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Wisconsin Northwoods

Loop through a maze of pristine lakes

Mileage155 miles (250 km)
DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.3 hours, 11 minutes
SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.All Seasons
RoadwaysUS Highways 45 and 51, Wisconsin Highways 17 and 47, Country Highway G, Country Highway K, and Country Highway N
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Elevation Graph for Wisconsin Northwoods

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Wisconsin means “gathering place of waters”, and here in the Wisconsin Northwoods you’ll discover friendly communities dispersed between more than 2,000 freshwater lakes. You will feel far away from the city surrounded by unspoiled nature and a seemingly endless bounty of opportunities for year-round outdoor recreation. Whether you’re looking for premier fishing, hiking, a family vacation, some R&R, or all of the above, welcoming towns offer everything you need to create your perfect vacation. Each season is a veritable playground. In spring, walk through wildflower meadows and budding forests. In summer, water-sports reign supreme with fishing, swimming, kayaking, jet skiing, tubing, and more. Autumn draws leaf-peepers for a brilliant foliage display and cranberry marsh tours. And winter in the Northwoods is not the time for hibernation, it’s faced head on snowmobiling, cross-country-skiing, sledding, and ice-fishing.

Early autumn in the Northwoods
Early autumn in the Northwoods

The drive begins in Hurley, near the border of Michigan, and makes a loop through the many towns that comprise the Northwoods. In Hurley, discover over 300 lakes and an abundance of waterfalls, including Potato Falls (H7), Superior Falls (H8), Gile Falls, Bond Falls (H9) and Saxon Falls (H10). Thrill seekers will love the largest ATV/UTV trail system in Wisconsin with more than 200 miles of trails. Ride hard, then stay overnight at Schomberg County Park (H1), which features an ATV Campground. Learn about Hurley’s mining and logging history at the Iron County Historical Society Museum (M1), housed within the county’s first courthouse built in 1893.

Just 3 miles west of Hurley, is the town of Montreal, home to the world’s deepest iron ore mine at a depth of 4,335-feet. In 1921, the city was thoughtfully-designed to accommodate the needs of its workers with homes, schools, shopping, and services conveniently built within walking distance of the mine. The mine closed in 1962, but many buildings remain. The entire city is listed on the on the National Register of Historic Places. Interested in log cabins? Head to nearby Pence, which has over 20 historic log buildings throughout town.

Just south of Hurley is the Annala Round Barn (A1), the only round barn in Wisconsin made entirely of field stones. Built in 1917 by Finnish Stonemason Matt Annala, the barn is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.

Yes, you can alpine ski in the Midwest. Head east to the Whitecap Mountains Ski Resort (A2), and ski or snowboard on 43 runs that span three mountains: Eagles Nest, Thunderhead South Face and Thunderhead North/East Face. A full service resort, you’ll find rentals, lessons, and lodging. Off-season, enjoy golf, hiking, and biking trails.

The drive continues along US-51. Consider a side-trip to the Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods State Natural Area (W1) for wildlife watching, hiking, fishing, and in winter, cross-country skiing. Don’t miss the impressive stand of old-growth hemlock, yellow birch and maple trees thought to be over 250 years old. As in most state natural areas, services are limited, but wildlife is abundant.

The Little Turtle Flowage (W2), in Mercer is 640-acre marsh surrounded by grassland and forest, perfect for boating and hiking. It is also a stop on the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail where you can observe trumpeter swans, bald eagles, and sandhill cranes.

At Manitowish, the road forks, and depending on your activities/lodging you can head to Manitowish and do the loop counter-clockwise, or turn left on US-51 towards Boulder Junction. We describe this drive heading to Boulder Junction, but don’t worry, we get back to Manitowish towards the end of the drive.

Just about this entire route falls within the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest (H6). Preserving over 232,000 acres of diverse habitats, you’ll find a wide range of recreation opportunities including hiking, biking, fishing, wildlife watching, canoe and kayak routes with designated canoe campsites, equestrian trails and more.

The Catherine Wolter Wilderness Area (H5) protects 36,000-feet of undeveloped shoreline along 15 wild lakes and ponds, home to migrating birds, otters, fishers, and black bears. Enjoy the sounds of nature in this serene habitat which can be explored by hiking and non-motorized boating. Open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter. Parking is available on East Bay Road.

