of the highway it plunges down a series of brisk rapids. In autumn the Bois Brule’s banks explode with color.
8. Amnicon Falls State Park
Continue west on Rte. 13 and dip south on Rte. U to Amnicon Falls. Faults in the 600-million-year-old sandstone bedrock divide the Amnicon River into three 30-foot cascades. A half-mile trail winds to a long covered bridge that vaults the cataract, leading to an enchanting island between the falls—a nearly perfect place for a picnic.
Superior (and its sister, Duluth) is a major seaport, thanks to the series of locks and channels that connect it to the Atlantic Ocean more than 2,000 miles away. Watch massive grain and ore freighters entering and leaving the harbor by driving Wisconsin Point Road along a sandspit to the lighthouse at its end—a popular spot for driftwood campfires on summer evenings. From nearby Barkers Island, site of the S.S. Meteor Maritime Museum, visitors can cruise the harbor, a finale to this drive beside the greatest of the Great Lakes.
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