The woods and waters of north central Wisconsin offer some of the best vacation opportunities in the Midwest.
Stretching from Hayward in the west to Minocqua in the east, you will find fishing, boating, swimming, hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and Friday fish fries.
There's also a little bar at nearly every intersection sometimes, two.
For more than a century, the woods and waters of northern Wisconsin meant nothing but hard work for European settlers, who eked out a living there by trapping and logging.
It was only after the turn of the 20th century that folks in the south decided they could have a lot of fun up in the woods. So they left their offices and factories and headed north by the thousands.
Thus began the transformation from harvest to tourism.
Sister Bay is all about the water. And Swedish pancakes. And goats.
It's a tourist town, with one of its biggest draws the goats grazing on the roof of Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant, placed there after a 1969 National Geographic story drew a flood of vacationers.
But Sister Bay also is where the locals go, because not only can you get ice cream and T-shirts there, but also groceries and socks.
If you think its expensive to stay in Wisconsin's Door County, you havent looked very hard.
In early June, rates can be almost ludicrously low, cheaper than a Super 8. And even on weekends in July and August, its not hard to find a decent place for $100 or less if you book in advance.
The Door Peninsula's breezy beaches are the place to be when the rest of the region is sweltering. During one early June heat wave, temperatures there were 20 to 40 degrees lower, and lodging rates were low, too I got three nights for the price of two.
When people think of bicycling in Wisconsin, the famous Elroy-Sparta State Trail often is first to pop into their minds. But the state has added many, many trails since the Elroy-Sparta debuted in 1967, and it's time to try them.
All of the trails listed below use finely crushed limestone, except as noted. They're suitable for touring bikes, though a wider tire is better. Chip-sealed trails are like asphalt but softer, and can be nearly as smooth because they don't become pitted.
State trail passes are $5 daily, $25 annual; passes also are good in winter on ski trails. Rates on county and city trails vary; many are free, including the Interurban and Oak Leaf.
The man with the big, Dentyne smile and Marlboro voice slammed his fist into his palm.
"Okay, here's the game plan,'' he bellowed. "No. 1! You WILL see Lambeau Field. You WILL see the press box. You WILL see the executive skyboxes. You WILL sit in the club seats and see a video.
"So where are you all from? How many of you are not Packer fans? Ma'am, you have my condolences. The rest of this group, we know the Packers are the best team in the NFL this year.
In summer, its not as hard as youd think to take a trip that's a lot of fun but doesn't cost much.
Many of the great travel experiences in Wisconsin cant be bought, anyway bicycling along Lake Michigan, camping on sandbars, volunteering in a lighthouse.
If you like music and festivals, you're really in luck Wisconsin has many fun, family-friendly fests with on-site camping, at unbeatable prices. And its national forests and county parks are full of great campsites.
From the beginning, Hayward has been a rough town.
It sprang up in Wisconsin's north woods along with the logging camps, and its saloons and brothels gave it a reputation that was reflected in a rail conductor's call: "All aboard for Hayward, Hurley and Hell!"
After resorts replaced logging camps, muskie wranglers joined lumberjacks as mythic figures.
In Bayfield, Wis., the apple has mushroomed.
In 1961, the apple was the object of a small village festival. Today, it draws 60,000 people to a fall blowout featuring all things apple fritters, sundaes, dumplings, pies and apple-cheeked children.
On northern Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, Apple Festival is nearly as revered as motherhood.
In the northeast corner of Wisconsin, a vast, amoeba-shaped body of water spreads over 37,000 acres of state-owned land.
Rivers run through it, the Turtle and the Flambeau. They were dammed to create a flowage in 1926, and today it's a state scenic waters area, designated for boating, fishing and camping.
Hundreds of islands and secluded bays provide habitat for bald eagles, osprey and loons, who outnumber the paddlers who pull up to rustic campsites.
In Wausau, water is power.
Sawmills were first to use the thundering rapids along the Wisconsin River, which have been working hard ever since.