Known as “Wisconsin’s Last Wilderness”, the quaint town of Presque Isle offers a plethora of chances to get outdoors year-round. The Presque Isle/Winchester Bike Route meanders almost 15 miles through stunning countryside.

With 194 lakes, Boulder Junction is an anglers dream. Known as the Musky Capital of the World, seasoned fisherman and novices flock here to catch muskellunge, northern pike, largemouth bass and bluegill. Water recreation abounds, with motorized boating, canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, water-skiing and tubing. You’ll find a range of accommodations from lakeside resorts, cabin rentals, and hotels, or spend the night camping under starry skies. The Crystal Lake Campground is a popular spot, or you can just hang out for a day at the beach on Crystal Lake (W6). Trout Lake (W5) is one of the larger lakes in the area. Enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, then walk the North Trout Lake Nature Trail, a one-mile interpretive loop trail not far from the North Trout Campground. With 130-foot pine trees, Cathedral Point, is a popular spot for bird- and wildlife watching. Keep your eyes out for the chance to glimpse a ghost deer, a rare albino deer. Local outfitters and guide services have all you need to help you make the most of your time here. This region is fast becoming a bikers’ mecca, with trails connecting the Northwoods communities. Bike the 8-mile fully-paved trail Land O’Lakes Bikeway/Pedestrianway, or the Heart of Vilas Bike and Hike Trail, which wind over 45-miles from Boulder Junction to St. Germain and Sayner. Just 2.5 miles from downtown, Nichols Beach (W4) is accessible from the Heart of Vilas County Bike Trail and the perfect place to cool off on hot days. Or bike around the beautiful Escanaba Lake on the Escanaba-Pallette Lake Trails which also connects to the 12-mile Lumberjack Trail. Note that this trail (and some others) require a Wisconsin State Trail Pass. Learn about the early pioneer days, and the importance of the railway and logging at the Boulder Junction Historical Society Museum (M2). Open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Tues. and Sat. from 10am to 2pm. Admission is free. With so much to do, we recommend a stop at the Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information (I2).

Winter in Sayner is fully embraced. Frozen lakes and trails become a base for snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing. It was here in 1924, that the first motor toboggan was invented by Carl Eliason. Learn more about the history of the snowmobile, and see the original model built by Eliason, as well as other antique and classic snowmobiles at the Vilas County Historical Museum (M4). A quirky collection of exhibits also includes military uniforms, household objects and tools, a typewriter collection, mounted African animals and more. Open daily from Memorial Day through Sept. 30, 10 AM to 4 PM. There is a small entrance fee. Outside the museum is a statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, reflecting the importance of logging to this region. Hike and bike the Plum Lake Bike Trail which also connects to the Heart of Vilas Trail. In summer, don’t miss the Plum Ski-Ters Water Ski Team which performs incredible feats of gymnastics and acrobatics on water skis at Plum Lake every Weds. and Sat. at 7p.m. For events and information, visit the Sayner Star Lake Chamber of Commerce (W7).

The drive continues to St. Germain, another haven for outdoor adventure. Along with a myriad of water-based activities, you can bike around Shanon Lake on the Shannon Lake Trail, play a few holes at the St. Germain Golf Club, then explore shops, restaurants, and wineries. At the Snowmobile Hall of Fame and Museum (M5), observe a vast collection of championship sleds, historic race sleds, trophies, clothing, photos and race videos. Festivals abound: register for the Ride With The Champs snowmobile event in February, celebrate the cranberry harvest with cranberry marsh tours and wine tasting between Sept. and Oct., the Annual Greater Wisconsin Muskie Tournament the first weekend in Oct. and every Monday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the St. Germain Volunteer Fire Department Association hosts one of the largest flea markets in the state.

Eagle River is home to the World’s Largest Chain of Freshwater Lakes. With 28 connected lakes, experience world-class fishing for walleye, smallmouth bass, and panfish, try your hand at fly-fishing in the many brooks and rivers, or just enjoy peaceful water views along 174 miles of shoreline. Bikers and walkers will love the Three Eagle Trail which connects the towns of Eagle River, Clearwater Lake, and Three Lakes. Bring the kids to the Northwoods Children’s Museum (M6), and let them explore 24 hands-on exhibits about nature, science, space and partake in educational programs and special events. Off-roaders can drive miles of ATV/UTV trails. If you enjoy off-road races, don’t miss the action at the Crandon International Off-Road Raceway (A4). Eagle River hosts many seasonal events. In Jan., is the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, In Oct. the Vilas County Fair and the Eagle River Cranberry Festival which celebrates all things cranberry with a parade, vendors, music, and marsh tours. Remembering the logging industry, Eagle River hosts an Annual Paul Bunyan Fest in August, with carving demonstrations, chainsaw sculptures, arts and crafts vendors and live music.

