No matter where I am in Wisconsin, when I ask someone where they’re going fishing, hunting, canoeing, backpacking or snowshoeing, the response I usually hear is “up north.”
So I decided to go “up north” to snowshoe and explore some backcountry areas that offer enjoyable scenic trails – the Flambeau River and Brule River state forests. Both offer spectacular Northwoods ambiance.
This past December, I threw my snowshoes, hiking pole and a daypack filled with essentials into my Ford Ranger and drove north to Phillips on State Highway 13. I then went west a little over 20 miles on County Highway W to Connors Lake that sits in the heart of the Flambeau River State Forest.
There I met up with two friends, one the owner of a cottage on the southwest end of Connors Lake. From there, we ventured out on a couple of nearby hiking and snowshoeing trails.
The designated snowshoe trails that I visited in both forests were relatively short, from a half mile to two and a half miles in length. In most Wisconsin state forests, you can snowshoe just about anywhere, as long as you stay off groomed cross-country ski trails. So this leaves snowshoeing distances up to your choosing.
Flambeau River State Forest
In north-central Wisconsin, the 91,000-acre Flambeau River State Forest spans three counties, including Sawyer, Price and Rusk, and has 75 miles of the Flambeau River flowing through it. The forest is filled with maple, birch, ash, other hardwoods and an array of conifers.
Our first visit was to an area along the south fork of the Flambeau River that provided both sights and sounds of a snow-bordered, fast-moving body of water. We took one of the shortest snowshoe trails in the area – less than a mile – to reach Slough Gundy and Little Falls. It was well worth it, given the magnificent view of huge boulders along the water’s edge, backed by a flowing river and surrounding snow-topped forest.
Following a short hike south, we could see and hear Little Falls in the distance. And again, we were mesmerized by the view of the open Flambeau River on a winter day. The Little Falls Slough Gundy Trailhead is on Highway M, a little over seven miles south of Highway W and southeast of Connors Lake.
Our next stop was at the 273-acre Lake of the Pines due north of Connors Lake off Highway W. On the northwest end of the lake, about a mile and a half drive on the access road, sits Lake of the Pines Trails and Campground. Three trail segments total 1.7 miles. The Maple Trail (a half mile) leads through a mixed forest area and to the Nature Trail Loop and Lakeside Nature Trail, a singletrack interpretive nature trail that passes through hemlock and pine stands along the lake.
The nearby 94-acre Bass Wilderness Lake does not have a designated snowshoe trail, but it seemed like a nice place to check out. The unplowed Tower Hill Road leading to Bass Lake Road is two miles from Highway W at the lookout tower to the Bass Lake trailhead. It’s another half mile hike to the lake from there. Most of the road is a snowmobile trail in winter but worth exploring on snowshoes.
A mile to the west on Highway W from Connors Lake is Flambeau Hills with 14 miles of cross-country ski trails. If you also packed your skis, you are good to go for a secondary adventure in the state forest.
For information about the Flambeau River State Forest, contact the headquarters in Winter, Wisconsin, at 715-332-5271.
The Brule River State Forest
It was a 98-mile drive from Connors Lake north to the quaint village of Brule located in the upper west corner of Wisconsin. Just a mile west of Brule, off U.S. Highway 2, is the trailhead to two snowshoe trails and 15 miles of cross-country ski trails that meander through the Brule River State Forest.
These trails are part of the Afterhours Ski and Snowshoe Trails. Of the two circular snowshoe trails that begin and end at the trailhead, the Fox Loop is the shorter at just under a mile. The Coyote Loop is 2.2 miles in length.
The Fox Loop is uniquely marked with green tree markers along with an occasional blue painted silhouette of a snowshoer. This short circular trail sits on the north segment of the Afterhours trail system, providing a pleasant hike on rolling singletrack through a mixed deciduous and conifer forest.
The lengthier Coyote Loop wraps around the outskirts of the entire Afterhours trail system. I had difficulty finding the start of the trail. I eventually found the trail sign on the east side of the parking lot on the other side of a snowbank. Because I had to break trail, my guess is that this loop is less traveled than the Fox Loop.
A few hundred yards into the Coyote Loop, there was a very small but partially open creek that needed to be crossed before heading uphill.
Here, like most places, snowshoeing is not allowed on groomed ski trails. A nice amenity, however, is a warming hut at the parking lot. This small, welcoming building provided some warmth for me when I entered from the near zero degree temperatures outside.
My second stop took me another mile west on U.S. Highway 2 to Clevedon Road, where I turned right and drove three miles north to a small parking area at the trailhead of the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail. This 2.25-mile trail is the site of the first road between Superior and Bayfield built in the late 1800s. The trail passes by some old copper mines.
I enjoyed walking the narrow snow-covered boardwalks over the frozen marshy terrain. I noticed too that most trees in the area were young and short, with a few tall or aged trees still standing. I later discovered that a section of the trail was recently logged due to insect damage to many oaks. But the trail was still picturesque with its many young conifers donned with fresh snow.
The 47,000-acre Brule River State Forest is located in northwestern Wisconsin in Douglas County, and has 44 miles of the Bois Brule River running through it. Also, 16 miles of the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail passes through this state forest. Hikers and snowshoers can access the trail about eight miles south of Brule on Highway 27 where there is a trailhead.
For information about the Brule River State Forest, call the headquarters in Brule at 715-372-5678. The website for information on all Wisconsin State forests is dnr.wi.gov/topic/StateForests.
Plan your trip ‘up north’
Should you consider snowshoeing in Wisconsin’s large state forests, plan ahead and prepare by packing a daypack with comfort and safety items. Also secure a map of the trails, or request a topographic map of the state forest from the respective state forest headquarters.
Once you have a map in hand, identify which trails are open for snowshoeing, or find an off trail area you want to visit. Then work out the parking logistics by finding trailheads and other parking areas. Most trails I visited on this trip had plowed parking areas and pit toilets. The historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail had a port-a-potty.
Since state properties require vehicle passes, either purchase an annual pass from the local DNR office or look for signposts that have registration envelopes for daily passes. Most forests do not require trail passes to snowshoe, but they do for cross-country skiing. Be sure to check the requirements for the particular forest area you are visiting.
Jim Joque is the director of disability services at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also an adjunct adventure education instructor at UWSP, teaching courses on camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace concepts.