But these rapids generate more than the electricity that lights a bulb they also draw world-class athletes for thrilling tournaments, such the 2012 world whitewater kayak/canoe championships for juniors and under-23 paddlers, some of them Olympics-bound.
In the middle of Wisconsin, the village of Rural is just far enough off the beaten path.
Founded by Yankees in the 1850s, it was the halfway point on the Stevens Point-Berlin trade route and once had a mill, an inn and a dry goods store.
But when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1870, the village eased into a slow, genteel decline.
Once, evening entertainment in Door County consisted of watching the sun set over Green Bay.
Then, at the turn of the century, the seven sons of the Eagle Bluff lighthouse keepers formed a band to entertain at various gatherings, arriving with a horse-drawn piano.
The arts scene really got going in 1935, when the first theater was founded on the lawn of a Fish Creek motel. The same year, a Danish landscape architect from Chicago started the first arts school. In 1953, the first music festival was founded.
The first time I saw Rib Mountain it was nighttime, and I was driving toward Wausau from the north.
Looming over the Wisconsin town was a massive hulk lined with white lights, rising from the surrounding plain like a landing strip set on edge. It was a spectacular sight and still is, day or night.
This billion-year-old quartzite ridge, one of the oldest on Earth, was thought to be the highest point in Wisconsin until Timm's Hill, near Ogema, was surveyed at 12 feet higher.
In the western Wisconsin college town of Menomonie, shops and restaurants come and go.
One building will stay for the ages: the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, built of sandstone blocks backed by brick.
Lumber baron Andrew Tainter built it in memory of his daughter Mabel, who died at age 19 of a burst appendix. With two renovations, the town has polished its gloriously golden interior, fit for a Moorish princess.
Over the centuries, waves of history have buffeted Madeline Island and given it as many variations as a Lake Superior agate.
This wooded island off Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands, exerts a magnetic pull.
The Ojibwe came from the east, led to "food that grows on water'' wild rice by a cowrie shell in the sky, according to their origin mythology,
From the beginning, the St. Croix River has shaped Hudson's identity.
The first settlers came by canoe on the fur-trade highway. The first steamboat docked in 1847, and soon logs were floating down the St. Croix to sawmills in Hudson and its neighbor on the Minnesota side, Stillwater.
Hudson's 1913 toll bridge became a landmark on the St. Croix, fattening town coffers after the lumber boom ended. The bridge closed in 1951, but its raised bed still stretches partway over the river, giving residents and visitors a place to stroll on warm summer evenings.
In the forests and lakes around the northwestern Wisconsin town of Cable, the reds, oranges and yellows of fall are mere gilding on the lily.
This landscape, much of it part of Chequamegon National Forest, is beautiful in any season.
In winter, cross-country skiers glide along forest paths and the 52-kilometer Birkebeiner trail, on which North America's largest and most famous Nordic-skiing race is held each February.
In Chippewa Falls, people owe a debt to two kinds of folks: the bubbas and the geeks.
The first came to harvest the lumber and stayed to drink the beer, or so claims the brewery: "It takes a special beer to attract 2,500 men to a town with no women,'' says Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, founded in 1867 and now the oldest business in town.
Then came the guys with slide rules. Seymour Cray, the son of the city engineer, spent his childhood in Chippewa Falls tinkering with radios, then went off to war and college.
In the forest around Hayward and Cable, its easy to catch speed fever.
This is where the worlds best Nordic skiers compete on the Birkie Trail, famous for its relentless ups and downs, and mountain bikers race on the CAMBA trails, known for 270-degree switchbacks and such obstacles as a boulder called the Volkswagen.
In this pocket of northwest Wisconsin, endurance athletes streak through Chequamegon National Forest year-round, training for the next big race on more than 300 miles of marked trails.
In Minocqua, you have to get in a boat to go on a historic home tour.
In the first part of the 20th century, captains of industry streamed to this village in northeast Wisconsin, called the Island City because it is nearly surrounded by Lake Minocqua.
Their estates are hidden in the trees, but the boathouses were built over water, fanciful structures with gables, balconies, towers and turrets.
