A Quick Trek in the Wisconsin Northwoods

Thanks to Bike Fed member Tom Mortensen for this guest post about one of Wisconsin’s best places to ride a bike 

The Heart of Vilas County Trails are not your typical flat, straight rail trail. Photo by Dave Schlabowske

Normally, (which sounds really boring, but isn’t) we would have picked an end-to-end or looped route for our 2016 summer bike trip, but because of the segmented trail systems in northern Wisconsin, we decided to do some out and back day trips instead. The only thing lacking was our full panniers and the extra weight that goes along with them for a typical multi day trip.

The weekend began on Thursday morning as Mike, Andrew and I headed up to Boulder Junction from the Milwaukee area. We were inspired by Dave Schlabowske’s “Bicycle Basecamp” story in the July 2015 issue of the Wisconsin Bike Fed Magazine and looking forward to a great experience. We arrived during a slow drizzle, sitting at the local brewpub, having a large lunch, only to find that our waitress was from Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee, because she saw Andrew wearing a WFB High School t-shirt. It was another small world, big Wisconsin moment that we’ve had all too often on these bike trips.

The thought of taking off for a long weekend of cycling during a steady rain was not too appealing, but thanks to the high tech devices and the apps held in in our hands, we saw a break in the weather that got us us to jump on the bikes for a quick 30 miles out to Manitowish Waters and back.

The long boardwalks over the marshes offer a unique riding experience. Photo by Dave Schlabowske

The paved trail was impressive – filled with turns and twists through the wooded right-of-way along Highway K. The trail was interrupted by occasional wooden boardwalks and bridges over waterways and wetlands, reminding us that the natural features were there first, and this bike trail is in their territory.

The ride out was relatively dry all the way to the Manitowish Waters town hall where there was a local art fair taking place. As soon as we took off back to Boulder Junction, the sky opened up. Luckily for us, there was no lighting or thunder so we forged ahead in an intense downpour, wondering if our wheels were going to slip out from below us around all the turns and twists on the pine needle and grass clipping covered trail. Back at the car we laughed about the grit covering our bikes, chains and legs despite the fact that we were riding on a paved trail.

Blueberries in the Northwoods, a perfect pairing. Photo by Dave Schlabowske

Early the next morning we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and got back to the car to set up the bikes. Just then a family of whitetail deer crossed the road in downtown Boulder Junction. The theme song from the Northern Exposure TV series ran through my head like an earworm for the rest of the day. We found the Crystal Lake Trail and headed south for 25 miles down to St. Germain. Hugging the eastern shore of Trout Lake was spectacular. We stopped to notice how the shoreline of the lake was relatively undeveloped, offering natural beauty and remote scenery along the bike trail.

The trail turned east towards Sayner and then down to St. Germain, where we enjoyed some coffee and nutrition before turning back for the 25 mile trip to Boulder Junction. The trail seemed as interesting on the way back as it did on the way out, making for a great day of riding before driving into Minocqua for a hearty lunch at a local brewery.

Downtown Boulder Junction fawn crossing. Photo by Tom Mortensen.

The second part of our Northwoods trip put us in the car for 3.5 hours west to St. Croix Falls along the Wisconsin / Minnesota border – the trailhead of the Gandy Dancer State Trail. We went to a traditional Wisconsin Supper Club that evening and enjoyed an abundance of both empty and full carbs, starch and protein to set the course for the next day’s ride.

If you’ve never been to St. Croix Falls, it’s worth the trip. Interstate State Park is a great site with cliffs and the St. Croix River separating the park from Taylor Falls on the Minnesota side. It reminds me of a small river town in the hills of Elsewhere, USA. I’ve been going to that park since the early 1990’s and it brings back many fond memories of camping, hiking and cycling. I remember one night camping on the bluffs and seeing the ground moving by campfire light, only to find a “flock” of diabolical, finger long subterranean termites or very large centipedes crawling through our campsite. So, if you go there, make sure to wear solid shoes and zip up your tent at night.

The Gandy Dancer Trailhead is easy to find. After a mile or so climb out of the valley we burned off half our carbs from the night before and hit the gravel trail north. The trail was like many other rails-to-trails in the state – beautiful. Rolling through small town after small town. Once again this year hit an old car show in the town of Luck. Total Americana, just like last year on our bike trip in Michigan.

Ride your bike to the car show! Photo by Tom Mortensen.

We continued up the trail to Siren where we had lunch and would be coming back there  later that day to spend the night. We continued north on the Gandy Dancer Trail to Webster, where I decided to turn back while Andrew and Mike continued on to Danbury. I headed back to the lodge for beer and a hot tub, looking forward to a good dinner that night.

North of Siren, the trail became very open and somewhat uninspiring. The lack of trees and shade along the trail made it seem like we were riding on the surface of the moon, and the flies were annoying. I’ve been on trails like this before, and while I appreciate the connectivity and economic opportunity they can bring to a region, there is nothing like a little shade and scenery to make a bike ride more enjoyable. Perhaps it was the time of day in the full sun, but this trail segment was a bit brutal.

Oh yeah, there are a couple nice lakes up here. Photo by Tom Mortensen.

The next morning we woke to storms passing through the area, but once again, our handheld devices made it possible to time our departure and avoid getting wet. A bit of a headwind made the trip back to St. Croix Falls longer than it needed to be, but once we returned to the trailhead and changed clothes and packed our gear, it was time to head home.

Nothing makes you feel like you’re over 50 more than riding 170 miles in 3 days and then getting into a car to sit for 4.5 hours. By the time we got back to the Milwaukee area we were stiff and moving slowly, but we all had smiles on our faces and good memories of the trip.

I highly recommend the Boulder Junction area and the Vilas County Bike Trails for an excellent riding experience. Thanks for the recommendation, Dave! The Gandy Dancer Trail is worth the trip as well, especially if you can make the time to stop in the towns along the trail.

Stay tuned for an upcoming story about our fall 2016 bike trip on the Mountain Bay State trail from Green Bay to Wausau. Cheers, peace, and good riding!

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

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