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Wisconsin's Rustic Roads

On quiet lanes, motorists ramble into the heart of the countryside.

Rustic Road 26 near La Crosse.

© Beth Gauper

South of La Crosse, Rustic Road 26 climbs a ridge from Mormon Coulee Creek.

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).

But sometimes, the road is just a pleasant country lane that happens to be spectacular in the fall or flush with wildflowers in spring.

In the fall, Rustic Road 1 near Rib Lake is a gorgeous drive, winding around lakes through the glacial terrain of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Another rolling country road connects it to Rustic Road 62, which skirts the lake at the feet of Timm's Hill, the state's highest point. Those who climb the observation tower are literally on top of Wisconsin.

The 12-mile Rustic Road 60 is another fall beauty, following a county road from Boulder Junction past the lakes of Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.

In fact, all the roads are lovely in fall; exploring them is a good way to enjoy the colors without billboards or traffic.

In the spring, those who traverse five-mile Rustic Road 28 north of Amery will pass country churches and cemeteries and find themselves at Apple River County Park, where thick beds of trilliums crowd out even the dandelions.

South of Maiden Rock, Rustic Road 51 is more rustic than most, with rogue streams often crossing dips in its narrow, packed-dirt surface; when it ends, those who don't double back may find themselves lost in the ridges above Lake Pepin.

But in spring, its four miles are lined with an amazing array of wildflowers.

When I was exploring the stretch one May, Laurie Hilden of Onalaska was there visiting her father, Maiden Rock beekeeper Ed Sjostrom, and picking Mother's Day flowers for her grandmother, who had requested them.

Wildflowers along a Rustic Road 51 near Maiden Rock.

© Torsten Muller

In spring, Rustic Road 51 near Maiden Rock is lined with wildflowers.

Hilden grew up just over the hill, and her school often had picnics at the Legion park, farther down the lane.

"This hasn't changed since I was a kid," Hilden said. "It's so unique it's the kind of place you don't find much anymore."

'This is special'

Since 1975, motorists have been able to find their way to Wisconsin's prettiest nooks and crannies, thanks to the Rustic Roads program.

"It seems to be near and dear to the hearts of Wisconsinites," says coordinator Jane Carrola. "It has been going 30 years without stop, and people are not losing interest."

The roads are nominated by local jurisdictions and receive no special protection, though one of the criteria is that the road not be slated for development.

"The Rustic Road designation is good for the first step, in saying, 'This place is special,'" Carrola says.

Posted speed limits shouldn't exceed 45 mph, but slower is better. No signs point to interesting sights, and the free guide offers only hints. 

One fall, I revisited Rustic Road 26 south of La Crosse on a Sunday morning, and I not only crawled along, I frequently stopped and got out.

It's one of the older Rustic Roads, and a few mobile homes and newly built houses clustered around the end closest to La Crosse. Then, it rounded a corner, where an old stone house sat along Mormon Coulee Creek, lined with cotton grass. 

From there, it become as close to a mountain road as Wisconsin gets, using switchbacks to climb up to Brinkman's Ridge.

From the top, there was a panorama of the Mississippi River Valley. A windmill poked over the top of a cornfield, and an enormous white pine grew incongruously at the end of a farm drive. At another ridgetop farm, bison grazed.

Of course, there's not much of southwest Wisconsin coulee country that isn't picturesque. South of Ontario, Rustic Road 56 follows another ridgetop past views of the Kickapoo River Valley, an 1855 chinked-timber settler's cabin and a series of Amish farms.

On a trip to the old lead-mining district in the southwest tip of the state, I drove three, including Rustic Road 66, which follows a creek sunk deep into the flat coulee floor and passes the tunnel of an old rail line from Galena and an abandoned mine.

Not far to the north, Rustic Road 70 is one of the most atmospheric Rustic Roads, a 10-mile roller coaster that winds along a ridge and down through a dark, creepy forest canopy; at the end, there's a church with a witch's-hat steeple and cemetery.

One of the newer routes, Rustic Road 99, is around Potosi, where visitors are sure to stumble on the St. John Mine and perhaps the remains of 1830s "badger holes," or miner's huts, on the opposite hill.

A Wisconsin Rustic Roads sign.

© Beth Gauper

Watch for the signs that mark Rustic Roads. No. 77 follows Lake Michigan from the Sturgeon Bay Canal Light.

Walk or pedal

Often, the Rustic Roads are simply beacons, leading to sights people wouldn't see otherwise. That's how I ended up climbing Indian Moccasin Nature Trail to the 35-foot-high sandstone arch of Natural Bridge State Park in Sauk County; Rustic Road 21, lined with drifts of lavender dame's rocket in early summer, goes right past it.

Near Trempealeau, Rustic Road 64 is a rather ordinary road lined with country ramblers. But off it is McGilvray Road, a footpath that once was a road to a town, now vanished, on the Black River bottomlands.

Now part of the Van Loon Wildlife Area, the isolated path has an Amazonian feel, crossing red-tinted streams on five rare bowstring-arch bridges. It even has its own fan club, the Friends of McGilvray Road.

Many of the roads are good for bicycling, though some are gravel.

Near the Waupaca Chain O' Lakes, I bicycled on Rustic Road 23 from Rural, a tiny village that was settled in the 1850s by Scots and looks transplanted from New England, with white Greek Revival-style houses set along the Crystal River.

I also bicycled on Rustic Road 24, which starts from the edge of the village of Rural and winds through a corridor of red pines and past an 1854 coach house with a yard filled with flea-market finds, where I stopped to chat with its genial owner.

Not far to the north, I took a detour from Mountain Bay State Trail and bicycled the 14 miles of Rustic Road 47, which had all kinds of interesting things: the stone 1935 Germania Town Hall; errant boulders heaped at the edge of a cedar forest; an Arts and Crafts high school and three country cemeteries. It was also a route for barn lovers.

State bicycle trails often intersect Rustic Roads, and with a good map, bicyclists can ride over and check them out, too. From the Great River State Trail north of Onalaska, County Road XX leads to Rustic Road 64, from which McGilvray Road starts.

South of Menomonie, the Red Cedar State Trail parallels Rustic Road 89. South of Danbury, the Gandy Dancer State Trail intersects Rustic Road 79. And south of Minocqua, the Bearskin State Trail crosses Rustic Road 58.

And some of the roads are so short they can be walked or jogged, even round-trip; the minimum length is two miles. In the cranberry country east of Spooner, for example, 2.2-mile Rustic Road 71 follows the western shore of Stone Lake, under a canopy of greenery.

Not all the routes are rural. In southeast Wisconsin, which has the state's densest concentration of Rustic Roads, Rustic Road 29 takes motorists past the famous estates on Geneva Lake.

We'd already seen the mansions up close on the Lake Geneva walking path, so it was fun to see their backyards, many of which with horses, woods and split-rail fences.

However you travel a Rustic Road, be sure to take your time. The highways are for rushing; these are for savoring.

Trip Tips: Wisconsin's Rustic Roads

Check online for up-to-date descriptions of all Rustic Roads.

To find your way around, you'll want a Wisconsin DeLorme Atlas & Gazeteer, available from bookstores, sporting goods stores and Targets. They're invaluable to anyone who travels around the region and are listed at $19.95.

If you have the 2004 edition, hang onto it; it shows the Rustic Roads, but the 2008 edition doesn't.


Last updated on September 16, 2016