Interested in exploring remote, undeveloped wilderness? Just east 7-miles northeast of Eagle River in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, enjoy back-country hiking, non-motorized boating, fishing, wildlife watching, and camping in the 5,800-acre Blackjack Springs Wilderness (H11) or a little further south at Headwaters Wilderness (MM). At over 20,000-acres, Headwaters Wilderness (H12) is Wisconsin's largest wilderness, and features a mix of forested swamp and bog lowlands. Hike the maintained Giant Pine Trail near Shelp Lake, to immerse yourself among towering, old pine and maple trees.

Rheinlander is the Ice Fishing Capital of the World, which draws anglers from across the globe. In summer, explore lakes and wildlife by kayak or canoe, looking out for bald eagles, nesting loons, otters, and turtles. Visit the Oneida County Courthouse (A5) built in 1908 to observe the beautiful Tiffany glass dome. Explore far beyond Wisconsin at the Kovac Planetarium (A6), which features the world’s largest mechanical globe planetarium. The 2-ton globe was conceived and built by Frank Kovac Jr. on his 4-acre property. Open 7 days a week, reservations required. If you’re here the first week in August, join the locals at the Oneida County Fair held at Pioneer Park. Rheinlander is also Hodag Country. Though only a folkloric woodland creature, you can see it’s larger than life grinning smile in a sculpture outside the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce (I3). The area celebrates all thing Hodag, including the Hodag Country Music Festival in July. A range of lodging styles, restaurants, and services make this a great base for exploring the Northwoods.

The drive heads north on WI-47. The town of Lake Tomahawk is the World Capital of Snowshoe Baseball, which, surprisingly, is played in summer on saw chips. Tomahawk Lake is popular destination for paddling. Learn about local history which began with a logging boom in the late 1800’s with a visit to Tomahawk’s First School Museum and Log Cabin Museum (M7). Open in summer only.

With 260 lakes, 71 miles of streams, lakes and rivers, Lac du Flambeau is a prime fishing destination for trout, walleye, and sturgeon. Lac du Flambeau is home to the Ojibwe tribe. Learn about their heritage and culture at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center (M3) through artifacts, dioramas, and multi-media displays. There is a small entrance fee. Don’t miss the Annual Bear River Pow Wow in July.

The Powell Marsh Wildlife Area (H4) is a stop along the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail. Learn more about birds and wildflowers from naturalists on a guided interpretive program, do some berry-picking, or simply explore untouched nature by hiking, biking, or horseback riding.

The Big Island State Wildlife Area (H2) and the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area protect the natural habitat that is home to moose, deer, swans, osprey, muskrat, beaver, as well as several species of snakes. Hike over 9-miles of trails, or get a different perspective from paddling around the lakes, and shoreline camping.

In Manitowish, discover A Chain of Ten Legendary Lakes, perfect for fishing, paddling, swimming, water-skiing, or a float on a raft or tube. The Frank B. Koller Memorial Park (H3) is beautiful community park on Lake Rest. Enjoy picnic areas, a sandy beach, boat launch, and fishing pier. On Sundays in summer, bring a lawn chair or strut you stuff to live concerts. Little Star Beach (W3) is another perfect spot for a day at the beach, especially with kids. When you’re ready for a break from the water, hike or bike around the lakes on the Manitowish Waters Paved Trail. At the North Lakeland Discovery Center (A3) kids of all ages will enjoy learning through nature-based activities, events and programs, or embarking on a guided nature adventure. A 12-mile trail system explores diverse habitats including grassland, forest, bog, and wetlands which is open to the public for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. In summer, the M.W. Skiing Skeeters put on an incredible free show at 7pm every Weds. and Sat. at Rest Lake Park, and in July, Bluegrass legends converge for the Annual “Midsummer In The Northwoods” Bluegrass Festival.

The drive ends back in Hurley, where if you have energy left, you can squeeze in a visit to just one more waterfall.

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