In northeast Wisconsin, Minocqua is all things to all tourists.
It's been a boating destination for more than a century because it's on a chain of lakes and nearly surrounded by Lake Minocqua. In fact, it's Nature's Original Water Park, and the town has the trademark to prove it.
But summer is short, and these days, tourists like to keep busy. That's why you'll also find water-ski shows, lumberjack shows, boat tours, wildlife parks, bicycle trails, city-style shopping, golf and, in the middle of downtown, mini-golf.
In a quiet corner of Wisconsin lake country, Ojibwe culture lives and breathes.
The French called this place Lac du Flambeau, lake of the torches.'' To the Ojibwe it was Wa-Swa-Goning, the place where they spear fish by torchlight.
Violent protests shattered its north-woods serenity in the 1980s, when the courts upheld spear-fishing treaty rights. The backlash traumatized the community, but also strengthened its commitment to tradition.
Every May, wildflower followers find their way to Baileys Harbor.
They walk past two 1870 range lights on a boardwalk lined by endangered dwarf lake iris. On strips of wetland called swales, they look for bogbean and goldthread. In June, they search for 25 species of orchids.
The land Ridges Sanctuary occupies almost became a trailer park. Now, it's habitat for more species of plants than any other place in Wisconsin.
There's a lot of water in Wisconsin, but only one place that's surrounded by it: the northern Door Peninsula.
It's really an island, since the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal connects Lake Michigan to the slightly more tranquil waters of Green Bay. From there, the peninsula is lined by beaches, limestone cliffs, lighthouses and picturesque villages.
All of the views are good, but the best are from a boat.
Few tourist towns are more blessed than Fish Creek.
It's known as Door County's shopping town, and if people think that's too much of a good thing well, they're in the minority, judging by throngs on the streets.
It's also the gateway to the wildly popular Peninsula State Park. This big park is more like a resort, with a beach, boat rentals, playgrounds, tennis court and golf course, plus a theater, lighthouse, bike trails and one of the state's best-known hiking trails.
For most tourists, Egg Harbor is the first village on the Door Peninsula.
After crossing the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, they drive 17 miles past orchards and fields before they get another glimpse of water.
Now, visitors see something else first: giant eggs. Artist-decorated eggs line roads and adorn parks to mark a village anniversary and give tourists something to look at.
In Ashland, Wis., the ghosts of the past appear in living color.
Once, these lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks and lieutenants lived only in the history books. Now, they're painted onto Ashland's walls, where they serve as backdrop to shoppers, college students and tourists going about their business downtown.
The first mural, painted for Wisconsin's sesquicentennial in 1998 by local artists Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, featured the snowshoe-clad figure of pioneer Asaph Whittlesey as well as editor Sam Fifield, Ojibwe Chief Buffalo and other characters from the town's early days.
In northeast Wisconsin, winter can be almost shamelessly beautiful.
Not only is the snow plentiful, its that photogenic, see-me-sparkle kind of snow that looks so good draped on pine boughs.
Skiing the Escanaba Lake Trail near Minocqua one February, exchanging hellos with passing skiers, all of them smiling, I had the feeling I must be in a magazine shoot.
In summer, the Bayfield Peninsula, on the northern tip of Wisconsin, is a playground of sand, water and woods, beloved by tourists.
In winter, the playground expands.
Lake Superior freezes and people come to play, walking to the mainland ice caves near Cornucopia and skiing across Chequamegon Bay by candlelight.
Along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, everyone waits for a big freeze.
Only when temperatures stay low for a long time will the edges of Lake Superior freeze enough for people to walk out to the mainland ice caves, whose beauty is renowned.
Even when ice is sufficiently solid, wind may suddenly split it, and snow may block the access drive. So when park rangers say its okay to go well, then youd better go.
In a blizzard, nothing is better than holing up with an expert cook, a bottomless cookie jar, a steam room, a big hot tub and one of the best ski-trail groomers in the Midwest.
One January, the stars aligned in the heavens and I found myself in the best possible place to be during a blizzard: Maplelag.
