The Mountain Bike Highway
Mountain biking with Chris Schotz
The Midwest has plenty of mountain bike locations worth a jaunt, but not too many destinations worth an extended trip. Six advancing single-track systems get a rider started just south of the 45th Parallel on the way to a climactic progression just shy of the Michigan order. These 85 miles mix the old school with an ever-expanding collection of machine-built flow trail designed with all riders in mind.
The kickoff to an epic three-day weekend is hidden behind Rib Mountain at Nine Mile Forest, best known for a plantation worth of rock gardens and the Wausau24 where the all-night scene is still thriving. Nine Mile has seen numerous upgrades thanks to a rented Skid Steer and a team of volunteers who have carved out a feature-filled inner loop, while completing all the necessary connections to create a continuous advanced loop further out. No longer will a visitor need a local to navigate them through the two-track jig jags just to find the legendary boulders of Ho Chi Minh and Flower Trails. The CWOCC group continues to strive toward its goal of IMBA Ride Center status, with other locations on the radar including a gravity-based park at Sylvan Hill that has already hit the bidding process. Before leaving town, the hungry may gawk at the museum to classic steel road machines which are the Red Eye rafters, hung over the heads of riders perusing an evolving menu of craft brew and artisanal rejuvenation.
Not far north on Highway 51, cyclists can pitch a tent at the Underdown Recreation Area before they hunker in for 27 miles of singletrack with a tough reputation for taking riders over the top of every hill. The original 20 miles of hand-built trail pass isolated lakes and the banked boardwalks that are Underdown landmarks, but they are a daunting experience for the uninitiated and are not the place to take a first date. This summer saw a seven-mile expansion of the Underdown system from the vast Lincoln County Forest into the thousand-acre Merrill Memorial Forest. Two months of brute force excavator work created a system that welcomes mountain bikers of all abilities to roll past the expansive wildlife marsh on the way to the rocky terrain above the Prairie Dells gorge. The new trail continues over moderate hills on a line that stretches out the climbs and descents over more gentle grades and flow features. A connector trail brings machine-built flow to Underdown elevations on several occasions as it joins the Ice Ridge descent to the heights of the remodeled Oktoberfest mountain. The new addition opens October 1st and will be host to the WEMS Championship on the 8th. After an Underdown adventure, the famished may seek the filling fare of Fork Horners or the bulk snacks of Gleason’s Prairie Pines that are so wholesome, you can almost taste the demin. They might not use the word “artisanal” around there, but they do know how to eat right.
Further north, the W2W escapade extends to the Rhinelander hub, where trail is always expanding thanks to a giant riding scene and a shop owner who loves to build trail until 10 p.m. after closing Bikes-N-Boards. The Washburn Lake trail was born as a twisted rock and root adventure, but it has grown into a diverse 12-mile system with the flowing berms of Lee’s Loop and new beginner trails based out of the Judy Swank shelter at the beautiful Perch Lake trailhead. Most Rhinelander trail is excavated by volunteers, but the RASTA club was able to hire Travis Bellman to take advantage of some massive boulders as he reconfigured some tricky topography. Washburn is the annual host of the RASTA Rally in May and Rock-N-Root WEMS race in late summer.
Nestled between the Rhinelander Airport and DOT, riders can explore the seven-mile maze of bootleg trail around Hanson Lake, before finding their way up Crystal Lake Road to eight miles of Mud Lake singletrack that is a great place to carry speed through tight turns and steep terrain. Rhinelander trails are always changing, but nothing may surprise visitors more over the coming years than the Heel Creek area, where plans are underway to build up to 20 miles of trail through old hardwood terrain that some say will be the best yet.
From Rhinelander, the W2W journey heads up Highway 47 to the state forest campgrounds at Clear Lake or Indian Mounds, where riders might want to spend the night within striking distance of the Raven Trail. The paved bike path network connects the campgrounds to 6.5 miles of singletrack that is a tight challenge full of rocks and roots, but still a fun place to carry momentum with beautiful lake views around almost every corner. The LAMBO group has laid out a nice skills area at the trailhead where riders can take their chances on log rides, boulders and teeters, and this year LAMBO worked with IMBA to add an exciting loop beneath the Northwoods Zipline wires that will soon grow to three miles. As you read this, they may be in celebration mode during their annual Lambo-Rama festival on September 24th. Not far from camp, riders can take their pick of brew pubs and good eating on the streets of Minoqua.
We chose a detour through Boulder Junction to sample the Aqualand brew on our way north to the WinMan Trails. WinMan is the nine-mile cherry on top of the whip cream on top of your W2W dessert. That place is 100% gourmet flow trail designed for riders of all appetites, with numerous challenge features adjacent to negotiable bail-out lines. Riders who like to fly through the air will get their chances in a setting that always allows the earth-bound to roll through. Designer Robert Polic has made masterful use of the gradients to wind riders up and down the elevation without pain and suffering, and he has just begun to tap the potential of WinMan’s 1,300 acres. As this magazine reaches your hand, a new trail has already opened at WinMan. Over a long descent, a dozen large jump features have been constructed adjacent to the ski trail to complete what may be the World’s first nordic flow trail.
Those obstacles were built to a scale that can accommodate a ski groomer in winter while almost all Winman singletrack is machine-groomed for a thrilling taste of fat bike flow trail. Indeed, the entire Wausau to Winman destination turns into a fat bike highway in winter. The CWOCC group in Wausau has established seven miles of groomed singletrack along the twisty river bottoms of Sunnyvale Park, while RASTA gets the groomers out for eight miles of Enterprise bogs plus the Mud Lake trails which have been remodeled with fat bike dedicated routes. Fat bikes are allowed on the snowshoe routes of Raven, Washburn, Hanson Lake and the Underdown, where a winter-only route traverses numerous lakes and bogs groomed by pulling a bag of corn in an Otter sled. Relations between snow-shoers and fat bikers continue to be symbiotic and congenial in the Northwoods.
This whole venture begins two hours north of Madison. Maps and links to this coalition of singletrack fanatics are unified at wausau2winman.com. Pack the tent and the bikes and get up there.