This ski resort in northwest Minnesota is renowned for many things all-you-can-eat meals, personable owners, hundreds of stained-glass windows and signs from defunct train depots but its most famous for its ability to conjure a bit of snow into world-class ski tracks when the rest of Minnesota is bare.
To the uninitiated, the vast expanses of forest around Eagle River, Wis., look like a lot of nothing.
It's rocky, useless land, forfeited to the government during the Depression, and hardly anyone lives there Eagle River, pop. 1,400, is Vilas County's only city.
This empty forest, however, draws thousands, and on winter weekends, it's not so empty. Snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers come to these woods to the east and north lie the 657,000 square acres of Nicolet National Forest, and to the west, the 220,00 acres of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
One hundred years ago, the white-pine forests around Hayward were the domain of a special breed of man.
They were swampers, sawyers and skidders. They were deckers, chainers, undercutters and riverhogs. They were dwarfed by the colossal trees they had to wrestle out of the forest, and their lives hung on their own brawn, nerve and dumb luck.
Six days a week they worked, dawn to dusk, all winter long. In spring, they'd roar into Hayward for whiskey and wild women; their brawling earned the town a reputation reflected in a train conductor's call: "All aboard for Hayward, Hurley and Hell!''
On the week before Christmas, I figured Id found the prettiest place in the world.
Fresh snow had fallen around Hayward, and the forest was sparkling. We made our way down the intimate lanes of the Makwa Trail on snowshoes, brushing past heavily laden balsam boughs as we scaled gentle ridges and descended into snowy glades.
Each new tableau was more beautiful than the last, and I congratulated myself on the discovery that single-track mountain-biking trails are great for snowshoeing.
When winter seems to be lasting forever, you just want to get away.
Of course, thats not so easy to do if youre buried in snow. Then you may have to get away a lot closer . . . maybe to the hotel around the corner.
Until then, here are some great winter getaways, each with lots to do and see.
On a summer day on Chequamegon Bay, there are few sights more enchanting than the sailboats bobbing around Bayfield.
With the Blessing of the Fleet in June, the tourist season kicks into high gear.
Ferries chug nonstop between Bayfield and Madeline Island. Excursion boats head for the other Apostles. Sailboat captains take out novices and teach them how to hoist a jib.
In the vacation town of Bayfield, action shifts to the woods in winter.
In summer, everyone gravitates to Lake Superior and its cruise launches, sailboats, ferries and kayaks. But when it snows, the locomotion is on inland trails.
And it does snow. Gales over the big lake deliver plenty for skiers, snowmobilers and mushers.
In the north woods, only the passage of time creates a classic.
There's nothing like the feel of a vintage lodge. Whatever it comes from the burnished logs hewed by ax, the hearths made of stones picked from local fields, the faint fragrance of aged pine and cedar it can't be ordered from the local furniture store.
Jim Kerkow and Craig Mason know, because they own a furnishings business and they love old lodges. They were building a cabin near Hayward, Wis., and staying at nearby Spider Lake Lodge when its owner pointed out the obvious.
What becomes a legend most? In the case of Telemark Resort in northwest Wisconsin, solvency.
The once-busy ski lodge closed in 1998, reopened in 1999, closed again in 2010, reopened in January 2011, and closed once more in 2013.
The lodge, which polite guests call "a diamond in the rough,'' desperately needs updating.
When the last glacier melted out of Wisconsin, it left a gift to future generations.
It wasn't much at first boulders, heaps of gravel, water, chunks of ice trapped under rubble.
But over time, the ice seeped away and created kettle lakes for fishermen. The raging meltwater stripped away softer rock, leaving walls of volcanic rock for climbers and scenic river gorges for canoeists.
In summer, there's no better vacation than a week at the lake. Lazy afternoons on the beach, boat rides, marshmallow roasts, catching a string of sunnies these are memories families savor for decades.
But if you don't have a family cabin, where do you go?
Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes, about the same number as Minnesota, plus shoreline on two Great Lakes.
In 1920, northern Wisconsin already was a playground for people from Chicago.
And when Prohibition flung open the door to organized crime, its remote lakes and forests became even more attractive to a certain kind of Chicagoan.
Al Capone had a fortified summer home on a lake near Hayward, to which hydroplanes flew whiskey from Canada.
The sky was clear, the wind was still and Lake Superior was as placid as a lily pond.
It was a miracle that wouldn't last.
That's why it was torture for the dozen of us to sit through a long kayak safety course on the sandy beach of Bayfield, Wis., forming a ''human knot'' to foster cooperation in case of disaster and listening to trip leader Hovas Schall's horror stories about the big, mercurial lake.
In the early days of highway travel, some very ordinary folks toiled to enliven Wisconsin's roadsides.
Concrete dinosaurs appeared, and a muskie pulled by horses. King Neptune held court next to Snow White and her dwarves.
There was an ocean liner encrusted with glass, a Hindu temple and mythic figures from the American frontier Sacagawea, Paul Bunyan, Kit Carson.
Around the Upper Midwest, Door County is the tourist destination that other tourist destinations envy.
Everything a tourist loves, its got: Lighthouses and sand dunes. Wineries and boutiques. Bicycle paths and beaches.
a little bit of New England in the white-frame buildings of Ephraim,
where tourists click photos of Wilsons, a century-old ice-cream parlor.
It's a cold dawn on a Wisconsin marsh, but to a bunch of prairie chickens, it's a hot Saturday night on the town.
They've come to see and be seen, and hormones are in charge. It's serious business, perpetuating a dwindling species.
But to humans watching from a blind, it's high comedy. Whenever a girl chicken is nearby, the boys inflate neon-orange sacs under their throats, drum their feet and start scurrying around like, well, chickens with their heads cut off.
Deep in the forests of Wisconsin, and Potato River Falls was nowhere to be found.
A sign pointed to an observation deck, from which I glimpsed a bridal-veil falls in the distance. But the path down the Potato River led only to a cobblestone beach.
Finally, I left the path to climb down a steep hillside, slippery with clay and choked with the roots of spruce trees that flecked my hands with sap.
In a remote corner of Wisconsin, a trove of waterfalls lies buried in forests barely trod since the lumberjacks moved on to Minnesota.
Theyre not Wisconsins largest waterfalls, or the easiest to find; those can be found on the lower lip of Lake Superior, in Pattison, Amnicon and Copper Falls state parks (see Waterfalls of northern Wisconsin).
But there are lots of them in this undomesticated forest, so thick with headwaters its known as the cradle of rivers.
In Wisconsin, the American dream came true for a penniless boy from Iceland and the rest of us made out pretty well, too.
In 1873, 5-year-old Hjörtur Thordarson traveled with his family from Iceland to Milwaukee, where his father soon died of typhoid fever.
The youngster's schooling stopped in second grade as the family moved to farms in Wisconsin and North Dakota, then resumed when the boy called Chester joined his married sister in Chicago and, at age 18, entered the fourth grade.
Ah, the smell of Coppertone in spring.
Leaning back on a chairlift, basking in sun bounced off acres of snow, I was getting quite a tan on St. Patricks Day.
Michigans Upper Peninsula, with its towering stacks of snow, is a good place for skiers to be in the spring.
In the wilds of northeast Wisconsin, winter always looks like winter.
It's the kind with snow snow that comes early, stays late and blankets the forest in heaps, supplying reliable skiing and snowshoeing to people from less-blessed locales.
But in 2003, the heaps of snow didn't come there or virtually anywhere, and skiers were desperate. So was Pete Moline, who runs Afterglow Resort on a lake near the Michigan border.
More than any other river in Wisconsin, the Bois Brule has a pedigree.
They call it River of Presidents, but it also attracts senators and millionaires. Named for pines charred by lightning strikes burnt wood in Ojibwe, then French it rises from conifer bogs near Solon Springs and flows toward Lake Superior.
Its cold, spring-fed currents harbor trout, and well-heeled fishermen discovered the river long before loggers moved in.
In Wisconsin, people build whole trips around the roads less traveled.
Their destination? Nowhere. And on one of the state's lovely Rustic Roads, nowhere usually is enough.
Across the state, brown-and-yellow signs point to lightly traveled roads that preserve remnants of the past piebald llamas (Rustic Road 92, south of River Falls), an 1870 lighthouse (Rustic Road 38 in Door County), Amish farms (Rustic Road 56, south of Ontario).
A century ago, in the Apostle Islands, only seven puny shafts of light stood between sailors and catastrophe.
Lake Superior has been called the most dangerous body of water in the world, an inland teakettle in which any tempest can be deadly.
Storms gather fury over 200 miles of open water, and heaven help mariners caught between wind and rock heaven, or a lighthouse keeper with sharp eyes.
Door County isn't known as a budget destination. But this popular peninsula in Lake Michigan is like everywhere else you can spend a lot if you want, but you don't have to.
We've already told you how to find deals on places to stay in Door County. Why did we go looking? Because sometimes, we like to do the rich man-poor man routine that is, pinch pennies in one place so you can treat yourself in another.
And in Door County, there are so many good ways to treat yourself.
To most people, Superior, Wis., is nothing more than a series of traffic lights to endure on the fast track to the Apostle Islands or Upper Peninsula.
It's sprawling, ugly and utterly devoid of interest.
Or is it?
At the turn of the last century, as Wisconsins pineries were vanishing into sawmills, the vast fortunes they produced fell to the heirs of the Knapp, Stout lumber company.
Operating in the Red Cedar River valley, it was for a time the largest in the world, and Menomonie was the company town. The heirs gave it schools, churches, an auditorium; James Stout, son of the president, endowed the institute that became the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
His brother Frank found a different use for his money. He plowed $1.5 million in 1915 money into a 26-acre island estate near the town of Rice Lake, on Red Cedar Lake.
Just two miles from the start of the Bois Brule, another famous river flows in the opposite direction.
It's the St. Croix, flowing out of Upper St. Croix Lake and toward the Mississippi River. The two rivers are separated by a continental divide but became an important water highway for Indians, explorers and fur traders.
Today, their two-mile portage trail is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
If youve ever walked in Wisconsin, chances are youve walked on the edge of a glacier.
The ice is gone, but not the rubble it pushed across the landscape, or the rock its melting waters carved. As the last glacier retreated, it left a path that geologists can follow as easily as yellow lines on a highway.
That path now is the 1,100-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, with 620 miles marked, usually by yellow rectangles tacked to trees. Its easy to follow in the forest, but many of the most spectacular spots are right along highways.
Over the years, my children logged many crossings of the St. Croix River.
Like all who are young at heart, we love traveling in Wisconsin. Not only is it beautiful, but it also tends to produce people who remember how much fun it was to be a kid.
Take Laura Ingalls Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn, whose adventures were recounted in famous children's books.
Most people think bicyclists ride for exercise. But really, its for the ice-cream stop.
In western Wisconsin, the Stower Seven Lakes between Dresser and Amery, has everything youd want on a bicycle trail. Its got scenery. Its got beaches and picnic spots.
And in Amery, it has the soda fountain of your dreams. Just look for the place with all the people.
Whitewater paddlers are, by definition, thrill-seekers.
That's why they seek out the northeast corner of Wisconsin, "the cradle of rivers.'' The big Wisconsin River starts there, as do the Wolf, Peshtigo and Menominee, three of the Upper Midwest's best-known whitewater rivers.
On the Wolf River, Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort has been a whitewater hub since 1994, selling gear to expert wranglers and teaching novices how to handle the rapids that churn over knots of boulders dropped by the last glacier.
In Wisconsin, nonconformity is cast in concrete.
In the middle of the last century, a motley collection of ordinary folk a dairy farmer, a car dealer, a tavern owner, a factory worker took a sharp turn away from the ordinary.
Out of the blue, they began to fashion fairy-tale characters, castles, temples and historical figures out of concrete, adorning them with bits of glass, crockery, porcelain and seashells and toiling until their yards overflowed with figures.